Tag Archives: apologetics

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.

Does God exist?

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Does God exist? This is one of life’s most central questions. Atheists respond with a clear and resounding “No.” Agnostics assert the answer is more ambiguous, claiming it is better to say, “I don’t know,” than give a simple “Yes” or “No” response.

Throughout history, a number of important arguments have been proposed to provide evidence for God’s existence, including moral arguments, ontological arguments, experiential/existential arguments, and cosmological arguments, just to name a few. Although intellectually challenging, I believe one of the best cosmological arguments is the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

The Universe: Does something exist?

The argument begins by recognizing that the universe exists, and that it does so in real space and time. Claiming something, rather than nothing, exists seems reasonable, for if an individual can claim that there is nothing, by the very nature of his or her claim, there must be something in order for the concept of nothing to be contemplated at all. To say nothing exists requires that one claiming non‑existence actually exists to make the claim in the first place. We therefore conclude that we exist and that consequently something really does exist.

The Universe: Did it have a beginning or not?

The next logical question concerning the universe must be, did the universe have a beginning or not? This has been a hotly debated issue during the last few years, especially among the scientific community. The discovery of the stellar “red shift” made it clear that the galaxies were moving away from each other. It was logically extrapolated back that there was a point where all the motion of the galaxies originated in a “big bang,” if you will. All the astronomical data coming in at this point confirms this type of origin for the universe, but most scientists have been extremely evasive about and uncomfortable with the implications of these observations. Why? It flies in the face of a universe without a beginning. It comes dangerously close to the precipice of needing some sort of definite and finite origin for the universe. It must have had a beginning!

Actual and Potential Infinites

For the argument to work, we must now distinguish between the mathematical concepts of actual infinites and potential infinites. Now, stay with me, because this can get very difficult to grasp.

Actual infinites are just that, actually infinite sets of events or numbers. For example, if I have an actually infinite set of whole numbers, the even numbers in the set are equal to the total number of numbers (odd or even) in the set. In addition, actual infinite sets have no beginning or end. If you really think about it, this is illogical and impossible. How, for example, can all the even numbers in the set be equal to all the numbers—both odd and even—in the set? Logically, all even numbers should contain only half the set of numbers, but in actually infinite sets, all the even numbers are equal to the total number of numbers in the set. It is a logical impossibility. That is why actually infinite sets are only mathematical concepts. They may be “useful fictions” in mathematical models and theories, but they do not and cannot exist in our space‑time reality, for they represent illogical unreal and ideas.

Potential infinites, on the other hand, all have a starting point. They are potentially infinite because they can go on indefinitely, but they can never become actually infinite because an actual infinite set by its very nature is not real and has no past events or future events that could occur in the space-time continuum. With an actually infinite set, all the possible events that could occur would have already happened, so to speak. Yet we see in our own universe, that both historical and future events have occurred and will continue to occur. Therefore, the universe we live in could not possibly be actually infinite. It is only potentially infinite.

It does not matter to this argument if the universe has several “beginnings” because there cannot be an actually infinite number of beginnings to go back through. This situation cannot exist in reality, and we know that the universe does exist and that it does have a past and an unfolding future, both features that only exist in a potentially infinite universe that has a definite beginning point. And as was stated above, a potentially infinite universe can never become an actually infinite universe in the space‑time continuum.

Therefore, it seems most reasonable to conclude that, like all potentially infinite sets, the universe had a beginning. Once we get to this point (and understand it!) the rest of the Kalam argument is relatively simple.

Was the beginning caused or uncaused?

To move from a universe that has a beginning, we must then determine if that beginning was caused or uncaused. Everything we know about life and the cosmos suggests that existence and change have causes.

Quantum and chaos theoretical physics has recently sought to find uncaused causes in subatomic theory, but all they have demonstrated is that not every subatomic event has a measurable or predictable cause due to uncertainty. While interpretations of quantum physics is still very much in debate, even if events are apparently uncaused, this does not mean that they are actually uncaused. It merely means we do not know their causes because we do not have the technical ability to properly measure or observe them.

With all of this said, every sound observation of the real world we live in yields the same conclusion: events in space and time have causes. Therefore, it is most reasonable to conclude that the beginning of the universe, as a space-time event, was a caused event, and that this event was caused by something that in and of itself is uncaused. As Thomas Aquinas put it, it is the uncaused (NOT the self‑caused, which is a contradiction) cause of all subsequent contingent events.

Was the cause personal or impersonal?

The next question is this, “Was the cause of the universe a personal cause—a being with intentions and the ability to make choices, or an impersonal cause?” To claim the cause was impersonal is a very difficult premise to defend because it assumes that somehow in the state ontologically prior (for without space‑time, it cannot be temporally prior as we understand time) to the beginning of the universe, certain elements for the creation of the universe somehow existed and then converged at a point where conditions resulted in and caused a created order to emerge.

Such a situation is illogical because outside of space‑time, no events or changes can possibly occur without an initiation of some sort, without some sort of purposeful choice. Something or someone had to bring about the necessary conditions to produce a new reality. It is clearly more reasonable to conclude that the event of creation was personal, made by a being with a will and intentions who could choose at a specific point ontologically prior to the beginning of the universe when time, space, and all of creation would come into being. Otherwise, no basic change in the state of eternality could take place to cause a creation to occur.

Who is this personal being?

It is important to note here that while we have reached the point of saying that the universe exists and had a personally caused beginning by a powerful uncaused “causer,” we have still not found the God of the Bible. We can say some additional things about the character of this uncaused cause, like, for example, that it must be infinite as well as extremely intelligent. But this still does not bring us to the triune God of Christianity. What is needed is some type of sensible, reliable revelatory information about this Creator. I believe this is provided for us through the words and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, as well as the Spirit-inspired word of God, the Bible. Here we have the clearest and most reliable guide for discovering how to know and interact to this infinite, intelligent, powerful, and personal Creator.

Does God exist? He not only exists, He offers a relationship with all who passionately seek to find Him. As God promises in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” That’s a passion worth pursuing with all passion!