The Endless Invention of Excuses for God

But there is such a thing as going too far 

It’s a good guess that the apostle Paul is partly to blame for the common belief that nature itself is proof of God. He wrote this in his letter to the Romans (1:20): “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” So just look around you to see God’s stunning handiwork. One modern theologian, Barry Whitney, illustrates how theists can get swept up in this sentimental view of nature:


“We are fortunate indeed if we have experienced the serene beauty of a dampened forest or the majestic expanse of the open seas…Such moments are to be cherished, for they somehow assure the longing soul of its communion with a Presence which animates all of life by its love and care.” (Whitney, Evil and the Process God, p. 1)

This is a good example of a mind numbed by theology. Guy Harrison is far more truthful: 

“Right at this moment, as you are reading this sentence, millions of creatures are being pierced, clawed, snapped in half, chewed and swallowed—while still alive. A constant and incomprehensible flow of pain and suffering is standard operating procedure, just the way life goes on this planet.”  (Harrison, 50 Popular Beliefs that People Think Are True, p. 280)

So all of life is “animated by God’s love and care”? Even the very pious, when hit personally with tragedy and suffering, struggle with doubt: wasn’t it the deal that God would take care of us?—after all, he has his eye even on the sparrow. That’s a nice image, but frankly, it’s meaningless. Christian theism is shattered by the grim reality that animals face, as John Loftus discusses in his essay, “The Problem of Animal Suffering,” in his new anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering.


A few years ago, when I was writing my book about the problems that falsify Christianity, the tentative title for the chapter on evil and suffering had been, “The Easy Acceptance of the Very Terrible.” It has been my experience for years that when Christians are confronted with examples of the most horrible suffering they divert their eyes—and avoid thinking about the problem: “Oh yes, that, but even so our God is wonderful.” Easy acceptance of the very terrible…to hold on to God.     

Or they fall back on excuses that apologists have been touting for centuries: God is testing us, building our characters, punishing us; we wouldn’t appreciate the good if we don’t experience the bad—or he’s just plain mysterious and has a bigger plan for good that humans cannot grasp. Everything will come out okay in the end for the righteous—commonly heaven is thrown into the mix. 

But none of these excuses work when applied to animal suffering (they don’t even work for human suffering, actually). Yes, it’s hard to grasp: the Cambrian Explosion happened more than 500 million years ago—so called because of the enormous diversification of species. So in all that time since, as Harrison put it, “creatures have pierced, clawed, snapped in half, chewed and swallowed—while still alive.” 

At the beginning of his essay, Loftus states the ruinous implications of this for theism:

“For an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing god to have created the egregiously horrific and unnecessary predatory relationship among his creatures requires a rejection of god and his religion.”  (p. 88)

“Upon the supposition of Darwinian evolutionary biology, this suffering is natural. It is what we would expect to find. But upon the supposition of a theistic god, this is not what we should expect to find.”  (p. 89)  

And yet, and yet…defending their god is how apologists make their living. So it’s no surprise that they try to rise of the occasion. A full half of the Loftus essay is an analysis of the excuses they offer. Of course, making their living isn’t the half of it. They are driven by intense emotional investment in the god-idea—commonly the result of childhood indoctrination—because that’s how their souls will be saved, i.e., this is their only means to escape death. They can’t let go of the magical thinking based on a good god. People who have wised up to how the world actually works, and thus face death honestly, can only be stunned by the attempts to get god off the hook for animal suffering. 

Indeed—and I don’t mean this flippantly—there is a certain entertainment value in these pages of the Loftus essay: he introduces his readers to the apologists’ arguments that can only make sense to fellow apologists—and even there we find push and shove, back and forth, because sometimes even other apologists realize how silly the arguments are. Horrendous animal suffering has pushed their backs to the wall. Their desperation shows.

I’m not kidding, these are the excuses: 

1.     Animals don’t feel pain. Loftus mentions pre-Darwinian thinkers who made this argument, but also—why are we not surprised? —notes the similar effort of William Lane Craig, who has claimed that animals are not aware of pain. Strange: veterinarians use anesthetics when operating on their patients. Beware of callous theologians: Craig has also argued that Yahweh had it right when he massacred babies and children as the Israelites were conquering the Promised Land…so that they could not grow up to be a corrupting influence. (See pp. 421-422 in this Loftus anthology, my essay, “Bible Horror Stories that Will Chill You to the Bone.”)

