‘Teeth and Talons Whetted for Slaughter’: Divine Attributes and Suffering Animals in Historical Perspective (1600–1961)

Pieter Johannes Slootweg

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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Many people today think that nature provides conclusive evidence for the belief that God does not exist. They believe that all the evil and suffering in nature, including the vast amount of suffering and death that occur in the animal world—proverbially summed up as “nature red in tooth and claw”—is incompatible with the belief in a benevolent God who takes care of all living beings. In the past, however, God’s hand was noticed everywhere in nature—‘the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament declares the work of his hands.’ But awareness of the suffering that afflicts animals has undermined the credibility of this idea to modern humans (‘God cannot be like that’). It is often assumed that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution played a decisive role in this change. Whether this is correct is the question that prompted the present study. There is reason to be skeptical of this hypothesis in advance, because it was clear long before Darwin that there is a constant struggle for survival in the animal world. To trace the historical roots of this change in looking at nature, I investigated how people in the past interpreted the tension between believing in a benevolent Creator and Sustainer with seeing the evil that the animals do to each other on the other. The research first focuses on a time frame that begins in late antiquity and initially ends with the year in which Darwin published his theory of evolution. I chose this provisional end point to gain a picture of the discussion in a period in which Darwin and his theory did not yet play a role. I then discuss developments since Darwin with the aim of considering whether it is appropriate to hold the emergence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection responsible for the fact that nature, instead of being a mainstay of belief in God appears to have turned into evidence to the contrary. The outcome is that despite his emphasis on animal suffering, Darwin added no new insights to the debate over the relationship between animal suffering and the divine attributes at odds with it. Even before Darwin, there were debates about the relationship between God's goodness and the suffering of animals, and it appeared that the arguments made by present-day theologians in this regard are not substantially different from those of the past. It was not only because of Darwin's theory of evolution that people began to wonder what the suffering of animals meant for the belief in a God who lovingly cares for all living beings; they had been thinking about this since at least the first decades of the seventeenth century. The assumption that Darwin's theory of evolution represents a turning point in our thinking about the relationship between the Creator and the sea of suffering that sweeps through nature is refuted by the historical record. From early modern times onward, people were aware that the suffering of animals was at odds with their belief in a loving God who intended the well-being of all his creatures, and sought ways to come to terms with this tension.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • van den Brink, Gijsbert, Supervisor
  • Sollereder, Bethany, Co-supervisor, External person
  • Flipse, A.C., Co-supervisor
Award date17 Nov 2021
Place of PublicationKampen
Print ISBNs9789492701367
Publication statusPublished - 17 Nov 2021


  • theodicy, Darwin, evolution, creation, animal suffering, history of an idea


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