Last week while watching the “Jungles” episode on BBC Planet Earth I saw something that shocked me to the core: horrific video footage of a band of male chimpanzees stalking, then murdering and cannibalising a female chimpanzee from another tribe. Murdering one’s own kind is rare in the animal kingdom. Humans and chimpanzees are two of the few species that regularly engage in this type of behaviour. Jane Goodall was the first to document warfare among chimpanzees and was profoundly disturbed by this discovery:
For several years I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge. Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind—Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face; old Rodolf, usually so benign, standing upright to hurl a four-pound rock at Godi’s prostrate body; Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes. …
Goodall’s findings were so disturbing that many scientists simply refused to believe it, insisting that if it were true, there must be a human cause, like unnatural habitat destruction. We all want to believe that the animal kingdom is a place of innocence, whether we are religious or not. Religions see evil as a result of Satan and the Fall. Those who believe in evolution want to interpret animal violence as an adaptive strategy for food and survival, not a moral evil. But chimpanzee warfare raises uncomfortable questions: if warfare is a natural adaptive strategy, then what does that say about human violence? If our propensity for violence evolved from our ape ancestors, can human warfare be defended upon the same grounds? Is warfare natural and instinctual, or unnatural and evil? Does animal violence come from God’s design, or from some other source?
C. S. Lewis’s Response: God is not evil, but there is evil in nature
In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis explores the paradox of how a benevolent God could create a world full of suffering. His answer is that human suffering is caused either by Satan’s influence after the Fall, or as trials given by God to improve His children. But when it comes to animal suffering, C. S. Lewis is stumped. How could a benevolent God have created a world that perpetuates itself through the killing of innocent animals, sometimes in horribly violent ways?
Lewis rejects the theology of “no death before the Fall” as implausible and unscientific. Therefore Lewis does not blame animal suffering on the Fall. Nor can Lewis accept the idea that a benevolent God would actually design a world which included such terrible suffering. Instead, Lewis posits that death and killing in the animal kingdom come from another kind of malevolent force, not from God. Discoveries about murder among chimpanzees bolster Lewis’ argument. Both humans and animals can suffer from depression, PTSD, mental illness, and debilitating fears resulting from the stresses of violence in our respective communities. Are these terrible fruits really the result of simply “filling the measure of our creation and having joy therein?”
Lewis doesn’t specify what kind of evil exists in the natural world, nor speculate where it might come from. But his ideas resonate with scriptures in the Book of Mormon which state that “there is an opposition in all things,” suggesting that good and evil are built into the fabric of existence, an existence not created by God, but co-eternal with Him.
The Gnostic Response: God Contains Both Light and Dark
I strongly object to Lewis’s theory. I feel God’s Spirit in nature and can’t accept the idea that He could be absent from it, or that there are things in nature He might not approve of, like animals killing other animals. A number of years ago, I adopted a more gnostic view of God after reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, which introduced to me the idea that God might contain “both the luminous and the dark world.”
God of the Old and New Testaments is certainly an extraordinary figure but not what he purports to represent. He is all that is good, noble, fatherly, beautiful, elevated, sentimental—true! But the world consists of something else besides. And what is left over is ascribed to the devil, this entire slice of world, this entire half is hushed up. In exactly the same way they praise God as the father of all life but simply refuse to say a word about our sexual life on which it’s all based, describing it whenever possible as sinful, the work of the devil. I have no objection to worshiping this God Jehovah, far from it. But I mean we ought to consider everything sacred, the entire world, not merely this artificially separated half!
For Hesse, all nature is sacred: the sexual, violent, ugly side of nature, along with the good, benevolent and beautiful side. We separate the things in nature we are uncomfortable with and ascribe them to the devil, but are they really of the devil?
