The question regarding evil in the universe can essentially be divided into two categories, those of natural and moral evils. Natural evils are things that do not stem directly from the choices of individuals and consequently cannot be explained in terms of the free volition of moral agents. This category would include all forms of suffering, disease, natural disasters, and so forth. Moral evils are those evils that are the direct result of disobedience to perceived moral obligation on the part of the subjects of moral government. Being a matter of choice, the total explanation for such evil is that beings are free to choose in light of motives whether or not they will behave virtuously or sinfully. In a previous essay (The Problem Of Evil: Part One) we determined that all responsibility for the presence of moral evil in the universe rests entirely on the shoulders of those beings who have freely chosen to disobey. We introduced the fact that God is a being of duration, living in an endless expanse of time, who created a universe of free beings with the intention that they live in conformity to the moral law of their natures. He did not know prior to their actual sin, that they would not choose to follow this intended course for their lives and consequently cannot be blamed for the fact that moral evil has entered the universe. This guilt rests squarely on the shoulders of his free creatures who of their own volition have chosen to disobey. This was a possibility of their creation just as it is a possibility of God’s freedom but in no way was it necessitated by their nature as they were created.
Although moral evil is clearly not God’s responsibility, many suggest that the opposite is so regarding natural evils. Even if wars, tortures, and other cruelties among men are to be attributed to men’s cruel treatment of one another, how is one to account for the very cruel characteristics which the world in general, far beyond the choices of men, seems to have? Children writhing under the pain of incurable diseases, millions dying of famine, a flash flood or earthquake claims thousands. Good and bad men alike seem subject to great evils. Death, a universal enemy, is most unnatural in its complete denial of all life. People are born blind, deaf, or without some vital organ. How do we account for such things? How do we affirm that God is love, absolutely benevolent in all his intentions toward mankind? How could a God of love create a world where such evils could be allowed? If you or I were to choose to inflict such things on our fellow men we would be considered the most malicious of characters. What shall be said for God? Is this what he intended?
No one can look at the world as it is today and be content that this is how God wants things to be. Yet surely the world is exactly how God wants it to be, since no one else could have produced these evils, and God is certainly powerful enough to prevent them. Scripture presents us with what at first seems a contradictory picture of God’s relationship to natural evils. In one place Exodus 4 tells us that God claims to be the one who makes the deaf deaf and the blind blind. Jesus said that one man was born blind so that God’s glory could be revealed through him. This is one side of the picture. On the other side we find Jesus urging us to heal the sick and to help those in misery. We are told to seek to alleviate the very “evils” which God is elsewhere said to inflict. The ultimate contrast is when Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, angered at the very death that he himself as God had inflicted upon mankind. How are these two sides of the picture to be harmonized and God exonerated from the charge of wrongdoing?
A few observations are in order. First, we must recognise that natural law stems directly from the nature of created things. Because things are what they are, they must behave in certain ways when they come into contact and relationship to other things. Wood floats because of what wood is and what water is. Water can be drunk but it cannot be inhaled. Natural laws are the result of the nature of things themselves. God could not have made them behave differently without them being different objects. A thing is what it is and cannot behave differently than it does without being a different thing. God created a world of things to interact with one another, producing a variety of different possibilities. This was a wise and loving choice on God’s part, allowing many different experiences for us to enjoy. But these same properties which allow certain positive results also can produce negative results if they are not used according to their inherent properties. A roof can provide shelter because it is large and flat but if it is not properly supported it will fall. People can find shelter under a roof but people under a poorly supported roof can get hurt. The properties of things make both types of possibilities an option.
In addition to this, a body can function in a healthy way if it is taken care of according to the laws of health. Our bodies contain within them a nervous system to tell us when we are observing these laws, and when we are not. Pain is something good when is tells us to stop pressing on a sharp nail or to remove the weight that is crushing our foot. It can tell us not to eat any more or that we should get some rest. All this is natural and necessary for healthy existence. As such, pain is not an evil as we observe its warnings and act according to the laws of health. But if we do not, or if someone else chooses to violate these laws in their behaviour toward us, the intense pain of suffering will result. In addition, disease can result from improper treatment of our bodies and this can also affect others who come into contact with us. These are the natural results of our physical circumstances.
