29th February 2016 | Dave Bookless | 8 comments

Nature, red in tooth and claw?

[1] A few weeks ago I was staying with two friends and together the three of us watched a TV wildlife documentary based on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian arctic. It was a world in wintry white, with Gyrfalcons Falco rusticolus, Arctic Hares Lepus arcticus, Arctic Foxes Vulpes lagopus, Snowy Owls Bubo scandiacus and Snow Geese Chen caerulescens. Even the resident Arctic Wolves Canis lupus arctos were white.

In this frozen bleached landscape there was little colour except for grey rocks and a stubborn herd of shaggy brown Musk Oxen Ovibos moschatus. The abrupt exception, caught vividly on HD film, was whenever the falcons, wolves or owls made a kill and scarlet lifeblood splattered across the virgin snow. As spring melted into a brief arctic summer, the colour palette increased with flowers, lichens and masses of lemmings Dicrostonyx sp. moulting their white winter coats into black and grey. At this point the real killing spree began, the Gyrfalcons ripping apart young hares in joyful abandon for their hungry young, and the Snowy Owls feasting on lemmings until they and their chicks were bloated, with uneaten carcasses piled around their nest.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus on prey. (Photo by Peter Harris)

Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus on prey. (Photo by Peter Harris)

At this point I was distracted from the documentary by the reactions of my two friends: let’s call them Jack and Jill. Jack revelled in the power and skill of the predators, their mastery of timing and feather control, the elegance and efficiency with which they hunted. Jill was horrified by the bloodlust of the hungry young birds, the coldness of their parents ripping apart living creatures, and the waste of blood-spattered bodies strewn uneaten. How could such callous cruelty be part of God’s good creation?

Wild nature is both beautiful and terrible; it contains heart-aching loveliness and heart-breaking cruelty. And that leaves a huge theological question: what does this tell us about God? If creation reveals ‘God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature’ (Romans 1:20), then should we see the bloodiness of predation as displaying God’s character?

Christians have tended to answer this in one of two ways. Jill might point to creation being made ‘very good’ and the original gift of only green plants for humans and animals to eat (Genesis 1:29–31), and conclude that predation and death are consequences of sin and evil, so can’t be blamed on God. Alternatively, Jack might say, biodiversity and beauty depend on predation and evolution, Jesus ate meat and Psalm 104:21 suggests God gives lions their prey, so we’d better realize that God is bigger, wilder and perhaps more scary than we thought.

I’ve never been completely satisfied by either argument, so let me test a third possibility. The biblical images of new creation (Isaiah 9, 65, Revelation 21) are clearly of a peaceful kingdom with no fear, death or destruction between humans or animals. Cruelty and random violence sit uncomfortably with a God who ‘has compassion on all that he has made’ (Psalm 145:9). Although C. S. Lewis argued that ‘If the earthly lion could read the prophecy of that day when he shall eat hay like an ox, he would regard it as a description not of heaven, but of hell,’ [2] this is reductionist: a lion is more than a carnivore, just as a human is more than a walking ape. As Ryan McLaughlin states, ‘Just as Jesus can be resurrected as immortal and beyond suffering without losing his identity as human, so also could a lion be resurrected as vegetarian without losing its identity as lion.’ [3]

So perhaps, whilst there is something beautiful about nature red in tooth and claw (unless you’re a lemming), the suffering which science tells us is inevitable in our current world is not God’s best or final plan. Our vision is of God’s peaceful kingdom where the laws of science are rewritten, and lions, lambs and lemmings have no fear. If that’s the case, then our role today is both to protect and preserve ecosystems in which animals get hunted and cruelty exists, but also to live in anticipation of a new era where peace and righteousness reign for all creatures. That means Christians should lead the call to prevent unnecessary cruelty to animals, whether domestic, farmed or wild. Whether we choose vegetarianism or not, we should respect and treasure the life of every creature. Two relevant quotes from theological giants to conclude … and then I look forward to your responses!

‘A good hunter … will differ from the bad in the fact that even as they are engaged in killing animals they hear this groaning and travailing of the creature, and therefore … they are summoned to an intensified, sharpened and deepened diffidence, reserve and carefulness.’

—Karl Barth [4]

‘If we were to surrender hope for as much as one single creature, for us God would not be God.’

—Jürgen Moltmann [5]

[1] The title is taken from a line from the poem ‘In Memoriam A. H. H.’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 147

[3] Ryan P. McLaughlin, Preservation and Protest: Theological Foundations for an Eco-Eschatological Ethics. (Minneapolis, PA: Fortress Press, 2014) p.377

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1962), 4:355

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 132

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Categories: Reflections
About Dave Bookless

Dave has worked with A Rocha since 1997, first as an International Trustee, then from 2001 with A Rocha UK as co-founder (with his wife Anne), National Director, and then Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities. He joined the A Rocha International team in September 2011. His role as Advisor for Theology and Churches includes providing advice and resources for ARI’s Trustees, Team and national A Rocha organisations, and coordinating liaison with international theological and mission networks and organisations. He is also studying for a part-time PhD at Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation.

View all posts by Dave Bookless

8 responses to “Nature, red in tooth and claw?”

  1. Peter says:

    Thank you, nice article.

    My opinion:
    The images of the new creation are not meant to describe biology, but to describe a world without cruelty. In our world, dying is necessary. No new life without dying. Everything is based on the recycling of biomass, nutrients, etc.

