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The Problem of Natural "Evil"

Dennis Bratcher

 One of the 10,000 vehicles destroyed in the tornado in Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.  Several cars in this neighborhood were lodged in the limbs of trees or on the second floors of partially damaged houses.  Not only leaves and limbs were stripped from trees, but bark as well.  Just to the right of the tree in the center stood a home, now nothing but a concrete slab and a few splintered boards. About a dozen people died in this neighborhood.
Photograph by Dennis Bratcher 2013 - Please Do Not Link to This Graphic

There are two kinds of "evil" or "bad" things that happen in our world, moral evil and natural evil. The moral evil usually poses no problem for us, at least on a logical level (the emotional level is a totally different issue that can be addressed much more easily from Scripture; see Lament Psalms). We understand that many bad things happen in the world because people choose to sin and that brings consequences into our world. Those consequences of sin work out in ways that engulf innocent people, as we see all too well in school shootings or in the frequent civilian bombings in Israel, Iraq, and Pakistan. It works out in other ways, such as the drunk driver who ends up on the wrong side of an interstate highway and hits a bus killing 27 members of a church youth group (Carrollton, Kentucky, May 14, 1988).

The natural evil in the world causes us more problems, however. This is evil in the world that arises from what we call "natural" events, things that are the result of the way the world operates. This would include earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, disease, birth defects, and other aspects of our world that cause suffering and death. These create a problem for us in how we think about God.

The "problem of evil" as it is labeled in philosophy classes is usually presented as a logical syllogism: If God is good (righteous, just), and if God is all-powerful (omnipotent, omniscient), then why does he allow (cause) bad things to happen in the world? The problem is raised because the two premises (the "if" clauses) are assumed to be true. It is phrased as a question because the conclusion should not follow logically from the first two premises, but in fact does happen in the world with alarming regularity. It is usually people of Faith who raise the same question from a more narrowly defined perspective in the form, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Yet the answer to this question lies within the larger issue.

There are various ways to approach the problem, and whole books of philosophy have been written on the subject. Let me suggest a very brief and therefore overly simplistic perspective from which to view the issue. I would suggest that the problem is not with God or the world but in our assumptions about what God ought to be. It is we who create the problem based on what we expect from God.

Let’s begin with the assumptions that lie behind the syllogism. The first premise assumes that God is "good" or just. However, we tend to define "good" and "bad" in relation to ourselves and from a short range perspective. If something makes us feel bad or causes us discomfort, we assume it is "bad." Likewise, if something pleases us or brings us happiness, we assume it is good. But that is not really an adequate basis to make that judgment.

I saw an interesting video recently. Doting parents had bought their five-year-old son a small motor bike because he had begged for one. He was overjoyed at his new present, and the parents were happy to be able to bring such joy to their son. That was why they were video taping his first ride. Even though he could barely keep the bike upright and could just reach the pedals, his father gave him a few quick lessons and sent him off. On his first ride by himself, he gripped the throttle too tightly and the bike took off much too fast. With his father chasing him and his mother watching in horror from behind the video camera, he slammed full throttle into the back of a pickup where the open tailgate struck his bottom jaw. Fortunately, he only sustained a minor skull fracture and lost his bottom teeth.

What appeared to be something good from all present and external experience, was actually something that was very bad from a longer-range perspective. In talking about God, we tend to project our short range, personal, and experiential definitions of good onto God and assume that God is good by our own immediate standards of what constitutes good. We even define God as being "just," but most often do so in terms of what we think justice ought to be for us or in relation to what we understand to be just from our frame of reference. In the process, we often don’t give much thought to how justice for us might be injustice to someone else in a different context.

I want to affirm the goodness of God, and certainly want to say that God is just and righteous. But we need to admit that we are not always able to define exactly what that is in our own particular situations. We know when we experience "bad" things. I don’t think anyone would want to say that the death of a child, a friend dying of cancer, or a tornado that devastates thousands of homes in a few minutes is inherently good. To do so would be to move into the absurd. There is no question that we experience those things as "bad." Yet we cannot simply project our experiences onto God and assume that we have adequate definitions of God based on our own limited experience of the world.

All that is simply to say that the affirmation that God is good is an affirmation of trust in God, not a definition of his character and attributes according to our own experience. We may be able to say that we have experienced the goodness of God in our lives, or that he has taken something evil and made it good. But that relates to the action of God in our lives more than it does to the definition of the nature of God that can then be used in a logical syllogism like the one being considered.

