A Beauty Crowned with Thorns

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
It was hands-down the most memorable Easter gift I have ever received.
One year, when my two brothers and I were in grade school, Mom didn’t settle for colored eggs and chocolate bunnies.  Just for fun she bought each of us a live baby chick.
Older brother Scott named his Khruschev, the Soviet dictator at the time.  I opted for Hector, since I had recently gotten the baseball card of Hector Lopez, outfielder for the New York Yankees.  Younger brother Bruce named his chick Joe, because, well, Joe is a very nice name. 
Against all odds, Hector, Khruschev, and Joe made it through their first week under our care.  Then the rest of the spring.  Then through the entire summer.
They had the run of our yard.  They grew huge.  They had no designated shelter.  They made it through meteorological highs and lows and severe storms.  Somehow they never fell victim to neighborhood dogs, which in Indianapolis in the 1960s were free to roam unleashed.  Best of all, they came running to us when we called.  They became members of the family.
That fall we took a vacation to Florida.  When we returned, the chickens were gone.  My gosh, Mom, where can they be?   
“Well,” she said, a little too calmly, “I imagine they’re in Nellie’s freezer right now.”  It took a few moments for that to register.  Nellie was the delightful woman who cleaned our house every Friday.  “You mean – Hector, Khruschev, and Joe are going to be eaten?”
It was one of those childhood traumas that keep therapists in business.  Looking back, I feel sorry for Mom.  She later admitted that she didn’t really have a long-term plan.  Who knew that those three chicks would survive and thrive, let alone become dear to our hearts?  After all, they had names.  And personalities. 
The irony, of course, is that such feelings of affection didn’t stop any of us from eating fried chicken that summer.  Food industry experts predict that almost 50 billion chickens will end up on the world’s dinner tables in 2023.
Is that something that should tug at our heartstrings? 
For that matter, what should we do with the fact that so many animals suffer and die in our world every day?  John R. Schneider, professor emeritus of theology at Calvin University, asks the question that is vexing more and more followers of Jesus: “How could such horrific suffering exist within the good creation of the omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect Christian God?”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously described nature as “red in tooth and claw.”  It’s impossible to watch a Nat Geo program spotlighting any of Earth’s ecosystems and not witness violence and predation on a ravenous scale.  Atheists bolster their no-God convictions by asserting that a loving Deity could never have endorsed such slaughter. 
For centuries, people of faith scarcely gave the suffering of animals a second thought.
It was assumed that “dumb creatures,” having only modest mental capacities, probably didn’t feel pain in a morally significant way.  But as Schneider notes, “Emerging branches of animal science strongly support the common-sense belief that animal suffering is all too real.”
Bible students in the pre-modern era were content to propose that the suffering observed in nature arrived only when Adam and Eve acted so rashly in the Garden of Eden.  Surely that would be enough to get God off the hook, rescuing him from the charge of originating pain.   
But then came the emerging field of paleontology.  Even a cursory study of the fossil record indicates that ticks, mites, mosquitoes, and carnivores of every size and dimension have been around for a very long time.  
Here we should pause and acknowledge that people of good will disagree about the age of the Earth.  I am personally convinced that all truth is God’s truth.  The Book of Nature and the Book of God’s Word are ultimately in alignment with each other, even if some of today’s speculative biological theories and strained Bible interpretations seem to turn science and faith into enemies.  But there seems little doubt, according to mainstream paleontologists, that nature “red in tooth and claw” has been a reality for millions of years, long before the arrival of people.   
This has led a number of theologians to embrace the “only-way” explanation for animal suffering.  They suggest that the natural realm, just as we find it, is the only way for God to bring into existence a sufficiently valuable world – that is, one that has a just-right balance of human and non-human life. 
For most people, however, this argument seems weak.  Can’t a sovereign God bring about the right kind of world without so much suffering and death?
Of course he could.  God could have made a symmetrical, harmonious, morally flawless world – without the messiness and risks of free will.  Imagine a perfect “snow globe” where nothing will ever intrude, and nothing can ever go wrong.  It would be a beautiful world.
But Schneider, among many others, would say such beauty would also be shallow and superficial.  
The real world, the one we actually inhabit, is filled with sorrow, pain, mayhem, and loss – something experienced by all of its creatures.  But it is also shot through with what we might call a deep or “fierce” beauty.  That’s because God’s creation, for whatever reason, is racked by evil – and God has resolved to destroy evil once and for all by means of suffering.  His own suffering
In the words of Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, our world is “inflamed by the most sublime of beauties – a beauty crowned with thorns and crucified.”
Think about it.  God’s means of rescuing the world is through a Messiah who dies.  He will be identified throughout eternity as a helpless, suffering animal.  Jesus is “the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8, KJV).  What is God like?  God is like one of his own creatures who comes to a sorrowful end in this broken world. 
But there is hope – hope for both humans and animals.
It’s possible that the most important Bible text that almost never crosses your mind is Romans 8:18-23.  Here the apostle Paul likens creation to a woman in labor.  “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (verse 22).  The pain is real.  And it’s dreadful.  But it’s also a forward-looking pain.  A child is about to come into the world, and that makes the suffering endurable. 
For Paul, God is bringing into existence new heavens and a new earth.  Today we groan because we’re still in labor.  The rest of creation groans right along with us.  But tomorrow we will laugh when we look back and see how God made it all happen.
The prophets tell us what this new world will look like: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together” (Isaiah 11:6).  No teeth, no claws, no desperate chases.  All of God’s creatures – thankfully, including us – will be remade. 
In the meantime, God cares what happens on planet Earth right here and right now. 
Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:29).
That provides just the assurance we need – the assurance that all of the animals that have won a place in our hearts (our dogs, cats, gerbils, cockatiels, turtles, horses, and even a chicken named Khruschev) will always have a place in his heart, too.