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How God Can Help to Understand the Presence of Natural Evil

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Published: Tue, 09 Jan 2018

Thousands have died in the last 12 months as a result of adverse weather conditions, hundreds of thousands as a result of earthquake and volcanic activity, and millions through cell mutation leading to diseases such as cancer. Explore how models of God can help or hinder an understanding of the presence of such ‘natural evil’ in the world.

Generally when you think of the word ‘evil’, your first reaction will be to think of moral evil – evil committed by human beings. Three examples of such evils are murder, rape, and terrorism. In Christian tradition, evil consists of breaking the rules given by God to man, and suffering is God’s punishment for breaking those rules. Theologian Henri Blocher depicts evil, when looked upon as a theological concept, as an “unjustifiable reality. In common parlance, evil is ‘something’ that occurs in experience that ought not to be.”[1] The focus of this essay however, is natural evil. This is evil in the world that arises from what we call ‘natural’ events. This would include earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, disease, birth defects, and other aspects of our world that cause suffering and death, e.g. cancer. These create a problem for us in how we think about God, because such events inflict ‘evil’ on victims, but with no human perpetrator to blame for it.

Now that the actual issue of evil has been addressed, we can begin to look at how models of God can help or hinder an understanding of the presence of such evil. Evil poses a big problem to Christianity, because they propose the existence of a deity who is omnibenevolent (all loving), while simultaneously also being omnipotent (all powerful), and omniscient (all knowing)[2]. This is arguably the most obvious problem caused by models of God with regard to natural evil, yet also the biggest, and it still has not been solved. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists. And finally, if God is omnibenevolent, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil. If God is all powerful, then he must have the power to stop such events. If he has the power to stop them, but chooses not to, then he isn’t omnibenevolent. If he doesn’t stop such events even though he wants to, then he is not omnipotent. This would then insinuate that God, or at least the Christian image of God, does not exist. This is obviously a model of God causing great hindrance to getting anywhere near to understanding natural evil.

In ‘God and Evil’, McCloskey examines five popular solutions to the problem of understanding natural evil. In this article natural evil is referred to as physical evil. The five solutions proposed are; physical good (pleasure) requires physical evil (pain) to exist at all; Physical evil is God’s punishment of sinners; Physical evil is God’s warning and reminder to man; Physical evil is the result of the natural laws, the operations of which are on the whole good; and finally, Physical evil increases the total good.[3] With regard the first solution offered, McCloskey is quick to shoot it down. It doesn’t cover all natural goods and evils. He says that ‘Disease and insanity are evils, but health and sanity are possible in the total absence of disease and insanity’.[4] He goes on to describe how the argument is unsound in respect of its main contention, and hence seriously limits God’s power. This solution would maintain that God cannot create pleasure without pain, and as McCloskey shows, they are not correlatives.

Next, McCloskey considers the solution that natural evil is God’s way of punishing sin. This was the idea used to explain the terrible Lisbon earthquake in the 18th Century, when tens of thousands of Portuguese citizens were killed. Voltaire replied to the argument that it was a punishment by asking if God chose the people he felt were least virtuous in society, which clearly is not the case. For this argument to help us understand natural evil, it would require every single human being to have sinned so badly that we all deserve severe punishment from God; such is the uneven distribution of the punishment if it is so. McCloskey argues that even if it were the case that we all deserve punishment, why is there the issue of birth defects such as blindness or mental disabilities – what have the children then done to deserve punishment? In fairness he does concede that this argument has dropped out of the theological sphere, but it is one that is still used at the ‘popular level’.[5]

Thirdly, the issue of natural evil as a ‘warning to men’ is considered. Again this explanation comes no closer to helping us understand natural evil. Joyce, cited in ‘God and Evil’ puts forward that natural evils ‘inspire a reverential awe of the Creator who made them’.[6] McCloskey goes onto describe evil as the main reason why people turn away from religion and so if God is using it to try and inspire veneration, then he is ‘a bungler'[7]. Also the use of evil for this reason wouldn’t be something you’d expect from a benevolent deity.

