What About Natural Evil?
Are natural disasters judgements from God?
What About Natural Evil?
Kevin Harris: This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. Welcome to the podcast. I'm Kevin Harris. Dr. Craig, I think I know why the problem of evil is called a thorny problem, because despite how many times we deal with it, give plausible answers or draw some conclusions, it still sticks like a thorn. And today we have some questions on an aspect of the problem of evil dealing with natural evil. And in light of recent events this is on a lot of minds. This past spring here in the states some of the worst tornadoes on record have ravaged and killed. And this questioner wants to know how or if we can determine whether some instance of natural disaster is a direct or explicit judgment of God. Now, from the outset, you've pointed out in your resources and we've talked about this before, that Jesus' statements in Luke 13 do not allow the speculation or proclamation that a certain region is experiencing a direct judgment from God.
Dr. Craig: Right, he says that the people on whom the tower of Siloem fell were no worse sinners than others. He seemed to think that natural disasters take place and we cannot assume that these are judgments of God. In the Old Testament when God brings judgment upon a nation he always accompanies it with a prophetic word. There would be prophets who would explain and interpret these disasters that befell Israel or the neighbors of Israel so that the natural disasters could be given a theological interpretation. And in the absence of some sort of a prophetic word, today I think it would be presumptuous to assume that when a natural disaster takes place that this represents God's specific judgment upon the individuals who are killed or injured in the disaster.
God has reasons for allowing these natural disasters to occur because they will fit into his providential plan for human history, and given our limitations in space and time and intelligence and insight we can only dimly discern the immediate outlines of what this plan might be. We have no idea of how it might be proceeding in the long range. So we shouldn’t expect to see the reasons that God permits this or that natural disaster that occurs.
Kevin Harris: Well, could we say that these are indirect judgments of God on a fallen world?
Dr. Craig: Well, I don't see any reason to think that, no. I know some people will say that these sorts of disasters are the result of human sin, but I don't see any reason to think that, for example, earthquakes have anything to do with human morality—it's plate tectonics, which are essential to the flourishing of life on this planet. If there were no plate tectonics then all of the mountains would erode into the oceans, and the carbon dioxide would not get recycled. The action of plate tectonics is essential to life on this planet, and yet it also causes earthquakes. So I would just see this as being the by-products of a world operating according to certain natural laws, and God has good reasons for creating a universe like that, as the theater in which the drama of the Kingdom of God is being played out.
Kevin Harris: I'm referring to a line of thought I've read that if we had not fallen but had taken dominion over the earth as God instructed we would live more harmoniously with nature, unencumbered by sin and the ravages of sin. And therefore we would have had the capacity to control or avoid natural disasters, and so on.
Dr. Craig: That's certainly true. The natural evils that occur in the world are often inextricably bound up with moral evil. For example, in South America or in Haiti when these natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes occur, the human misery and suffering that results is so much greater because of the poverty in which the people live, and the substandard housing and structures and buildings in which they live, because the whole of Latin American has been exploited by this elitist upper class that have left the masses living in substandard housing and poverty. By contrast, in a more prosperous nation the results are not nearly so disastrous. I mean, as awful as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami were, just think of the toll that would have been taken had that occurred in some underdeveloped country, like the tsunami that hit Indonesia and Malaysia, and so forth. It would have been just exponentially greater because these disasters are magnified by human evil, I think, that make them much worse.
Kevin Harris: We got this question from Canada:
Dear Dr. Craig, I take it as truth that one of the originally intended meanings of Genesis 1 and 2 is that the universe that God created is good, perhaps meaning more than morally good, but certainly not less. I also take it as truth that the doctrine of the Fall and the introduction of evil in the universe is grounded in the original meaning of Genesis 3 where it is described as resulting from a human choice to set themselves above God. Now, here comes the source of my consternation, and my question: if the original meaning of Genesis and the orthodox doctrines of Christianity in general can be reconciled to the biological theory of evolution, how come human tendencies – which we would describe as sinful and therefore originating from the human choice which lead to the Fall – can be biologically traced back through various stages of our evolution, which we presume to be the way in which God created us, and thus before the Fall? And the second question: how come natural disasters – like mass extinctions, and so on – which we would presume preceded the Fall occurred in God's creation?
