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The Difference Between What’s Natural and What’s Moral
Many people are dismayed by the reality that evil exists in our world. How can a good God exist and allow the evil we see around us every day? We can understand why God would, by necessity, allow humans to choose to do evil things. A loving God simply must allow His created beings to have the ability to CHOOSE if He ever hopes to have a world in which love can exist at all, and we understand that humans my use this ability to choose to act in a way that is cruel or immoral. This kind of moral evil is the necessary byproduct of a world where the ability to choose love is an option in the first place.

But we see more than moral evil in our world; we see many examples of what we would describe as ‘natural’ evil. We see innocent people dying as the result of natural catastrophes and we see the effect of disease and illness. These evils seem to have no connection to the decisions made by humans. How are we to account for them if a good God exists? Why would He allow such natural evil to occur?

The Argument Against God
Over the ages, skeptics have doubted the existence of God based on the presence of all kinds of evil (including the natural kinds of evil that we are discussing here). They’ve tried their best to reason through the realties that we face and they’ve come to the conclusion that natural evil and the existence of God are simply incompatible. Their argument goes something like this:

The Atheistic Argument against God from Natural Evil
1. If God exists, He is (by definition) all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving
2. And if this kind of God exists, He would not allow natural evil to occur in the world
3. But we see that natural evil DOES occur in our world
4. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God does not exist

This is a relatively straightforward argument, and on its face, it seems reasonable and logical. But the devil is always in the details, and this argument seems to rise and fall on the second claim; the idea that an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God would never allow natural evil to exist. It’s here at point #2 that we need to stop and ask ourselves, “Is it possible that God might actually allow this kind of evil, and if so, WHY?” If God has a good reason to allow natural evil, the argument changes dramatically:

The Atheistic Concession about God Related to Natural Evil
1. If God exists, He is (by definition) all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving
2. And if this kind of God exists, He would not allow natural evil to occur in the world unnecessarily or without good reason.
3. We see that natural evil DOES occur in our world
4. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God may be allowing natural evil to exist for some necessary or good reason.

If there are necessary or good reasons that God might create a world in which natural evil exists, then even the atheist must concede that the presence of natural evil does not, on it’s face, preclude God’s existence.

What Might They Be?
But when we look at the terrible natural tragedies and catastrophes that have occurred even within our own lifetimes, it’s hard to imagine that God could have ANY sufficiently ‘necessary’ or ‘good’ reason to allow what we see. We need to put our thinking caps on for a minute and examine two distinct possibilities mentioned here in the second argument. We need to see if natural evil might be the result of ‘necessity’ or if natural evil might be attributed to some other ‘sufficiently good reason’. Great thinkers have been examining these issues for generations, and their conclusions will help us to better understand the reasonable inference from the world we live in. Let’s look at several explanations for the existence of natural evil that fall into one of these two categories (‘necessary’ or ‘sufficiently good’ explanations):

“Necessary” Explanations
We’ll begin by looking at some explanations for the existence of natural evil that may be the result of what we would call ‘necessity’.

Some natural evil is simply the result of human free will
We would all agree that human free will is necessary if love is to exist at all, and we would also agree that human free will often results in bad choices leading to morally evil acts. But if we look very carefully at what we would call ‘natural’ evil, we will see that human free will (a necessary condition) often lies at the heart of the problem. Humans often rebuild along earthquake fault lines and known hurricane pathways, and they also often cut corners on building guidelines in order to save money. Much of this activity results in the catastrophic loss that we see in times of ‘natural’ disaster. In addition to this, humans often choose behaviors that put themselves at higher risk of disease of one kind or another. And how many birth defects could actually be attributed to the behavior of a parent or grandparent if only we had the ability to more closely monitor what these ancestors were exposed to in generations prior to the first appearance of the defect? There are times when ‘natural’ evil is either caused or aggravated by human free will, and this free will is a necessary condition of God’s loving creation.

