Is the cruelty and wastefulness of evolution inconsistent with the goodness of God?

The short answer

Possibly, but no more so than the cruelty and wastefulness that we see around us every day. If the latter is consistent with the goodness of God, then so is the former.

The longer answer

I. God seems generally unconcerned with cruelty and wastefulness

Evolution is no more cruel or wasteful than the non-evolutionary processes that harm or kill billions of organisms every day, often inflicting dreadful pain on the sentient ones. Hence, if the latter are consistent with the existence of a good god, so is the former.

Even more pointedly, a creationist who harmonizes the murder of a child with the goodness of a god who refuses to intervene (or who even commands the murder in the first place, as in 1 Samuel 15), should have no problem whatsoever harmonizing the brutality of evolution with the same god. As I have said in my essay In Defense of Evolution:

for the believer, the wastefulness and arbitrariness of evolution presents no special problem not already presented by the events of everyday life. Consider, for instance, the wastefulness and arbitrariness present in the rape and murder of a child: on the one hand, a person who is inclined to view such things as incompatible with the existence of a loving god is already at the doorstep of atheism, and will hardly be moved by the comparative tameness of the evolutionary history of life. On the other hand, it would be a sick joke beyond measure to suggest that anyone capable of genuflecting at the altar of God after considering the rape and murder of a child could possibly have his or her faith shaken by the cruelty of the evolutionary process. As far as the matter of atheism versus theism goes, the wastefulness and arbitrariness of evolution is either redundant or irrelevant.

II. Evolution, the Fall, and animal eating habits

Creationists sometimes reply that the Fall of Adam and Eve resolves God of all responsibility for at least the brutality of the natural world. They claim that God initially created all animals as herbivores, but that Adam and Eve’s disobedience somehow caused some of these animals to change into carnivores. Thus (so the story goes), Adam and Eve rather than God are responsible for the cruelty and wastefulness of nature. But (so the story continues), since the evolutionary history of life seems to rule out a historical Adam and Eve, the truth of evolution would mean that God is the responsible one. There are at least two problems with this reply.

First, Genesis does not actually say any of this. Nowhere does it say that all creatures were created as herbivores, or that the Fall magically changed the digestive tracts and eating habits of any of these creatures. If creationists think it is fine to add whatever they want into Scripture, then they might as well just add in the evolutionary history of life and be done with the whole controversy.

Second, even if the Fall somehow did cause these magical changes, it could do so only if God set things up to happen that way: it is not as though Adam and Eve went about like mad scientists operating on the jaws, stomachs, and brains of former herbivores to turn them into killing machines. But a God who built the fabric of nature so that it could be so utterly corrupted by the actions of one pair of human beings would be just as responsible for the subsequent brutality as a god who made nature brutal to begin with. It would be like putting a nuclear trigger into the hands of an infant: no better than pulling the trigger oneself.