The Problem of Natural Evil

Within the last 6 years, two devastating natural disasters have shaken the consciences of our generation.  On December 26th 2004, an underwater earthquake with a magnitude measuring between 9.0 and 9.3 on the Richter scale occurred a hundred miles off the coast of northern Sumatra, a province of Indonesia.  The resulting tsunami, later named “The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami,” devastated the coastline communities of nearly all nearby land masses with tidal waves up to a hundred feet high.  The death toll was enormous: nearly a quarter of a million people perished, and based on the many photos taken in the aftermath, many of its victims were small children, whose bodies were found scattered up and down the coasts where the tsunamis hit.[1]

Six years later in January of 2010, another devastating earthquake hit a small town 16 miles away from the heavily populated city of Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti.  The quake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, and the death toll according to the Haitian government was 230,000 with 300,000 injured and 1,000,000 left homeless.

No more than a month later, an even more severe earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale hit off the coast of the Maule region of Chili, devastating coastal towns thought the region. Although the death toll was not as high as the Asian tsunami or the Haitian earthquakes, local news services at the time reported that more than 1.5 million people had been displaced.

This was not the first time such visceral evil and suffering had jarred the minds and hearts of people in this decade.  From an American perspective, the beginning of this century was marred by a horrifying display of terrorism as the infamous events of 9/11 flashed before our eyes on television and computer screens across the world.  People all over the country, unaccustomed to violence so immanent in their lives, sought to find answers and consolation.  How could this kind of evil have happened to our country?  Some people turned to religion to answer questions.  Church attendance grew for a time.

However, the Tsunami of 2004 awoke in men and women of this generation the realization of a different kind of evil – one that could not be blamed on men, but on whimsical natural forces of the earth.  No longer could the senseless violence and the deaths of thousands be blamed on moral agents as we had been culturally accustomed to thinking about evil over the last 3 years, but was instead the fault of an “act of God.”  A discomfort with religion and its attempts to explain such suffering began to emerge.  Both the atheist and the theist could see a common enemy behind the 9/11 attacks, but with the horrors of a natural disaster now in the forefront, the national and international religious communities began to struggle with answers for questions they were not used to addressing.

In some cases, Christians and religious leaders could not digest the events of the Tsunami or other instances of natural evil without readjusting their views of the goodness or power of God.[2] Outspoken atheists seemed to find real proof that the claim of the Christian God being all-powerful and loving was illogical.[3] Outspoken Christians unconcerned with correlating these events with God’s character were quick to see them instead as being a righteous judgment against people who deserved it.  Others saw it as an act of God that was in some way beneficial to the human race or more specifically to enlightened Christians.  As it turned out, there were a lot of bad explanations for the reasons behind these terrible disasters, but there was an absence of any good ones.  Why would God allow such devastation?  Many more thoughtful and rational religious thinkers agreed: there was no answer.[4]

The Need to Discuss the Unanswerable: Towards a Theology of Meaning

Regardless of the final conclusion that an answer to the problem of natural evil is impossible, there is still the need for dialog regarding corollary topics, such as God’s nature and the purpose of a human being.  To many who struggle with the reality of natural evil and believe God is good and all-powerful, this is a desirable and fruitful task, one where definitive clues can be found that will ignite our imagination.

We will first look at the struggles in answering this question by biblical authors and early church leaders.  In modern times beginning during the time of the Enlightenment, there has been an apparently inescapable trend to use discoveries and theories of science in this task.  With the emergence of Darwinism, the face of creation theology drastically changed.  Many within the Christian community up until the current day struggle to adopt the theories of naturalistic evolution at the expense of biblical inerrancy.  Some, however, do not and continue to have a rational perspective within the Christian scientific community.

A starting point for questions regarding natural evil would probably be one that looks to the creation of man and the physical world.  Why is our natural environment deadly or dangerous?  What happened in the history of God and his creation that made things the way they are?  A presupposition seems to lurk behind this question– that things are not what they are supposed to be.  It is one I believe haunts every person regardless of their worldview– a question so rooted in the mind of every man that it has become a common theme across myths in nearly every culture since the beginning of time.  This truth is not so much found within their content, but by the fact that we have myths at all– stories that try to explain deep questions that haunt the human existence.  It seems the primary goal of a good creation theology is to seek an explanation for why evil exists in the world today[5] when it is assumed that it should never have been there in the first place.  This is an important: it is not that our gut instinct tells us that things will be corrected by the universe some day, but that things ought to have been right all along.

But before looking for clues about natural evil from the events following creation, an even more fundamental examination must take place, one that is existential in nature.  It comes in the form of a grasping for meaning by those who face real tragedy and must come to grips with it.  Why does God not reveal apparently important things to us, especially things regarding experiences that have the potential to tax us emotionally and spiritually to the brink?  Why does God remain silent as to its meaning or ultimate purpose with us—with people whom he has a loving relationship? Didn’t he himself suffer on Earth with clear purpose?  Shouldn’t we likewise be knowledgeable of the reasons behind our portion?

Behind these questions lie ones even more primary in nature: why do we seek so strongly to find meaning in our lives, especially in the arena of suffering and pain?[6] Why is the natural inclination of men to seek meaning in their suffering when other valid, albeit less acceptable explanations, exist which we at times are all too eager to offer up when consoling others?  Is a desire to find meaning in suffering a selfish one?  It seems a corollary area of study alongside the study of suffering would be something akin to a theology of meaning.  It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to understand this primary motivation for seeking answers about evil.  If we do not start our inquiry here, we will not solve the problem at its source.  Theodicies constructed in this fashion are like pain killers taken without tracing the source of the pain.  All theodicies and explanations for evil in the world stem from this desire: to find meaning behind why we suffer.