The Bottom Line: God tolerates some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of human free agency (a necessary requirement if humans are to have the capacity to love)

Some natural evil is simply the result of the free will choices made by spiritual beings
When examining the possible existence of God and the truth of the Christian worldview, we cannot begin by dismissing what it claims. If there is a God and a spiritual reality that includes spiritual beings (such as angels and demons), we have to account for the impact that these spiritual creatures may have on our world. The Christian worldview makes the claim that spiritual beings have the ability to impact the world in which we live. And if God created these spiritual beings by giving them the free will ability to choose to love, we quickly recognize the fact that they would also then have the ability to choose hate. What kind of impact would a spiritual being who chooses hate have on our world? It’s really impossible to day; but it is reasonable to conclude that some of the natural evil that we see in our world may be attributed to the activity of spiritual beings who are free to choose moral evil.

The Bottom Line: God tolerates some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of the free agency of spiritual beings (a necessary requirement if spiritual beings are to have the capacity to love)

Some natural evil may be the result of natural processes that are required to allow the existence of beings who have the ability to choose in the first place
Some theologians and great thinkers (including scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne) have even suggested that God has created a universe with particular natural laws that have helped shape and guide its development. This ‘process’ of development has been given the freedom of acting and reacting over time, all within the limitations of the laws first established by God. In other words, there are ‘laws’ of physics that operate in a particular way to make life on earth possible so that humans with free will can exist in the first place. These laws guide natural processes that both assist and harm us as humans. The same weather systems that create tornadoes that kill humans, also create thunderstorms that provide our environment with the water needed for human existence! The same plate tectonics that kill humans in earthquakes, are necessary for regulation of soils and surface temperatures needed for human existence! The same kinds of bacteria that make us sick are also the source of cellular materials that heal us! What if God has created a universe that is guided by physical laws but has the freedom to develop, act and react within these laws? Wouldn’t this kind of universe be vastly better than a ‘puppet’ universe in which NO free will or free activity is possible? Polkinghorne describes this kind of activity within the universe as a ‘free process’ and he compares it to the ‘free will’ that we humans also have. As a result, he argues that some natural evil is not a direct result of human activity, but is instead a direct consequence of physics, chemistry and biology, all of which allow free will beings to exist and develop.

The Bottom Line: God tolerates some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of a free natural process that makes if possible for freewill creatures to exist

“Sufficiently Good” Explanations
Now let’s take a look at some explanations for the existence of natural evil that may be the result of God’s desire to accomplish a ‘greater good’.

Natural evil often causes humans to begin a relationship with God
Many of us who are now Christians recognize the fact that we first turned to God during some time of great crisis in our lives. For many of us, our first prayers, our first thoughts of God, came as we experienced some tragedy. When our ‘present’ lives are in jeopardy or in question, we find ourselves thinking about the possibility of a ‘future’ life. There are many people who would never give such a possibility any thought at all if not for the existence of natural tragedy. Now you might wonder why God would use evil to accomplish something that might be achieved in some other way, but think about this for a minute. Why doesn’t God simply manifest Himself to us physically? Why doesn’t He speak to all of us in an audible voice? Why doesn’t He make it perfectly clear that He exists without using pain to open our hearts to the possibility? It may all come back to the notion of free will and choice. When each of us experiences natural evil we have a choice. We can run to God or distance ourselves further from the possibility of His existence. We can learn to trust and love God, or we can angrily deny Him. They key here is that we have a CHOICE. True love requires this kind of choice and a free will being who can make a choice for God. Natural evil acts as a catalyst for choice. If God were to appear concretely in our midst, we simply would not be able to make a choice for Him. It may simply be that God wants us to love him and seek him in the midst of disaster because this kind of tragedy presents us with a CHOICE to love or hate. In this context, our love for God is a powerful opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to God.

The Bottom Line: God permits some natural evil because it draws people to God and challenges them to think about God for the first time.

