Natural Evil: Is It a Good Argument Against God?

One of the most common arguments against the existence of God is called the Problem of Evil. The existence of evil and suffering in the world is taken by many people as evidence that either there is no God, or that he isn't good and loving as Christians claim. I regularly come across people who hold this as THE main reason for why they don't believe in God.

Zoriah Haiti Earthquake by Zoriah / CC BY-NC 2.0

While I've already written a series of articles looking at the nature and origin of morality, which somewhat deals with the concept of moral evil committed by humans, there is another category of evil often put forward by atheists that requires further examination: natural evil.

Natural evil is defined at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy as any kind of evil "for which no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible for its occurrence." In other words it is supposedly a kind of evil only God can commit. There are no human perpetrators here, only human victims.

An example of natural evil might be a tsunami that kills thousands of people, such as the one in northern Japan in 2011 that claimed around 18,550 lives. The argument is that because such disasters happen, then it must challenge either the existence or goodness of God. Either he is powerless to stop catastrophic natural events from occurring, or he doesn't care that they happen.

This is an interesting topic, and one worth considering carefully as a Christian. Certainly we should be moved to act compassionately when such disasters occur. But it is my contention that natural evil fails to provide any compelling reason to abandon the idea that a good and loving God exists.

Is Natural Evil Bad or Wrong?

Firstly I reject natural evil as a category. When you look at the kinds of things considered to be natural evil - floods, earthquakes, droughts, famines, diseases, cancer, birth defects, etc - then it's clear that all of these things are morally neutral in and of themselves. They're certainly natural, but are they evil?

Cancer sucks. I lost a good friend to it a couple of years ago. But nothing about the circumstances he lost his life in have any element of moral blame attached to them. Nobody is accountable for his cancer, it's just a biological event that occurred in his body. Sure it makes me sad, but there was no moral component to his cancer. It was bad, but not wrong - and that's a key distinction we need to make.

Part of why this argument gets so much popular traction is because it is very easy for us to conflate whether something is good or bad with whether it is right or wrong. But these words actually communicate very different concepts, as a couple of simple illustrations will demonstrate.

Good and bad are goal-oriented. They speak of whether something will achieve its purpose or not. The goodness or badness of an action or thing are determined by the outcomes of it. A hammer is good for hitting nails. My grasp of languages other than English is bad, because I can't use them to communicate with the people who speak them. When we see the words good and bad, we need to ask "good or bad for WHAT?"

Right and wrong describe our moral duties - the things we should do are right, and the things we should not do are wrong. Many actions and attitudes have an intrinsic moral quality: It is right for me to love my children, and wrong for me to treat them harshly.

It is both bad and wrong to torture children for fun - bad because it has negative outcomes for the health and welfare of the child, and wrong because the moral law forbids that I should cause another person that kind of harm. My friend's cancer? It was bad for him biologically, and bad for me relationally, but no moral precept was broken.

The whole concept of natural evil is questionable because it tries to smuggle moral freight into events that can only be good and bad in the pragmatic, goal-oriented sense. A hurricane can be bad, but I don't think it can be wrong.

It is only when arguments from natural evil make the next step and introduce God as the moral agent to be held responsible for not preventing certain events from taking place that using the language of right and wrong becomes justified. But doing this only leads to more trouble for the atheist.

Can You Hold God Morally Accountable?

A more serious problem for the natural evil argument comes when atheists try to hold God morally accountable for the occurrence of natural disasters. They argue that he should prevent these events from happening and thereby save the lives of the people who die in them. To fail to do so is morally wrong. But many atheists don't realise that their world-view is completely unable to sustain this kind of moral claim against God.

The real difficulty lies in grounding an absolute moral framework that God is as equally accountable to as we are. Where would these moral duties come from? How could they exist beyond God, external to him? What would make them morally binding on both him and us?

These questions are impossible for the atheist to answer, because as I already discussed in another article, they have no way of grounding absolute morality. The usual attempts to base morality in evolution or human society fail to apply upwards to God. The only standard they can hold God accountable to and explain satisfactorily is their own personal moral standard - but this fails too because it is only their subjective opinion about morality they are judging him by, rather than a universally true set of values that exist beyond themselves.

There is just no way for the atheist to account for a universal law that exists even beyond God and applies to him also, so it is impossible for them to hold him morally responsible for the outcomes of natural disasters.

Can Christianity Explain It Better?

Here is a brief summary of how Christians might understand the interplay between God, morality and natural disasters:

God is the source of the Moral Law, he is the Lawgiver. His perfect nature is the standard by which we judge right and wrong. He is not subject to the requirements of the Moral Law, but rather it emanates from his moral perfection. He is what grounds absolute morality that applies to all people, everywhere.

Furthermore God is the source of all life. Life is his, not ours, and he is free to give it and take it as he sees fit, and in whatever way he chooses. It would be morally wrong for us to cause 18,550 people to die because we don't have the authority to take life on that scale. We are just humans. But God is not human and can take any life at any time because he rightfully owns it.

The natural evil argument assumes that people who die in a hurricane or a tsunami are innocent and don't deserve death, but the scriptures tell us that everyone is guilty of sin (Romans 3:23) and that death is the due penalty for our sin (Romans 6:23), which is why Jesus Christ had to die in our place. There are no "innocent victims".

Much of the devastation and loss-of-life during catastrophic weather events can actually be blamed on human morality. People who live in the world's poorest nations are often plagued by structural inequality and governmental corruption. They are forced to live in poorly constructed buildings which become death-traps during earthquakes or tsunamis. When similar events happen in developed countries, the death toll is usually far lower.

The scriptures sometimes show God causing natural disasters (the Egyptian plagues in Exodus 7 onwards, Noah's flood in Genesis 7) but it's not really described as something he does all the time, and when he does it, he's working for the good of his chosen people. Which brings me to my last point:

We believe that God is working providentially through human history to build his church, disciple by disciple. The scriptures tell us that "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28) This doesn't mean that everything will go smoothly and nicely for the Christian, in fact we are promised a life of suffering while on Earth. But it also explains to us that even when bad (for WHAT?) things happen, God is bringing about the good and right for his purposes and his church, and that natural disasters are part of the experience, whether God causes them directly or not.
Natural Evil: Is It a Good Argument Against God? Natural Evil: Is It a Good Argument Against God? Reviewed by Nathan on 12:52 AM Rating: 5

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