Pandemics and the Problem of Natural Evil

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The recent Covid-19 pandemic raises the age-old problem of evil and the goodness of God.  How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil things to occur?  Considered by many to be the “Achilles heel” of Christianity, how can an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God co-exist with profound and incessant evil?

In an earlier post, I explained how genuine human moral freedom brings with it the possibility that some evil choices will result.  But what about those events deemed “natural evils,” where despite their devastating impact, no obvious human moral decisions are involved?

It should first be acknowledged that the Bible makes it clear that our world is not currently as it should be.  Disease and sickness are some of the tragic marks of a world deeply marred and damaged by sin.  After Adam sins, God tells him, “cursed is the ground because of you,” and Romans 8:22 reminds us that creations groans and longs to be freed from this curse.  Viruses like Covid-19 are just one more example of a world gone wrong because a long time ago in a garden far, far away, our ancestors refused to submit to and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.  Everyone has been paying a heavy price ever since.

In Christian history, many great thinkers developed responses to this problem of natural evil that have come to be called “theodicies,” or ways of justifying a perfect God in an imperfect world.  Most argue that an orderly creation is a necessary condition for certain divine objectives to be possible.

The idea is this: It would be very difficult for a moral agent to act with intentionality and responsibility in an unpredictable environment.  As Michael Peterson points out in Evil and the Christian God, “If the objects in the world acted in sporadic and unpredictable ways, deliberation and action would be severely impaired if not eliminated.”  For example, if an individual could not predict what would happen when they pointed a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulled the trigger, then how could a responsible moral action be ascribed to that individual?  But the laws of physics as well as past experience (i.e., predictability) clearly inform the event and give the agent at least some knowledge of its moral value.

In addition, the so-called “laws of nature” are a two-edged sword.  As Peterson puts it, “The same water which sustains and refreshes can also drown.”  At this point, it becomes clearer that when people are upset about the way the natural world normally works, they are ultimately asking for is some sort of suspension or alteration of natural law whenever a natural disaster occurs.  But this would only succeed in producing a chaotic and unpredictable universe where the supernatural (miraculous) could not be distinguished from the natural, and where the “normal course of events” would have no real meaning.

Two observations are worth noting at this point.  First, perhaps God really could miraculously intervene every time some natural catastrophe was about to take place.  But again, if God was constantly intervening this way in nature, then predictability and the resulting stability and responsibility of human moral choices (not to mention the possibility of scientific knowledge) would be severe jeopardized, if not rendered meaningless.

The natural universe is constructed such that when an individual’s brain is disrupted by a speeding bullet (for example), the likelihood of survival is greatly diminished.  But if God were to intervene each time a speeding bullet disrupted the brain functions of a human being, then the person who shot the bullet could hardly be held responsible for doing something good or evil.  This would negate all freedom to make a moral choice, for the moral agent could foresee no negative recourse for his or her actions and would therefore never know or have to be concerned about the difference between good and evil.  Consequently, “natural evil” is part of the fabric of the universe for it makes moral decisions possible and everyday life meaningful and predictable.

A second observation is closely related to the previous one.  If God is omnipotent and all-wise, why didn’t He create natural laws that precluded the possibility of natural disasters?  The problem here is that it is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where natural laws that make life possible could have been made such that they exclude the possibility of natural evil.  For example, if water quenches thirst in the human body, it must also have the property of being able to drown the individual who cannot swim.  Exercise is good, but resistance from gravity is a necessary prerequisite to its benefit.  As such, gravity is also the cause of the unfortunate results when someone falls from a tenth-story balcony.  It is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where gravity would operate as it does without also having the potential to be an accomplice to some occurrences of what are termed “natural evils.”

Because the natural order is a highly complex system, even tiny changes in that system will have far-reaching and profound effects upon the rest of the system.  The universe is predictable and functional because of the way it is put together in the current system.  Skeptics and critics consistently fail to provide a workable model for a different system that would have all the benefits of the current system with none of the liabilities.

At this point, Peterson’s conclusion proves insightful: “The whole matter becomes so complex that no finite mind can conceive of precisely what modifications the envisioned natural world would have to be incorporated in order both to preserve the good natural effects and to avoid the . . . evil ones.  And if the desired modifications cannot be detailed, then the further task of conceiving how the proposed natural world is better than this present one seems patently impossible.”

The real objection, it seems, is an objection of both scope and degree.  Given the fact that God is not expected to intervene at every point in which some natural evil might occur, why can’t He at least intervene more often than He already does and so reduce the amount of natural evil we experience?  This has been called the “inductive problem of evil.”  Applied to natural evil, it suggests that God could at least do a marginally (if not significantly) better job of managing natural disasters so that fewer lives would be lost and greater human flourishing would result.

Here again, though, this objection assumes we know better than God about these things.  It is, however, impossible for us to know how much natural evil is already restrained by God in order to make life on planet earth possible.  For all we know, God is constantly holding back the tide of natural hostilities to keep our planet habitable and hospitable.

The sad reality is, we often find it hard to fully trust in God’s wisdom and power because deep down, despite our obvious incompetence and incapacity, we are still convinced we know how to run the universe better than God.  But we clearly do not know what combination of disasters and relief creates the right mix for human beings to be properly chastised for our sin and reminded of our gross inability to control the realities of our own lives, let alone those of the entire universe.

This is where our attitudes and responses to events like the Covid-19 pandemic come most forcefully into play.  Whether we want to admit it or not, part of natural evil’s goal is to humble and remind us that we are severely limited in our power and understanding.  We are decidedly not in control of our own lives and destinies.

In view of this, we can either refuse to submit to and continue shaking our fists at the God who lovingly made and sustains us, or we can beautifully demonstrate to those around us the authenticity and significance of our faith in Jesus Christ by giving thanks, affirming, and resting in His sovereign wisdom, goodness, and grace.

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