11. Natural Evil

by Blake

To my mind, the moral problem of evil has been solved.  The moral problem of evil is the question: if God is all-good and all-powerful, then why does evil like the Holocaust occur?  This is a question that has plagued many people throughout time.  The common answer is: “God wanted to create free creatures so that they could genuinely love him and to do this, he had to allow them free will which could be used to do evil as well.”  For many years, the idea of an all-powerful entity that “had” to allow something just didn’t make sense to me.  Then I came across this passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain: “If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’.”  God could not force the free choice to love him any more than he could create a round square.  Some things are impossible not because of any lack of power but because they are just logically incoherent combinations of words.  And so the moral problem of evil is no problem at all, when you consider the freedom we’ve been endowed with and how this freedom can be used to do evil.  What I would like to look at in this essay is the more difficult problem: the natural problem of evil.  The natural problem of evil concerns the question: if God is all-powerful and all-good, why does he allow natural disasters like tsunamis and famines that cause such horrible misery to these creatures that he created and loves?

“Nine million children die every year before they reach the age of five.  Picture an Asian tsunami of the sort we saw in 2004 that killed a quarter of a million people.  One of those every ten days, killing children only under five.  Twenty-four thousand children a day, one thousand an hour, seventeen or so a minute.  That means before I can get to the end of this sentence, some few children very likely will have died in terror and agony.  Think of the parents of these children.  Think of the fact that most of these men and women believe in God and are praying at this moment for their children to be spared and their prayers will not be answered.  But this is all part of God’s plan.  Any God who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way and their parents to grieve in this way either can do nothing to help them or doesn’t care to.” – Sam Harris

This is a well placed punch with a lot of force.  From an emotional standpoint, it is difficult to justify such horrors when it is someone other than yourself who is suffering.  But to find the truth, it is necessary to set emotion aside and focus on the apparent logical contradiction here.

These natural disasters seem to have a duality about them.  In the same way that the free will we’ve been endowed with can be used for good or evil, the characteristics of natural objects in this world can have positive or negative effects upon us.  William Lane Craig uses the example of earthquakes.  An earthquake can seem evil given all the pain and suffering that it can cause.  But a geologist would tell you that an earthquake is part of the natural lifecycle of planet Earth and that the tectonic plates need to adjust themselves periodically.  It is possible that without this periodic readjustment, there could be far greater pain and suffering.  The theologian, Gregory Boyd, expresses this duality in the following passage from his book Letters From a Skeptic:

“The very fact that what God creates is less than Himself introduces limitations and imperfections into the picture.  Any created thing must, for example, possess a limited set of characteristics which rules out the possibility of it possessing other characteristics incompatible with these.  But this can lead to some unfortunate consequences.  The rock which holds you up must also be hard enough for you to stub your toe on it.  The air which you breathe must also be thin enough to allow you to fall through it when not supported by a hard surface.  The water which quenches your thirst must also be dense enough so you can’t breathe in it, and so on.”

Natural disasters themselves cannot be considered evil.  Consider a hurricane that wipes out an entire city.  Can you really say that this particular wind pattern is evil?  Or that the movement of water along the coast is evil?  Inanimate objects are ethically neutral.

But the real problem for the naturalist is that according to their philosophy, not only are inanimate objects ethically neutral, but everything is ethically neutral.  The fact that thousands of people are made to suffer from a tsunami cannot be evil according to the naturalist worldview.  According to Craig, while it is true that the tsunami causes great death and destruction to humankind in the area, at the same time it is perhaps a great boon to the marine life in the area.  A consistent naturalist would be unable to declare the tsunami good or bad overall since it benefits some creatures and harms others.  To the naturalist, this would merely be like the positive node versus the negative node on a battery – neither are actually good or bad in the positive/negative sense; they are just opposites.  If the naturalist tries to assert that events such as the tsunami ought not be, then he is “tacitly acknowledging that there is a certain way things ought to be.”  And so the naturalist cannot believe God does not exist based upon how bad it is that this tsunami killed a quarter million people.  That would be inconsistent with their own philosophy.

But maybe the naturalist isn’t saying that this tsunami would actually be bad.  Maybe the naturalist is saying this instead:  “Let’s assume for a moment you are right in your theistic worldview of an all-powerful, all-good God who works miracles.  In your philosophy where good and bad do exist, here is a thing that is clearly bad (to you) and yet your all-good, all-powerful God allows it.  This is a contradiction.”

Let’s look at this apparent contradiction.  There seems to be an assumption made here that whenever there is suffering, it is bad.  If you look around the world, it certainly doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as that.  We are all aware of things in the world that are unpleasant or downright painful, but that are necessary to bring about a greater good.  When the doctor vaccinates my daugher, there’s no question that it makes her feel pain, but the suffering brings about a greater good: that she is inoculated against disease.  Think of any visit you’ve ever made to the dentist.  You go through pain and discomfort to bring about the greater good of healthy teeth.  You find this tradeoff all over when you begin to look.  And many times the good that comes from suffering is a greater reliance on God – particularly suffering on a large scale.  One example of this that has been cited is that of the Cultural Revolution in China:

“It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977, the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimate that there were 30 to 75 million Christians by 1990. Today, it is estimated to be somewhere between 90 million and 100 million. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.” – Patrick Johnstone in Operation World.

And so it seems that when there is suffering, many times a greater good comes about.  If the Christian worldview is correct, then there are some kinds of good that come from suffering.  If this is true, then it it is at least possible that it takes a certain amount of bad in the world in order to achieve a given amount of good.  If this is true, then perhaps the ratio of good to bad is already optimal in our current world so that we actually live in the best possible world.

Couldn’t God just instruct us to rely on him rather than trying to teach us this by way of pain?  First of all of course, there is the fact that we are in fact instructed to rely upon God very clearly and plainly through his word.  But when I reflect on my life and the life of my four year old daughter concerning how we learn, it is very clear to me that there is a difference between merely being told a moral truth versus coming to understand a moral truth through experience.  Learning the hard way seems to be the most effective way to really come to know a thing.  I could be told to rely upon God but if my life is thrown upon the rocks I come to understand it deeper sense.  And so it is plausible to me that without the hardships of this world, we would become as Craig says, like “spoiled and pampered children, oblivious to God” rather than mature moral agents.

 The critic of Christianity seems to usually view a natural disaster as a lightning bolt struck down on humanity by God as some sort of punishment for an unknown reason.  But this is too simplistic a view – like a caricature rather than the truth.  If you analyze natural events, suffering and what the effects it brings about, you can see that the existence of God and natural disasters that bring about human suffering is not at all incompatible.