These observations are not intended as an explanation for natural evils but rather as a backdrop to examining the question and its implications. Although a mountain will kill someone if they are caught in a landslide, this still does not explain why there are landslides, and certainly does not prove that there must be landslides. Some things do not seem a necessary correlate of a created physical world. Even the most meticulous person can take ill and illness does not seem to be only the result of abuse. But although something more should be given as an answer to the question of natural evils, it is important that we understand that much so called natural evils are consequences of men’s incorrect treatment of their health and relations to the external world.
Another observation is the fact of the unity of the human race and the way our actions affect one another. In many ways it seems unfair that someone else’s actions should affect me in a negative way when I have not done anything directly to deserve it. The answer to this seems to be that we also equally benefit in a great many ways through our being in relationship to one another and that God considered that the benefits such relationship would bring far outweighed any possible negative experiences which might result. One might even argue that a person could not truly exist in any healthy sense outside of relationship to others. This seems to be the point of God declaring for the first time that something was not good, referring to Adam’s needing a companion. In an overall sense we certainly do find that the benefits of such relationship outweigh the negatives, although in some individual cases the pain and suffering experienced seems to outweigh any benefits. But even in these cases the idea of the ultimate future state of things would seem to answer for such suffering. This often seems a limp answer in the face of present suffering but it is nonetheless a true factor in the question of the temporary pains we experience in this life. We could only say this is an insufficient answer if we were able to actually witness the future state and compare it to the present. All conceptions we have justify the expectation that it will more than compensate for any necessary sacrifices in this life.
One final observation should conclude our preliminary backdrop to the question of natural evils. We use the term “evil” in referring to such natural phenomena because they produce immediate effects which are not what we would desire to experience and certainly in a perfect world would not expect to experience. But we need a clear picture of what good and evil truly are in order to see whether such things can actually be classified as purely evil, or only temporary measures which are painful but necessary to the ultimate good. If such a view of natural evils could be discovered and applied universally then we would be able to see such phenomena as “necessary evils,” and as such, ultimately good. Such a concept is certainly not foreign to us. The pain of a dentist’s needle prevents the greater pain of having a tooth pulled without the area of gum being frozen. The temporary sacrifices which school studies require produce the ultimate result of a career and lifetime pursuit. These things are only “evils” if viewed strictly in light of the immediate circumstances of the moment. In the total picture they are completely good, not evil at all. Such could also be the case regarding natural evils. They may be circumstances that are presently necessary and required by the state of the world in general in order to ultimately produce results of good. Anything that has the true tendency to produce this ultimate good may be considered good, even if it involves something which, in different circumstances where it was not required, would be considered evil and a hindrance to the good of all.
The Curse A Necessary Evil
With these observations before us, let us address the question of natural evils. That the world originally did not exist in its present state of turmoil seems clear from scripture. In the original state of things there was harmony between man and beast, there was order in the world, and there was no death. God placed man in the garden with the instructions to tend it and to eat freely of all trees except one, the eating of which would produce their death. Whether God meant physical death or only spiritual death we cannot be sure. That spiritual death would result from disobeying God is clear but it could also be that God was placing before them the fact that if they disobeyed they would forfeit the right to live. As the account goes, they ate of the fruit and came under the condemnation that this act of disobedience deserved. At this point God was faced with a decision. He could inflict the penalty then and there. This would have been the end of our race and his loving intentions for it. The other possibility was he could extend pardon as they repented, in the hope they would return to him and choose to live for him as they had been created to do. God chose to do the latter because of the richness of his mercy and grace. However, for God to simply forgive with nothing else being done to protect the influence of his government over mankind, would have been unjust as it would have encouraged further disobedience. Thus he placed the world under a curse, as an expression of his displeasure toward sin and as a constant reminder to mankind of the terrible consequences of sin. He did this in the hope that he could finally redeem the creation as mankind returned to him (Romans 8:20-21). Had he not done this, it would have been unjust to postpone judgement and he would have had to judge. A monumental curse of this nature affecting the entire dominion of man was necessary, not only for Adam and Eve, but also for all of mankind. The very first human pair, in the perfect state of the world, still disobeyed. If God had pardoned without doing something of sufficient magnitude to display clearly to all future generations the seriousness of such disobedience, and of his intention to deal with it appropriately, it would have only perpetuated disobedience in the race and would have made forgiveness impossible.
