Tsunamis and Theodicy: Thoughts on the Problem of Evil
As my friend Bede has noted, atheists have wasted no time in attempting to exploit the tragedy of the tens of thousands of deaths resulting from the tsunamis spawned by the 9.0 earthquake in the Indian Ocean. I could not even wish our readers a Merry Christmas without a skeptic raising the subject. Nevertheless, the deaths of up to (or more than) 100,000 human beings as a result of a geological event does raise certain questions. How can we believe in a good God who allows such evil to occur?
The typical response to the question of evil is to argue that God has given humans free will and sometimes they abuse it. Though persuasive regarding evil caused by humans -- such as murder or rape or bitterness -- does it have any relevance for evil caused by nature -- such as earthquakes, floods, or tsunamis? One Christian response has been to link human abuse of his free will to natural evil. Josh McDowell’s comments are representative:
Because of the fall, the world now is abnormal. Things are not in the state they should be in. Man, as a result of the fall, has been separated from God. Nature is not always kind to man, and the animal world also can be his enemy. There is conflict between man and his fellow man. None of these conditions were true before the fall. Any solution that might be given to the problems mankind faces must take into consideration that the world as it stands now is not normal.
A Ready Defense, page 412.
Although I think that this argument may explain some “natural evil,” it falls short. I do not believe, for example, that it explains deadly geological events such as the earthquake that spawned the tsunamis.
Another explanation which I believe goes further in explaining such “natural evil” is that they are the result of natural laws which are a necessary prerequisite for the ability of humans to exercise free will. It is only by knowing with a reasonable amount of certainty that x action will lead to y result that humans can exercise free will. Predictability, therefore, is a necessary prerequisite to the exercise of human free will. And predictability requires natural laws. And natural laws will be indifferent to their results – whether good or evil.
Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne perhaps adds additional weight to this argument by noting that we must also consider the reason that God gave humans free will. It is not ultimately to give them the ability to choose good or evil. That is a means to an end. Rather, it is to allow humans to exercise their free will to do good. And the predictability of nature, as well as the challenges it poses, explains why a good God can allow natural evil.
A creator who is going to create humanly free agents and place them in a universe has a choice of the kind of universe to create. First, he can create a finished universe in which nothing needs improving. Humanly free agents know what is right, and pursue it; and they achieve their purposes without hindrance. Second, he can create a basically evil universe, in which everything needs improving, and nothing can be improved. Or, third, he can create a basically good but half-finished universe — one in which many things need improving, humanly free agents do not altogether know what is right, and their purposes are often frustrated; but one in which agents can come to know what is right and can overcome the obstacles to the achievement of their purposes. In such a universe the bodies of creatures may work imperfectly and last only a short time; and creatures may be morally ill-educated, and set their affections on things and persons which are taken from them. The universe might be such that it requires long generations of cooperative effort between creatures to make perfect. While not wishing to deny the goodness of a universe of the first kind, I suggest that to create a universe of the third kind would be no bad thing, for it gives to creatures the privilege of making their own universe. Genesis 1 in telling of a God who tells men to "subdue" the earth pictures the creator as creating a universe of this third kind; and fairly evidently — given that men are humanly free agents — our universe is of this kind.
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So, I have argued, there seem to be kinds of justification for the evils which exist in the world, available to the theodicist. Although a good creator might have very different kinds of justification for producing, or allowing others to produce, various different evils, there is a central thread running through the kind of theodicy which I have made my theodicist put forward. This is that it is a good thing that a creator should make a half-finished universe and create immature creatures, who are humanly free agents, to inhabit it; and that he should allow them to exercise some choice over what kind of creatures they are to become and what sort of universe is to be (while at the same time giving them a slight push in the direction of doing what is right); and that the creatures should have power to affect not only the development of the inanimate universe but the well-being and moral character of their fellows, and that there should be opportunities for creatures to develop noble characters and do especially noble actions. My theodicist has argued that if a creator is to make a universe of this kind, then evils of various kinds may inevitably — at any rate temporarily— belong to such a universe; and that it is not a morally bad thing to create such a universe despite the evils.
Is the idea that natural laws with value-free results are a prequisite for the exercise of free will meritorious? And if so, how much does it explain? Does it explain the amount of natural evil in the universe? Could God have possibly made a univere in which there was no natural evil resulting from natural laws that enabled us to exercise free will?
To the extent that it has some explanatory power but perhaps not enough to explain the level of natural evil, does Swinburne's article add anything to the argument? At the least, Swinburne's comments take us into helpful territory. Is free will an end in itself? Or is it a means to an end? Certainly God cares how we exercise our free will. The hope is that humans will use their free will to make the right choices. Did God create the universe in such a way that there are additional motives and interests in choosing the good? And what role does natural evil play in that purpose?
Obviously, I do not have all the answers. Those who have read my writings know that my main interest has been historical arguments regarding the New Testament and early Christianity. But, I will be looking into this issue more. At present, I can say that although I used to be more perplexed by the problem of natural evil, the more I look into the problem of evil the more I understand that it is consistent with a good God. Or at the very least, we do not know enough to prove that it is likely inconsistent with a good God.