Is it possible the desire for meaning is similar in nature to the desire for God?  It is one that is seduced by a thousand false alternatives: a good job or perfect marriage; to achieve them is to experience disappointment if what we desired in their consummation could not be found in them.[7] As Augustine is so often quoted, “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.”[8] Maybe similar also is the nature of the multiple dimensions of love.  According to C.S. Lewis[9] who was likely influenced by Platonism[10], the lower levels of love, such as eros, seem to have been designed not as the ultimate fulfillment of relational desire, but as gateways into a selfless realm.  Even more so they are pointers or signposts: that once experienced with an excessive expectation beyond its intended design, leads to disappointment that painfully but thankfully points us to something greater—ultimately culminating in a sincere adoption of a selfless, agape love.  Eros can best be experienced when it is enjoyed within its designed sphere just like a good job can be best experienced if our hearts have found God and so its desire is regulated to something more appropriate than one that only a relationship with God could fulfill.

Does the desire for meaning follow a similar pattern?  In our suffering, we find ourselves in a position to strongly desire meaning to explain it.  Pat answers will not suffice because our pain demands truth, and our selfishness which is normally an enemy in intellectual thought naturally steering us towards self-centered answers becomes instead an ally.  In our desire to find meaning, we may in some circumstances find answers on a factual level that nonetheless remain unsatisfactory: we were robbed because the criminal was a drug addict in desperate need of money and not in his right mind.  Although we may see beneficial outcomes, such as a newfound knowledge in how to add more security to our house and keep our family safe, we will often take the search for meaning to the next level because the first one proved unsatisfactory– to inquire of the governing bodies of the universe as to why such an event was meaningful in our lives.

Maybe we are told that an idea or force, such as karma, is responsible, or that innocent suffering is needed for the benefit of the cosmos in some mystical way.   Another answer is that the ultimate purpose of evil in our lives is for our learning benefit. It seems in my experience however that ideas, no matter how well constructed, objectively true, or strongly believed, seem inadequate to satiate the desire for meaning.  They feel to me to be a secondary product of a more primary source; the explanations of the rational minds of men to explain the indirect workings of a more primary governor of reality.   Ideas and explanations will never satisfy a desire to find meaning; only an audience and a relationship with the Creator of all reality will.[11]

This is an important point: it is an interactive relationship with God, not an idea of God that contains the satiation for our desire for meaning.  The divine relationship satisfies our desire for meaning like food satisfies our hunger, not pictures of food or the concept of food.  The idea that God exists and has all the attributes of classical theism is not the object of meaning’s satisfaction because the idea of an all powerful God is still that—an idea. This is why deistic forms of Christianity fail to provide answers to the problem of evil.  If we encounter God, the Creator of the universe, and we are told categorically that he loves us and that he is in control in convincing ways, is that not the very end result of our desire for meaning? Now the lower levels can be comprehended because they have a satisfactory context or framework with which to extract meaning from.  Returning to our earlier event of theft, the factual evidence of the situation is now more satisfactory because it is understood in its proper context (that it only provides a lesser level of meaning but is missing the ultimate context): The criminal who robbed me was desperate for money, but God loves me (and the thief!) and is ultimately in control of all things, which he often reminds me when I talk with him.

The deeper hearts of men are not fooled: a driving force or an idea can never be other than a secondary product of a more primary source. Do not the ideals of love, charity, and selflessness become more comprehensible and livable once we are in a relationship with the Creator?  Instead of a wooden application of them, a deeper, more enjoyable adherence to them is possible because their importance and meaning to our lives is understood in the context of their Creator.  This perspective may give some insight into explaining the rationality of Christian theism in light of criticism based on the Platonic Euthyphro dilemma.[12]

And so it was with Job.  Job received what he needed most: an audience with God himself.  Without the divine relationship, the ultimate consummation of our desire for meaning, how could the lesser levels of meaning be understood with satisfaction?  If, theoretically, Job was told about the heavenly meetings between God and Satan by one of the bene Eloheim, the Sons of God of the heavenly court observing the story from both realms, he might not have been satisfied.  He might have been even more confused and possibly more angry or in greater despair.  If he were told possible ideas behind God’s reasons, such as God wanting to make an example of his life to tell the world a new truth, he would not have been satisfied either.  Truth and ideas, no matter how good, would seem sour in the faces of his dead children.

We are never told about God and Job’s later interactions.  If our model is somewhat correct, we could tentatively say that with their relationship intact, God could reveal the lower levels of meaning regarding Job’s plight.  Maybe God only revealed those details to a glorified Job, whose mind and heart could only then comprehend its purposes.  In the end, it seems ideals are mapped to a relational person who embodies them, and it is that Person who gives them intrinsic meaning in a waterfall-like process.  This can be seen in a lesser degree by the person of King David, who represented God’s ideals, and who men respected a great deal and would die for, and who in some way inspired those ideals to be upheld by his people with more force than if David never were.  This may be another facet of the way we were intended to be as made in the image of God.

Unlike the similar model of the dimensions of love which seems to follow an upward experiential path from eros to agape, it seems the path of meaning must ideally take a top-down experiential path even though its arrival at the top came from questions from below.  A relationship with God is required for adequate satisfaction to be found at lower levels.  However, like love, agape transcends all lower forms, and similarly, a relationship with God transcends the need to comprehend meaning at lower levels.  Even though Job may never have understood why such suffering occurred in his life during his time on earth, his relationship with God satisfied him.

Perhaps this theory of meaning has links to other theological thought.  Anselm of Canterbury proposed that all Christian doctrine and by extension, all knowledge and meaning about our experiences in our life, require a relationship with God as a starting point:  “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.[13]

So returning to our current discussion on natural evil, we can say that a desire to find meaning in suffering was intended to lead the suffering person ultimately to a relationship with God to find satisfaction in our desire for meaning in the events of our lives now understood in their proper context.  It is not the purpose of suffering that leads us to God, but the outcome of a desire to find meaning behind it, of which suffering is only one manifestation among an infinite number we find in our earthly experiences.  As was mentioned before, according to C.S. Lewis observations of joy in our lives may lead us down a similar path.  Pain does have the advantage– of being the impetuous for a search for meaning not idly undertaken in one’s spare time, but rather pursued with great desperation and awareness of potential damage to our spirits if unsuccessful.

