Evolution May Explain the Problem of Evil and Suffering


Summary of argument: The problems of evil and suffering that have challenged theological thinking may have an answer in evolution. Evolution may be God’s way of creating sentient beings made in His image and capable of understanding and embracing Him freely. But if that is true, then evil and suffering are expected consequences because (1) evolution requires a world with death and destruction and (2) free-willed, sentient beings are free, not only to embrace God, but to do evil in this world.

First, consider biological support for evolution-associated evil and evolution-associated suffering coming from the actions of humans.

The ecology of the world depends ultimately on energy transfer from autotrophs (for example, green plants) to heterotrophs (for example, animals, including humans). Autotrophs use light or inorganic chemicals as their energy supply. Heterotrophs use energy from other organisms, both autotrophs and other heterotrophs, as their energy supply. That is, heterotrophs consume other organisms or the living or dead parts of other organisms. Even though autotrophs do not rely on other organisms for energy, they do rely on other organisms for needed elements, which they usually obtain after these other organisms die and are decomposed. Thus, exploitation and death are normal conditions for life and its evolution. This death and exploitation account for some of what we see as evil in the world.

Other evil results from bad choices made by humans. But the capacity to make bad choices comes from nervous systems sufficiently developed to allow us to freely choose in the first place. This development is postulated here to be accomplished by evolution. So, evolution, the very process that prepares humans to freely embrace God, also enables humans to freely commit evil deeds or other acts that cause suffering.

Second, consider biological support for evolution-associated suffering coming from the environment.

The environment creates much of the world’s suffering, apart from that caused by exploitation and free will, through natural forces like earthquakes, glaciation, erosion, winds, floods, droughts, and temperature fluctuations. But these natural forces are precisely those required for a key process of evolution to occur: speciation, the formation of a new species from an ancestral one.

Speciation occurs primarily when a population is split into two or more subpopulations by a physical barrier that prevents interbreeding between the subpopulations. These subpopulations then interbreed only with their own subpopulation members, without any genetic input from or output to the other subpopulation after splitting. This continued isolation permits the two subpopulations to diverge enough genetically such that they are reproductively distinct and thus incapable of interbreeding. Two species have developed where one existed before. This speciation process is postulated by evolutionary biologists to have led to the eventual evolution of humans from simpler predecessors.

The initial splitting of the original population into subpopulations is greatly facilitated, if not necessitated, by the natural forces mentioned above, particularly glaciation, floods, droughts, and hurricane-force winds. So, evolution, the very process postulated to prepare humans to freely embrace God, requires environmental conditions that also produce human suffering.


The problem is that you need to first establish that evolution is correct. That are many flavors here to address. Are we young or Old Earth creationists? Or did the young earth just 'appear" old, as in the Omphalos hypothesis? Then do we add evolution to the mix or not, if we are creationists (i.e. How Are Christianity and Evolution Compatible? vs Ray Comfort explains why True Christians can’t believe in evolution, or the water cycle)? And if we add evolution, natural disasters, etc., in the scientific landscape, what role does God have in governing these events - if any?


I find the ‘evolutionary hypothesis’ very interesting. The hard-core doubter, of course, always falls back on this ‘fact’: God is responsible for evil.
No matter how we parse the problem, it is the accusation against God Himself that seems to never go away.

So it goes like this: (these are not my opinions btw)
Evolution? God is responsible for creation, so should have been able to guide evolution in a wiser manner.
Free will? God is still responsible, even though we choose, because He made everything and could have done a better job.
Determinism? Of course, God is still responsible.
Making us in his image, and giving us some form of free will, with the promises attendant upon faithful obedience - if we choose evil, it is still God’s fault, because He should have known better and made a better world.

I think those are misguided ideas, but they are out there and they are tough buggers to answer.


Evolution was assumed to be correct for the sake of the argument. If you want to discuss why that assumption may be correct, then we can discuss the evidence. But that wasn’t the goal of this thread.


Well, it’s not quite clear to me that such a “fact” is accurate. I mean, that’s like saying just creating the universe makes God responsible for all evil and suffering that occur anywhere in it. Interestingly, the argument I have presented in this thread is almost equivalent to God’s doing just that single act of creating the universe.

I hope I am not thought to be evil just because a reader may suffer after reading this thread about evolution!

The problem with this approach to evil is there is no way to escape culpability, no matter how noble the act. For example, one saving someone from certain death can then be said to be responsible for evil if that saved person someday does something to hurt another. One who feeds the homeless can then be said to be responsible for evil if one of those fed individuals later commits a crime. There simply is no rational end to this blame game. It’s counterproductive because it could stop even noble acts done with good intentions.