So, the bottom line here is that this first premise is inadequate because we can only define God as good as an affirmation of faith and trust in God. Anything else becomes only a logical construct that is not adequate upon which to build much.

The second premise is likewise problematic. The unspoken assumption behind this premise is that if God is all-powerful, then he would use that power to make the world conform to what we understand to be good. That is, once we have defined what we think a good God is based on our own preferences, then we assume that he will use his power to make the world work in such a way that we will only experience the good. Or, to put it another way, we assume that God’s power exists for the sake of making the world good for us.

Either way, we have again reduced God to the level of performing for us what pleases us and makes us happy. At the very best, this is a selfish view of God. At worst, it is idolatrous. It assumes that we can, or should, control God and his actions in the world.

It is at this point that some of our most cherished ideas create the problem for us. We sometimes assume, for example, that if we pray in faith, God will answer our prayers and give us "the desire of our hearts." And since we have built up certain ideas of God as a provider for all of our wants as well as needs, we assume that most of the time he will give us what we ask. Prayer, then, becomes a way to tell God what we want assuming that the purpose of him being an all powerful God is to give us that for which we have asked (see A God of Strength: Prayer and God's "Perhaps"). And if he does not, it is because we have not exercised enough faith. Or we have harbored some hidden sin in our heart. Or God has a better plan for us to bless us in other ways. So the evil that happens in the world is really our own fault, not God’s, because he stood ready to give us all good things if we had only been able to perform the mechanics correctly.

Or, to take another example, we assume that God is in total control of everything that happens in the world. "There are no coincidences" is another way to express this. The assumption is that nothing that happens in the world is ever a random event; it is all the outworking of God’s cosmic plan. Therefore, the bad things that happen are not really bad at all, but are just God working something else better. So God can kill babies to get the attention of the parents, can cause the deaths of parents to turn young people around, or can give people cancer to teach them patience. So we end up denying that there is ever any real evil in the world; it is really all good since it is all from God according to His plan. While some people can take refuge in this view of God, many others recoil from a God who would plan and execute such suffering and misery, even for a larger purpose.

Yet, if we step away from this conception of God and look in a different direction, we realize that there may be a different and perhaps a better way to understand God’s work in the world. As Creator, God has created the world to work in a certain way. Our modern scientific categories tend to define the natural "laws" that we observe to be operating in our world in terms of independent forces, an impersonal collection of causes and effects that we call "nature." Yet biblical faith understands that no matter what the process, behind it lies the Creator God.

There are "laws" of physics that operate in certain ways that make life on earth possible. The same weather systems that create tornadoes also create thunderstorms that water the earth and that bring fires to rejuvenate forests (certain kinds of pine seeds cannot germinate until they have been through the heat of a forest fire!). The same earthquakes that destroy buildings are part of the very dynamic of the earth that makes it a living planet. The same kinds of bacteria that sometimes make us sick also yield substances that bring healing. And I suspect with all of our scientific knowledge we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of the intricate interrelationships of forces on our planet. And God created it.  We simply do not know enough about our world even today to declare what is inherently "good" or "evil" in those processes apart from our personal experience of them.

The bottom line here is that our confession of God as all-powerful does not really figure into the equation unless we assume that the purpose of that power is to make us happy by our definition of "good." And yet we are never promised anywhere in Scripture that God has, does, or will work this way in our world. He created the world, and there is no evidence that he constantly tweaks the workings of that creation to please anyone’s idea of what is "good."

Could he intervene and stop certain actions of nature from happening so that there would no be deaths from tornadoes or earthquakes? Well, from our limited understanding of God, and from our own ideas of what is good, we would be tempted to answer yes. And in some absolute way, I suppose he could. But the fact is, that is not how human beings have ever experienced God or his world apart from his own special acts of self-revelation.

Here we are faced with the difference between what we think God could do on some cosmic scale and what he in fact does do, and has done throughout human history. The reality is that human beings have always experienced disease and famine from droughts. People have always died in cataclysmic upheavals of nature such as floods and earthquakes. Faced with the reality of how the world works, or how God acts in the world, the question of what could be becomes little more than wishful thinking, let alone something upon which to build an adequate understanding of God.

So, on this basis, I think the syllogism presented above is fatally flawed, and cannot be of much use in helping us deal with the realities of the world in which we live. Rather than helping frame the question in terms that lead to a solution, I think it actually creates an irresolvable problem. I do not think it is adequate to view the world based on the premise of God’s absolute and total control of every event, and therefore on his intention of every single event happening. Nor do I think it is adequate to use our own criteria of experiential good to define God.

