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Responding Theologically to Animal Ferocity and Suffering


I suspect that many readers will approach Osborn’s Death Before the Fall within the framework of the creation versus evolution debate that has long exercised churches and classrooms across the globe. Indeed, Osborn devotes more than half of his book to describing how the biblical literalism with which he was raised leads to scientifically incredible claims of a young earth and a prelapsarian deathless natural world, among other difficulties. While I affirm the importance of these and other “religion and science” discussions, my review will proceed in a different direction. In focusing on “Part II: On Animal Suffering,” I largely neglect what Osborn himself has described as “prolegomena” (his “Part I: On Literalism”) and turn to “what [he] want[s] to say about the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering and mortality” (19).1

The dilemma upon which Osborn asks us to meditate is this:

Animals, as far we know, do not have the capacity for anything approaching human moral reasoning and will never be able to comprehend their own suffering in metaphysical or theological terms that might give that suffering meaning for them. Why, then, would a just a loving God . . . the undivided and good Creator God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—require or permit such a world to exist? This world is one in which the harrowing suffering of innocent creatures through the violence of other creatures appears at once fraught with terrible savageness and at the same time part of an order that is delicately balanced, achingly beautiful and finely tuned to sustain tremendous diversity of life. If there is a rationally discernible “intelligent design” to the natural world . . . should we not conclude that the design reveals a pitilessly indifferent if not malevolent intelligence? (14)

If we put aside the many places where Osborn either impresses upon his readers the gravity of the problem or humbly acknowledges that there are in the final analysis “no easy answers,” we can read him as providing three discrete responses to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering (178). The first emerges from his reflections on the final four chapters in the book of Job—“Jewish Scripture’s clearest answer to the problem not only human but also of animal suffering” (151). The second moves Christologically and eschatologically beyond what a “devout Jew or Muslim could . . . affirm” in its claim that neither Genesis nor natural history can be properly understood if we do not begin with a “radically Christocentric understanding of the character of God and the governance of God as revealed in the Jesus of history who is the crucified Savior of the world” (158, 160–61). The third asks Christians to adopt not so much a particular conception of God (theology), but a distinctive set of dispositions and practices (ethics) to live more fully into a vision of “Sabbath rest.” In what follows, I shall raise a few questions about these responses, including how we might sort out the relationships among them.

I. God of the Whirlwind and Divine Command Theory

Osborn turns to the book of Job not only because it provides the “most extended commentary on . . . creation . . . in the biblical canon outside of Genesis itself,” but also to supply counter-evidence to the popular literalist belief that “the biblical writers conceived of all animal suffering as a marker of ‘sin’ or demonic corruption of the material forms of creation” (151). Osborn reads Job as not only challenging God on the grounds of “distributive justice: why do the innocent suffer?” but also on “the problem of nihilism: why is it better that there should be a suffering creation rather than no creation at all?” (151). Osborn’s retrieval of Job for the purposes of theodicy, however, is at best ambivalent: he acknowledges that Job’s existential “case against God’s created order” is “strictly speaking . . . unanswerable in any purely rationalistic or moralistic terms,” admits that God’s response appears as “little more than the tirade of a bullying tyrant” from anyone who comes to the book “expecting or demanding such an answer” (readers of both Job and Osborn’s Death Before the Fall be warned!), and describes God’s answer to Job’s question of nihilism, which points to “nothing other than the creation itself in all of its stupendous, intricate, frightening, free and often incomprehensible forms,” as in one sense being “not an answer to the problem of suffering at all” and in another sense the “only answer possible” (152).

What Osborn finds significant in God’s reply to Job is that God “seemingly delights” in the “wildness and even ferocity of the animal kingdom” and accordingly takes “full responsibility for animal predation” in such a way that leaves no “hint that it is anything other than very good” (153–54). We may be “perplexed and dismayed” by the portrait of God that emerges, but Osborn suggests that the “radical non-anthropocentricity”2 of the book and its “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” verse (Job 40:2) following the poem’s “description of eagles feeding their young the blood of other animals” are essentially conversation-stoppers (154). “Darwinian theorists” or “creationists” who inadvertently mimic Job in supposing that the “natural world . . . is too wild, too finite and too ferocious to be God’s very good creation” are likewise to be chastised for “faultfinding and contending with the Almighty” in their unwillingness to accept the “forces of chaos” in God’s creation that shield neither humans nor other animals from danger (156).