Again, this is not unlike a man’s sexual desire leading him to fall in love, marry, and ultimately selflessly care for the well being of other human being (his wife).  In the context of the higher agape (selfless) love, eros (romantic love) is more enjoyed because it is relieved of the burden of excessive importance attached to it that only a participation in agape could satisfy.

The remainder of this paper will seek to wade through these lower levels of meaning for clues and glimpses of answers behind why we suffer though the hands of the natural world.  Clues are however all we will receive in this lifetime as to the ultimate meaning behind why we suffer.  Until then, we have what we most desperately need in full measure– a relationship with our Creator.

The Early Church Response and Modern Revisions

During the first centuries of the Christian church, there emerged two prevailing models for creation and the fall that dealt with theodicies regarding natural evil – Irenean and Augustianian.[14]

The Ireanean Model

The Ireanean model, championed and revised in modern times by John Hick[15], and Richard Swineburne[16] sees the fall as part of an overall process of unfinished creation that ultimately leads to salvation and fulfillment at the end of time.  The fall of man and the ushering in of a dangerous world rife with suffering because of its chaotic incompleteness has always been an integral part of this overall rocky but creative process.  Natural evil is not really “evil,” and the fall never really was a true “fall,” and creation has not yet been completed.  God declaring his creation good really meant ‘good’ in a potential sense and in no way a literal one.  From suffering in the natural world we learn to become more mature in our spiritual walk with God and learn to distinguish between right and wrong because of the pain that occurs (natural evil) when a wrong choice is made.

To myself and many others, to be told that the deaths and suffering of untold thousands due to earthquakes is not really tragic and must be thought of instead as a stepping stone towards helping spiritual people become more spiritual seems outrageous and wrong.[17] It doesn’t work well on the micro-scale of physical suffering in the life of an individual either.  Is this a realistic avenue to take– to tell a person who lives with severe pain or suffers from a ravaging disease such as cancer that their perception of this is misguided and should really not be seen as suffering or evil at all, but simply the remnants of an unfinished creation that’s really for our benefit?  Such a theodicy is ripe for attack, one that happened quite scathingly during the post-Christian time and culture of the Enlightenment by Voltaire[18] and later completely decimated by Dostoevsky in his nearly canonized literary work on the topic of suffering in The Brothers Karamazov[19].

I think C.S. Lewis’ theory on desire mentioned earlier can be once again called upon to critique this view.  In a chapter entitled “Hope” in Mere Christianity[20], Lewis puts forth a theory that our desire for something points to the existence of an object of its satiation.  He uses this concept to induce that because we are left wanting in our experiences on earth, it can be logically induced that our hearts long for a place that cannot be found in this world: our hearts long for heaven.  He seems to be using an inductive ontological argument, one similarly set forth by Anselm of Canterbury (although it was more deductive in nature) that our thoughts about God prove his existence.[21] In regards to our current purposes, it seem logical to believe that our intuition telling us that something is wrong with the physical world arises from some innate and a priori concept that we as humans were supposed to live in harmony with our creation which in turn leads one to induce an existence of a primordial reality that was somehow lost.[22]

The world as we see it is not as it should be, nor is it in the process of becoming something greater in some grand process where evil is necessary to create more chances for good to do its balancing magic.  Even naturalistic evolutionists in the early parts of the 20th century involved in direct observations of nature saw that they were wrong in the concept of beneficial progress in the natural world, a popular scientific perspective originating during the Enlightenment known as evolutionary idealism.[23] Since popular natural theology at the time had become wedded to the evolutionary principles of natural law, it found itself outdated as well.[24] Even worse for theologians was a distancing from this concept by churches throughout Britain– one that the sinfulness and alienation of man was incompatible with the idea of progress on any level, natural or spiritual.[25]

If mankind shows no spiritual progress and science observes no naturalistic progress in creation, we are left to wonder why a theology of progressive creation is any longer a rational one.  Nonetheless, evangelical attempts have been made recently to use it as a middle ground between the scientifically untenable theology of recent creationism and a biblically incoherent theology of theistic evolution and seem to have met with some limited success.[26]

Neo-orthodox[27] attempts have been made more recently that find scientific trends and theories useful in understanding the “un-created” elements in nature that are progressing towards order.  The most notable of these attempts has been made by Sjoerd L. Bonting in Creation and Double Chaos.  Bonting appears to revive the paganistic notions of a primordial material substance that is unordered or “chaotic” that existed before God created the universe that he used as raw material, but decided to leave creation half-complete: the source of evil in the natural world today is the result of unordered primordial material co-existing with God’s ordered material that results in disease, earthquakes, and other natural defective phenomena.  He further sees God’s progressive creative involvement occurring within the workings of chaos theory, where God is able to move the direction of the natural world in progressive steps by nudging the natural outcome of cause and effect processes found in the natural world at the point where they become chaotic (or unpredictable) so as not to be detected as interfering.  This is possible because according to chaos theory, at the point where the direction a natural processes can take can be no longer be predicted, a decision to go in either of two or more directions (such as in weather prediction) cannot be differentiated from each other because they all share the same level of energy spent to take any choice, and thus not interfering with the natural laws of thermodynamics.[28]

This seems to hold some substantial value in explaining how God might work undetected in nature and in human enterprise to the unspiritual eye to guide history and events without spoiling ability of men to retain their free will.  However, his thoughts on primordial matter and a refutation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) to explain natural and moral evil and appease the naturalistic mind comes at a too great a cost: polytheistic primordial material must be adopted with all the problems that come along with it that world view as well as a departure from biblical inerrancy, a common aspect and lethal weakness of Neo-orthodoxy.