Penultimately, evil as the result of the natural laws is considered. McCloskey summarises the argument by saying ‘This fourth argument seeks to exonerate God by explaining that He created a universe sound on the whole, but such that he had no control over the laws governing His creations, and had control only in His selection of His creations.'[8] This would then indicate three of the main arguments used by theists contradict each other and in turn make it more difficult for us to understand natural evil. It also asks questions of God’s omnipotence. ‘The previous two arguments attribute the detailed results of the operation of these laws directly to God’s will.’ Therefore ‘it is not without significance that they betray such uncertainty as to whether God is to be commended or exonerated’.[9]

The solution considered lastly is that the Universe is better with evil in it. This type of argument portrays evil as a means to a greater good. McCloskey again discredits it by saying ‘even if the general principle of the argument is not questioned, it is still seen to be a defective argument. On the one hand, it proves too little – it justifies only some evil, and not necessarily all of the evil in the universe; on the other hand it proves too much because it creates doubts about the goodness of apparent goods.[10]’ While we must take into account that McCloskey is a firm atheist, it is difficult to prove any of his arguments against these explanations as wrong. Only the last argument does not conflict with the theist model of God, and even then it only shows that natural evils that occur may have a justification. This is hardly an argument that helps understand the presence of natural evil in the world.

Perhaps a model of God that can help us to understand why natural evil is existent in the world is the theodicy of Augustine. A theodicy is an answer to the problem of evil. The biblical story of ‘The Fall’ in the book of Genesis is fundamental to Augustine’s theodicy. According to Genesis, Adam was created perfect in a flawless world but then sinned consciously by eating from the forbidden tree. Man’s original wholesomeness was lost and all his descendants inherited ‘original sin’ and ‘original guilt’. Augustine puts forward that our punishment for Adam’s moral evil, which we have inherited, is natural evil.[11]

Augustine argued that God is entirely good and cannot be held responsible for creating evil. He would say that Man deserves to be punished and therefore it is right that God should not intervene and put a stop to suffering because we created evil by misusing our freedom. Evil, therefore, is not a thing in itself but rather a ‘privatio boni’, that is a lack of goodness or a falling short of the perfection which God intended for us, since God only creates good and it makes no sense to talk about creating a deprivation. Evil only happens where good goes wrong and it is always man who causes this to happen.[12]

If evil is a lack of goodness or perfection (privatio boni) rather than a substance in itself, how do we know what perfection is? In order, for example, to distinguish between what is good in man and what is bad we would need to understand what perfect human nature is. There is a logical contradiction in maintaining that a perfectly created world has gone wrong, because this would mean that evil must have created itself out of nothing, which is not possible. In other words, whether evil is considered to be a substance or a lack of goodness responsibility for it must lie with God. Either the world was not perfect in the first place or God allowed it to go wrong (by allowing Satan to tempt Adam to eat the apple). If, in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall (i.e. in the perfect world) there was no knowledge of good and evil, how could there have been the freedom to obey or disobey God? Adam’s initial capacity to choose evil must still be attributed to God. For scientifically minded critics the main weakness of Augustine’s theodicy is, again, that it is derived from Genesis and the story of the Fall. It does not take account of evolutionary theory. The idea that a perfectly created world was damaged by humans (and that this is how evil and suffering came into the world) is not borne out by evolutionary theory. According to this view of the world, evil and suffering must have existed long before homo sapiens appeared on earth. According to Darwinian theory, for example, evil and suffering are the inevitable consequence of the struggle for survival in which all creatures have been engaged. So, again, if God’s world contained flaws (in the form of evil and suffering) before man existed, God must bear responsibility for them. Augustine’s theodicy begs the question of whether God could have created free beings who always choose what is morally right. All the most recent scientific evidence suggests that the human race is not descended from one ancestor (Adam) as Augustine claims, but grew up across the globe from a number of different forebears and before that from apes. Therefore we cannot be thought to have inherited Adam’s original sin. Nor, therefore, is God just in punishing us for someone else’s sin. Hell appears to be built into the design of the universe in Augustine’s theodicy. It would seem, therefore, that God was expecting things to go wrong, and chose to do nothing about it. How can we believe in God’s justice when some have been granted His grace and others not , on an apparently arbitrary basis? And why would a benevolent God have wished any of his creatures to suffer eternal torment in hell?

 

  1. Blocher, H. 1994. Evil and the Cross. p.10
  2. Tooley, M. 2002. The Problem of Evil. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. [Online] Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/ [Accessed on 26/04/2010]
  3. McCloskey, H. J. 1960. God and Evil. The Philosophical Quarterly (10)39. pp.97-114.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Joyce cited in McCloskey, H. J. 1960. God and Evil. The Philosophical Quarterly (10)39. pp.97-114.
  7. McCloskey, H. J. 1960. God and Evil. The Philosophical Quarterly (10)39. pp.97-114.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Birnbaum, D. 1988. God and evil: a unified theodicy/theology/philosophy
  12. Birnbaum, D. 1988. God and evil: a unified theodicy/theology/philosophy

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