I think a far better way to see the world is in terms of God’s purposes of relationship with humanity in which we acknowledge him as God and in which he works in our lives in transformational ways. That works out in life even in the midst of a world that operates with a certain degree of randomness based on how God has already created the world to work. It is not that God will manipulate the world in such a way as to fit within our own definitions of good. It is that he will work with us as human beings, helping us to become the kind of human beings we can become as His people even in the midst of a world that we do not always experience as good or fair or just.

That does not mean that God is bound to the limitations of the physical world in some deistic scheme and will never intervene in it in marvelous and miraculous ways. Biblical history bears ample witness that God does, indeed, reveal himself in the world in just those ways in his own time and manner. But it does acknowledge that those interventions are not the norm, that they are of God's choosing, and that they relate to God's purpose of relationship with humanity, not to our perceptions of comfort and safety.

Just two days after the devastating outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma on May 3, 1999, I spent two hours walking through one of the hardest hit areas of Oklahoma City with my daughter (who worked for the Salvation Army). It was the most incredible scene imaginable. We talked to a lady who along with her daughter and granddaughter, had huddled in the corner of a house that had simply vanished into the sky within inches on either side of them. They all walked away with no injuries. Yet just across the street was a house mostly intact in which an entire family had died.

What would we say to these people? How would we explain the fact that on one side of a street there are houses with relatively minor damage, while on the other side of the street there is nothing left standing more than five feet high, including trees? Do we really want to eliminate randomness and say that God directed the tornado to strike that particular side of the street and not the other? Did God deliberately single out one family for death and then for some reason spare others? Does God really micromanage the world in that way? I do not think so.

I think that if we do not allow for the randomness of the world, we are left with a far greater problem in situations like the Oklahoma City tornado, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, or most any case of natural evil. If we eliminate randomness in the world, then we are left with trying to explain to people how God would do this to them. That is a natural need for us, to try to make some sense out of our world in the face of tragedy. But I don't think blaming God for it is the answer.

Likewise, to say that God's ways are above our ways is simply not sufficient for people who suffer this kind of loss. I find it much easier to believe in a God who does not directly do such horrible things in the world, a God who created the world and then lets it work without having constantly to intervene in it to "fix" what he obviously didn't get right the first time. I can have faith and hope in God far better in a world in which some things just happen, where sometimes coincidence is the only meaning, and where randomness is a fact of life. That is just how the world works.

And yet, I will never abandon the idea that God works in marvelous ways in our world, daily!  The Bible never teaches that God is in total personal control of everything that happens in the world. That is our desire and, I think, an expression of our own sinful need to control. But it is simply not what we know about God. Rather, the biblical promise is that whatever happens in the world, God can take that and work it for good (Rom 8:28). That is the basis of our faith and hope and ability to cope with the world. There is nothing that is beyond God's power to redeem and use for his purposes. -1-

However, that is a long way from saying that God causes everything that happens for some hidden purpose. I think that is a good way to drive people away from God rather than to enable their faith. It's easier to say that God is in control when it is someone else's entire life that has been reduced to a flat slab of concrete with only a few splinters of wood left. I think a better answer is that some things just happen, that there is no hidden meaning in such tragedy. Yet, God will bring comfort, encouragement, hope, and newness out of the most horrible of endings. And sometimes he does that not through some great miracle, but through the generosity and kindness of others, often those who are compelled by the love of God.

God worked a lot of good in Oklahoma City after the tornado. I saw it in the volunteers crawling through the rubble of homes searching for survivors and later helping people find possessions. I saw it in the people who drove through the devastation handing out sandwiches, or tools, or gloves. I saw it in people simply taking the time to let the survivors tell their story. I heard a lot of people talking about hope and the future, as they stood crying over what they had lost. And I saw God at work.

Did that tragedy eat away at their hope? No. I think believing in some sort of randomness in the world is the only way that many can survive and still believe in God. And then when the good comes out of the tragedy, we can gently use Romans 8:28 to say, "Here is God at work."

Notes:

-1-"Closure--meaning a finally satisfactory resolution of the problem of God's goodness in the world--is found in trust and hope, not is some explanation of the world that makes sense of evil, and still less in the claim of human power to eradicate the evil that human reason has understood."  Richard Bauckham, "Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story," in The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hayes, Eerdmans, 2003. [return]

 -Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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