Thus, in affirming that “creation, with its suffering and death included, is very good because it is God’s creation,” Osborn effectively casts his lot in this first response with theological voluntarism. There is “incommensurability between human notions of right and wrong and the structure of reality” as per Osborn’s quotation from renowned Hebrew literature and Jewish Studies scholar Robert Alter, which is to say that creation is good because it is the work of God—not that creation, with its attendant pains and suffering, is good for reasons independent of God’s handiwork or will (to invoke the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma) (156).3 Such a view may preserve God’s sovereignty, but it does so at the expense of removing God as an object of moral admiration. As Leibniz astutely observed in the late seventeenth century, “in saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but sheerly by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise Him for what He has done if He would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?”4

II. Kenosis, Theosis, and Divergence from Classical Theism?

As if the afore-mentioned ambivalent retrieval of Job were not enough, Osborn essentially begins the next chapter by undermining the gains of the former. Christians are cautioned from permitting the “inspired poetics of the book of Job” to inure us to the “scandal in death and suffering,” because our faith “whose central event is the brutal execution of . . . God on a Roman cross” precludes us from forming any “stoical pact with the cruelties of death as divinely fated necessities of life” (157–58). What Osborn offers as the “most constructive” approach to problem of animal suffering, then, is one that retrieves “Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying on the cross, and the ancient patristic understanding of theosis. . . . [wherein] the journey of creation and pilgrimage of humanity . . . end[s] in our final adoption as coheirs of God’s kingdom and ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (159).

In insisting that we understand the doctrines of creation and redemption together, Osborn is keen to emphasize that the “promis[e] . . . of nothing less than a great transformation of all creaturely existence” should not be thought of as a return to any prelapsarian state of perfection (146). In other words, the “destiny of humankind is not simply a recapitulation or recurrence, paradise lost, paradise restored;” instead, the “end is greater than the beginning—and was always meant to be so” (159). Thus when Isa 11:1–9 speaks of a peaceable kingdom wherein “the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . . and the lion shall eat straw like the ox,” Osborn insists upon the passage’s “strictly apocalyptic” orientation: it “anticipate[s] a final transformation of the creation without providing any commentary on its origins” (154).

It is Osborn’s fleshing out of kenosis that leads me to ponder where he remains within, and strays from, “highly traditional . . . orthodox Christian[ity]” (20). His kenotic theology is not limited to the incarnation as per Phil 2:6–8, as suggested by his approving quotation of John Polkinghorne’s account of God’s “willing[ness] to share with creatures, to be vulnerable to creatures, to an extent not anticipated by classical theology’s picture of the God who, through primary causality, is always in total control” (161). In further noting that this 2002 Templeton prize-winner’s description runs counter to both a view of “God’s omnipotence entail[ing] his absolute predestination of all events, including even human choices” that is common in “conservative wings of the Reformed tradition” and Barthian beliefs about the “unbridgeable chasm between God and his creation,” Osborn concludes that he has “no stake in defending such pictures of God.” In his words:

Whatever its difficulties, the only position that makes any moral, religious or rational sense of human moral evil to my mind is the one that declares the divine will wills human freedom, and is both powerful enough and self-giving enough to create beings with the capacity to make meaningful, self-defining choices that are morally and spiritually significant. (161)

So is Osborn’s characterization of God as “powerful enough” his quiet way of rejecting the divine omnipotence doctrine of classical theism as, say, process theologians have done?5 Osborn does reference the work of Alfred North Whitehead in his book, albeit to make a different point (97). And does the distance he creates from the traditional Reformed view of God’s “predestination of all events” suggest that he has greater sympathy with the ideas of “open theism” instead?

