Last week in Elders Quorum, the teacher asked us what things we wish we knew about Jesus. I chickened out of sharing my question because it was too weird. My question was this: since we know that the Atonement covers non-human animals in some way, because they will also be resurrected and inherit eternal bliss, did Jesus also experience their lives and all of their pain as He did for us?
This pain is not insignificant. It was a leading cause of Charles Darwin's faith crisis. He wrote, "With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I wish to do, evidence of design & beneficience on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."
More recently, militant atheist Richard Dawkins wrote: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."
Non-human animals deserve to suffer even less than most of us do. And in a way, their suffering is all the more cruel, because they lack the mental capacity that most of us have to contextualize and cope with pain. And yet God requires their suffering as an integral part of their mortal existence, just as He does of us. It seems reasonable to me, then, that Jesus was willing to go through everything that was required of them, just as He was willing for us. And as I contemplate that, I have another question: even though non-human animals are (probably) not accountable when they rape or murder each other, does Jesus still have to pay a price for those violations of moral laws, as He does when humans sin in ignorance?
This is all, of course, just a less considered subset of the problem of evil that everyone knows about. Daniel C. Peterson has said: "Consider... this supremely complacent remark, offered by a vocal atheist critic of Mormonism during a 2001 Internet discussion: 'If there were a God,' he reflected, 'I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me - perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.' Only someone very comfortably situated could be so marinated in smugness about the question of whether or not God exists.
"But the vast majority of the world’s population is not so situated, and, for them, atheism, if true, is very bad news indeed. Most of the world’s population, historically and still today, does not live, well fed and well traveled, to a placid old age surrounded by creature comforts. Most of the world has been and is like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Cairo, the backward rural villages of India, the famine-ridden deserts of northeastern Africa, the war-ravaged towns of the southern Sudan and of Rwanda. If there is going to be a truly happy ending for the millions upon millions of those whose lives have been blighted by torture, starvation, disease, rape, and murder, that ending will have to come in a future life. And such a future life seems to require a God.
"Yes, the problem of evil is a huge one, but to give up on God is to give evil the final say. It is to admit that child rapists and murderers dictate the final chapters in the lives of their terrified and agonized victims; that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot really did triumph, forever, over the millions they slaughtered; that, in the rotting corpses of Darfur and Iraqi Kurdistan, we see the final, definitive chapter of thousands of lives; that there is, really, no hope for those whose health is in irreversible decline; that every human relationship ends in death, if not before.
"This would not be good news, and I see no compelling reason to accept it. In fact, I see numerous persuasive reasons to reject the claim. But that is a subject not just for another occasion but, necessarily, for a great number of other occasions."
First and foremost, I believe in the message of Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead and that all people and other animals will likewise rise from the dead, because without some compensatory afterlife, existence is as depressing and pointless as Richard Dawkins suggested in the rest of his quote: "In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." Wanting to believe in a purpose doesn't mean there is one, but if I'm wrong, I've lost nothing. And faith and hope go together for a reason. (I do recognize that other belief systems about the afterlife exist, Christian or otherwise, and there are reasons why I believe mine makes the most sense, but I don't want to denigrate the others by getting into that.)
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.