The best response I’ve seen started on evil and the Christian response to it, came from the Journal of Christian Theology and Philosophy. It’s called Eternal Selves and The Problem of Evil. Here’ are some interesting Q and A from the Protestant site Got Questions. It should be noted that I’m not always in accord with their answers and theological viewpoints,

What are some flaws in the theory of evolution?
What is theistic evolution?
How does creationism vs. evolution impact how a person views the world?
What is Irreducible Complexity?
What is the difference between Microevolution and Macroevolution?
Is the similarity in human/chimp DNA evidence for evolution?[/list]


Yes, thanks for the link. That article makes a strong case for looking at the big picture, which includes postmortem existence. Of course, my argument did not imply there was no postmortem existence.

Even given the view expressed in that article, however, I wonder about (1) living things who suffer in earthly life but whose postmortem existence is not clear and (2) why so much suffering need be felt by earthly life, even given postmortem existence, if God created organisms without employing evolution. After all, our earthly suffering is very important to us now.

If God did not employ evolution to create organisms, then the excesses of natural disasters make little sense, for why are the forces causing these disasters needed otherwise? If He did not employ evolution to do the job, then the excesses of suffering felt by so many organisms lower in the food chain make little sense, too. I mean, if God’s goal in creation is to directly produce sentient beings made in His image and capable of understanding and embracing Him freely, all we really need in life are green plants (autotrophs), which have no central nervous system and so cannot suffer when they are harvested and consumed, and humans (and a few decomposer bacterial species to return elements to green plants). Why create a world ecology with so many superfluous species that do little more than contribute to earthly suffering? Only under the evolutionary scenario do these things make sense.


Lancia - I was only pointing out the obduracy of some hardcore unbelievers who say in essence that, if God had not created, there would be no suffering. I find that reasoning - what’s the word? Oh yes - STUPID :slight_smile: That’s my technical term for it, anyway.

I do like the approach you’ve taken in the posts, and Randy has some good links.


I’m sorry, but I don’t think these links are worth much. I don’t think the author is knowledgeable enough about evolution to be an authoritative critic. There are many errors and faulty conclusions made. Here is one example from the first link.

Generally speaking, it’s accurate to say that science has yet to provide consistent answers to how evolution operates at the molecular, genetic, or even ecological levels in a consistent and supportable way.”

This is a bizarre claim. Major advances have been made in our understanding of evolution at the molecular level, such as understanding how mutations occur at the DNA level, how beneficial mutations usally appear long before they are needed in a population and so they are almost certainly random with respect to their need, and how a simple change in a nucleotide can facilitate growth on a novel energy sources, such as styrene, by subtle alterations in the enzyme coded by the affected gene.

I can’t even imagine what the author means by the comment that science has yet to provide consistent answers to how evolution operates at the genetic level. Evolution is ultimately a study of genetics. Every advance in evolution is an advance in genetics, and there have been many consistent answers here.

Finally, evolution has proved incredibly valuable at the ecological level. Many changes in prey coloration, toxicity, and evasion tactics induced by predation have been carefully documented in the ecological literature. Major changes in virulence of pathogens as well as in host resistance have been observed in pathogen-host complexes. Laboratory studies have shown how amenable to natural selection are various life-history characteristics, such as age of first reproduction and longevity, and how they are sometimes coupled in unexpected ways.

Here is a second example from the first link.

“First, there is a contradiction between ‘punctuated equilibrium’ and ‘gradualism.’ There are two basic possibilities for how naturalistic evolution can occur. This flaw in the theory of evolution occurs because these two ideas are mutually exclusive, and yet there is evidence suggestive of both of them.”

It’s unnecessarily provocative and confusing to call these two explanations mutually exclusive and to say there is a contradiction between them; it’s like calling the color red and the color blue mutually exclusive and contradictory. Punctuated equilibrium and gradualism are simply different descriptions of the tempo of evolutionary change. They each can be true for different times or in different species. In fact, they are! Fossil support exists for each of these explanations.


Yes, I suspected that. Thanks.


I agree a hundred percent, Lancia, and I’ve been positing this same point of view for, I don’t know, a couple of years now. IMO it’s the perfect answer for the POE. You obviously know more about evolutionary theory than I do, but I’m still not certain that the actual planet isn’t going through the process too. Before we became able to make choices of any kind, presumably we were going through that process. Why not dogs and dolphins and octopi and maybe even :confused: cats. (I said that for you, Dave & Jason.) :wink: As for me, I’m allergic to cats; I cannot breathe in their presence, so maybe I’m not all that impartial when it comes to kitties.

But I’m getting sidetracked. Yes, blaming evil on the necessity of the evolutionary process does place evil back in God’s lap. I don’t have a problem with this any more than I have a problem with the messy process of building a beautiful edifice. I think likely this is the only way that God could have created individuals destined to be truly free. Thanks for a great post!