Natural evil often causes humans to develop the righteous character of God
In addition to drawing people to God, natural evil also often provides humans with the opportunity to develop what all of us would consider to be ‘good’ character. Think about it for a minute. Our world is obviously imperfect; it is filled with danger and peril. A world such as this requires human beings to cooperate and peacefully co-exist in order to successfully respond to its challenges. And how many times have we seen the best in humanity as we watch people respond in love and compassion to natural disaster or epidemic disease? It’s in the context of disaster that moral character has the opportunity to form and develop. God certainly could have imposed good character on all of us, but without our free choice, ‘good’ character would be meaningless. Good character (acts of love, compassion and cooperation) must be freely chosen. And God has provided us with a world that provokes us to improve our situation, care for those in need, and become better human beings in the process.

The Bottom Line: God permits some natural evil because it provides humans with the motivation and opportunity to develop good and moral character.

None May Be Sufficient on Their Own
Now we’ve listed a number of ‘necessary’ and ‘good’ reasons that account for God’s creation of a world in which natural evil is a possibility. If any ONE of these reasons exists, then the “The Atheistic Argument Against God from Natural Evil” breaks down at step #2. If there is even one necessary or good reason for God to allow natural evil to exist, then we cannot claim that the presence of evil precludes the existence of God! As it turns out, there are a number of necessary and good reasons why God might allow the existence of natural evil. These reasons are not meant to excuse the kind of world we live in. Christians don’t throw these reasons out as mere possibilities and potential solutions to the problem of evil. Instead, the Christian worldview recognizes that God has created our world the way it is for ALL of these reasons. None are sufficient in and of themselves, but together, they account for the condition of our world.

In fact, once we stop and think about WHY God might create the world the way He has, we can begin to form some reasonable conclusions from the natural evil we see in our world. Natural evil, when reconsidered, may even demonstrate the existence of the kind of God described in the Christian Worldview:

The Theistic Argument Related to God and Natural Evil
1. If God exists, He is (by definition) all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving
2. God’s nature requires that He create a world in which
a. Love can exist,
b. His created beings have the liberty to choose love,
c. These beings then have the opportunity to know their Creator,
d. And these beings ultimately have the motivation and opportunity to develop the good and moral character of their Creator
3. We see that natural evil exists in our world and it’s existence allows freewill beings to exist, draws humans into a relationship with God and provides us with a platform from which to conform and improve our character
4. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God exists and has allowed natural evil to exist for these necessary and good reasons.

One thing is for sure: it is not entirely unreasonable for the theist to believe that God exists, even though natural evil exists in our world. While this evil may not be a compelling EVIDENCE for the existence of God, it is not inconsistent with the existence of God as understood in the Christian Worldview.

Does It Line Up with Scripture?
When we examine Christian scripture, we find that it reinforces a view of God, creation, and natural evil that is consistent with what we have described so far. The Bible describes all humans as freewill beings that have the choice to either love God or not love God:

1 John 5:1
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.

The Bible confirms the fact that there are some people who would never sense their complete dependence on God if it were not for the fact that they are experiencing the pain that often results from natural and moral evil:

Psalm 119:71
… It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.

The Bible also describes the fact that the freewill actions of angelic or demonic creatures often cause us to experience what we do:

Job 1:12
Then the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the LORD.

And the Bible often describes our suffering as the opportunity for us to prepare our character in some way:

2 Corinthians 4:16-18
… knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

Over and over again, the Bible describes the world that we seem to live in. It is a world where natural evil exists. It is a world where humans have freewill, and as a result, often contribute to, and exacerbate, the problem of evil. It is a world where evil often leads people to begin a relationship with God. It is a world where evil often encourages people to be more than they would otherwise be. Natural evil may exist in our world, but it does not preclude the existence of God.

Article | Apologetics, Christianity & Culture, Miscellaneous, Philosophy
Jan 17, 2013
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