God & Righteousness: Theodicy Part III

Evil and the God to be Worshipped

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Introduction

The material world that humanity resides within is full of immense catastrophe, desolation, and toxicity. It is truly a world full of misery and evil. Most humans, intellectuals, and theologians agree on this empirical truth: that evil does exist and pervades the natural world.[1] There is little, to no, refutation of this problem; what is debated is where it comes from and who would allow such evil to exist. It is in this context that the problem of natural evil in the world (creation) and the goodness of God (creator). It is in this debacle that debates have endured, skeptics have been created, and souls have been lost. To the believer and unbeliever, this problem of natural evil, and a Good God which would allow such evil, has created so much turmoil and controversy. It is to this point that this treatise will address.

This essay will defend the Good nature of the Judea-Christian God in light of horrific natural evil throughout the world and this includes His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. In addition, this author will propose a practical theodicy in which the believing community can resolve this problem and use the great evils of this world to further His good kingdom in the temporal world that humanity inhabits. Furthermore, it is out of adoration, gratitude, and exaltation that the glory of Yahweh heals the wounds of such pervasive evil that strike against a fallen world.  

Natural Evil

The focus in this essay is only concerned with the problem of natural evil as opposed to moral evil, which is a whole burden unto itself. Definitions matter and to consider the problem of evil in the context of the natural world, it is important that the foundational definitions and examples of natural evil must be clearly specified. “Natural evils include harmful or destructive events in nature that occur throughout the course of history and that negatively affect creaturely life.”[2] This is a rather broad definition of natural evil; suffice it to include: “earthquakes, pains, droughts, floods, physical deformities such as misshapen limbs, blindness, mental retardation or deficiency, insanity, fires, and diseases of seemingly limitless variety.”[3] These are the examples of natural evil that proponents of the problem of evil (POE) use to postulate that an all-powerful good God would not allow to exist.

Saint Augustine wrote extensively about natural evil. Although the writings of Augustine concerning natural evil are helpful to theodicy, he goes at length to excuse God from the POE by misappropriating evil as a metaphysical misgiving. “Augustine prefers the presentation of God as limited in His sphere of activity rather than God as the author of evil or the one who consciously allows evil to exist.”[4] This is a helpful answer to natural evil but diminishes the power of God which the scriptures do not allow for. If God is all-powerful, then indeed, this list of evils can be prevented, or caused, by His divine will.

The main point of refutation is the claim that natural evil should be prevented at all. This is a constant; if God can prevent evil then why does he not? The biblical text is emphatically clear that God does not and cannot sin (1 John 3:9). This also means that God hates evil (Proverbs 8:13). Therefore, God as the progenitor of evil is not to be considered. The issue then lies where natural evil comes from and I offer three explanations:

  1. Most of the natural evils are nothing more than a cursed world run amuck as natural by-products of the systems within the natural world by which humanity uses science to explain.
  2. Natural evils are used by God as a means of Judgement; therefore, are not evils at all.
  3. Most natural evils are created by man and could have been prevented by unfallen humankind, not in opposition to the will of God.

Natural Evil is Evolutionary

The biblical narrative of the entire Bible is predicated on two things: God as the creator of all (Genesis 1) and the creation falling away from that gift of creation (Genesis 3). That fall created evil in the world through moral and natural evil as the by-product of the curse. The sin that man did, in the garden, set forth a terraforming subsistence in the natural world that invades the whole of society. The curse in Genesis 3:14-19 is where humanity was expunged from the holy shelter of Eden and thrust into a fallen world inhabited by moral and natural evil by either free will to sin against one another or by the scientific ratification of a fallen nature.[5]

Nature, in and of itself, has natural evolutionary components that twist and upheave the world which may are may do not help or harm humanity. To attribute evil as a consequence of the natural workings of plate tectonics (earthquake) or inclement weather condition (draught) is an overreach. The world has seen thousands decimated in the eruption of volcanoes (Tambora) or wiped out in a tidal wave (Asia 2004) and are quick to question God. This seems reasonable, but is it? Science has answers for draught, earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, etc. which all can be found in the natural workings of mother earth doing her thing; this is no mystery. This is the natural by-product of a cursed hostile world that mankind lives but fails to answer for his/her poor decision-making. Natural disasters have been happening for millennia and mankind still builds houses on the sand.

