The Problem of Natural Evil
Many people question the existance of a good God simply because of natural disasters.
They reason that if God is good, then he would never allow his creation to do evil things. Yet, weather patterns create tornados, shifting tetonic plates cause earthquates and tidal waves.
If people treat the matter formally, they may come up with the following line of reasoning:
One problem I see with the normal understanding of natural evil is the very word translated into English as evil. A number of adverse natural events are described in the Old Testament as evil. Evil diseases are described in Daniel 7:15 and many weather events detailed in Deuteronomy 28:15-43 are described as evil in Deuteronomy 31:17-18.
We need, however, to keep in mind that Hebrew is a language of relatively few words with numerous meanings for each word. The Hebrew word RA is translated evil in the King James Version of the Old Testament. Evil typically means wicked in thought or action. The word RA has a number of meanings beside wickedness. It essentially means the inability to come up to good standards, opposite in meaning to the Hebrew word FOV, normally translated GOOD. Some of meaning of RA are:
Most modern translations replace the King James word EVIL with other more appropriate words when describing adverse natural conditions. With this understanding, we would not classify adverse natural events as evil or wicked, but rather a calamity or misfortune.
Another problem with arguments about natural evil is that they all postulate a mechanistic, predictable environment as being good. They claim that a good god would create such an environment. Such a god concept is a straw man; build him up and knock him down. Just as you or I cannot accurately be modeled by a computer, let us not expect God or the world he created to be so constrained. This aspect is what I will explore further.
Natural Events and Unpredictability
The God who built the universe constructed it in such a way as to make long term forecasts of our physical world inherently unreliable. As we study the subject of chaos (first recognized in modeling the weather) we find that even the slightest change in a parameter from one modeling session to the next produces nonuniform (unpredictable, chaotic) results after a certain point in time. Only if we knew every facet of the entire system perfectly could we accurately predict what the future would be like. But the fact is, we cannot know anything perfectly. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle tells us that our knowledge about the position and momentum of any particle within a system can only be known within limits. The uncertainty principle represents a control in nature that enforces a regulated amount of randomness.
This means, for example, that the weather (temperature, wind speed, etc.) is predictable only within limits. Beyond that, we must wait and see. This is the real world. The unpredictable nature of the real world does not prove there is no God. Nor are naturally occurring events evil. In fact, when God finished creating or transforming the earth, he declared it and all creatures on it very good.
Results of random events like the flipping of a coin when performed many times fall into the famous bell shaped curve. Flip a coin many thousands of times and group sequences of flips in groups of ten; only very infrequently (0.1% of the time) will the result be 10 heads or 10 tails. There will be 4,5, or 6 heads nearly 65% of the time. The weather is like this also.
The extremes of drought and floods have low probabilities; a nearly average rainfall is most likely. Or another way, there are a few terribly dreadful days, with the vast majority just average days for your climate. This is what the world is like. God declared it very good.
We know the continents are located on plates that are moving slowly, some apart from one another and others toward one another. Sudden movements of these plates relieve the tension between the plates. These shifts produce tremors, earthquakes, and tidal waves. We understand this mechanism fairly well. We also know where these events are most likely to occur and can take precautions such as improving building codes. This plate movement is also something God created and called very good.
Natural diseases also have a cause. We are finding various genetic factors involved in numerous diseases. We know irritation due to such factors as breathing smoke or resting a pipe on the lips can cause diseases. The randomly combined genes of a baby may lead to disease later in life. There is a probability that if the baby grows into a smoker that he or she will get lung cancer. Diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, or multiple sclerosis are certainly unfortunate and painful. But they are not wicked events.
We could go on to ask what would a uniformly predictable, calm, unruffled world be like. What would it be like to live in a bland, predictable world where events described by the disaster ends of the bell shaped curve never occurred?
What if there were no natural disasters: no floods, no droughts, no hurricanes or earthquakes? What if there was no wheat blight? What if there were no locusts to swarm over a crop?
What if no one got cancer from smoking? What if the wind never blew hard enough to blow your house down? What if the rain never fell on your roof or your roof never leaked?
What if the temperature never varied from pleasantly warm during the day and agreeably cool at night?
What if it never rained on your parade?
What if vegetables grew all year long in your untended garden and cattle grazed near a convenient and odorless slaughterhouse just down the street? What if there were no mosquitoes, fire ants, or cockroaches?
That would be pretty convenient, would it not?
But the world is not made in a way that is convenient for us.
We have to struggle to live. We have to build sturdy homes with rugged roofs and insulated walls and ceilings. Then we need to insure our homes against those low probability events of our own making and God's creation. We have to pull weeds from our gardens and pick bugs from our fruit. We have to rake leaves and shovel snow (at least I do). Unless we are rich, we personally need to work for a living.
