The Problem of Natural Evil By Robert Hawes
On December 26, 2004, the third most powerful earthquake ever recorded struck in the Indian Ocean, near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The quake was so intense that it shifted the North Pole about one inch to the east and slightly increased the rotation of the Earth, thereby shortening the length of a standard day by 2.68 microseconds. It also generated a tsunami that struck the surrounding coastlines, killing over 200,000 people and displacing nearly 2,000,000 more.
This unfortunate incident is a prominent example of what is sometimes referred to as 'natural evil': a reference to human suffering caused by processes in natureearthquakes, fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, etc. Few things are as terrifying as when our very environment seems to turn against us, and this has often raised the question of why God would place us in a world with such hazards. Why does he allow natural disasters to claim so many lives, especially those of innocent children? What purpose can there be in it?
The Good Earth
In considering this question, it's necessary to understand that conditions on Earth are exceedingly mild compared to the conditions we observe on other planets. In fact, to our knowledge Earth is uniquely suited for life. Our planet is located in what is sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks Zone (so named because it's "just right") of a stable, mid-sequence star, in an ideal position relative to the other planets of an ideally-balanced solar system, and within an ideal location in an ideal type of galaxy. If we were much closer to or farther from our sun, weather conditions on Earth would make life much more difficult than it is today. If we orbited a star in a binary system, or we were closer to the giant planets of our solar systemsuch as Jupiter and Saturngravitational stresses on the Earth could produce earthquakes far more frequent and ferocious than we can presently imagine. If our atmosphere were thinner, cosmic radiation and surface temperatures could quickly and easily prove lethal to every living thing on the planet.
These and a host of additional factors we could list demonstrate that Earth is an exceedingly privileged little world. Harsh conditions are the norm throughout the universe; to our knowledge, Earth is the lone exception. For this reason, it's a mistake to think that God has placed us in a harsh environment. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that he has placed us on the best real estate in the universe.
Why natural disasters then, if Earth is such a wonderful world?
Earth is an active planetit must be in order for life to exist here as comfortably as it doesand this continuous activity, while beneficial, occasionally builds to what we might call "pressure points," which must be alleviated. Tornadoes and hurricanes are spawned by shifting weather patterns that are part of the overall planetary balance. Earthquakes are caused by shifts in the plate tectonics that make up the crust of the Earth. This shifting of the crust quite literally recycles the surface of the planet, creating an ideal environment for life. Tsunamis are caused by massive, sudden upheavals that displace enormous amounts of seawater, such as happens when earthquakes occur at sea. The water flows outward and then back again as the ocean reacts to the disturbance and establishes a new equilibrium.
Disasters result when these events directly impact human communities, but forces and processes in nature do not "kill" in the sense that human beings kill. There is nothing deliberate or malevolent about them. They are not "evil."
Still, might we not wonder why God allows these things to impact human populations? Has he deliberately left us in harm's way?
There are a few things to keep in mind here.
To begin with, based on what scientists have learned about Earth's past, it is evident that we live in a comparatively stable and mild time in our planet's history (and in the history of the universe, for that matter). One can imagine how things might be different if human beings had to contend with major geological upheavals or populations of large predators, such as dinosaurs. Needless to say, under such conditions we would not have reached the level of civilization we have achieved.
Next, we should reflect that, according to the biblical record, humanity has departed from the purposes God originally ordained for it, and in losing direct access to its creator, has undoubtedly forfeited protections it might otherwise have enjoyed.
The book of Genesis illustrates this for us in detailing the care God took of Adam and Eve when they were created:
"And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted" Genesis 2:8-10a (KJV)
While some believe and teach that the entire Earth was a paradise when Adam was first created, Genesis 2 actually suggests that paradise was restricted to the Garden of Eden, which God specially created to be a habitation for man. Eden was not the entire world, but only a particular region, and the garden was only a part of Eden. Note that Genesis 2:10 says that a river went "out of Eden, to water the garden." This necessitates that the garden did not comprise the whole of Eden.
God did pronounce a curse on the "ground" when Adam sinned, but the nature of the curse was very specific:
"Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread. Till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Genesis 3:17b-19
This is often taken to mean that God cursed the Earth to the effect that it should produce thorns and thistles, and that it did not produce these things prior to Adam's fall, but this conclusion cannot be derived solely from the text. Note that, when God pronounced the curse, he followed it with: "in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life." The Septuagintthe Greek translation of the Old Testamentrenders Genesis 3:17 this way: "cursed is the earth in your labors." (NETS)
Remember that, in Genesis 2:8-10, we're told that God caused "every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food" to grow in the garden. In other words, God prepared the ground of the garden to readily yield fruit-bearing plants and trees, although Adam still had a responsibility to tend it (Genesis 2:15). After the fall, however, God cursed the ground that he had formerly blessed. The ground would no longer produce its fruit easily. Instead, it would readily produce nuisance plants. Adam would be reduced to hard labor in order to survive, and in the meantime would be forced to eat whatever was growing wild around him.