To be clear, God’s self-emptying for Osborn not only preserves the sphere of human freedom, but also that of other elements of creation. Osborn writes of “natural and animal suffering as emerging from free or indeterminate processes, which God does not override and which are inherent possibilities in a creation in which the Creator allows the other to be truly other” (161–62). While acknowledging that there are “real dangers . . . of sliding into a sheer dualism, Gnosticism or Manichaeism,” Osborn references the “clear sense throughout the New Testament” that God has “permitted parts of his creation—and not humans alone—the autonomy of radical freedom and even defiance, which God himself must now in some sense struggle against” (144). In short, Osborn’s “kenotic Creator” is not one who “utterly dominates animals,” but who, like a director “invites the actors—and not human actors alone—to join in the writing of the script, with all of the danger and all of the possibility that this implies” (162). This is to say that Osborn has not abandoned the idea of a “fallen” natural world (as his reflections on Job might suggest); he believes that the world we inhabit now is a “dim reflection of God’s original creative intent and final redemptive purpose,” but that the groans and travails of creation appeared well before humans arrived on the scene (143, 146).

While Osborn’s first response to the problem of animal suffering led me to think in terms of divine command theory, Osborn’s second evokes in me, as alluded to earlier, some central claims of process theology. How do Osborn’s views compare to what Jay McDaniel has recognized as process theology’s three-pronged way of responding to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering: (1) “God’s power is, and always has been persuasive or invitation rather than coercive,” (2) “the natural world has creativity that is independent of God’s creativity” and (3) “by virtue of nature’s creativity, patterns of behavior can emerge in the evolutionary process that even God could not and cannot prevent if there is to be life at all”?6 When we additionally consider that Osborn believes in both creation “by divine fiat” and that “God does not only create ex nihilo,” as “the earth itself . . . participates . . . in the creation process/event” in a way that discloses “God’s way of creating . . . [as] organic, dynamic, complex and ongoing rather than merely a sequence of staccato punctuation marks by verbal decree,” we might also query how close Osborn comes to Jay McDaniel’s defense of “relational panentheism”(25–26).7 To be sure, I offer these questions neither in the spirit of rooting out heresy, nor in defense of process theodicies against their alternatives, but only because I happen to work at the epicenter of process theology (Claremont School of Theology) and thus have gradually been primed—especially by my own students—to think in these ways.

III. Sabbath Rest and the Relationship between Theology and Ethics

If Osborn’s first two responses to the problem of animal suffering provide ways to understand the dilemma intellectually, his third provides guidance on how to respond to the matter practically. Readers discover in his final chapter that what counts ultimately for Osborn is not “detached theologizing,” but “concrete and ethical action that brings Sabbath peace to our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom” (175).

After recalling his own familial traditions of Sabbath-keeping and situating the meaning of Sabbath in Hebrew Scripture as oriented more “toward the future rather than the past or even the present,” Osborn reminds us of the many ways in which the “radical generosity” and “Sabbath economics” of the sabbath day, sabbath year, and “sabbath year of years, the Jubilee” also reflect “profound ecological concern” (167, 169–70). To illustrate, he uses the extension of Sabbath hospitality to nonhumans and even the land in Exod 23:11 (in periodically requiring the land to lie fallow and in permitting the wild animals to eat what the poor do not themselves harvest) to make two points. The first may have implications for agriculture, conservation, and wildlife management in his underscoring of the ways that biblical Sabbath regulations link “productivity and fruitfulness of the earth . . . to human noninterference in the natural world as a regular corrective to human subduing” (170). The second suggests that we do no violence to the text when we translate the biblical concern for animal welfare into the language of rights (“This command of free trespass may be the earliest law of wild animal rights in human history, closely following on the commandment in the Decalogue that domesticated animals shall not be made to work on the Sabbath (Ex. 2010)” (171). Other portions of Scripture that Osborn highlights for animal ethics include the rabbinic teaching, which Jesus himself references, that Sabbath laws can be broken to alleviate the suffering of animals (Matt 12:11–12) and biblical and other Jewish traditions that condemn hunting for sport (171).