Dr. Craig: Well, to take the second question first about natural disasters, let's repeat what we were just saying: natural disasters can be the normal by-product of a universe operating according to certain natural laws, like plate tectonics or weather systems. And these disasters as such are not evil; they cause pain and suffering, but that doesn’t mean that the shift of a tectonic plate is an evil event. And God can permit these things to occur with a view toward maximizing his purposes for human creation. I think that it's not at all improbable that only in a world that is suffused with natural disasters would the maximal number of people freely come to know God and his love and find their entrance into God's Kingdom. It's not at all implausible that in a world in which there were no natural consequences of pain and suffering to anything we did that people would be spoiled, pampered brats who would forget God and would have no need of him whatsoever. So I don't find the fact that there's a world that's replete with natural disasters to be inconsistent with God's love or sovereignty.
Now, as for these human tendencies, if I understand him right, I don't think these tendencies are sinful. I don't think sexual desires, for example, are sinful, or the desire to have an appetite is sinful. So why can't these be the way in which God created us? What would be sinful would be to indulge these appetites or tendencies outside the parameters that God has set down for us. But he identifies these tendencies as sinful. “How come human tendencies which we would describe as sinful can be biologically traced back through various stages of evolution and thus before the Fall?” And I think it's just wrong to think that the sexual tendency is sinful.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, and aside from any long discussion we could get into concerning Genesis and the extent of biological evolution, you're pointing out that sexual desire and lust are not the same thing.
Dr. Craig: Yes.
Kevin Harris: Sexual desire is God-given, and if you have it then your plumbing is working right, so be glad. But lust takes this additional step of misusing sexual desire to view or pursue another person as an object to be used for your own selfish gratification, and that's what Jesus condemns.
Dr. Craig: It's been said that the sin of lust is the second look, not the first. And that's hard to resist, but nevertheless it would be what you do with these basic tendencies and desires that would be sinful or good. If they're expressed within certain contexts like marriage, then this is good and honorable, and God rejoices in it. We shouldn't think of these tendencies as sinful. Similarly with appetite. We can over-indulge and become drunkards and gluttons, which would be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that the human appetite is something that's a sinful tendency.
Kevin Harris: Bill, another reason this question jumped out at me is that it brings up this distinction between God's creating the world good, and not necessarily perfect. God pronounced the original world good in Genesis, but to claim that he made it perfect brings up some problems. Now, can we distinguish between the two? Would our perfection come about through a process, and so on?
Dr. Craig: Well, I don't think perfection has come about. But you're quite right in saying that there's clearly a difference between creation being good and thinking that creation is perfect. I just don't see any reason at all to think that God has to create a perfect world. And indeed I'm not sure there even is such a thing as a perfect world—that may be a logically incoherent concept.
Kevin Harris: But God is perfect and the only standard of perfection?
Dr. Craig: Yes. And so, as I say, I'm not sure that it even makes sense to talk about the idea of a perfect world.
Kevin Harris: So we may not even be perfect in heaven?
Dr. Craig: Well, I don't think so.
Kevin Harris: Because if anything it's a continual . . .
Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. Adam and Eve were created innocent, not perfect. And it's very important to understand that distinction.
Kevin Harris: You know, what we've been talking about really shows up in the movie Braveheart. The king's son in that movie is one of the most horrible characters I've ever seen in a movie. He runs around in his pajamas in the confines of the castle, he's isolated, privileged, spoiled, only to potentially become a ruthless, heartless king. And it seems that the Garden of Eden proves this, that something had to give even in those wonderful circumstances.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and I think that emphasizes or underlines what I was trying to say before: it is not at all surprising that God would choose to create a world in which we would have natural laws that would operate and produce as natural by-products natural evils and other sorts of disasters and hardships, and that only in a world like that would the optimal number of people freely come to know God and his salvation. Otherwise, in a world in which there were literally no natural consequences to anything that we did we would all grow up to be like the king's son.
Kevin Harris: Is this what is referred to as soul-building?
Dr. Craig: That is an element of the so-called soul building theodicy; that is to say that God builds into us certain virtues and character through what we struggle with and suffer. And I think there's certainly an element of truth in that.
Kevin Harris: Are there some objections to it?
Dr. Craig: Well, the main objection, I think, would be, for example, the suffering of infants doesn’t seem to produce any sort of soul-making quality in them because they die, say, of their suffering and aren't perfected. But what that simply means is that soul-making is only a partial explanation of the evil and suffering in the world. We mustn’t think there's a sort of one size fits all solution for why God permits the suffering and hardship in the world. There are just manifold different reasons, and it's no objection to one reason to say that it doesn't cover every case.
 Total Running Time: 14:28 (Copyright © 2011 William Lane Craig)