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.

. . . .

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.


Anonymous said…
So why did God create animals who suffer? Do they have free will and are they guilty of original sin?
Hilarius said…
The issue for Christians and non-Christians alike is the seeming arbitrariness of natural events and the manner in which members of families are randomly chosen for execution by the killer tsunami waves

The rational mind can not comprehend a God who controls such events in their every detail

The Calvinist would say that God pre-ordains and controls every detail of existence, but scripture ought to clarify these choices since scripture is relied upon for belief in pre-ordination and detailed divine control

The proposition of an imperfectly balanced creation attributable to the fall is less than satisfying, also, because again scripture does not clarify what plainly ought to be understood

The option of a dangerous universe carelessly unfinished also offends against the scriptural account of a creation declared by God to be good

Ought we to conclude that the world as God created it might somewhere contain safe havens if we were fully obedient? This too seems unlikely since lightning strikes men of faith and men of no faith as far as we can see.

When we lose those we love, we have to entrust them to God's care, yet his care on earth appears less than complete

I can't answer this problem from scripture ... except to note that where we go Christ has also been ... accepting the random slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Though Christ's wounds were man made, I take them to be representative of all the wounds we potentially can suffer, including wounds caused by random events.

This is a transitory life at best, and the lesson of natural disasters for me is that every moment, every second of life with those we love should be seen as a precious gift ... never to be taken for granted

The poignant words of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane ... could you not stay awake ... addressed to the disciples ... are a wake up call to us all

We can not know when the hour will come, but it comes like a thief in the night

Every moment together in this world is a gift beyond price dependent for its full value on a commitment to serving others, and we have an opportunity to be received in the loving arms of Christ when the time comes for each of us

We are now charged with the task of helping as many survivng victims of the waves to survive the further risk of disease and life changing trauma

If ever we doubted what it means to take up our cross ... the waves that took so much away have made the task of living together in peace so much clearer

The central scripture of my life is Matthew 25 31-46

Now is a time to read it again and gather up the thirsty, the hungry, the sick, and those in their prison of of bereavement and privation and return them by every effort possible to a sense that we live and die together and while we live supporting each other is our greatest task.

"When you do it for the least of these my brothers, you do it for me" said Jesus Christ.


Layman said…
"So why did God create animals who suffer? Do they have free will and are they guilty of original sin?"

I made no mention of original sin and certainly would not attribute it to animals.

I'm not sure how concerned to be with animal suffering as it relates to theodicy. It certainly cannot be equated with human suffering. But to the extent it creates a problem, it seems pretty clear that my discussions of the necessity of the laws of nature being fixed as a prerequisite to human free will would also apply.
BK said…
If you want some really good books on the issue of animal suffering, I suggest picking up a copy of _The Problem of Pain_ (here:http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=wp40lzDAE7&isbn=0060652969&itm=1) by C.S. Lewis, in which he discusses the problem of animal suffering, and _God in the Dock_ (here:http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=wp40lzDAE7&isbn=0802808689&itm=46) by Lewis, which has a Chapter in part I of the book entitled "The Pains of Animals: A Problem of Theology" in which he answers a critic of his explanation of animal suffering in _The Problem of Pain_.
Layman said…

Lewis defends his argument regarding animal pain, articulated as you note in The Problem of Pain, in God in the Docks, a collection of his essays.

Anonymous said…
One short comment on earthquakes. Without tectonic activity, advanced life on earth would be impossible. The water cycle guarantees that all land eventually ends up in the ocean. Without volcanoes and earthquakes, earth would be a waterworld (like it was when originally created) and people and technology could not exist. The most advanced life would be fish! As far as "natural evil" is concerned, the degree of tectonic and volcanic activity is much less now than at any time in the geologic past, so God has spared us excessive suffering. Ultimately, earthquakes are a necessary "evil" for our existence.

Rich Deem
Evidence for God from Science
Anonymous said…
Hilarius said, "Ought we to conclude that the world as God created it might somewhere contain safe havens if we were fully obedient? This too seems unlikely since lightning strikes men of faith and men of no faith as far as we can see."

Rich Deem's comment, "Ultimately, earthquakes are a necessary "evil" for our existence," seems to reinforce a negative answer to that question. Plate tectonics were formed with the creation of the earth so even if the fall never occurred, people would still have to deal with earthquakes and tsunamis and their effects.

But how could this be if sin and evil weren't introduced through the fall? Why would people have to deal with and suffer from these disasters if they were fully obedient and without sin?

When I started writing this, I intended to only ask this question, but as I was writing a couple of thoughts came to mind in response to it:

1) I once emailed Rich and asked him about the origin of viruses. One response he gave was that they may play a role in human judgement. Perhaps because God knew the fall would happen, He created plate tectonics not only so life on Earth could exist, but also as a means of judgement.

2) If the fall never occurred, people would continue to have close fellowship with God in the same way that Adam and Eve did. So when the time for an earthqake came, God would properly warn us and protect us from any harm and we would just sit back, watch, and marvel at God's power the same way we do when we watch a building being demolished or some other neccessary, spectacular man made event prior to which people are warned and protected.

Also, as a side note, we don't know what kind of bodies man had before the fall and how they would be affected by these types of things.

Just a couple of things that popped to mind. Any thoughts or answers to my original question?

Hilarius said…
Sometimes the most significant theology is found in words with which we are all to familiar

Jesus taught us to pray "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven"

Does this not suggest that God's will is sometimes not being done?

Our God-given responsibility may be greater than we suppose?

ivy said…
The first chapter "A New Look at Genesis" and the fourth chapter "A Philosophical Analysis" especially the G.E.Moore's inverted form of the evidential argument from evil are particularly helpful.


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