Problem of Evil: Important Distinctions (cont.)

EvilPart2Part 2 of a 5 part series on the problem of evil. Part 1

In Part 1 I was considering important distinctions within the problem of evil, specifically the difference between the intellectual and emotional objections surrounding this topic. The discussion continues in this part focusing on the distinction between natural evil and moral evil.

Important Distinctions (cont.)

Natural evil vs. Moral evil

Another important distinction needs to be made between natural evil and moral evil. Moral evil is simply the decisions, priorities and actions of human beings that are contrary to God’s moral law. The nature of natural evil is less clear. Let’s consider two kinds of natural evil. First, there is any kind of natural phenomenon that causes destruction. Such events as earthquake, hurricanes, and tornados frequently result in the loss of human life. Thought of in this way, I believe natural evil is a misnomer. For some the roots of this view may be the concept that all creation was transformed when Adam and Eve rebelled. A very long digression (and change of subject) would be required to discuss why I believe this view is not tenable. In summary, the effect of the fall was limited to Adam and Eve and their progeny, all of humanity. If creation itself, especially the nature of physics and chemistry, was not changed by the fall, then we are left with the conclusion that creation is the way God intended.

The consequences of this observation can be cashed out in many different ways. I will simply offer two. One is based on the much larger apologetic topic of design in all the physical processes of the universe that make complex life possible.[1] Plate tectonics and violent weather systems are just two elements of a vastly complex biosphere that seems to be required for our physical existence. Another view, of a more speculative nature, is that God created in such a way as to constrain the evil He knew would come into creation. This view is at home in certain interpretations of Revelation that take chapter 21 to plainly mean there will be a new creation. A better, more perfect creation awaits humanity in the future.

A second category for natural evil would contain all ways that human beings suffer and die physically. From the myriad of diseases we struggle against to the irresistible march of entropy that is old age, many “natural” enemies beset our lives. As common or “natural” as human suffering and death may be, I do not think it is part of God’s design for creation. Rather, it is a consequence of the sin nature that we have inherited from Adam and Eve.

Another preliminary comment about natural evil, whether talking about an earthquake or cancer, is the purpose (or punishment) that some claim to see in such things. In the previous post I commented that I reject the notion that my father’s cancer was a punishment for a specific sin. Rather, to co-opt an expression, “sin happens.” There are examples of illness and suffering that are directly traceable to actions and behavior: the alcoholic who succumbs to liver disease or the husband who betrays his wife and loses his family to divorce. However we cannot claim to know or even imagine such concrete connections existing between sin and natural evil. An earthquake is not a punishment from God. It is, in my view, a consequence of this creation. Human ailments like lung cancer or Crohn’s Disease are also merely a reality of this creation. There existence is likely a consequence of the Fall, but no one can claim they are a punishment visited on certain individuals.

Before we leave the topic of natural evil, I want to offer an observation based on two recent natural disasters. In January of 2010 and March of 2011 two devastating earthquakes occurred in two very distinct parts of the world. The table below is a high level summary of some key facts about these two earthquakes.

Japan (2011) Haiti (2010)
Magnitude 9.1 (1,000 times stronger) 7.0
Population 127 million 9.8 million
Death Toll 18,000 158,000
Percentage 0.014% 1.6% (100 times larger)


The first row highlights the difference in magnitude between these two earthquakes, the one in Japan was over 1,000 times more powerful. The next three rows focus on the loss of human life in comparison to each nation’s population, the last row being the percentage of each countries population that was killed. Consider the powers of 10 in the first and last rows. The tremendous discrepancy between quake magnitude and loss of life needs to be explained.

I believe the explanation is found, negatively in moral evil, and positively in the capacity God gave man to understand creation (e.g. Genesis 1:28). Haiti is arguably the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The political upheaval and corruption that have plagued Haiti directly contributed to its poverty and the death toll in the 2010 earthquake. When homes are constructed by merely stacking cinder blocks, walls can become deadly in an earthquake. Note the distinction being made here. The earthquake as a natural phenomenon was not sent to “punish” Haiti. They are simply a fact of this creation. Rather, Haiti is oppressed by corruption that leaves its people in poverty. In that situation, the earthquake becomes far more dangerous.

Turning to Japan we can see the positive possibilities of man having “dominion” over creation. I believe it is more accurate to say that we should act as stewards. We should care for God’s creation rather than merely exploit it.[2] Japan is a country resting on the “ring of fire.” As a technologically advanced nation they have devoted tremendous resources and engineering to coping with earthquakes. The natural sciences, as a study of creation, have revealed to man what earthquakes are and how they work. In a sense, such knowledge is a kind of dominion over creation. The understanding of such things allows for technology that prevents loss of life.

In the next installment we will move on to what is known as the logical or internal problem of evil.

(Originally published 4/19/2013)

[1] The reader interested in just one book that explores the depth of this topic should consider The Privileged Planet.

[2] Francis A. Schaeffer and Udo W. Middelmann, Pollution and the Death of Man (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1992).


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