This all I can affirm, as I have written elsewhere about the ways in which Christians can take action in their own lives and in public policy on their convictions regarding the intrinsic value of all creation of which the Sabbath traditions in the biblical texts profess.8 In addition, I share Osborn’s encouragement for Christians to focus on the “moral dimensions of the Sabbath,” am likewise aghast at the slaughterhouse realities of “nine billion animals butchered annually in the United States—the cattle routinely dismembered alive, the hogs plunged still conscious into vats of boiling water, the birds packed so tightly into cages to be trucked thousands of miles that they often arrive crushed and suffocated on delivery,” and am intrigued by his apparent Matt 25: 31–46-inspired reading of who “true” creationists may turn out to be—Jane Goodall, among others, over George McCready Price for having “fought to protect the lives of animals when others who loudly claimed to be God’s chief spokespersons viewed the task of actually caring for the creation with reluctance, nonchalance, or outright disdain” (173–74).

Nonetheless, two aspects of his final chapter on animal ethics caught me by surprise. The first was a series of theology-ethics connections wherein Osborn implied that those who interpret Genesis literally are less likely to respond compassionately to animal suffering than those who do not. The second was Osborn’s neglect to draw upon several tradition-specific practices and arguments that I as an outsider thought would have held special meaning (and thus rhetorical power) for Seventh-day Adventists—the primary audience to which the book is addressed as an “open letter” (18).

Taking these in turn, I remain puzzled by Osborn’s implications that biblical literalism leads to apathy about animal suffering, that beliefs that animals are “cursed” after the fall undermine the ability or willingness to “care about the abuse inflicted every second of every day upon sentient creatures in slaughterhouses,” and that those who suppose that animals will ultimately be destroyed by God won’t invest time and energy in alleviating their pains on this side of the eschaton, among other claims (173–74). While Osborn does concede that there is no “inevitable link between biblical literalism and indifference to animal suffering,” he still greatly overstates the relationship (174).9 Ethical views about appropriate human-nonhuman animals, in my view, are much more “freestanding” than he suggests—they are underdetermined by theology.

How so? For one, the notion that the time and resources activists spend on improving the lives of other animals should in many cases be redirected to needy humans is not peculiar to young earth creationists, but widely shared by many Christians of all stripes and by non-Christians as well.10 Second, one can readily provide several counter-examples to Osborn’s notions of causality or even correspondence. Aquinas famously held that the “nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs,” but his rejection of a literalist reading of Genesis on that score didn’t prevent him from reaffirming traditional views (from Aristotle and Augustine) that “their life and death are subject to our use.”11 And no less than Ellen G. White, a pioneer and recognized prophet of Seventh-day Adventism, believed that Genesis 1–11 was “divinely intended to be interpreted historically, and not only theologically” and accordingly affirmed beliefs in “six, literal, empirical, historical 24-hour days of creation, culminating with a literal 24-hour Sabbath day of rest.”12 Still, she not only urged Adventists toward vegetarianism for reasons of health, but also in light of the “cruelty to animals that meat eating involves.”13 Osborn’s attribution of indifference to animal cruelty to the holding of certain theological beliefs thus stands as one of the book’s weakest claims. He is much more successful, however, in placing the blame on sin that need not be peculiar to any denomination or type of Christian (let alone person): “manic human greed,” the infliction of “pain and death upon other sentient creatures for the sake of their own pleasure or profit” (172, 175).

The case of Ellen G. White brings me to the second surprising element of Osborn’s chapter. Why didn’t Osborn commend, much less acknowledge, the Adventist church’s well-known institutional support for, and practices of, vegetarianism? Recall Osborn’s deep concern about anthropogenic “planetary destruction” and the prospect that humans will “devour the earth” in such a way where it is “no longer clear that other species will survive” (174–75). Even if the roughly 30 percent of Adventists who follow recommended church teaching about eating a plant-based diet do so primarily out of beliefs about its health benefits, they would still be (inadvertently) acting in stewardly ways. For a widely-cited UN study on the global livestock sector found that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (a bigger share than that of transport), that the livestock sector is single largest anthropogenic user of land, that the industrial processes involved in rearing animals for food heavily impacts the world’s water supply and poses a threat to the earth’s biodiversity.14 Osborn might accordingly have invoked the Adventist church’s well-known advocacy for vegetarianism, explained the ways in which eating no or less meat contributes to planetary (not just personal) health, and then demonstrated how its co-founder Ellen G. White herself concluded that the “moral evils of a flesh diet are not less marked than are the physical ills” in “destroy[ing] the tenderness with which we should regard these creatures of God.”15