Genesis informs us that physical toil and conflict with the elements of nature resulted. Now there would be pain in childbirth to women, and agricultural hindrances to men that would require great toil to provide for the family. As well as being an expression of the seriousness of sin, this curse also limited man’s free time in which to sin. In addition, mankind was driven from the tree of life and became subject to mortality, gradually becoming old and dying along with the rest of the world. This curse appears not to have included estrangement from animals and probably also did not involve an upheaval of the earth’s natural systems. We discover that these measures were not introduced until a later time when the increased wickedness of mankind required further intervention on the part of God. The major cause of earthquakes and so forth is probably the flood, when the whole planet experienced catastrophic upheavals. This no doubt has left the earth in a much less stable condition, again a testimony regarding the great judgement that required God’s intervention because of sin. After the flood, man was told to eat animals rather than strictly vegetables, possibly because of changed environment requiring a more nutritious diet. At this time the fear of man was introduced into animals to preserve their species, since they were now to be game for food. So what we see regarding natural evils is an increasing intervention on the part of God because of man’s sinfulness, corporately as well as individually.
Because of the unity of the race in relation to one another, negative aspects have resulted on a corporate level just as the benefits do. Animals are subject to the same physical effects of disease and suffering on their own level because they are a part of the world over which man was given dominion. Men catch diseases, experience suffering, die in catastrophes, because of the measures God has needed to take, both to influence mankind because of their sinfulness, and to make it consistent for him to delay judgement. These are evils that God does not desire to inflict upon mankind and their world, but which have been necessitated by the needs of our race. Although temporary evils, they produce many important results, discouraging men from resting in pleasure and ignoring eternal issues. Men are allowed enough joy and pleasure to make life more than bearable but not enough to allow them to settle down in sin and be lost. Suffering also arouses emotions of compassion and mercy that awaken our consciences to the foolishness of selfish living, becoming a great influence toward our repentance and return to God. Many diseases are natural consequences of wrong behaviour and help man to see the unnaturalness of sin. The fact that we live in relationship to one another means that others who have not sinned in these ways can still contract these diseases, but this is a justifiable evil because of the benefits that could only come from such relationship.
Something Is Wrong
The overall picture given to us by the world is that something is definitely wrong and that we must seek a solution. Our own consciences give us the impression that we ourselves are involved and responsible in some way. Enough benevolent characteristics allow us to see that God is good. The natural evils in the world must be part of a great endeavour on God’s part to restore mankind to himself. It is not that every natural evil can be traced to the sin of the individual who experiences it. No doubt in some cases this is so. Natural evils are a general picture of God’s wrath against sin in general. They are a necessary influence for all men corporately, that affirms to them that something is wrong and that God’s hesitation to judge in no way means that he will never judge, but that he delays so that men can repent and be saved. Thus natural evil is the result of man’s sin and can be fought compassionately without fighting against God. God does not desire these things, only man’s sin has made them necessary. But one of their intended purposes is to arouse our compassion toward one another to help alleviate these very evils. Again, this is not God creating a problem arbitrarily and then calling on us to be compassionate while he mercilessly inflicts these evils. The necessities of his government of the world and of good for all mankind as a whole has required these drastic moral influences to be utilised. But in the midst of these things God has pledged himself to work for the good of all and also to one day make our planet anew, to dry every tear, repaying in full to each individual for the pain that these measures have necessitated. Thus we can look on these things as evils, the result of sin, not blaming God for them. Even though we recognise his hand in them, we can intelligently fight them, without feeling we are fighting God.
Seen in this light, natural evils are not a problem in understanding that a God of love created our world. Rather, we see that men have freely chosen to rebel against God and have made necessary vast measures in order for God’s government of the world to produce the greatest possible good for all, in spite of mankind’s incredible rebellion. Because men are free these measures cannot be guaranteed to produce all the good God would desire them to produce but they are calculated to produce the greatest possible good that the case will allow. Therefore God is shown to be just in his dealings with mankind and the fact of evil, both natural and moral, is to be explained entirely in terms of the sins of mankind.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)