    A difference between the old and the new creation might be the absence of violent dead. Hunting becomes playing and carnivores eat merely animals that are already dead. However, to me this explanation remains unsatisfactory. I think dead implies suffering.

    Creation holds a mirror up: God differs from our ideals. He is not a projection and no extension of our desires. Genesis repeats: it was very good. The Bible states nowhere that it changed when sin entered the world. God is proud of his creation in the book of Job. It is no failure or corruption that God deprived the ostrich of wisdom (Job 39).

    Man was created to reign over the animals. That has much to do with mastering sin (Gen 4:7). Man failed to master the snake in Genesis 3. To be human is to choose not to be cruel as animals can be.

    The new creation will be free of cruelty. That is why I doubt if there will be any lions. The Bible tells nothing about resurrection of lions. However, for God everything is possible.

  2. Excellent article from Dave Bookless and A Rocha. Plenty of food for thought! Colossians 1 19-20 certainly suggests that ‘all things’ will be reconciled to God which in my mind includes the animal kingdom. I certainly see the new Creation complete with all the animals in all their wonderful diversity and according to Isaiah 9 living peacefully together. Yes predators can sometimes seem brutal but they rarely waste their food and often return to eat seemingly abandoned food at a later stage or scavengers make a meal of it. Nature is not wasteful as sadly humans appear to be with so much uneaten food wasted while others go hungry. Most importantly those who decide that the vegan route is not for them should still take an interest in how their meat and dairy products are produced and whether they involve either cruelty or are damaging to the environment. There is growing evidence of how hugely damaging intensive farm systems are and indeed the amount of meat that is produced. Time to rethink!

  3. Jason says:

    Hi there. Lovely discussion. But I am not sure you would be right when you say that a resurrected vegetarian Lion would still be a Lion. Everything about a lion has evolved to make it an effective hunter and reproduce. To abstract it out of its ecology as a sort of Western individual ‘person’, is to take the direction of creation backwards, or to stop it in place. Salvation is the direction of creation, and evolution is the mechanism of both salvation and creation. To assume a paradisaical state where all individual organisms are at peace, is to harken back to the static view of Nature in some original state. There is not original state. It is as are we all in flux. For Christians that flux has a direction, but there will be no ecological end point except whatever it means to become One with God. And at that point I don’t think it will look like people or Lions…. Cheers.

    • Júlio Reis says:

      What for me personally opens up the possibility of vegetarian lions who still are lions, is Jesus’ words about marriage in the afterlife: namely, that there’ll be none. No marriage means no exclusive relationships, no sexual attraction (and no sexual fulfillment), no reproduction, no children, no individual families. That’s a big difference, to say the least. If I think about the biblical importance of marriage and family for the present time, and imagine that God will resurrect us with a whole other plan in place, and if I believe that the new plan will be far better than the existing one – then surely God can think up a transformation for lions, no problem there.

      (By the way, a transformation is only shocking for those who fit the mould, as it were. A lion who’s about to die of hunger because they can’t catch any prey would see the possibility of eating grass as very welcome indeed. Likewise, those of us for whom the normative lifelong bond with the accompanying cohort of smiling children is – say we say – not forthcoming will probably be happier than I am at the prospect of a marriage-free afterlife!)

      I do agree with Geoff about the possibility of reading too much into the text. When God through Isaiah says ‘the lion will lie down with the lamb’, is he (are they) giving us a straight-faced fact about the future, or are they taking artistic licence with it – also known as, using a metaphor? I tend to think it’s the latter, that God is painting the future in broad strokes, not etching every detail. For me that verse means peace, even in the most (presently) unlikely relationships. Arabs and Jews. Bosses and trade unions. The selfish person and everybody else. And, well, perhaps actual lions and actual lambs, too!

  4. Geoff Stratford says:

    Thank you for this. Although the questions are not easily resolved, we must surely acknowledge that there are big questions here that are not adequately dealt with(I agree with you Dave B) by some of the standard answers.
    I wonder if we do not often read too much into the language of the OT, and come up with answers that were never intended. You suggest that a lion is “more than” a carnivore: perhaps so, but would a vegetarian lion really be a lion? I think not. Death and decay, violence and pain, were surely well established long before humans lived on earth. Vegetarian T. rex?

  5. Dave Bookless says:

    I love the comments so far … keep them coming! Picking up on the comment made by a couple of people that a vegetarian lion would not be a lion, and Jason’s suggestion that ‘evolution is the mechanism of both salvation and creation’, I want to suggest something pretty fundamental about how science and theology relate to each other. Science is about understanding the world through systematic observation of how things function now and have functioned in the past. Where it differs from theology is that science assumes that the world will continue to operate in the future as it has done in the past. If in the future God is going to do ‘a new thing’, including a fundamental judging, redeeming and remaking of our current physical world, then science cannot really tell us anything about that. As Julio rightly says in relation to there being no marriage in eternity, new creation means a completely new way of being. I would therefore take issue pretty strongly with the idea that evolution is God’s means of salvation. The death and resurrection of Christ go completely against the laws of science – and of evolution in particular – and suggest to me that new creation (embodied in the Risen Christ) will be another kind of physical reality unbound by the death, predation and entropy that are necessary to evolution.

  6. Don Alexander says:

    God is able to provide food out of nothing. Manna, quails, oil, wine, fish, bread……. I doubt whether the lion will agree to go veggie which makes two of us.

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