Recently the world was ravaged by the coronavirus that killed thousands. In 1918 the H1N1 flu ravaged over fifty million people worldwide.[6] The bubonic plague of the fourteen-century had similar casualties. This may be categorized as natural evil but scientist know what causes plagues:

The bacteria that cause plague, Yersinia pestis, maintain their existence in a cycle involving rodents and their fleas. Plague occurs in rural and semi-rural areas of the western United States, primarily in semi-arid upland forests and grasslands where many types of rodent species can be involved. Many types of animals, such as rock squirrels, wood rats, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, mice, voles, and rabbits can be affected by plague. Wild carnivores can become infected by eating other infected animals.[7]

There is an answer to the cause of most natural evil in the world; either by mutations (birth defects), magma displacement (natural disasters), or animal infestations, it is not reasonable to pin God with the task of intervening whenever humans are adversely affected by nature. That begs the question of when His intervention is necessary and to what amount. These arguments for the POE regarding natural evil are prima facia miscategorized. For the theist, and non-theist, the fallout from natural disasters is just that, natural disasters, and cannot be regarded as evil, but the fallout from a hostile world.   

Natural Evil as a Means of Judgment

Natural evil has been used by God, as depicted in the biblical text, to root out sin and punish humanity for its opposition to the will of God. In this sense, natural evil is not evil if used as an instrument of Judgement. This is the most unsettling defense of the POE concerning natural evil because it forces man to look at himself/herself and their relationship with a holy God.

The Bible, particularly the Old Testament shows throughout its entirety how God delves out punishment for the evils that men do. N.T. Wright explains: “It’s written to tell the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do about evil. (This is true of most of the individual books as well as the canonically shaped Old Testament as we have it, both in the Hebrew order of books and in the English one.)”[8] The Bible depicts copious instances where God uses nature to castigate sin. The biggest example is Noah and the flood (Genesis 6) but there are many more examples that use the various forms of natural evil, i.e. sulfur firestorm (Genesis 19), insanity (Daniel 4), plagues (Exodus event), snakes (Numbers 21),  etc. Moreover, the biblical text lays this out on several occasion that God does use nature to punish: “you will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6).[9]

The question is then postulated as to whether judgement can be evil? The answer to this is both theologically no and philosophical no. Theologically, God’s judgement is just and righteous (Romans 2:1-5), and all who are given the gift of life will stand and be made to give an account to God (Romans 14:12). All humanity will be judged, and that judgment is mandated by the holiness of God, in direct response to the brokenness of man (Romans 3:23).

Philosophically, judgment cannot be evil, it is recompense for wrongdoing. G.E. Moore writes about the nature of judgment: “That a judgment is universally a necessary combination of concepts, equally necessary whether it be true or false. That it must be either true or false, but that its truth or falsehood cannot depend on its relation to anything else whatever, reality, for instance, or the world in space and time.”[10] Judgment at the hands of a just judge is the opposite of evil, it rights the wrongs that evil serves. If God is using the natural evil of the world as an instrument of Judgment, then that natural evil is not evil at all.

Natural Evil Conflated

The last point of contention lies at the core of just what humanity observes and categorizes as natural evil. “What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.”[11] This makes cataloging evil much more complex than is normally granted. What might be defended as evil is not evil at all, as the aforementioned subject of judgment demonstrated. Another possibility is that humans often depict natural evil wrongly without investigating its genesis. What so many apologists classify as natural evil might just be moral evil in disguise.