Thus the curse placed upon the ground here was not a general curse on all of the Earth or the universe, both of which, according to the teachings of some, are "fallen." It was a specific curse on the ground, and was meant to render man's labor more difficult.
God also cursed man with death, as he originally warned he would do when he first instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16-17). Note how this curse was implemented, according to Genesis 3:22-24:
"Then the Lord God said, 'Behold the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forevertherefore, the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So he drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden he stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life."
God implemented the curse of death upon Adam by depriving him of access to the Tree of Life. From this, it appears that Adam was not created to be naturally immortal. His life was dependent upon access to the Tree of Life, without which he ultimately died. It does not appear that God cursed Adam's body in some way in order to ensure his death; he simply deprived him of what was necessary to sustain him indefinitely. To argue otherwise, one must read assumptions into the Genesis account, which seems quite straightforward when taken literally here.
I make these points in order to demonstrate that we do not live on a "bad" Earth that God changed from its initial state in order to cause us grief, but rather that we as a race have lost the place of particular favor that was once intended for us. There is no biblical reason to believe that God changed the Earth from its original "good" creation state, creating thorns and thistles only after Adam sinned. Remember again here that the Garden of Eden was a special place, even before Adam's fall. Thorns and thistles were almost certainly a part of the environment outside of the garden, although the curse may have caused them to become even more virulent.
Some argue that plant and animal death are also due to the fall of man, citing Romans 5:12, where the apostle Paul writes, "for by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin," but in this passage Paul specifically says that death "passed upon all men because all have sinned." Man is the subject here, not all of nature.
Furthermore, plant and animal death is actually beneficial to the planet as a whole, in spite of the emotional reaction people may have to it. The assumption that it cannot have been part of God's original plan for his "good" creation is just that: an assumption.
For one last point here, consider that, not only did God initially place Adam and Eve in an especially ideal environment, he intended that they should have "dominion" over the Earth:
"And God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." Genesis 1:28 (KJV)
The Genesis account fully leads me to believe that this planet was to be our "project." God gave us a good world, but intended for us to make it even better, to learn how to use its resources and become its masters. Among other things, we might have learned better ways of anticipating violent storms and earthquakes, or better building techniques to withstand them, or possibly even ways of alleviating them. Adam's experience in Eden might have prepared mankind to cultivate vast portions of the Earth's surface, almost assuredly in ways that have not yet occurred to us, and in cooperation rather than competition. Mankind might now be dispersed across the Earth in an entirely different manner, one more conducive to living in harmony with our environment. Unquestionably, the plant and animal kingdoms would also have benefited from mankind's enhanced understanding and stewardship of the globe. Perhaps even favored pets might have been granted increased longevity as a benefit derived from a better understanding of the nature of life.
How much might God have taught us about mastering our world, and even curing diseases and repairing genetic abnormalities, had our first parents not rebelled, thereby cutting us off from intimate fellowship with the creator of all things? As it stands, the world sometimes seems like a harsh place to us because we do not enjoy the position of supremacy that we were meant to have in relation to it. Man is trying to get by as best he can in a world that he does not fully comprehend and which he cannot fully master.
The Suffering of Innocents
Invariably, the problem of evilin either its moral or natural formsgenerates discussion concerning the suffering of innocents, children in particular. Even if we're willing to concede that man has fallen from his intended place in relation to both God and the world, it seems unfair to us that children should also bear the burden. Why would God permit this?
This is a complex subject, but I will highlight a few areas that I believe are worthy of consideration:
First, as discussed previously, God has given human beings the freedom to make moral choices. In order for true love to exist, the choice to give it or withhold it must also exist. Thus, God has given us a framework within which both good and evil choices are possible, and children are as subject to this framework as adults. If it were not possible to act in an evil fashion toward children, it would also be impossible to truly love them and do good to them. The choice is ours, as is the responsibility for the choice in light of God's promise to judge all mankind.
Furthermore, this matter of choice not only applies to decisions that we deliberately makefor instance, the choice to show kindness or malice in a given situationbut also to what we might consider "incidental" choices, in which children are affected more in terms of the natural consequences of our actions.
For instance, if we make poor health, financial, or lifestyle choices, our children are affected as much as we are. When parents divorce, their children have to live with the fallout, including the emotional pain. If mom or dad commits a crime and is sent to jail, the children are not exempted from the negative consequences that may result to the rest of the family, such as loss of income or loss of a home. If a man decides to get drunk and then go out and drive with his family in the car, and ends up plowing into a tree at ninety-miles-an-hour, his children will suffer right along with him through no fault of their own.
Yes, God has provided the framework in which such choices are possible, but the responsibility is ours.
