Five responses to the ‘Problem of (Natural) Evil’

  • Question 181, from Emma

    I am doing a talk on suffering. I want to focus on WHY there is suffering if God is a loving, omnipotent, omniscient God and in particular why God would plan a world where earthquakes etc. would be necessary (yet cause deaths and pain)? I understand to a certain extent how man-made suffering comes about as a result of free will but please explain a bit more about natural suffering.

    The issue of evil that appears to be naturally occurring is a taxing one. It seems arbitrary and inconsistent with the Christian assertion that God is good and created the world as a ‘good’ world for humans to live in.

    There have been a number of attempts to provide an explanation for ‘natural evil’. Some are more convincing than others, and there is no definitive answer that conclusively answers the question. Here is a brief introduction to five approaches that have been used.

    1)      ‘Natural evil’ as an extension of moral evil.

    Christians who believe in a literal ‘Fall of Man’ as an historical event will be more comfortable with this, but there is good Biblical support for the idea that natural evil occurs as a result of human sin ‘marring the cosmos’. The pronouncement of judgement on Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 3 includes statements that imply a change in the natural order – for example thorns and weeds will affect agriculture.

    Romans chapter 8, verse 21 implies that Christ’s redemptive act will also ‘liberate’ creation “from its bondage to decay”, implying a restoration of the world to a state where natural evil does not exist.

    2)      ‘Natural evil’ is part of the world because the world is in a ‘process of creation’

    This idea implies that the world has not yet come into its fullness and therefore is still affected by chaos. In a ‘process theology’, God is similarly ‘becoming’, which explains the difference in the revealed character and nature of God in the Old and New Testaments. ‘Natural evil’ is part of the natural process of the world, as would be the evolution of species, and the emergence of a race that God could relate to and could work with to bring about the full realisation of a perfect world.

    3)      ‘Natural evil’ is only evil because we ascribe moral judgements to natural acts

    There is a strong argument that pain is useful. It tells us if there is disease, or warns us away from things that could harm (e.g. fire). Similarly, tectonic plates are useful because on a geological scale they keep things moving. Earth is a dynamic planet. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions release important chemicals into the planet-wide ecosystem. The pressure associated with a changing planetary surface produces useful minerals and heavy metals.

    Seen within this wider context, seismic activity is very useful. The trade-off is that sometimes human beings get caught up in these useful processes and are killed as a result. However, as a race we are wealthy enough to build earthquake-proof buildings, develop tsunami warnings and mitigate the worst effects of living on a dynamic planet. It is fairly obvious that earthquakes and any other natural disaster cause the most damage in the poorest communities, so there is an element of ‘moral evil’ here as well. The impact of earthquakes and other natural disasters could be lessened by ‘good’ human actions.

    4)      Natural evil exists as a means of maturing human beings

    This is quite a popular response to the issue of evil. It has often been based on a phrase by the poet John Keats: “Call the world if you please ‘The Vale of Soul-making’. Then you will find out the use of the world” [1]

    Keats seems to have believed that the struggle to overcome and negate ‘evil’ helped humans develop their rudimentary intelligence (or spark of the divine) into a fully-fledged ‘soul’. Although Keats rejected Christianity, his idea was used by the religious philosopher John Hick (1922-2012) in his book Evil and the God of Love (originally published in 1966), as a way of explaining why a loving God would allow suffering.

    Suffering causes human beings to create, invent, overcome adversity, gain moral insight, support one another, show compassion, gain humility and many other ‘noble’ characteristics. However, this argument has been criticised for implying that God ‘allows’ many human beings to suffer simply because that enables either them or others to ‘grow’. This does seem a harsh method.

    5)      God is the author of everything, even those things humans may regard as evil, but God’s will should not be questioned

    This is not a popular view within Christian thought, but can be found in some theological systems, notably Calvinism and similar theologies with a strong emphasis on predestination. According to this view, humans are incapable of understanding the purposes of God and suggesting that God could do a better job of running the world is symptomatic of human sinful arrogance. ‘Natural evil’ therefore does not exist; what humans perceive as ‘evil’ is the result of sin obscuring their understanding of God.


    There are many different approaches to this issue and in all probability Christians who have considered it will have adopted a hybrid of a few of these different approaches, while rejecting some of the others.

    The challenge to continue affirming faith in God’s goodness despite the fact of natural disasters will probably always be a major philosophical and theological issue within Christianity.


    [1] In a letter to George and Georgiana Keats, April 1819.

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