Sunday, August 7, 2011

Polar bears and sin

Most people would be aware that on 22 July, Anders Behring Breivik set off bombs in government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people, and then went on a shooting spree at a camp of the Workers' Youth League, killing 69 people. But there was another attack in Norway that you may not be aware of. Last Friday, a polar bear attacked a youth group, injuring four people and killing 17-year old, Horatio Chapple.

Both attacks bring up questions of sin.

Breivik, as an individual, sinned. There is no doubt about that. And when we ask questions about how God can let this happen, the short answer is that God did not want Breivik to murder anybody. But he gave all humans free will and Breivik used his free will to murder those people and disobey God.

Of course, this still brings up questions about why God didn't prevent Breivik using his free will to kill people. We can understand why a loving God would give humans free will. Yet it is often hard to understand why he continues to let them exercise that free will when its results can be so devastating.

But at another level we may well ask what responsibility society (or specific sections of society) has for this sin. Was he influenced by other people? Can we lay the blame (or at least part of it) at the door of religion or religious institutions? Should someone have been alerted to the possibility of him harming someone from his postings on the internet? Was there anything in his background that could have contributed to his state of mind? Or do we just pass him off as an isolated madman?

And quite frequently, it is when the blame may be placed on those things that we hold dear that we are most likely to say it is solely the individual's fault.

So what does all this have to do with polar bears? Well as with the Breivik terrorist attacks, the polar bear attack was not part of God's plan. And the reason why things do not happen on earth according to God's plan is because sin has entered it.

So again, we need to ask questions about whose sin contributed to the polar bear attack. Unlike humans, polar bears are not given free will. So we can not say it was the polar bear's sin. It can not make individual choices and is not accountable for his actions.

Another answer is that it was Adam and Eve's sin. God made the world good. But when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world, bringing death and disease with it.

And certainly I believe that. Many people are attacked and killed by animals. And sometimes we can look to human actions for their cause. Other times, it just seems the way the world is. But the way the world is is not the way the world was meant to be. And I believe the reason for that is that sin affects the whole world.

However, we cannot blame that just on Adam and Eve. After original sin, God says the land is cursed for their disobedience (Genesis 3:17). But verses such as Leviticus 26:25, Deuteronomy 29:23-25, Jeremiah 2:14-17, 9:12-14, 44:22, Ezekiel 33:26-29, Micah 7:13 and Zechariah 7:12-14 show that the land continues to suffer because of human sin. This is really the subject for another post. But I do want to draw attention to the possibility that this may account for many animal attacks. If any type of death is due to original sin, then surely death of humans by animals (as well as death of animals) may be caused by our continuing disobedience.

The danger in considering this is that we don't see it as anything that can be changed. It may not be the way the world is meant to be, but it is the way the world is (at least until Christ's return). There will always be sin in the world and therefore there will always be consequences for the land (including plants, animals and people).

While this may be true, it does not mean we need not ask questions about whether human sin was directly or indirectly responsible for such things as the polar bear attack. While sin in general terms has consequences for the land, specific sins impact the land in a very real way. As Christians, we can not just say this is the way the world is. We must acknowledge our part in making this world the way it is, rather than the way God meant it to be. And that acknowledgement must be followed by repentance and a turning away from that sin.

Polar bear attacks have been on the increase in recent years. The polar bears need to go further afield to find food, thereby coming into contact with humans more frequently. The polar bear that attacked Chapple was significantly underweight and starving. Photographer, Andy Rouse, has argued that they are desperate for food, which makes them dangerous. He also said the climate change effects were driving them into more populated areas. (Read about his comments here)

Is this our fault? If we take God seriously when he says our sin affects the land, then we must answer yes. But we must not stop there. Instead, we must ask the difficult questions about what humans may have done that led to increased polar-bear attacks. We must ask whether changing our climate may cause further incidents that do not reflect God's plan. We must also be prepared to accept that the things we hold dear may be contributing to the problem. Then we must acknowledge our sin and repent of it.



  1. Thanks for this reflection Liz.

    What percentage of the human population are mauled by polar bears each year? (A: something like 0.000000015%) What percentage of the polar bear population are shot or poisoned by humans each year? (A: about 3-5%, that is, 200-300 million times as many, proportionally). What percentage die of starvation/drowning/failure to thrive or some other cause linked to the destruction of their habitat? (A: unknown, but it is highly likely to be rising.) Horatio Chapple's death is a tragedy. But I don't think Christians can limit our understanding of tragedy to the human world. You are right to discuss such things using the language of sin.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Byron. And thanks for sharing the figures about polar bears. I didn't know that so many polar bears were shot or poisoned by humans.

    I think whether we consider something a tragedy has a lot to do with the media. If it's on the news, it's a tragedy. And if it's not on the news, quite often we don't even know about it. And of course, there usually has to be something new to make it to the news.

    So what we think of tragedies are often one-off events. But the real tragedies can be those things that happen all the time - and are far too commonplace to even bother reporting. And I'm not sure that's even a human/animal divide. A beached whale can be considered a tragedy. People living within clean running water is not. Although I do agree that we're more likely to consider something a tragedy if there's a human involved. And it's often what we do to animals that is commonplace.