It would appear that our world is under some kind of curse, plagued with floods, landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, avalanches, volcanic eruptions and the like. Unfortunately, natural disasters like these do not even begin to tell the whole story. We live in a world where children are born with mental disabilities, teenagers are crippled by depression and severe anxiety disorders, and the elderly are overcome by dementia and the overall loss of self-understanding. More than just this, the human experience is plagued with birth defects, kidney stones, seizures, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, and chronic illnesses and viruses of all kinds. Humans are not the only ones who experience the apparent accursed nature of our world, however. Animals suffer many of the same pains that human beings do, even though they may lack the kind of self-awareness that humans possess. Overall, the world that we live in is full of immense pain, suffering, and devastation of all kinds, and this devastation, this curse, surely does not play favorites.
The curse of which we speak–natural disasters, mental illnesses, physical illnesses, animal pain–has been commonly characterized as natural evil. Natural evil is normally defined as all evil that occurs outside the boundaries of human volition; it is the evil that takes place independently of human willing. With this in mind, from a Christian perspective, how do we reconcile the reality of natural evil with our belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good God? Is the existence of natural evil compatible with the existence of the Trinitarian God of Christian orthodoxy? Some thinkers do not believe that it is. The following quote from David Hume (1711-1776) is a great example of this skeptical sentiment: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
How do we answer this classic charge? Throughout the centuries, there have been many attempts to do just that. Some of these endeavors have been more fruitful than others. If there is one thing that has been learned from all of the historical attempts at confronting this issue, it is that there is no easy fix to the problem. Nevertheless, there have been some helpful responses that are worth considering. In this article, I will attempt to give an overview of some of the more prolific responses to the problem of natural evil.
Natural Evil the Result of a Free Natural Order
Most of the responses to the problem of evil that I personally find helpful revolve around acceptance of the ontological existence of gratuitous evils, both moral and natural. Generally speaking, I have come to believe that gratuitous moral evil is the result of a free moral order and gratuitous natural evil is the result of a free natural order.
Human beings are free moral agents and thus possess the God-given capacity to make free moral choices. God endowed human beings with personal and moral freedom because he values sincerity of choice and sincerity of action. In a world where sincere human freedom exists, and thus in a world where God does not jeopardize the integrity of the moral order by continually intervening in human affairs, the potentiality for gratuitous moral evil exists; gratuitous moral evil will always be a possibility in a world occupied by free moral agents who are generally unabated by the coercive will of God. For even omnipotence cannot create a free moral order in which the occurrence of pointless moral evils is not a real possibility.
Human beings are able to make free moral choices only because of the reality of an autonomous natural law that acts both regularly and consistently. If nature was not founded on consistent, fixed laws, the world would devolve into pure anarchy. Through the regularity and predictability of natural law, fruitful experiential knowledge is able to accumulate over time, knowledge that is necessary to true human freedom and thus necessary to the possibility of gratuitous moral evil. If God chose to override the freedom of the natural order every time a gratuitous natural evil was about to occur, then natural law would lack the regularity and predictability needed to support free moral agents. Because God does not meticulously govern the natural order, and thus because nature is endowed with a genuine autonomy of its own, the potentiality for gratuitous natural evil exists. Again, even omnipotence cannot create a free natural order in which the occurrence of pointless natural evils is not a real possibility.
Natural Evil the Result of Moral Evil
The classic Western response to the problem of natural evil comes from Augustine of Hippo. He, like many Christian thinkers today, believed that natural evil was a direct consequence of the sin, or moral evil, of the first humans. Augustine viewed life in the Garden of Eden in terms of a near perfect paradisal state in which a literal Adam and Eve enjoyed intimate fellowship with God. In this pre-fallen state, Adam and Eve were understood to be conditionally immortal, in the sense that, if they had remained sinless, they would have lived eternally in Eden. When Adam and Eve fell, they not only greatly disturbed the make-up of the human race, but they also profoundly agitated the harmony and balance inherent within the hierarchical structure that characterizes the created order. In Augustine’s integrated Platonic hierarchy of being, moral evil led directly to natural evil since one disjointed act was fully capable of deeply unsettling the divinely-ordered proportions of the whole structure. Thus, natural disasters, sickness and disease, and physical death were all seen as intrinsic consequences of the original sin.
Rather than viewing natural evil as an intrinsic, necessary outcome of moral evil, it is important to note that some Christians who hold this view (that natural evil is the result of moral evil) see natural evil more as an expression of the free, selective judgment of God. That is, God freely chose to judge the moral evil of the first humans through the punishment of natural evil. Overall, whether one interprets natural evil as divine judgment or as a natural consequence of the disharmony caused by the first humans, the point of this overarching viewpoint is that natural evil is the result of moral evil.
Natural Evil Necessary to the Greater Good of Human Existence
According to proponents of modern evolutionary theory, the classical formulation of the fall needs serious modification. Because all truth is God’s truth, as new scientific discoveries unfold, classical definitions must be open for modification so that the cohesiveness of Scripture and nature can be maintained. In the Augustinian view, the claim that natural evil–particularly physical death–is a result of the fall is the main protagonist to evolutionary theory. Hence, it would seem that a holistic, large-scale conception of the fall involving the deterioration of a near perfect earthly paradisal state needs alteration. Evolutionary theory demands that pain, suffering and death were present before the emergence of human beings and thus before the fall. This means that the world would have been far from perfect before the first human transgression, and thus the fall of the human race would not have substantially affected other aspects of creation.
