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#350 God’s Permitting Natural Evil

December 30, 2013

Hey Dr. Craig,

I was hoping you might be able to help me resolve an issue concerning natural evil that came up as I was going over some notes from my philosophy class I took this past semester. I have been trying to reconcile natural evil with the existence of God spring boarding off of the soul making theory of creation, as posited by the church father Irenaeus, but I keep running into a dead end. Here is my thought process:

Using the same ideas that many apologists use, I can understand God permitting evil to use it for good purposes. It doesn't sit comfortably with many people, but it makes sense logically and theologically. There I don't have a problem. The same idea is used with natural evil in many cases. God permits it to allow us to mature, grow our souls, and ultimately bring people to Him. However, there is one word that doesn't make sense to me, that being "permit". Certainly God permits evils, but with natural evil it seems like more than that. Since nature is on a determined path, I would assume since it has no say so in what it does, does it not follow that the one who determined that path is ultimately responsible for the natural atrocities that occur in Creation? I understand that God could permit evils to happen, but in the case of natural evil, it seems like God is causing evils to happen. We used this same train of thought in my class's discussion of free will to show that if God determined our actions, then He is ultimately responsible for them.

Now, the only way I can see out of this problem is to deny that natural evils are really evil. I don't believe that they are all judgment or a result of Adam's fall, because disasters are simply the result of natural processes. That being said, why do we call them evil? Why do we not rejoice or at base, act indifferent whenever a tsunami hits Sri Lanka? Why do we think that things ought to be a different way?

Let me put it this way. These natural events evoke in us emotional responses such as sorrow, pity, compassion, and the like. That is all well and good in Irenaeus' theory of soul-making. We're supposed to be developing as persons, as souls. However, the conflict seems to arise when looked at the issue this way. These emotional responses come about in the case of moral evil when we are exposed to an event, and we reason that things should not be that way, that there is a better way for things to be. This sense of "oughtness" comes from God, as you have defended in your work. In the case of natural evil, the same emotions come up, evoking in us a response that things should be a different way than what they are. Why are we right in feeling those emotions if God has already set up what is going to happen, as far as natural processes are concerned?

I am really stuck on this one. Everyone who addresses this problem never seems to make the connection between God being the creator of natural processes and said processes being responsible for natural evil. Using that logic, if the processes are determined, God is the cause of natural evil, which flies in the face of everything about the Christin God, unless it's not really evil. However, then the above problems come to a head. The emotions that God created us with tell us that things should be different than what God set up. But if the events aren't evil, then they are good and a part of God's will, and our morals would seem to be steering us wrong. And if that is true, how can we trust our morals? I'm caught in a vicious cycle here!

I understand there being natural consequences to our actions, like CS Lewis pointed out in "The Problem of Pain," but these natural events are outside of our control and completely in God's. You often use the example of plate tectonics as an example of perceived natural evil which has many good consequences. But wasn't it God who set up the laws by which the plates act? Isn't there a possible functioning world where natural evils are avoided and only moral evils are permitted? God may have a purpose in allowing natural evils, but how can He ordain them?

Any help would be greatly appreciated. I can't seem to avoid making God the Author of this evil.

Unless creation actually was affected by Adam's fall.


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Dr. craig’s response


As you can imagine, Nick, there’s so much that could be said about your question!

At one level your question is not really so much about the problem of evil as about the doctrine of divine providence. You’re concerned that God does not merely permit but is the cause of the natural evils in the world. Now clearly, the Christian theist does not believe that God miraculously intervenes to cause every earthquake, tornado, mudslide, or natural occurrence in the world. So He is not the direct cause of such events. At most He can be said to be the remote cause of these events in the sense that He established the natural laws that govern the universe and the initial boundary conditions on which those laws operate. Let’s imagine that God did that at the Big Bang and never subsequently intervened miraculously in the world. Your claim is that God is therefore the cause of all subsequent natural evils that occur in the history of the world.

Now notice that your inference presupposes that “nature is on a determined path.” Yours is the perspective of LaPlace, who boasted that, equipped with Newton’s laws and the knowledge of the present position and velocity of every particle in the universe, he could predict the exact state of the universe at any time in the past or future. LaPlace’s boast is false if quantum indeterminacy is ontic, not merely epistemic, that is to say, really characteristic of nature rather than an expression of our limited knowledge of nature. This sort of indeterminacy is rapidly magnified over time. I’m told, for example, that given the indeterminacy inherent in the position/velocity of a cue ball, within just twelve strikes of the ball, for all we know it could be located anywhere on the pool table! Clearly, if quantum indeterminacy is ontic, God could not cause an earthquake to occur at a specific time and place just by setting up the natural laws and initial conditions of the universe. If an earthquake does occur, it is only because God did not intervene to stop it. That is to say, He permitted it. Problem solved.

But suppose, as I’m inclined to think, that quantum indeterminacy is, in fact, merely epistemic, not ontic? What then? Does that make God the (remote) cause of every natural evil? Well, no. For what is bad about natural evils is not simply the occurrence of certain natural events themselves. There is nothing evil, for example, about one continental plate’s slipping under another, nor about the earth’s trembling as a result. Such natural events are themselves ethically neutral; morality doesn’t apply to rocks and rain and wind. Rather if there is something bad about such events, it’s that human beings get caught in them. As you say, we sense that children ought not to be swept out to sea and drowned in tidal waves. (Notice, by the way, that there is a powerful theistic argument lurking here, as my colleague Douglas Geivett has pointed out. For the naturalist has no basis for saying that a tsunami that sweeps over a Pacific island is a bad thing. It may be bad for the islanders, but it’s a great boon for the marine life surrounding the island! If you say that such things ought not to be, then you are tacitly acknowledging that there is a way that things ought to be. That is to acknowledge a design plan to which such events fail to conform. But that requires a cosmic designer who has determined how things ought to be.)

But if what is bad is that human beings get caught up and hurt in such natural events, then it is clear, given human freedom, that God is not the sole cause of natural evil. For He did not cause people to be in the times and places where the natural events took place. Of course, this is not to say that people are to blame for being in the times and places they are when disaster strikes. Given human ignorance, they’re just unlucky victims. It is simply to say that God does not make the sole causal contribution to the actuality of a bad, natural state of affairs. Again, what He did was permit the people to be in the place and time when the disaster struck. Now non-theists would doubtless say that such lassitude on God’s part is responsibility enough, but that is not the point of your question, Nick. You want to know merely whether it can be sensibly said that God permits rather than causes natural evils. The answer to that question is that clearly this can be sensibly maintained.

Beyond that, the theist will argue, as you note, that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the natural evils that occur, so that He cannot be held to have acted wrongly in permitting such disasters to happen. The non-theist errs in thinking that “what ought not to be” ought not to be permitted. But God can be justified in permitting bad states of affairs. For example, I think it is very plausible that only in a world which is suffused with natural evil would great numbers of people freely come to know God and find eternal life. In a world utterly devoid of natural evil we should likely be spoiled and pampered children, oblivious to God, not mature moral agents--an emphasis that meshes nicely with your own soul-making theodicy. Therefore, it is not wrong of God to permit natural disasters, any more than it is wrong of me to allow my child to go to the dentist.

- William Lane Craig