The Augustinian Model

We now move to a model of early church creation theology and its treatment of natural evil as a direct result of the sin of Adam and Eve, one that was shared in various ways by four notable church fathers: Theophilus of Antioch (115-185), Origen Adamantius (185–254), Augustine of Hippo (354 –430), and Maximus the Confessor (580-662).

Theophilus argued that God made creation perfect at the beginning, but evil entered the natural world when Adam fell.  “For when man transgressed, they also transgressed with him” because as a corrupt master tends to corrupt his servants, ‘He [man] being master, all that was subject with him sinned with him.’[29] Fallen spiritual authority corrupts the morality and harmony of all under its supervision.  A modern interpretation of this approach by Peter Kreeft speaks of a power to bring divine harmony to the physical world (both our physical bodies and the whole of nature) is a delegated one: only available if God’s authority is acknowledged within the context of a relationship. If it is rejected, humanity can no longer bring harmony into the world: “If you rebel against the king, the ministers are no longer able to server you.”[30]

Origen diverged significantly from Theophilus—he believed that the physical world was created as a kind of purgatory to mitigate the effects of sin on a spiritually fallen humanity.  A world full of difficulties and pain was intentionally designed to create in men moral and spiritual character through suffering.  Besides this deliberate design, creation’s evil state was also meant to communicate to the human race in a symbolic fashion the spiritual reality of the fall– disharmony with God and man’s choice to descend into sin.[31] It is easy to see that this perspective does not jive well with God declaring his creation “good” before the fall, and also runs the risk being understood as a salvific system where Christ’s redemptive death seems to be delegated to a less important or even unnecessary role.

The Augustinian approach follows Theophilus’ belief in an original good creation that somehow fell as a result of Adam’s sin.  However, as pointed out by H. Paul Santmire of his creation theology, nature in general is beautiful and did not fall in the same sense that either Origen or Theophilus seemed to hold.[32] The connection between nature falling to some degree and man’s initial sinning is seen as being a punishment, derived from the Genesis account of God making childbirth painful and cursing the ground to make growing food a difficult experience.  If this idyllic view of creation was indeed held by Augustine as Santmire suggests, Augustine would see people who perceive nature as destructive and evil because of personal experience and pain as suffering from a bad perspective or insensitivity to spiritual realities, and this seems problematic.[33] If Augustine were put in the shoes of Voltaire or a resident of Haiti in recent times, he might have struggled to make sense of things in light of his overly idealistic view of nature.  While on one hand nature is undoubtedly beautiful and majestic, a balanced perspective would admit it is presently in some kind of chaotic and degenerate state.[34]

While the Augustinian model seems more plausible because it doesn’t ignore an essential part of the Genesis account that something went wrong which wasn’t supposed to, its uniquely Augustianian inclusion of the punishment aspect presents troubling difficulties.  The main difficulty it faces is the glaring inconstancy of an ongoing punishment against both man and beast for a sin they never committed with God’s revealed sense of justice:  “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” (Deut. 24:16).  Can we truly say that the death of thousands of young children in the Asian Tsunami is really because of Adam’s sin of disobeying God and eating from the forbidden tree?  It also seems odd to see a natural world filled with predation, waste, and wonton self-destruction, one that is in some ways independent of man’s involvement at all, a strange punishment indeed.  If mankind is being punished for something they didn’t do, how much more strange is it that all of nature suffers separate from man to its own hurt?  There logically must be more going on than mere punishment.

The alternative to a punishment aspect of natural evil and the fallen state of man is offered up by Pelagius (c. 360 to 435)[35] and in more refined discussions in the writings of Justin Martyr and Taitian.[36] Men die because they follow Adam’s example in that they share the same selfish nature that Adam had with its propensity for sin.  This is not to be understood at all that humanity can attain perfection, God’s grace is required to counteract man’s inevitable descent into their sinful nature. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil held no spiritual poison, but was a fruit whose consumption made the eater aware of their disobedience of God and their desire to become free from him.  To eat it brought the realization of separation and independence.

Maximus the Confessor introduced the idea of man being a mediator between the natural world and the spiritual one because in his nature their existed both dimensions.  When man fell, the physical world was made subject to death and chaos because he was no longer able to carry out his ability to create or sustain divine harmony within it.[37]

S.E. Alsford seems to build off of an Augustinian understanding of creation but with a twist that seems Maximusian– that the curse was somehow created by a harmonious break-down between man and creation in a mystical/spiritual sense because of man’s embracing of evil.  How spiritual evil leads to degeneration in nature could be similar to how our spiritual and emotional tenor has significant bearing on our physical well being.  If the human body can be taken as a microcosm of this reality, it can be used as a model in our world in a macrocosmic sense between a fallen spiritual and emotional mankind in a corporate sense and an affective natural world.[38] Although the workings of this interchange are unknown and mystical, we have full proof that it does in fact exist: ulcers, headaches and all–the spiritual world has an observable effect on the physical one, and vice-versa.

The Christian Scientific Answer

Most 21st century extensions of the Augustinian model of creation and the existence of natural evil have been initiated by Christian scientists who believe that Creation has not fallen at all.  Either it is orderly and beautiful, its negative aspects are only in the eye of the beholder (read that as to the un-scientific observer), or had already fallen and was intended to be redeemed by man before his creation.  In most instances, man is no more than the product of millions of years of evolution to a point where God imbues a spirit into a randomly chosen primate (homo sapian to homo divinus).  Nearly all surveyed, which includes John Polkinghorne[39], R.J. Berry[40], Holmes Rolston, III[41], John J. Bimpson[42], Gavin McGrath[43] or John C. Mundy Jr.[44] fall into this category.  P.G. Nelson stands in the minority from the Christian-scientific world in thinking that a rosy picture of the nature should not be our final answer to the non-Christian world.[45] R.J. Berry seems also to allude to this in some of his writings.[46] Are we really going to tell the world “It’s not as bad as you think” when questioned about the Asian Tsunami or the Hatian Earthquake?  Is naturalistic evolution really going to sooth the pain of a spouse lost to cancer?  Do people go to science to find meaning in their lives?  When the question comes into the Christian court, are we really just going to throw the ball back to naturalistic evolution and biology?  Thankfully, a few scientist theologians (namely R.J. Berry) still hold to a fallen natural world not caused by the fall, but possibly caused by demons wreaking havoc on the animal and plant world before the fall or creation of man ever occurred.