A Response to Grace Y. Kao and Stina Busman Jost

by Ronald Osborn

Stina and Grace, if you don’t mind I would like to limit my response to your essays to the questions you have both raised concerning the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, which I forthrightly claim in Death Before the Fall albeit as a dissenter when it comes to a number of deeply problematic aspects of official Adventist theology. Grace, we can perhaps return to your questions about voluntarism, process theology, etc., at a later time.

Most people in the United States, I think it can safely be said, do not know anything at all about Adventism, despite the fact that it is one of the world’s fastest growing Christian denominations (with approaching 20 million members worldwide, mostly in Africa and Latin America). Perceptions of Adventists in the larger Christian as well as non-Christian world are often shaped by two jarringly different expressions of Adventist identity: the church’s large network of hospitals and clinics providing excellent medical care to the public; and the evangelistic pamphlets mass distributed by some self-supporting Adventist lay ministries, which often feature lurid imagery of the beasts of Revelation and dire warnings of impending global catastrophe (intermingled with cheerful nutritional advice!). There have been a number of excellent scholarly studies in recent years of Adventist sociology, history, and theology that shed light on these disparate phenomena.16 There is also a new edited volume from Oxford University Press on the denomination’s nineteenth-century founding female visionary, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, that will hopefully lead to increased awareness of, and interest in, the Adventist story. Still, Adventism remains largely unexplored in academia. As such, it might have the allure to some outside researchers of an exotic theological “tribe” begging for deeper analysis across a range of topics (apocalypticism, the intersection of health and religion, female charismatic religious leaders, and so on).

One of the things that anyone paying careful attention to the Adventist experience will quickly discover, however, is that Adventism is by no means a monolithic social or religious group. There is no single way of either defining or making sense of what it means to be Adventist. In this light, I want to critically examine an assumption that seems (even if unconsciously) to underlie both of your reflections, namely, the idea that thinking theologically as an Adventist ought to entail staking out a “uniquely” Adventist approach to the kinds of dilemmas raised in my book.

Stina, you allude to a singular Adventist understanding of the Sabbath and lament the fact that I did not directly engage with it or speak from out of it. You conclude that the reason I did not do so was because I wanted “to appeal to a more general theological (or evangelical) audience.” Still, you “submit something is lost without the specificity of a strong theological rationale for appealing to the Sabbath.” I am curious, though, why you did not accept the account of the Sabbath I presented as precisely what Sabbath-keeping might mean for at least one Adventist in contrast to more dominant narratives rooted in eschatological claims about the church’s “remnant” status and a preoccupation with commandment-keeping as the path to salvation. Admittedly, I did not attempt anything like a systematic theology of the Sabbath (a task I will leave to the systematic theologians; you might also refer to Adventist New Testament scholar Sigve Tonstad’s excellent book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day). But I do think there were more than a few hints in my final chapter about what the Sabbath means theologically from this particular Adventist’s perspective: participation in a mystical and sacramental drama that might “reenchant the world and mend the frayed strands of existence” (167); symbolic remembrance of continuous creation and an eschatological intimation of eternity (168); a spiritual discipline that reawakens us to God’s compassion, justice, and mercy in our daily living; a reminder of the Jewishness of Christ and an act of repentance for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism (172); and a testament of hope for believers still situated in the liminal time or “shadowlands” between Christ’s cross and the parousia (168). Were these somehow not “Adventist” enough ways of speaking about the meaning of the Sabbath? Was the fact that I was speaking about the Sabbath at all not evidence enough of a somewhat uniquely (although not exclusively) Adventist sensibility?