2.     The devil is actually the one responsible. Is it really helpful for anyone to listen to thinkers who can’t overcome their attachment to an ancient cult? As Loftus notes, “…the whole notion of satan, or the devil, is reflective of ancient superstitions and barbaric people who were looking for an answer to why undeserved suffering takes place on a massive scale.” (p. 96) Satan was firmly imbedded in the thinking of the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult, one of whose modern devotees is Gregory A. Boyd, author of Satan and the Problem of Evil. Loftus sums up Boyd’s defense of his god: “Animals have gotten hurt ever since creation because evil supernatural forces corrupted them into preying upon each other in defiance of god’s intentions.” (p. 96) This is a good example of Christian theology slipping into full incoherence: how is it possible that an all-powerful god would allow evil supernatural forces to exist for even a minute? Here we see apologetic fondness for shallow mind games. 

3.     We should have known: It’s Eve’s fault. Well, this shouldn’t be a surprise, after all. After Eve yielded to temptation, then led Adam astray, God placed terrible curses (Genesis 3) on the serpent, women, and men. Loftus mentions apologists Henry Morris and Martin Clark, who would have us believe there were no carnivorous animals prior to Adam and Eve breaking the rules! These guys wander in their own theologian la-la land, seemingly oblivious to evidence—and hoping that the faithful they cater to won’t notice. As Loftus points out: “The consistent pattern in paleontology and in geology shows us that carnivorous, meat-eating animals did not arrive on the scene suddenly, but rather very slowly through millions and millions of years, which predates the arrival of human animals.”  (pp. 98-99)  

4.     God isn’t all-powerful after all. Much to the irritation of other apologists, we can be sure, some defenders of the faith allow that evolution is true—so animal suffering is what it is, even with a loving god in charge. After all, the evidence for evolution is massive, so theology is stuck with it. But it’s also stuck with horrendous suffering. Thus Bethany Sollereder, author of God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall, gets considerable attention from Loftus. You’ve painted yourself into a corner by affirming both god and evolution, because the latter doesn’t need direction or oversight from any god. Why would a good god have set things up this way? Noting other apologists who concede the truth of evolution, Loftus notes:

“They must introduce a faith-based claim that there was no other option available for an omniscient, omnipotent god to create the world other than through the evolutionarily processes. They must drastically limit their maximally great god. Their god is too ignorant or two powerless to have done other than what he did. Can’t such a god do any miracles? By throwing an omni-god overboard, so also go to the miracles.”  (p. 102)

In the next paragraph—too long to quote here—Loftus summarizes Sollereder’s stunningly inept attempts to make her god look good, culminating with her suggestion that animals who have suffered will be “redeemed by a new life in heaven…” I wondered if I’d read that right: such jaw-dropping foolishness, which prompts Loftus’ observation: “Sollereder claims to offer a theodicy, but instead she is mainly offering up a plate of word salad with unevidenced meaningless platitudes.” (p. 102)

 5.     It’ll all get better in heaven. There are other apologists who favor the heavenly solution, e.g., John Schneider, who claims that “The story is not finished until the very end…when god will resurrect and transform all non-human creatures into the kingdom of god.” (p. 105) There’s also Trent Dougherty, who states: “I will defend the thesis that a class of animals will not only be resurrected at the eschaton, but will be deified in much the same way that humans will be…”  (p. 106) 

These are the folks who turn their backs when we ask for reliable, verifiable, objective data about gods, so they can’t be bothered to cite the data for their off-the-chart fantasies, as Loftus notes: “The main problem is that it lacks objective evidence. It is all guesswork based on hunches, possibilities and coincidences, the kinds of beliefs that lead to a number of conspiracy theories…A religion that can only stand on such dubious guesswork is not a religion we have any reason to accept.”  (p. 107)  

But Loftus has some fun contemplating animals in heaven: “Would we really want scorpions, alligators, ticks, snakes, spiders, and skunks in heaven with us? What rational criteria can distinguish between animals that will be in heaven from those that aren’t there?” (p. 108)


Rational criteria: that’s precisely what’s missing as apologists bounce from one excuse to another to exonerate god for all the misery we see in nature. I do recommend that readers give full attention to this major part of the Loftus essay; I’ve touched on just a few of important points he makes. 

Apologists have been trying to make excuses for god’s arrangement of creation as we observe it, in all its gruesome detail: the end result of his handiwork. But in the final few pages of this essay, Loftus offers thought experiments about how things could have been: “A perfectly good, all-powerful god should not have created predation in the natural world. Period!”  (p. 112) There are plenty of vegetarian animals, so couldn’t god have arranged for this pattern to prevail as widely as possible? “I wonder if Christian theists have really thought through the implications of a theistic god who prefers this present set of natural laws with its sufferings over constant divine miraculous intervention. Is their omnipotent god lazy or something?”  (p. 112)

We do know for sure that the apologists are not lazy. But is it really worth so much effort to try to make ancient cult beliefs fit with what we now know about the world? Animals suffer because of satan? Come on, give me a break. Apologists could better use their time and energy coaxing people away from ancient superstitions and fantasies. But then they wouldn’t be apologists, would they? And that would be a giant leap for mankind.


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.

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