With this in mind, according to evolutionary theodicy, God chose to create human beings, the apex of his creation, through a long process of evolutionary development. For whatever reason, he believed that this would be the best way to create. Since the process of evolution is dependent upon death and other forms of natural evil, human existence itself is dependent upon natural evil. Therefore, within an evolutionary framework, natural evil is necessary to human existence, an existence that is interpreted as a greater good.
Natural Evil Necessary to the Greater Good of Soul-Making
According to John Hick, without evil, without real adversity and conflict, there would be no possibility of moral development and spiritual maturity. For Hick, God has allowed evil to occur in this world because evil serves the higher purpose of “soul-making;” it enables actual growth and formation. Hick refers to his justification for evil, as an “Irenaean theodicy” due to its special emphasis on divinization, or the process of becoming like God, which was an emphasis shared primarily by the Eastern/Greek Fathers.
For Hick, the ultimate goal of spiritual maturity cannot be reached within the context of instantaneous, or special, creation. This would be a logical impossibility. Spiritual maturity can only come about through a long process of discipline and refinement; the soul must be cultivated or purified through purging and testing. We are to be refined by fire–molded, shaped, and formed into the likeness of God through experiences that build true character and virtue. Without the existence of evil, without any kind of pain, suffering, difficulty, or struggle, this would simply not be possible.
Therefore, if God’s plan for creation is for humans to develop into the maturity of Christ-likeness, then evil is not an unexpected, unnecessary thing. Instead, its very existence is what we should expect if God’s goal is to mold and shape human beings into his likeness. In some sense, evil is a necessary tool that God uses to develop mature human souls. Thus, rather than disproving God’s existence, the existence of natural evil actually lends credence to the existence of God, a God who cares deeply about the spiritual condition of his creation.
Natural Evil the Product of Evil Forces
Some Christians have been inclined to view some occurrences of natural evil as expressions of demonic forces, or the powers of darkness. Even though I list this as an interpretative option, I think we need to be careful about making hasty generalizations, especially in regards to a theory as speculatory as this. Of course, whether or not one believes this view to be an adequate explanation of natural evil in certain cases depends upon one’s view of evil, the Satan figure, and angelic reality. I will let the reader decide.
Natural Evil as an Expression of the Divine Will
Some Christian thinkers have also been inclined to see some occurrences of “natural evil” as expressions of divine judgment. Again, I would warn against hasty generalizations here; this is not an understanding that should be universalized to explain each and every occurrence of natural evil. However, I think it is worth mentioning since it clearly has biblical precedence: The flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues, and the earthquake/fire that devoured Korah and his men are all examples of this.
It may be argued that the term “natural evil” should not be used to describe these circumstances since God, rather than nature, is the main actor here. Hence, some may argue that “divine evil” would be a more accurate description. From a theological realist perspective this may be so. However, many theologians throughout history have responded to this accusation by stating that God’s will is intrinsically good. That is, something is good simply by virtue of God willing it. This view is called “medieval voluntarism,” and it was popularized by the medieval scholastics John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. The modern equivalent to this view is called “divine command theory,” which stresses the idea that God’s will is the arbiter of good and evil. These equivalent views are basically ways to safeguard God from accusations of evil.
Either way, whether one wants to call it natural evil or divine evil or divine good, this understanding should not be overlooked, or ignored. Though it can make some Christians uncomfortable, it certainly has biblical backing and thus should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, it should be used with extreme caution, sensitivity, and spiritual discernment.
In general, this overview of popular responses to the problem of natural evil should be viewed as a cumulative case rather than as individual answers that strictly stand by themselves. Of course, some of these responses are incompatible with one another, which is why the reader must be selective, using proper judgment. Furthermore, with regard to some of these responses, certain aspects may be denied while other elements are affirmed. In fact, with a few of these approaches, it may be that the broad, general sentiment is rejected while some strands of truth are still found and maintained. Of course, it may also be determined that a few of these “solutions” actually raise more questions than answers. This will probably ultimately come down to one’s overall view of God.
At any rate, even a strong, selective cumulative approach cannot unequivocally solve the problem of natural evil, nor can it remove the pain from those who have experienced its violence firsthand. However, when one considers these historical responses in conglomeration with God’s identification with human pain and suffering, the ongoing divine work of turning evil into good within temporal, finite experience, and the promise of full and total eschatological redemption, one can hopefully obtain a certain level of contentment.
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed., by Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980), pt. X, p. 198.
For a more comprehensive discussion on moral evil, please see the first part of this series (Evil: Sometimes the Human Explanation is Better than the Divine Explanation).
Augustine also ascribes partial blame for this disharmony within creation on the fall of angels
Augustine himself actually holds both of these views together in tension. Chapter VIII, Articles 25-27, in The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love is a good example of the divine judgment emphasis in Augustine.
This interpretation would appear to jive pretty well with a literal reading of Gen 3:14-19.
Of course, the same could be said about “natural evil” that is caused by evil forces.
For an example of this viewpoint, see Thomas Aquinas’ argument in Summa Theologica: Books I-II, Question 94, Articles 2-6.