"Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering" by Ronald E. Osborn | ISCAST – Christianity. Science. In conversation

“Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering” by Ronald E. Osborn

Reviewed by Andrew Sloane, January 2022.

Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering
by Ronald E. Osborn
Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
ISBN: 978-0830840465, 197 pages, paperback

I must confess when I saw this book, I thought: “is there any point in reading another book on the creation-evolution debate? Of the making of them there is no end.” But yes, it is worth reading, for while Ronald Osborn (Associate Professor of Ethics and Philosophy at La Sierra University) does cover lot of familiar territory, his interest in animal suffering brings an interesting perspective. Indeed, his discussion of theodicy, animal suffering and issues of creation and evolution is worth the price of admission on its own.

Osborn’s interest in literalistic biblical interpretation and the problem of animal suffering arises out of both his Adventist faith and his experience of the world. A recollection of his childhood experience of Mana Pools in Zimbabwe capture his primary concern well: “All around us was a world that was deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good, waiting to be explored. And the danger was part of its goodness and its beauty.” (p.13) The quest to reconcile the realities of that world, with all its death and suffering, with belief in the good Creator of Scripture lies at the heart of this book.

The bulk of the book falls into two unequal parts. The first, and longer, part, On Literalism, deals with literalist readings of the creation accounts and their attendant rejection of the science of evolution and deep time. Its nine chapters begin with a “plain” reading of Genesis 1–3 (by which he means a literal but not literalistic interpretation), before identifying the central problem that literalists seek to address. He then shifts gear to address more general matters relating to the philosophy (and theology) of science, and the problems they raise for biblical literalism. This leads him to a useful discussion of the sociology of knowledge and literalism and what he calls (somewhat misleadingly) their “gnostic” emphasis on special knowledge, available to the select few of the “inner circle” of true believers. Part one closes by appealing to four major figures of Western biblical interpretation and their non-literalistic interpretations of creation texts, before arguing that we need to escape the trap of modernist foundationalist epistemologies for post-foundationalist critical realism. Much of this is familiar material, if handled in an interesting and engaging manner.

Part two, On Animal Suffering, while shorter at only four chapters, addresses Osborn’s principal concern, and deals with material that may be less familiar to (and so I will say more about it). He opens by showing that while evolutionary creationism has a problem reconciling natural evil with the goodness of God, biblical literalism has a more acute—and theologically damaging—one. Whereas the former can account for it by way of permitted results of a creational “free-process”, the latter can only account for it by direct divine will, creating serious theological dilemmas. Of these, the matter of the “curse” is the most theologically telling. For this requires that all non-human death, suffering, predation, etc., is deliberately intended by God as both punishment on human sin and instruction to turn us back to God. This prompts him to ask somewhat acerbically: “What would we think of a parent who decided that the best way to their child in the combustibility of fire was to place the family cat on the stove? The child might learn something about fire, to be sure. But what would they learn about their parent?” (p.138) Ouch.

He moves on to a brief consideration of “C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Conflict Theodicy,” which suggests that at least some animal suffering is the result of the work of (the) Satan who now, in some sense, “rules” over earth. While he is sympathetic to such an argument, he notes that we don’t find the biblical authors accounting for animal suffering in these terms. Rather, we see an awe-filled realisation that predation is part of God’s good world and God’s governing of it. In Job in particular, God revels in the world as it is in all its terrible beauty and power: “The God of Job is not a God who delights in defanged lions” (p.154). But even this, for Osborn, is not enough: “there remains a deep scandal in death and suffering in nature… [t]here are things under heaven and earth that we should not be at peace with” (p.157). His response is to adopt a kenotic and radically Christocentric reading of creation (akin to that of Polkinghorne and others). His final substantive discussion deals with an experientially-anchored theology of sabbath in which he presents an economics of abundance and sufficiency that stands in stark contrast to late-modern capitalism and industrialised food production that brutalise both the environment and the animals we consume. This, he argues, raises questions not about God’s goodness and justice, but ours, and calls us to penitent action, not mere theologising.

As can be seen, there is much to glean from Death Before the Fall, not least of which are some lovely personal reflections and memorable quotes. But one of his stated aims is to deal with these issues with charity, rather than adopt the theologically-more-enlightened-than-thou attitudes towards our benighted literalist sisters and brothers that so often bedevil this debate. He is at best only partially successful, and often slips into rhetorical excess. For instance: “Is it in fact the authority of Scripture in all of its richness, power, and often enigmatic and untameable diversity that we are being asked to be faithful to? Or rather a rigidified mental system and the unquestionable authority of its self-appointed guardians at any cost?” (p.58). Perhaps it is naïve to think we can have friendly discussion on such contested matters; but language like this seems to be aimed at eliciting cheers from the choir, rather than prompting reasoned debate.

There are also several places where his work would benefit from greater conceptual clarity. For example, he presents his treatment of animal suffering as a theodicy. But strictly speaking, what he offers is a defence (a possible explanation of why God might permit evils of this kind), not a theodicy (a positive presentation of the proposed reasons why God permits or wills evils of this kind). Drawing that distinction would make his discussion both clearer and more cogent. Aspects of his kenotic theology of creation are also open to question, especially his granting priority to new creation over creation rather than recognising that Christ affirms and vindicates the original creation (so, Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, Eerdmans, 1994).

But Osborn’s approachable treatment of the philosophical and theological problems associated with biblical literalism make this a helpful book to put in the hands of some of your enquiring friends. Moreover, it does present important reflections on animal suffering and how we should—and should not—account for it in light of our belief in God as creator. On that account, it is worth reading.

Andrew Sloane

Andrew Sloane (andrews@morling.edu.au) is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Christian Thought at Morling College in NSW, Australia, and an ISCAST Fellow.