Mankind and the immense evil that progenerates from our sin is the terraforming agent at which evil is cast out onto the world. This is the hardest of the defenses of natural evil and God to comprehend. Sin is far more complex than breaking a law or disobeying an ordinance. Sin festers, infects, and mutates throughout society, and eventually seeps into the natural order of our society.

Humans have been a focal point of some of the greatest natural evils that ravish humanity. For example: according to the World Health Organization, about 1 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired every day worldwide.[12] Many would claim that this is a result of moral evil but that is the same answer for why God cursed the earth in the first place. This illustrates that as humanity sins, evil acts as a terraforming agent into the natural order of society. “Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) constitute the most common reportable communicable diseases in the United States,”[13] which leads to mutations and illness spreading more rapidly among the populace. When the skeptic complains about the natural evil prevalence of illness, plague, and infection they often overstep where it all comes from in the first place. Unfortunately, America saw the worst of this during the aide’s epidemic of the eighties.

Even our complacency, or inability to stop evil in the world due to our egocentricity, allows for the causality of natural evil to exist. Deforestry in California leads to nasty wildfires in the summer of 2020.  Mountainous regions that have been entrenched upon for real-estate purposes are rife with mudslide events that cost lives. Deepwater drills and oil tank disasters lead to water pollution which has adverse effects on the natural order of things, and the list goes on.

What many refer to as natural evil is simply a by-product of the if the sins of humanity accumulated over time and therefore weaponized against humankind in a malevolent force to reign terror and punishment to the masses. The irony is that man makes a habit of bringing God to bear the weight of humanities’ evils generated on its existence

Suppositions Concluded

The point is that when the rhetoric of POE erudition subsides and the accusations of a good God allowing so much natural evil in the world, rarely is that natural evil dissected. All too often, apologists and theologians concede the ground of what natural evil is and defend the semantics of God’s nature when a large portion of the problem lies in the accusation itself. A good, all-knowing, all-powerful God does not have to intervene to prevent natural evil from existing if that evil is either man-rendered, miscategorized, or not evil at all.

In summation, natural evil is the scientific outpouring of a cursed world in opposition to God. Evil is, at times, the result of man’s great sin in the world, and if God uses that natural evil to judge humanity then that is righteous judgments dispelled at the hands of a good God whose holiness demands recompense for sin. Human justice would be to allow humanity to perish in its own sin and disobedience to the Lord, but God’s grace abounds, and He constructs a way to redeem fallen man in a fashion to which tribulation is inescapable.

 Nature of God

The fundamental misunderstanding humanity has with the righteousness of God and the problem of evil (theodicy) is the holiness of Yahweh! The Bible is very clear that God is omniscient (Hebrews 4:13), omnibenevolent (Psalm 145:17, and omnipotent (Job 42:2). God knows all things and can do anything that is doable, and His character is intrinsically righteous and perfect. It is in this nature of the most high that humanity has witness to power, love, and knowledge with which He reigns in justice and grace to an ungrateful world that is undeserving but still redeemed. The three characters of God (love, power, knowledge) both explain the allowance of natural evil and give an account of His divine mercy on a people who have refused His glory.

Omnipotence

The struggle with theodicy likes to diminish the power of God, to excuse him from allowing natural evil to exist. This is a mistake. Norman Geisler writes: “The problem for theism is that it not only believes God is all-powerful and could destroy evil, but he is all-loving and should destroy it. Further, the theistic God is all-knowing and created this world fully aware of what would happen.”[14] This strikes at the heart of the problem, but it presupposes that because God can, he should. An all-powerful God can prevent evil but nothing about His goodness dictates that He should. Being able to prevent pain does not mean that the pain should be prevented. The Bible is clear that tribulation is a necessary by-product of redemption. This was foreshadowed in Abraham being instructed to sacrifice his only son and culminated in Christ’s crucifixion. C.S. Lewis laments; “If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable.”[15] Furthermore, pain and suffering lead to weakness and the Lord’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Having the power to stop natural evil is a moot point when evil is a necessity to bring prideful men to submission.

