Why Are Natural Disasters an Evil with No Connection to Free Will?

Why does God allow bad things to happen, like natural disasters, that we have seemingly no control over?


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I’m not going to promise that I can answer this question in a thorough fashion, but I can give you some things to think about. 

“How can one effectively explain why natural disasters are an evil that occur and affect innocent people randomly with no connection to the concept of free will?”

When it says, “How can one effectively explain…” who knows how anyone’s going to respond to an explanation? Different things matter to different people in determining whether an explanation is going to be effective. 

However, there are some thoughts we can have about this. Natural disasters randomly effect innocent people, which I can agree to. They don’t seem to have anything to do with free will. 

Keep in mind, the free will defense with regards to the problem of evil is a standard way to try and explain why there’s evil in the world. There’s evil because we have freedom. God created a good thing, moral freedom, which makes possible a bad thing, moral choices that are bad and affect other people. The only way to warrant that there’s not going to be any bad choices is to take moral choices away entirely. Because it’s not possible for God to create morally free creatures that can’t possibly use their freedom for evil, moral freedom is the possibility of choosing one or the other. 

That’s part of the answer, and I think there’s a lot of benefit to it. It covers a lot of ground and makes sense, but one wonders, what about natural disasters? That doesn’t seem to have anything to do with moral freedom. One might argue that natural disasters would not have happened if man hadn’t used his moral freedom to rebel against God in the first place. Because of Adam’s fall, the earth is changed in such a way that disasters befall human beings now that would not have befallen them prior to the moral fall of Adam. I personally am not persuaded by that argument. I’m just tossing it out there because some think there’s merit to it. 

Certainly, the environment was impacted by the fall. How it was impacted is harder to be sure of. Things like tidal waves happen because of earthquakes. Earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics. Plate tectonics strike me as a design feature that allows the earth to recycle its crust over time. You can do with that what you’d like.

There’s another aspect of free will, though, that also needs to be taken into consideration. Tsunamis that happen, or earthquakes, or any other natural disaster where no one is, don’t bother anybody. They’re not considered evil. There’s no evil in an earthquake itself. It only can have evil results when innocent people randomly suffer for it. 

Why is it that innocent people randomly suffer for some earthquakes but not for others? Because they happen to be in places where the earthquake is happening. How did they happen to be there? Because, to a large degree, they chose to live there. So, you can’t eliminate the question of individual freedom of choice from the equation, even in natural disasters. But still, I don’t think that’s going to be an adequate response to cover all the bases. 

Let’s just say we don’t know all the reasons natural disasters take place. Maybe it’s just part of the created order. God, in some sense, is responsible for the created order, so God is responsible, in some sense, for the idea that bad things befall people in virtue of the way the world is ordered. The problem of evil is still there. We’re still confronted with it, and now it looks like God is responsible for some of this. The rejoinder that is left, which I think is the most powerful, is this one: Is it possible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for experiences that people have from natural disasters? 

We don’t have to know what those reasons are. The question is, is it possible that God has morally sufficient reasons? In some ways, this is a challenging reflection because when we look at certain kinds of disasters, we can’t imagine any scenario in which such terrible suffering by innocent people could possibly be justified by a greater good. I’m sympathetic to that, but do we know that to be the case? The answer is, we don’t. 

In fact, we know the contrary in many situations. We know when we get an inside look at a disaster, take 9/11, for example, or the tsunami that happened a few years ago. A lot of times, we see great and wonderful things that were the result of a terrible thing. In fact, many times in your own life, if you’re honest about it, you can look back and say the same thing. That which seemed like a tragedy to me at the time turned into one of the greatest blessings. And if I had my druthers and could change it, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I’m glad it happened because of the good thing that came from it. 

In our own experience, we are aware of things that initially seem really bad, unjustifiable, and later on God acts in such a way as to show that He had a morally sufficient reason for allowing that. If that’s the case there, isn’t it at least in principal possible that this is the case for a whole host of other things? The answer has to be that it’s at least possible even though it’s not imaginable by us. If it’s possible, then even a natural disaster is not a defeater against theism, particularly Christian theism. 

If it’s possible, then it’s not necessarily the case that natural evil shows that there is no God even though the free will element may be out of play. Is there moral sufficiency? The fact is, by and large, philosophers have abandoned these kinds of arguments because they realize the burden of proof is so great upon them to be able to show of necessity that any particular natural disaster could not have a morally sufficient reason for God allowing it. They can’t do that, so they have to abandon that defeater. As long as there’s a possibility, we’re within our rights to rest in the goodness of God that He has things under proper control.

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Greg Koukl