God Made Us to Labor
God's first commands to Adam show that God wanted Adam to labor. God commanded the first man to (kabash) tread down, subdue, bring into subjection, prevail over the earth and to (radhah) oppress, conquer, have dominion over, bring into bondage the animals. God commanded Adam to (avadh) work as a slave, toil, till, and plow the garden, to (shamar) keep it safe, tend, preserve, protect, and exercise care in the garden. Probably, much of this work involved protecting the garden and his family from likely as well as unlikely events. All this was very good.
God wants mankind to take precautions. Those who do not take precautions are not pure and innocent. We have that responsibility. It is not convenient. But God called it good, not evil. When something untoward happens to someone who is unprepared it is unfortunate; it is not wicked.
Events in Nature with Spiritual Causes
Nearly all natural events are caused the progression of universal laws acting on our physical environment. Scripture describes several instances in which Spirits caused natural events to occur. These natural events are events that are brought about by un-natural causes. That is, they are brought about by the intervention of outside agents. A few of these instances are: the seven years of plenty and the seven years of drought or famine in Egypt during the time of Joseph, the drought in the time of Elijah, the fire and wind in the time of Job that killed his children, and the calming of the sea by Jesus.
Some of these interventions were by the direct hand of God. Others were caused by other spirit beings. But notice, by the preparation of Joseph, the Egyptians were spared much of the ill effects of the seven years of drought. This certainly provides a lesson for us that we are to take precautions against adverse weather and other natural effects due to naturally progressing events as well as the regulated amount of randomness in the universe.
While I cannot identify the mechanisms that caused these events, we have experiences in intervening in the weather. We can seed a cloud formation to entice rain, for example. There are those who theorize that the Russians, via some low frequency electro-magnetic pulses, have influenced the weather over North America. There are likely other ways in which weather or the stability of the earth's crust can be affected.
But yet, these disastrous un-naturally produced events of the Bible are not described as evil. God does not call them such. God used them or allowed them to occur to teach those who were experiencing them a lesson. Those who experienced these events probably had a different opinion. Nonetheless, I believe it is incorrect to term those events wicked.
The Poor, the Young, the Helpless and the General Revelation
Yes, there are the poor and the young who experience adverse natural phenomena. There are families who have believed for generations that they were born to the lowest of the castes, and people of upper castes willing to keep them there. Many people live in dirty, disease infected slums of the worst kind. There is a hunger for money, and a dog-eat-dog world in which help to overcome traditional ways of thinking is not forthcoming. There are national, religious, racial, sexual, and gender biases that pit one group against another. There are many poor people who suffer due to acts of nature and are unprepared to protect themselves.
What about those who are unable to overcome the circumstances of life and are consumed by a disaster of nature or by diseases of their squalid and filthy environment? They may be forced by circumstances to live in crowded areas accustomed to earthquakes or floods. They may be unable to obtain food from distant areas not affected by drought and famine. Is that all there is? Is this the only hope for them?
God indicates to us through the Bible that there is hope for life beyond this physical life. This hope of a resurrection is described by Paul as the primary hope of the Christian. Many Christians believe that the resurrection will be the first phase of the kingdom age or the millennium. This is the time when Jesus will return to the earth, resurrect the saints, put down the rebellious armies who are assembled together near Jerusalem to ward off this invading force, and establish a worldwide government to rule the earth for 1,000 years.
Such Jewish and Christian revelations from God are typically described as special revelation: a later revelation by God to selected groups.
General revelation is the knowledge of God available to everyone obtained from ancient teachings, nature, history, and the constitution of the human being. Those having only the general revelation do not have the special revelation about the God of the Jews or Jesus Christ. (You may want to consult *Eternity in their Hearts* by Don Richardson for some insights into the universal nature of the general revelation.)
The Rabinical writings, for example, describes the laws God gave to mankind after the flood. These laws pertain to (1) idolatry, (2) incest (possibly, or more generally, unchastity), (3) shedding of blood, (4) profanation of the Name of God, (5) justice, (6) robbery, and (7) cutting off flesh or limb from a living animal. Knowledge of God was carried by Noah and his sons to all parts of the earth. Some believe Melchizedek, priest of Salem, was Shem, son of Noah, still passing on the general revelation of God in the time of Abraham.
Much of the first two chapters in Paul's book to the Romans describes those who have (or have rejected) the general revelation. Paul indicates that all will be judged according to truth, their deeds, the law which they have in their hearts, without respect of persons.
We may have pity on the poor people of Ethiopia, but God also looks upon them. Our concern may purely be for their physical well-being. But, God is interested in them for eternity. It is apparent that those poor, helpless people will be judged righteously by God.
The assumption that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good God would not allow adverse physical conditions is simply not true. Such a god is a straw man constructed by those unfamiliar with God. The genuine God did not create a convenient place for mankind to dwell. God designed the universe to force mankind to work to prepare for and overcome adversity.
Natural occurrences, even adverse ones, are not evil. They are not described as evil or wicked by God. Rather they are part of the universe described by God as very good. The idea that a good god would not create a world governed by naturally progressing events as well as a regulated amount of randomness is not correct. Thus, the conclusion that there is no God does not stand as proven.
I welcome your comments:
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Copyright © 2006 Robert Sherman