LDS theology also has resonances with Hesse’s gnostic view. In the LDS view of the Fall, God uses Satan as part of His plan, sending him to earth specifically to “tempt and torment man.” For all intents and purposes God and Satan are in a partnership, working to a common end. Mormons are careful to describe God as being all good and Satan as all evil, but ultimately these are just semantic separators. We can’t escape the fact that our theology teaches us that God uses evil to accomplish good.
My Response: Evil is not what we think it is
I no longer hold to the gnostic view. It just doesn’t feel right to me that God could be evil. Nor does it feel right to me that nature could be evil. My solution is: maybe what we think is evil isn’t really evil. I’ve been accused of “calling evil good and good evil” and I readily admit that I am guilty as charged. Joseph Smith once said, “I do sin, but I do not the sins I am accused of.” In a similar vein, I say, “there is evil, but it is often not where we think it is.” Is violence always evil? Could God be perfect and benevolent, and still create a world thriving on blood and horror? I believe the answer is yes: God is both benevolent and the creator of a violent world, and I appeal to Christ as the solution to this paradox.
Christ created a suffering world. One might think it was malicious of Christ to do this. But to show us that He was not malicious, to show us that He still thought of His creation, that “it was good,” He subjected Himself to His own suffering world. As the Book of Mormon says, “He shall go forth suffering the pains and afflictions of mankind, that he may know how to succour them in their infirmities.”
And during His suffering, He absolved His murderers of evil saying: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” They had acted in ignorance, not knowing any better. I hold to the Biblical definition that for something to be evil, it must be contingent upon a “knowledge of good and evil.” Evil comes from knowledge, not ignorance. When someone “knows not what they do,” no matter how bad it is, it cannot be evil, because there is no knowledge. Christ had created His predators. He had given them the commandment to stone blasphemers in the Old Testament. He had given them their religious and physical passions. And He had told His disciples: “They who kill you believe they are doing God a service.” He could easily have corrected the Pharisees misconceptions by showing them His power as He had back in the days of Moses. But He didn’t. Christ offered up His life to His predators like a gazelle offering his neck to the lions on the savannah. He became our prey and we eat His flesh and blood symbolically as predators ourselves, just as we have eaten the flesh of innocent animals for thousands of years. God gave us animals to kill for physical food, and God gave us His flesh to eat for spiritual food.
In playing out this sad and strange drama, I think God is trying to tell us something, something difficult to explain in words: that suffering is simply part of life, not good nor evil, right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful. It simply is. As He spoke through the mouth of Satan: “there is no other way.” Christ feels sorry for His creation, He wishes they didn’t have to suffer. But since He cannot eliminate the suffering, the least He can do is come down and partake of it with us.
Epilogue: The Doily and the Crucifix
A friend of mine once described the LDS cultural view of the gospel as being “like a pretty little doily, all perfectly crocheted and white. Everything fits together perfectly. Everything works.” To maintain this sentimental view, there are paradoxes that must be ignored, like the paradox of chimpanzee murder and all the other pointless sufferings faced by humans and animals in God’s creation.
When I visit Catholic churches, I sometimes see beautiful doilies spread across church alters. And on top of the doily is a crucifix. The crucifix is a constant reminder to Catholics that life is about suffering, and that God is with us in that suffering. But the doily in the LDS church is missing the crucifix. We DO have the sacrament, which reminds us of the atonement. But in LDS culture, Christ’s death is wrapped up in a perfect theological package of at-one-ment, not a brutal crucifix. We reject the cross because we want to celebrate Christ’s resurrection more than His death. And hope in a better world IS important. But without understanding that God is a creature of suffering, how can we begin to understand our own?
- What is your answer to violence and murder in the animal kingdom? Is it evil?
- Which explanation do you prefer for the paradox of violence in the animal kingdom:
- C. S. Lewis’s theory of malevolent forces in the natural world.
- The gnostic view that God contains both good and evil.
- The view that violence is not intrinsically evil.
- Do you see Christ (the suffering Creator), as the answer to “the suffering creation?”
- Do you believe that evil is contingent upon knowledge?