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the earth and evil

April 6th, 2005 by Jason · 1 Comment

Awhile ago Camassia blogged a bit on natural evil, which got me thinking about how Christians are to think about the evil that seems inherent in some of the structures of the earth (i.e. earthquakes, survival of the fittest, etc.). Then Telford, from whom I was taking Medieval Church History, gave us the task of writing a response to the problem of natural evil in the form of a scholastic question. It was a challenge I enjoyed tackling since I had been conveniently avoiding the question of what I thought about the tsunami by relegating it completely to the realm of “mystery.” Additionally, I have to put a plug in for the scholastic method. It seems a fair and balanced way of approaching a problem, because you have to state the toughest objections to a problem and thus there’s no skirting around an issue by ignoring objections to your thesis. Anyhow, here’s my answer (in part, at least) to the question of natural evil:

Whether the natural structure of the earth contradicts the goodness of its Creator?

Objection 1. It would seem that God has created a world in which evil is a necessary element in order for it to function. For example, “’the type of geological process that caused the earthquake and the tsunami is an essential characteristic of the earth. As far as we know, it doesn’t occur on any other planetary body and has something very directly to do with the fact that the earth is a habitable planet’” (Dr. Donald J. DePaolo, quoted in Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet, The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2005). Another poignant example comes from Darwin’s evolutionary theory which holds that life is sustained and progressed by the “survival of the fittest.” This implies that the “’battle of life’ of one organism against another” is intrinsic to the way the world operates (Nancey Murphy & James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Witness: Systematic Theology, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 200, pg. 116).

Objection 2. Further, it would seem that since God is the creator of the heavens and the earth he is also the creator of the evil that comes as the result of its natural workings. For it is said (Ps. 146:6): “[God] made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.”

Objection 3. Further, it would seem God causes natural evil in order to encourage humans repent of their sin. For it is said (Lk. 13:4-5): “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Objection 4. Further, it would seem that God’s sovereignty, by which we mean God exercises supreme control over all creation, implies that God is the cause of both the good and evil in the natural world. For it is said (Job 27:12-13): “[The clouds] turn round and round by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for correction, or for his land, or for love, he causes it to happen.” Yet, if we wish to hold to the Christian doctrine that God is both all-powerful and all-good we cannot make God the source of evil for that would lessen his goodness (Evans, 76).

On the contrary, it is said (Deut. 32:4): “The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he.”

I answer that, while Christians have put forth different solutions attempting to explain the problem of evil they are all inadequate if not set in the context of the story of the Trinue God’s salvation of humanity from sin and death. No answer to the problem of evil will be completely satisfying when one sits upon the mourning bench as a personal recipient of devastation and loss. At the heart of the issue when we are suffering is “can I trust God, even given this?”. That question can only be answered by looking at the Christian story which tells of a God who created a world showered in his love and good gifts; a world which included us. Our rebellion against God plunged the world into sin, and that sin affected every aspect of the world (Rom. 8:19-21). God, in his patience and love sent us every means of rescue including the prophets, the priests, and ultimately his Son. Jesus, “true God from true God” (Nicene Creed), endured all the suffering, shame, and evil we experience, and more. For on the cross Jesus bore and absorbed all the sin of the world, past, present, and future (Jn. 1:29). Death and sin did not defeat him, however, and he now lives, the Victorious One, who will one day come again to finish the Great Rescue. Many of the answers to the problem of evil become divorced from this grand salvation story, and when they do we lose the basis for our trust in and love for God. It is only because “the Word became flesh and lived among us” that we can trust a God who’s ways we cannot fully understand (Much of this argument owes its genesis to John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil, Oxford Pres, 1998). That said, let us now do our best to answer the objections above.

Response to Objection 1. First, as noted above, sin has twisted every aspect of existence and thus at least some of the natural evil in the world must be attributed to the fact that the world is not as it should be. Second, it is conceivable that a world with no suffering and death is not logically possible, and thus this is best of all possible worlds. Plants, if not animals, must die in order to provide food for life. Pain is necessary to alert us to prevent us from continually injuring ourselves (think of a child learning that fire is hot by the sensation that it burns). Suffering is often a necessary catalyst for making us aware that we are not at the center of the universe and thus prompting us to love both God and neighbor. It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine a world which aids humans in becoming people who freely love, serve, and cherish God and yet does not contain death, pain, and suffering. In fact, it seems that our world, suffering and pain included, is specially suited to “enjoy and be educated by…. It is a world that, damaged as it is, will do us sick people good if we see it clearly and live in it wisely” (Plantinga, 87).

Reply to Objection 2. We must distinguish between creating the world and creating the evil that is in it. The responsibility of an action lies in the one that has done it, and the creation story makes it clear that it was not a defect in creation that gave rise to sin, but our willful rebellion (Aquinas, Summa, 1Q49A2; Gen. 3:6).

Reply to Objection 3. As argued above, not all suffering is evil, and it is in fact sometimes necessary in order to bring about repentance and change. While the Christian faith believes that God “disciplines us for our good, in order that we share in his holiness” (Heb. 12:10) it also affirms that this discipline comes not from a vengeful or remote deity, but from hand of the wisest and most loving Father who desires that none should perish (2 Pet. 3:9).

Reply to Objection 4. While we hold that the Lord is sovereign and thus is the ultimate cause of something like the tsunami, we do not hold that his willing it was evil. Perhaps, in the case of the tsunami, it is part of God’s plan which “in its immensity and benevolence” (Evans, 77) is inscrutable to our feeble intellects in many ways. Perhaps it was necessary for the continued livability of this “best of all possible worlds.” Perhaps, while God ultimately caused the earthquake, humanity’s sinfulness exacerbated the suffering and death caused by it. But again, unless we set these proposed answers in the context of God’s salvation story which speaks of his sheer love for all creation all of these “answers” will ring hollow.

Tags: science · theology

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 blip » God, Science, and Natural Evil // Nov 16, 2005 at 3:25 pm

    [...] A while ago I wrote a theodicy of natural evil in the form of a scholastic question. Camassia responded with the objection that my theodicy made God subject to a higher rationality or logic (On a side note I discovered this problem of God being subject to rationality is not a new debate. Aquinas also wrestled with it and came up with the doctrine of God’s simplicity as an answer, i.e. God’s love and rationality cannot be separated from each other. Of course simplicity introduces a whole other set of problems…). I’ve been bouncing that idea around for a while now and decided to take another crack at a theodicy in this paper: God, Science, and Natural Evil [PDF]. Here’s the first paragraph: [...]