Overall, it seems Nelson is correct– in our efforts to reconcile scientific theories de jour with our theology, we seem to fall terribly short in our ability to answer the existential personal problems that arise from natural suffering. We are left with a diminished view of scripture, are still unable to answer the criticisms of Voltaire and Dostoevsky, and have not smoothed the way at all for the atheist scientific community to venture into the realms of Christianity who see this ‘groping for science’ as a way to legitimize a long-failed belief system.  What is desperately needed, but what science-based theologians are reluctant to promote, is a relationship with Christ, in whom and through whom we can ultimately find meaning in the suffering our lives.

The Christian who wades too deeply in evolutionary science to explain the problem of evil will find solutions that mimic naturalistic evolution, absent of clues of meaning to the problem of suffering.  The scientific age has not proven kind to those who thirst for meaning in their world, and it seems the average Christian scientist has inadvertently hurt their own cause to uphold their beliefs in a modern age.

Modern Theology & Natural Evil

After our quick survey of Early Christian thought in the areas of creation theology and natural evil, it seems we have uncovered some positive clues towards reasons for nature’s fall into the state we see it in today. It isn’t surprising however, to see the trend in modern times to sacrifice scriptural inerrancy to fit into the mold of the latest scientific theories or to stop believing in one or more of the qualities of God of classical theism (All-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good) to help explain why evil exists.  Our quick look at modern theology will not include secular or neo-orthodox perspectives that espouse this kind of thinking. What is left appears to be scattered clues remaining from the aftermath of continuous battles between Reformed and Evangelical perspectives.

Divine Providence Regarding Natural Evil

In nearly all debates we find the definition and scope of the sovereignty of God and its implication in evil in the world.  The Reformed position blames all evil events on God, and a more evangelical one sees God as permitting evil to occur against his desired will within the natural word.  His sovereignty and providence transcend nature, unaffected by the cause and effect events of the natural world: that all people who freely want to find him will be drawn to him and saved.  According to David Bently Hart, understanding providence makes a huge difference in the character of God:

“Whether one says that God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass therein, as the proper or necessary means of achieving his ends, or whether one says instead that God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace.  And it is only the latter view that can be called a doctrine of “providence” in the properly theological sense; the former view is mere determinism.”[47]

According to Hart, the entire history of sin and death is ultimately a contingency operation; one that is not desired by God, but nonetheless is constrained by his transcendent purposes to draw men and women who truly and freely desire him to himself for all eternity.  Even suffering and death are subjected to that ultimate providential purpose.  Ronald L. Hall also notes that there is a distinct difference between immanent intention and ultimate responsibility that is helpful at this point.[48]

The Purpose of Suffering

The determinist Reformed position, as well as that of classical theodicies, believe that God needs and approves of evil and suffering as being integral parts of bringing about his Kingdom and renewing the world at the end of time.  This is often concluded by observing the beneficial effects of suffering: evil men are killed in natural disasters, good men gain character and maturity though it, good and evil men alike are humbled by it.  To all observers, it can be a warning and a wake-up call.  The emotional shock of seeing others suffer so horribly leads us to consider our own mortality and our relationship with a higher power or reality.  Even Jesus makes this point when asked about the Tower of Siloam incident:

“…Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them– do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?   I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:4-5).

What he does not say is that the deaths of those involved had purpose or meaning.  He explicitly denies it being a punishment.  As observers we ought to take stock of our own lives and our relationship with God rather than finding justification for our escape because we are somehow more righteous.  But this object lesson is not to be confused as being the purpose of the accident.[49] Hart is right that Jesus’ reply forever denies a causal link between tragedy and the sinfulness of those who suffer as a result.[50]

Innocent men who love God suffer, are tortured, and die.  If the purpose of suffering is neither for punishment nor a wake-up call to seek God, are any other purposes left that are legitimate?  It seems more likely that suffering has no ultimate purpose or meaning at all.[51] It is instead a contingent fixture of a chaotic natural world out of harmony with God and man and is now under the governance of malevolent or impersonal uncaring forces.

One final word about suffering from the hands of nature must be mentioned.  In the Old Testament, quite often we are told by the prophets that natural evils in Israel’s history (plagues, famines, droughts) are the result of restorative justice measures meted out according to the stipulations of God’s covenant as mentioned in Deut. 31.  This theocracy-based government was dissolved after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and will never be reinstated anywhere on Earth ever again.  We live in an age where the kingdom of God in its terrestrial manifestation has no land or country associated with it.  It would be wrong to associate God’s relationship with the nation of Israel with any nation or people group today.  A theocracy with divine supernatural rewards and punishments died with Israel.[52]

However, the world-wide flood of Genesis 6 stands outside the covenant with God and Israel and begs to be understood within the confines of the overall proposed argument.  The flood seems to me a readjustment step that marked a completion in creation.  The strange world of fallen man and bene Eloheim was spiraling out of control: the environment where a human being was supposed to be able to respond to God towards a love relationship was deteriorating to place where his (God’s) transcended purposes of good for all mankind were in jeopardy if left alone and required a single act of immanent re-adjustment, one which God said he would not repeat.