Second, we should evaluate our attitude toward God. Do we really seek him? Do we really care what he thinks or what his will for our lives might be? Are we willing to lay aside our own plans and submit to his will? Are we teaching our children to seek God? What sort of example are we setting for them?
The sad fact of the matter is that humanity is pretty well going about its business as if God doesn't exist, and God has allowed us to experience the natural consequences that result from this approach to life. "You will search for me and find me," he has said, "when you search for me with all of your heart." But for the most part, we have chosen to give our hearts to other things, such as the pursuit of material wealth and pleasure. What right do we have to live as if there is no God, and then immediately expect him to bail us out of whatever trouble we find ourselves in? What right do we have to expect him to show up and explain himself in times of crisis when we don't care to hear what he has to say in the meantime?
Even many of our religious practices are more about rituals, feelings, cults of personality, self-righteousness, and social obligations than about knowing God and giving him preeminence in our lives. We often honor him with our lips when our hearts are far from him, and God cares nothing for this empty form of acknowledgment. What he values is a heart that truly seeks him.
Our children have been given to us. They are our responsibility. And we have effectively immersed them in a godless world by the choice to pursue other things. The negative consequences of this are no different than in any other area of life and experience. In great part, we have chosen to live without God, and he has allowed us to do so. The result has been tragic.
On the other hand, God has often shown mercy to those who are truly seeking him, and per the biblical account, has delivered them from potential tragedy.
In the book of Genesis, God warned Pharaoh in a dream that years of famine were coming to Egypt, and he provided Joseph to interpret that dream and to devise a plan to bring Egypt safely through the crisis (Genesis, chapter 41). He delivered a prostitute named Rahab from the destruction of Jericho in return for the kindness she showed to two Israelite spies (Joshua, chapters 2 and 6). He delivered three Hebrew teenagers from death in a Babylonian furnace, and later the prophet Daniel from death by lions (see Daniel, chapters 3 and 6). He warned Mary and Joseph that King Herod would try to kill the infant Jesus, and told them to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). He delivered the apostle Peter from prison and almost certain death in response to the prayers of believers (Acts, chapter 12).
Nor is that "all in the past." God continues to watch over his people today. He does not always intervene in their circumstances, just as he did not always intervene even in biblical times, but there are noted instances where he has done this.
I remember hearing the story of a missionary whose life was spared when villagers who had been sent to kill him in the night retreated without even confronting him. Later, after one of them was converted, he explained to the missionary that he and those with him had seen large men standing outside of the missionary's home with drawn weapons, and this is why they had left him alone that night. The missionary should have seen these men, but he saw no one.
A few years ago, I came across the testimony of a Christian who was cleaning out his garage one day, and was about to pick something up when he distinctly heard a voice telling him not to touch it. He went and got a broom to move the object and discovered Black Widow spiders nesting underneath of it.
And for one last example, I will provide a personal testimony.
My oldest son, Jamesnow seventeen years oldis severely autistic and non-verbal. A number of years ago, when he was perhaps nine or ten years old, my wife left to visit relatives while I stayed home to care for James. I became very ill one night while she was gone, and fell into a deep sleep. Unbeknownst to me, my son got up out of bed and got in the bathtub and started playing. Like many autistic children, he loves playing in water, and this is usually harmless as long as it's supervised. But at the time, I had no idea what was going on; I was dead asleep and had a loud box fan running.
How long he was in there, I don't know, but I was woken from sleep by a man's voice calling my name and telling me I needed to wake upthere was no one else in the house at the time, and no radio or TV playing. I woke immediately and heard my son in the bathtub of our master bathroom, jumping up and down with the shower turned on. He could easily have slipped and hit his head on the side of the tub or on one of the faucets, and as sick as I was at the time, I might not have been aware of his situation for hours. By the time I got up, it might have been too late.
I'm sure that skeptics could offer any number of alternative explanations for the examples I've provided here. It would be impossible to objectively prove that God did, or did not, intervene in these circumstances, and so I do not pretend to offer them as definitive proofs. I offer them merely as circumstances consistent with biblical examples of divine interventions, and I think even skeptics would have to agree that God, if he does exist, must surely be capable of such things. We may quibble over why God chose to intervene in these situations and not in others, but that takes us back to the issue of divine knowledge and motivations. Without knowing what God knows, how can we stand in judgment over him in regard to what he should, or should not, have done in given situation?
The point is this: as a race, we are seeking just about everything but God, when he has promised that it is those who seek him with all of their hearts who will find him.
If we live as though there is no God, is that his fault or ours?
**Quotations marked NETS are taken from A New English Translation of the Septuagint, 2007 by the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Robert Hawes is the author of "In Search of God: A Look at Life's Most Essential Question," as well as many articles on various subjects ranging from politics to theology and Christian apologetics.
His blog is: http://takeupyourcross73.blogspot.com
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