Cats are no longer evolving; they have arrived, and are waiting for the rest of Creation to finally catch up. :smiley:


Got Questions site probably doesn’t include scientists in their mix. Therefore, their answers might not be scientifically accurate. However, CARM (i.e. Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry) has a comprehensive link, devoted to this topic at evolution. There’s even a link called Debate, if you wish to try your pro-evolutionary viewpoints against founder Matt Slick. I must warn you in advance - he’s pretty good at logic and debates. For the record, I am neither pro nor anti evolution. If I were to embrace Christianity and evolution together, it would be with the vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man. It’s entirely within the realm of scientific possibility, but I’m currently agnostic on this topic. But I definitely belong to the "Old Earth " camp. It might be refreshing to have scientific friends to discuss these things with, like the crew from The Big Bang Theory.


I think we are still evolving. We may not see much evidence for recent evolution because of our long generation time. But many potential natural selective forces are active in our environment. One comes to mind immediately, and that is the rapid increase in the number of C-sections. C-sections make it possible to deliver larger babies with bigger heads and brains, which are very likely to be advantageous. In the past, such births were not possible, and the mother and baby died. To the extent that larger babies have a genetic component for their largeness, evolution can occur so that we should see larger and larger babies born over time. This result may not be observable in the near future, again, because of our long generation time. But if the trend continues and if genes for largeness exist, and I think they do, the expected result should be inevitably observed.


As an academic biologist, I could no more reject evolution than I could my own identity. The situation I’m faced with is having to find a theology that is compatible with evolution, which I see as a near fact. It hasn’t been easy! Theistic evolution is a possibility, and I find Universalism very appealing, though I have yet to fully embrace it. So, theistic evolution within the framework of Universalism is an attractive option.


Interesting… I am always puzzled why people think religion and science cannot co-exist. Science explains the ‘how’ and religion, at least in simple terms explains who was behind it all. I fully respect a true atheist, or an agnostic because I can see their point and from their perspective. I also am not distressed when people are atheistic or agnostic. God is the one who grants faith and in due time all will be granted it. In the end, all we really have is conjecture. No one knows for sure… I guess we will all know someday, or if the atheists are correct, we won’t know. After all, the dead know nothing.

I am a firm believer that God smiles upon us when we invent and figure out things he has created. He obviously created us for the capacity to learn and he created a seemingly infinitely complex sandbox for us to explore. Science will never disprove God in my beliefs, it will only reinforce how great He is. Science is always (or should be, provided politics and ego stay out of it) self-correcting. So taking an agnostic approach isn’t all that bad, since a correction to a theory could be down the corner. Just some food for thought.


You know what’s interesting? It’s that mainline churches (i.e. not necessarily bible nor fundamentalist churches) would probably be more accepting to this: Someone embracing either old earth or theistic evolution viewpoints over universalist viewpoints, coupled with mainline church theological doctrines and positions. As Jerry Seinfeld might ask:

Just to clarify - so there is no misunderstandings. I’m a firm believer in the Christian faith. But I’m agnostic on the theory of evolution as scientific fact, in regards to theistic evolution.


Lancia, thank you for the thought-provoking thread.

I recognize evolution in general as factual. The only part of it that I doubt is human evolution. (That said, I don’t deny human evolution. I recognize that it is a distinct possibility, and if human evolution is indeed a fact, my religious beliefs would not change.) Tongue in cheek, I like to put it this way: “I believe in most of evolution, but not in the monkey business.” :smiley:

Consider Genesis 2:8: " The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. "

I understand this to mean that God specially placed Adam in an “enclosure” (so to speak)–a relatively small area on planet earth that He specially renovated to be free of “nature red in tooth and claw”, rather like an idealized Disney version of nature: gentle, beautiful, and harmless. But after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, God kicked them out into the world dominated by biological evolution, thus subjecting them to all the stuff you mentioned in your opening post, lancia.


I found these articles interesting and thought I would share them. No theologians here who are not scientists and written for lay people:

Evolution as fact and theory
Is Evolution a Theory or a Fact?
Just How Well Proven Is Evolution?

Hey. I wouldn’t mind playing a nerd on the crew from The Big Bang Theory. Look at “Actual Salaries” and you see they probably are paid more than real life, scientific counterparts.


In your third linked reference, Morris challenges evolutionary biologists to devise an experiment to verify evolution. He suspects that such a verification could not be done. Well, such experiments have been done, and they have verified evolution without fail.

One set of particularly well-known experiments was done by Richard Lenski. He has cultured the bacterium *Escherichia coli *for thousands of generations, starting with 12 genetically identical strains. Certain bacterial characteristics evolved in every one of these cultures. One was an increase in cell size: each culture evolved an increase in cell size. Similar results have been observed in other bacterial cultures. In general, if bacterial cultures are raised on a sub-lethal concentration of some substance, they will all eventually adapt to that substance, as measured by an increase in their population size to a new stable level, without fail.