The POE is lynch-pinned on free will. Humans grant that they are free to choose, and theologically they choose evil over goodness. Yet they grant no free will to God. If we are free to choose, why cannot God be free to allow evil to exist? How does this detract from either His goodness or power? “The freedom of God consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His goodness is the root from which they all grow and His omnipotence the air in which they all flower.”[16] God is intrinsically Good and therefore is incapable of evil but is free to withhold His power to end or prevent natural suffering at the hands of evil. This is not an abnegation. In fact, it is reasonable to worship an all-powerful being that is capable of doing anything, which includes allowing more evil to pervade. The scriptures line this out: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life. If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it” (Proverbs 9:10-12). Humanity bears this by the evils of the world. It is wise for the Christian to understand this key principle and worship the Lord by fearing His might.

Omnibenevolence

God is intrinsically perfect, good, and kind. This kindness does not superimpose His necessity to make every human happy and pain-free. That is what the POE defense claims. Just because a being is good, does not impose His goodness on His creation. That is not a logical deduction that most try to make.  C.S, Lewis states it perfectly; “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’ and look on things as if man were the center of them. Man is not the center. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.”[17] Humans are the object of God’s love, but He is the subject. The POE dispute puts man at the center of everything as if God were only alive to protect humanity from suffering. This position further points to the wickedness of the human condition.

What God does do is find a way in which human tribulation can lead to goodness and salvation. “What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”[18] It is in the mercy of God that man can find redemption for the weight of that sin is death (Romans 6:23) and Christ conquered death on the cross (Galatians 2:20). It is the loving nature of God to redeem His creation by showcasing His glorious plan of redemption through faith. This is what true love is, not preventing pain but healing it.

Omniscience

 One of the most difficult questions dealing with evil has to do with the choice of God to create mankind knowing that Adam and Eve would fall and introduce sin and evil into a world that would consume them. This speaks to the knowledge of God; if God knew that mankind would fall, and suffer severely from it, why allow it to happen? The best answer to this question might just be a philosophical one, specifically in the field of epistemology.  

Many may know this as a component of the free will defense in which Alvin Plantinga states: “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal than a world containing no free creatures at all.”[19] There is something wonderful and blessed about knowing what is good and allowing your creation to choose what is bad. There is a divine purpose in creating something special knowing that evil must befall it for it to be redeemed. It just may be that not only did God know that evil needed to exist in order for mankind to choose him, but no other option can be conceived.

Jordan Peterson explains the reason for the fall like this:

The original Man and Woman, existing in unbroken unity with their Creator, did not appear conscious (and certainly not self-conscious). Their eyes were not open. But, in their perfection, they were also less, not more, than their post-Fall counterparts. Their goodness was something bestowed, rather than deserved or earned. They exercised no choice. God knows that’s easier. But maybe it’s not better than, for example, goodness genuinely earned. Maybe, even in some cosmic sense (assuming that conscientiousness itself is a phenomenon of cosmic significance), free choice matters.[20]

Knowing that mankind would fall is precisely the reason for the fall. If you are unable to choose, you are not free. Humanity needed to turn from God to have faith in His plan of salvation. Humans need chaos to know what order is.  There is nothing virtuous or loving about withholding growing pains from those whom you love. God so loved the world that He gave the world His only begotten son as a means to overturn the fall and seek redemption (John 3:16), this was the plan from the very beginning.

Humans cannot learn without choice and cannot choose without wickedness; this is why the fall was necessary. It just may be that wickedness is a key component of the sanctifying process. The Bible speaks of great evil in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ which brought about the greatest good humanity can know, salvation.