The Reality of Supernatural Evil

The reality of supernatural evil in the world is uncomfortable to Christians today.  This is probably a result of our coziness with a culturally pervasive atheistic scientism that denies the supernatural, but seems especially disgusted with what it perceives as the juvenile fear of a ‘boogeyman’ haunting humanity.  However, the biblical picture is strongly against such a perspective.   Hart brings up the oft-mentioned reality in the New Testament of the authority and activity of supernatural evil in all spheres of activity in the fallen world (Col. 1:16, 1st Cor. 2:8, Eph 1:21, 3:10) and specifically of the devil as being the “prince” or even “god” of this world (Eph. 6:12, John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11, 2nd Cor 4:4 and 1st John 5:19)[53] C.S. Lewis points to the possibility of a fallen angelic order corrupting nature before the introduction of man in The Problem of Pain.[54] Alvin Plantigua also postulates demons as possible (although unprovable) causes for natural disasters and other evils in nature.[55] Erwin Lutzer also gives this view credibility based on the events in Job, but is quick to assign ultimate immanent culpability to God.[56]

It is tempting and possibly legitimate in light of these insights to indulge in C.S. Lewis’ perspective of angelic stewardship over planets (in our analysis however, the physical world in general seems more appropriate) and their inhabitants in his fantasy Space Trilogy series.[57] It seems possible that a contingent of bene Elohiem (sons of God), an angelic class of intelligent and sentient created beings mentioned in both the pre-flood era and in the courts of heaven in Job, could have been assigned as stewards over the natural world.  Like mankind they were endowed with free will and fell away, thus enslaving and corrupting the created world entrusted to them; one that had initially been a harmonious system devoid of earthquakes, disease, or any of a myriad of disorders evident today.[58]

Conclusion

It was helpful for me to realize that in our search for answers to why we suffer at the hands of nature, a personal and interactive relationship with God is the only ultimate source and context for meaningful explanations at lower levels of facts and ideals.  With this orientation, theories on why we suffer or why nature fell can become reasonable and meaningful to ponder.

Our survey of Early Church thought on the subject of natural evil turned up a few possibilities of how and why creation fell, namely that there could exist links between the spiritual collective of mankind and the totality of nature as manifested in the microcosm of the human body—that there is a detectable link between consciousness and physiology, the spiritual and the physical dimensions of being.

Modern attempts by well-meaning Christian scientists trying to be theologians to answer the problem of natural evil seem to have taken a bad turn.  Too much emphasis has been made to shoehorn macro-evolution theory into creation theology to a point where biblical authenticity is called into question and exegesis of certain passages is stretched beyond its breaking point.   Polkinghorne’s smug insistence that scientists champion future attempts at natural theology[59] rather than theologians on the basis of constantly getting their science wrong is likewise guilty of getting his theological methodology wrong.  Nevertheless, some areas of interest, such as work done in chaos theory, may be helpful in understanding how God works undetected to the unspiritual eye in guiding creation and human enterprise in ways that suit his transcendent purposes without harm to the free will of mankind.

In modern theology that respects the inerrancy of the Bible, we find the tragic proliferation of Reformed theological perspectives occurring which continue to do excessive damage to the character of God in attempting to explain evil in the natural world on one hand, and makes the formulation of a sensitive answer to a suffering person impossible on the other.[60]

Thankfully more moderate evangelical approaches in recent years.  C.S. Lewis’ proposal of an angelic dominion on Earth that went awry before or after fall of man seems to hold the most promise in explaining why natural evil exists.  This allows suffering in nature to really be the effect of a morally evil agent, which can then be explained by more successful arguments found in the free will defense upheld in modernized versions by Alvin Plantagua and David Bently Hart.  I feel more comfortable with the concept of natural evil being the direct result of demonic manipulation or indirect result of their mismanagement, neglect, or corruption of the natural processes than a view of a mystical transference of the corrupted spiritual collective of mankind into the physical realities of nature.  Although still problematic, both views seem more rational than a total denial of any problem in nature that Augustine and the modern Christian scientific community seem to have.

To conclude on the subject of natural evil, it seems fitting to use Hart’s excellent summation:

“As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but of the enemy.”…  “God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history as false and damnable; he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but strike off the fetters in which creations languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he instead will raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes” and will say “Behold, I make all things new.”[61]


[1] A good description about the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami can be found in the introduction to David Bently Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 5-6.

[2] One notable scholar is Bart Ehrman, who treats this subject extensively in his book Gods Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) and how it lead to his eventual agnostic worldview.  Tom Honey, a pastor of the Exeter Cathedral in Britain, shares of his struggle with his concept of God in the aftermath of the Tsunami that led him to take a panenthestic and limited view of God in a sermon he later preached.  “Tom Honey on God and the Tsunami,” n.p. [cited 5 May 2010]. Online: http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_honey_on_god_and_the_tsunami.html.  Many more notable Christians began exploring panentheism as a sensible direction in creation theology only years earlier.  A summary of thinking in these directions is captured by a book of essays edited by John Polkinghorne: The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

[3] Gary Stern relates this perspective though interviews about natural disasters with notable atheist thinkers in Can God Intervene? How Religion Explains Natural Disasters (Westport, CT: Prager, 2007), 206-214.

[4] N.T. Wright in his book Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006) admits that the Bible contains no clear ultimate answers for the problem of evil, an instead he seeks a view of modeling God’s behavior in response to it – to eliminate its effects in our lives and in the world around us.  Stern in Can God Intervene, 86-105, interviews some Christians who do not attempt to answer the question at all, but instead focus on how to help.  Practical thinking without answering the question of what natural evil exists is explored by Diogenes Allen in “Suffering at the Hands of Nature” Theology Today 2 (1980): 183-191.

[5] This was a driving desire in Bonting’s formulation of chaos theology as an integral part of creation theology in Creation and Double Chaos: Science and Technology in Discussion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 136. David Fergusson in The Cosmos and the Creator (London : SPCK, 1998), 78 sees taking evil into account as the most difficult task of in creation theology.

[6] The intersection of evil and a desire to find meaning in our lives is explored by J.G. Stackhouse in Can God Be Trusted?  Faith and the Challenge of Evil (2nd ed.; Downes Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 59-61.