Grace, you similarly write that I “neglect to draw upon several tradition-specific practices and arguments” that “would have held special meaning (and thus rhetorical power) for Seventh-Day Adventists” (which, unlike Stina, you take to be my actual primary audience). In particular, you wonder why I did not appeal to widespread Adventist adherence (at least in North America) to a vegetarian diet as well as to White’s words against animal cruelty in my final chapter on caring for creation. These are valid questions. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder about what is implicitly assumed about Adventists in the asking of them. Would, for example, a self-identifying Catholic scholar be as likely to face the question: Why didn’t you write about St. Aquinas? Or are some Christians expected and desired to be more “tradition-specific” than others?

It is, of course, Adventists themselves who have most frequently emphasized what makes them “tradition specific.” Death Before the Fall grew out of a series of articles I published on the progressive Adventist blog site of Spectrum Magazine, and some readers on that site immediately dismissed my arguments not by carefully attending to my logic or my evidence but instead by way of appeal to the authority of the Adventist tradition itself: Haven’t we always been young earth creationists? Isn’t this what it means to be an Adventist by definition? Why should we care about what St. Augustine, or Calvin, or Barth, or Maimonides has to say about Genesis when we have our own authoritative interpreter of Scripture, Ellen White? One of the purposes of my book, I will candidly share, was to model to the Adventist community a way of being more forthrightly Adventist in conversation with other Christians while at the same time being less tradition-specific, which is to say, less sectarian. Stina, you are therefore only partially correct when you guess that Adventism featured less prominently in the book than it might have because I was writing for a broader Christian audience. Paradoxically, Death Before the Fall attempts to speak to Adventists precisely by refusing to speak about them in the self-referential way many Adventists are accustomed to hearing and reflexively demand.

To do otherwise, Grace, would unfortunately be fraught with difficulties you may not be aware of when you ask why I did not appeal to statements by Ellen White in my chapter on animal ethics. It is true that White did make several commendable statements of concern for animals near the end of her life. In 1905, she wrote: “Think of the cruelty to animals that meat-eating involves, and its effects on those who inflict and those who behold it. How it destroys the tenderness with which we should regard those creatures of God! The intelligence displayed by many dumb animals approaches so closely to human intelligence that it is a mystery. The animals see and hear and love and fear and suffer.” This statement, which I agree should be celebrated, can be found on the website of a non-profit organization and network for peacemaking and social justice which I helped to co-found in 2001, the Adventist Peace Fellowship ( There are certainly some rich resources and inspiring examples from within the Adventist tradition for environmental ethics. The most compelling example of an Adventist who has translated White’s words about animal welfare into concrete ethical action is, without question, the Dutch lawyer and environmentalist Marianne Thieme, who in 2002 founded the Party for Animals—the world’s first political party dedicated to defending the rights and interests of non-humans, which now holds several seats in Holland’s national parliament and is the fastest growing party in the country.

Unfortunately, any celebration of White in a book engaging with questions of theodicy, creationism, evolution, and the origins of animal predation could not simply end with a few inspirational quotations extracted from her corpus. These statements by White are, if we are honest, very few in number, which is why the overwhelming majority of Adventists are completely unaware of them and continue to explain their vegetarianism purely as a matter of bodily health, without any reference to animal rights or animal suffering. By contrast, White spoke repeatedly about the age of the earth being approximately 6,000 years, and she described those who believed otherwise as having succumbed to the atheistic teachings of “infidel geologists.” These harsh words go far to explain why the overwhelming majority of Adventists are today young earth creationists inclined toward strictly literal readings of the creation narratives. It is an uncomfortable fact that one of the things White most clearly left to Adventism is a rigid adherence among many members to strict literalism on Genesis. The Adventist tradition is today in many ways trapped in what a friend of mine astutely refers to as a “double hermeneutical bind”: fundamentalist readings of the Bible are reinforced by the fact that White herself was a highly literalistic reader of Scripture, with any challenge to one being seen as synonymous with an attack on the other.

I hope these observations help to clarify why I adopted the approach I did in the book.


This dialogue was originally written for Syndicate Theology, and is reprinted here with permission. Photo by Luca Galuzzi

Grace Y. Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion (CSGR) at Claremont School of Theology.

Ronald E. Osborn is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College, a 2015 Fulbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar and frequent Spectrum contributor.

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