It is in the knowledge of God that humans have faith, which is an integral part of worship. Knowledge in the God that knows more than we know ourselves (Psalm 139:1-4) is a powerful aspect of faith. It is far more consequential than believing in something that cannot be proven or explained, true faith in God is knowing that God knows all, has all the answers, all the power, and all the love to even allow for the right amount of pain and suffering to exist in the life of a believer without it being too much to handle: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Conclusion

Natural evil does exist however it is often inflated. It is a natural by-product of a cursed and fallen world in which humans bear much of the burden for its existence. Natural evil is not as troublesome as non-believers describe but it is a significant component of the problem of evil. To the theist, natural evil has a purpose and, in some instances, is even ordained by God as a means of justice and punishment. Although God is incapable of evil, He used natural processes to exact His providence in human history. Understanding evil and its origins is a necessity in recognizing why natural evil exists, to what purpose it exists, and to what extent it is allowed to exist. One cannot know this without knowing God.

The powerful nature of God does not preclude evil from existing. God’s love for humanity both allows for natural evil and gives humanity a means for salvation. This system of tribulation through pain is a pre-known necessity for the process of history and showcases how God’s grace is deserved of adoration. It is in knowing God, understanding His attributes, and synthesizing the means of His salvific process through which humans can be redeemed that one truly can have a practical theodicy about the problem of natural evil. Without knowing God, the POE will never be resolved just as salvation without Christ cannot be obtained, neither can peace with pain be achieved without fear of the Lord.

Bibliography

“1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 20, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.

Barry, John D., ed. Lexham Bible Dictionary, 2016. https://www.logos.com/lexhambibledictionary.

Calvet, Helene M. “Sexually Transmitted Diseases Other than Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in Older Adults.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 36, no. 5 (2003): 609–14. https://doi.org/10.1086/367892.

“Ecology and Transmission.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 31, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/plague/transmission/index.html.

Feinberg, John S. “The Many Faces of Evil.” Lifeway. Liberty University, 2018. https://www.lifeway.com/en/product/the-many-faces-of-evil-P001243768.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

Grenz, Stanley J., David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nording. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms: over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Lewis, C. S. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2017.

Moore, G. E. “The Nature of Judgment.” Mind, New Series, 8, no. 30 (1899): 176-93. Accessed May 14, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2247657.

Moreland, J.P, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Theistic Evolution: a Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.

Peterson, Jordan B., Norman Doidge, and Ethan Van Sciver. 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. London: Allen Lane, 2018.

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008.

“Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, June 14, 2019. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sexually-transmitted-infections-(stis).

Wright, N. T. Evil and the Justice of God. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Footnotes:

[1] John S. Feinberg, “The Many Faces of Evil,” Lifeway (Liberty University, 2018), https://www.lifeway.com/en/product/the-many-faces-of-evil-P001243768, 191.

[2] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 48.

[3] John Feinberg, The Many Faces, 192.

[4] Dempsey Rosales Acosta and Douglas Mangum, “Good and Evil, Ancient Conceptions of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[5] J.P Moreland et al., eds., Theistic Evolution: a Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 689.  

[6] “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 20, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.

[7] “Ecology and Transmission,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 31, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/plague/transmission/index.html.

[8] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 44.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version.

[10] G. E. Moore, “The Nature of Judgment,” Mind 8, no. 30 (1899): pp. 176-193, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2247657.

[11] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2017), 288. .

[12] “Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs),” World Health Organization (World Health Organization, June 14, 2019), https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sexually-transmitted-infections-(stis).

[13] Helene M. Calvet, “Sexually Transmitted Diseases Other than Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in Older Adults,” Clinical Infectious Diseases 36, no. 5 (2003): pp. 609-614, https://doi.org/10.1086/367892.

[14] Norman L. Geisler, “Evil, Problem Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 219.

[15] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 323.

[16] Ibid, 287.

[17] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 293.

[18] Ibid, 321.

[19] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 29.

[20] Jordan B. Peterson, Norman Doidge, and Ethan Van Sciver, 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (London: Allen Lane, 2018), 56.

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