[7] In Surprised by Joy (London: Harcourt, 1955), C.S. Lewis sees this desire for God at first found in surprising moments or things that elicit a deep joy that once experienced leaves a person wanting more. They in turn lead to other experiences in life which in turn continues the search until they arrive at a relationship with God.  This is the central idea in Lewis’ autobiography: that pictures of the divine reside in things and experiences of everyday life that ultimately point to him.

[8] The statement comes from Augustine’s opening discussions in Confessions (I,i).

[9] C.S. Lewis gives this subject serious treatment in The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960).

[10] This Platonic view of love is found in Plato’s dialogue The Symposium where Socrates is discussing the subject with others, and his speech begins in 201d where he quotes the philosophy of Diotima of Mantinea.

[11] This concept seems to be acknowledged by the downfall of the allegorical character of Virtue in C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress (London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1933). To be virtuous for the sake of the ideal of virtue ultimately leads to a desire to understand why virtue is to be followed.  If there is no ultimate, conscious Creator who embodies virtue, we are left with no source of meaning for virtue and virtuous living, and thus begins our descent into nihilism.

[12] The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, where Socrates asks Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a)?  In other words, what comes first, moral goodness and truth that God lives by that are separate from himself, or a God who commands obedience to them because they are real in that they reflect his nature?  It is my proposal that moral truths and ideals ultimately do not contain sustainable weight and meaning without a relationship with the God in whom they are the ultimate embodiment of.

[13] This idea is part of Anselm’s discussion on a logical explanation of the existence of God via the ontological proof, or that the existence of God is implicated by the existence of the ideas we have about him, which would not exist if they had no bearing on reality, Proslogion, ii-iv.  Anselm, like C.S. Lewis, was heavily influenced by Platonic thought.  In Philosophy & The Christian Faith (London: Tyndale Press, 1968), Colin Brown who is taking his cue from Carl Barth’s commentary on Anselm, sees that Anselm is not looking at our ideas of the divine from a purely existential perspective, but rather from the framework of the mind of one who already believes in God and has received divine revelation though that relationship (p.22, notes).

[14] This category of models is introduced by S.E. Alsford in “Evil in the Non-Human World,” S&CB 3 (1991): 122.

[15]John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (London: Macmillian, 1977)  and also “An Irenean Theodicy” in Encountering Evil (New ed.; ed. S. Davis. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2001), 38-52.

[16] R. Swinburne, “The Problem of Evil” in Reason and Religion (ed. S.C. Brown. New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 81-102.

[17] Hart attacks this perspective constantly throughout The Doors of the Sea.

[18] These sentiments are best captured in Voltaire’s initial work A Poem of the Lisbon Disaster and again in his later novel, Candide.  Voltaire struggled with concepts that this was in some way punititive or that it was somehow a part of a finely tuned universe that was naturally good that perfectly balanced good and evil that resulted in a universal harmony.  In his poem, he encourages those who take this view to come to Lisbon and observed the hundreds of dead babies strewn about the streets.  Suffering like this was not morally intelligible.

[19] Dostoyevsky presents a more nuanced criticism of the progressive optimism of diesm towards evil, but even more so casts doubt about thinking of evil as an integral part of God’s plan where man’s free will must be allowed to reign.  In the character of Ivan, Dostoyevsky spells out a criticism in this question:  Is the torture and death of little children somehow meaningful to bring about God’s great plan?  In the words of Ivan:“Tell me frankly…. Imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting an edifice of human destiny with the aim of making man happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do so that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears—would you consent to architect on those conditions?” Not only was suffering not morally intelligible as Voltaire suggested, it would be a much worse world if it were.

[20] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillian, 1943), 120.

[21] Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence first appears in Proslogion, ii-iv.

[22] A comparison of Lewis’s theory of desire with his critics is excellently discussed in an online essay by Edward M. Cook, “Does Joy Lead to God? Lewis, Beversluis, and the Argument from Desire,” n.p. [cited 5 May 2010].  Online: http://homepage.mac.com/edcook/lewis-desire.html.

[23] A good discussion about how evolutionary idealism became a part of natural theology can be found in Peter Bowler’s Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in the Early Twentieth Century Britain (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001).

[24] R.J. Berry discusses this point in “Eden and Ecology: Evolution and Eschatology,” S&CB 19 (2007): 18-19.  He rightly concludes that natural law is “a dubious foundation” for any natural theology (p. 21).

[25] Bowler, Reconciling Science and Religion. 417.

[26] Pattle Pun approaches process creationism from a reformed perspective in ‘A Theology of Progressive Creationism.’ Perspectives of Science and Christian Faith 39 (1987) : 9-19.

[27] By Neo-orthodoxy, I am referring to a approach to Christianity that believes in the reality of the Church and God working though it, but have long ago adopted liberal and scientific concepts to replace biblical ones.  The Bible is seen as a human-inspired and mythic work of literature rather than as historic and divinely inspired.  Regardless, God is able to use the Bible to spiritually inspire the Church.

[28] Sjoerd Bonting approaches progressive creationism from a liberal/neo-orthodox perspective in Creation and Double Chaos. Also see ‘Chaos Theology: A New Approach to the Science-Theology Dialogue.’ Zygon 34 (1999): 323-32 by the same author.

[29] Theophilus’ approach is captured in the notes section in an article by John Bimson ‘Reconsidering a Cosmic Fall’ S&CB 18 (2006): 63.

[30] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Taccelli, The Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Madison, WI: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 135.

[31] Origin. De Principiis 1.5.1.  Commentary on Origin’s thinking on the subject is captured well by H. Paul Santmire in The Travil of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1985), 47-51.

[32] Ibid. 65-73.

[33] Others agree, notably G.H. Tavard in “The Mystery of Divine Providence” Theology Today 64 (2003): 709-10

[34] Hart discusses the dual personality of nature at length in The Doors of the Sea, 45-68.

[35] Alexander Souter, “Pelagius’s Expositions of Thirteen Epistles of St. Paul: II Text and Apparatus Criticus” Text and Studies IX (1926): 45, 48.

[36] Justin’s discussions are found in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Tiatian relates his views on man’s sinfulness not being an inherited quality in Address to the Greeks. A good discussion on the doctrine of original sin among the early church father can be found by Harold O. Forshey in “The Doctrine of the Fall and Original Sin in the Second Century,” Restoration Quarterly 3 (1959): 119-129.

[37] These views on the mediator nature of mankind are discussed by Dragos Bahrim in his article “The Anthropic Cosmology of St Maximus the Confessor” Journal for Interdisciplinary Research on Religion and Science 3 (2008): 25-31.  The discussion of the fall of man in handled in Maximus’ Ambigua, Patrologia Graecae [PG], vol 91, 1308C.  Hart discusses the fall from Maximus’ perspective of man’s mediatory status and its misuse to the hurt of creation in The Doors of the Sea, 63.

[38] S.E. Alsford, “Evil in the Non-Human World” S&CB 3 (1991): 127.

[39] John Polkinghorne, “Scripture and an Evolving Creation,” S&CB 21 (2009): 163-73.

[40] Several articles and books are available by R.J. Berry on the subject with a specific interest in its ramifications for ecology:  “A Cosmic Fall?” S&CB 19 (2007): 78-80.  “Eden & Ecology,” S&CB 19 (2007): 15-35.  God’s Book of Works: Nature and the Theology of Nature (London: T&T Clark, 2003).

[41] Holmes Rolston III, “Does Nature Need to be Redeemed?” Zygon 29 (1994).

[42] John J. Bimson,  “Reconsidering a ‘Cosmic Fall’’’ S&CB 18 (2006): 63-81.

[43] Gavin B. McGrath, “Soteriology: Adam and the Fall,”Perspective of Science and the Christian Faith 49 (1997): 252-60.

[44] John C. Mundy Jr., “Creature Mortality: From Creation or the Fall?” JETS 35 (1992): 51-68.

[45] P.G. Nelson, “The Curse: Relational or Cosmic?” S&CB 19 (2007): 77-78.

[46] R.J. Berry “Lions Seek their Prey from God: a Commentary on the Boyle Lecture” S&CB 17 (2005): 54-55.

[47] Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 82.

[48] Ronald L. Hall, “Responsibility and Intention: Reflections on the Problem of God’s Will and Human Suffering,” Perspectives in Religious Studies, 6 (1979): 142-151.

[49] Thomas Kazen treats examines these possibilities for suffering and successfully refutes them in, “Standing Helpless at the Roar and Surging of the Sea: Reading Biblical Texts in the Shadow of the Wave” Studia Theologica 60 (2006), 21-41.

[50] Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 31.

[51] Many in the Christian community take this view of evil as being senseless or purposeless: Dan Allendar from a counseling perspective in “The Mark of Evil” in God and the Victim (ed. L. Lampman, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 52-3, and J. Stackhouse in Can God Be Trusted?, p.62, and of course Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, 73-4.

[52] Robert B. Chisholm Jr gives an excellent argument for why Old Testaments instances of God-ordained natural disasters are not to be taken as normative in “How A Hermeutical Virus Can Corrupt Theological Systems,”  Bibliotheca Sacra 166 (2009): 259-70

[53] Ibid, 62.

[54] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940): 121-124.

[55] Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p.62.

[56] Erwin Lutzer, Where Was God?  Answers to Tough Questions About God and Natural Disasters (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2006) 28-30.

[57] This reality is captured in his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 1996),  Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 1996), and That Hideous Strength(New York: Scribner, 1996).

[58] This view is given the most validity out of a survey of others by Kreeft and Tacelli in The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 135-6.  The reason it is not more popular, the author theorizes, is because the talk of demonic activity in the world is unfashionable in contemporary scholarship.

[59] J.C. Polkinghorne, Science and Creation (London: SPCK, 1988), 15-16.

[60] Hart describes the difficulty of the Reformed theologian in being able to explain why we suffer from nature without arousing anger and disgust from a suffering person, Christian or otherwise: The Doors of the Sea, pp 99-100.

[61] Ibid, p.104.

    9 Responses to “The Problem of Natural Evil”

    1. Son Gasperini
      1

      I’ve just finished making a website dedicated in helping people confess and discuss it’s Confessions. Check it out and let me know what you think.

      Reply to this comment.
    2. Jonathan
      2
      Author Comment

      Son,
      The site looks good!! I like the idea of being able to express your frustrations without being judged. I hope it works out for you and really helps people!

      Reply to this comment.
    3. lisa delay
      3

      In 2 weeks I’ll teach a class on theodicy/evil/suffering.

      I deeply appreciate your post here. How helpful to me!

      You really must write more.

      Bless you, Jon.
      Lisa

      Reply to this comment.
    4. Jonathan
      4
      Author Comment

      Thank you Lisa! I’m very glad you liked it.

      You’re going to teach a class on suffering?! Where? At your church? That’s awesome!! I hope it goes well – I’ll be praying for you. 🙂

      Reply to this comment.
    5. Marvin Miller
      5

      Of course on that issue we are innocent, nothing more we can do to control the earth quack. Only we can save the victim and analyze the event.

      Reply to this comment.
    6. Mike Kenney
      6

      Jon, I just ran across this post after watching Tom Honey’s talk on God and the tsunami http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_honey_on_god_and_the_tsunami.html?quote=150.
      After watching what I thought was going to be a great Christian response turn into a pantheistic whining I had to read a good solid reformed response. Like a man on fire I needed the cool clear water of life to wash over me. I haven’t read David Hart but after reading your quotes from his book I will have to put that on my must read book. Thanks for taking the time to write out such a well thought out and encompassing document.

      Warm regards

      Reply to this comment.
    7. Jonathan
      7
      Author Comment

      Mike – you are welcome – I’m glad you found this useful to you! I too was disappointed by what Tom Honey said. I wish they could have better Christian representation on TED, but oh well.

      Reply to this comment.
    8. Cristie Varnadore
      8
    9. Bertie Shunnarah
      9

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