Warning: this post will likely only be interesting to my fellow theology nerds, if to anyone.
My post/paper titled Natural Order and Natural Evil, which I wrote nearly four years ago, has been getting a lot of traffic lately (the rest of this post will make best sense to folks who’ve read it). In that paper I tried to suggest an explanation for the existence of gratuitous natural evil. Since writing the paper I’ve continued to wrestle with the Problem of Evil, the nature of God and how science might inform those subjects. In particular I’ve developed a much better appreciation of biological and physical evolution. I’m no longer comfortable with some of the arguments I made in that paper, so I thought it best to put out this “disclaimer.”
As is clear from the paper, it was very important to me to maintain the omni-benevolence of God, even if at the expense of traditional understandings of omnipotence. I was, and remain, sympathetic to the notion that while God should be credited for goodness, God should not be blamed from evil. (Bart Campolo expresses that point of view in layman’s terms powerfully and effectively HERE, for example). It seemed undeniable to me that an all-benevolent God would act to prevent gratuitous natural evil, that gratuitous natural evil occurs, and that therefore God is either not all-benevolent or that he is incapable of preventing all gratuitous natural evil. Greg Boyd’s warfare theology provided a neat explanation: gratuitous natural evil is caused by supernatural evil beings exercising their free will, just as moral evil is caused by the exercise of human free will. In effect he extended the classic free will defense, used to explain moral evil, making it thereby applicable to natural evil as well. While the argument is sound if the premise is accepted, to be honest it now seems untenable to me, and somewhat silly.
I do not now believe that natural evil is caused by supernatural evil beings.
So how then to account for it?
Maybe, as I read recently, there is not only no easy answer to the Problem of Evil, but there isn’t any difficult answer to it either. Nevertheless I will offer a few thoughts to (sort of) compensate for the abandonment of my earlier conclusion (all of which include theism as a premise). Obviously these thoughts need to be developed much more, and I’m happy to continue the discussion with anyone who is interested.
I still maintain that much of what appears to be natural evil may in fact be the consequence of moral evil, relying on chaos theory and the Butterfly Effect.
Quantum mechanics suggests an astonishing degree of freedom in the physical world. Perhaps nature itself has some sort of morally neutral free will.
Perhaps there is no such thing as gratuitous natural evil. Maybe the correct reference point for evaluating natural evil is the biotic community as a whole, or even all of creation, rather than from the perspective of a cancer-stricken child or a fawn trapped in a forest fire, for example.
Perhaps the notion of divine omnipotence has been significantly misunderstood. Perhaps, for example, there is merit in process theology.
Perhaps God is self-limiting and the universe has been designed to participate in its own creation in a way that simply cannot, and should not, eliminate what we regard as natural evil.
Perhaps the distinction we have historically drawn between deism and theism needs to be reconsidered. That is to say, maybe theism can accommodate a theology closer to that of deism, without entirely surrendering the notion of an interactive loving God.
Perhaps Lewis was right about natural order, or much closer to the truth than I gave him credit for.
Perhaps the fact that creation is ongoing obscures some truth or reality that makes sense of what now baffles us.
Of course the easiest solution to the problem is to deny the existence of God. It wipes clean the philosophical slate, rendering the subject irrelevant, rather than solving it. I suppose that it is somewhat akin to my earlier conclusion to just attribute all evil to the devil.
I recently re-read Lewis’ first paragraph of The Problem of Pain. In it he makes a compelling case for atheism:
Not many years ago when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me, ‘Why do you not believe in God?’ my reply would have run something like this: ‘Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if every one of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a by-product to the power that made the universe. As it is, however, the scientists think it likely that very few of the suns of space—perhaps none of them except our own—have any planets; and in our own system it is improbable that any planet except the Earth sustains life. And Earth herself existed without life for millions of years and may exist for millions more when life has left her. And what is it like while it lasts? It is so arranged that all the forms of it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms this process entails only death, but in the higher there appears a new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended with pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. In the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. It also enables men by a hundred ingenious contrivances to inflict a great deal more pain than they otherwise could have done on one another and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonised apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering. Every now and then they improve their condition a little and what we call a civilisation appears. But all civilisations pass away and, even while they remain, inflict peculiar sufferings of their own probably sufficient to outweigh what alleviations they may have brought to the normal pains of man. That our own civilisation has done so, no one will dispute; that it will pass away like all its predecessors is surely probable. Even if it should not, what then? The race is doomed. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will sometime be a uniform infinity of homogeneous matter at a low temperature. All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.
Any solution to the Problem of Evil must answer those challenges. That is a formidable task for any theologian who wants to maintain the premise that God is all-good. But in spite of evidence to the contrary, humanity has consistently accepted and held onto belief in a good and compassionate God. We see a world filled with violence, death and suffering, but at the same time we experience hope and we rejoice in beauty. Mutations cause cancer, but they also enable evolution. Earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and the like have helped form the habitable earth, even as they destroyed living creatures. Predation and extinction have been integral to the creation of higher forms of life.
For now at least, I will not concede that God causes suffering, even if to achieve a greater good. Nor can I accept that he is indifferent to suffering.
On the question of why gratuitous evil exists, I reckon I have to go back to the drawing board. With enough careful thought I’m confident that I can imagine a solution that is settling. But whatever it turns out to be, I’m sure my answer will include an affirmation that God exists and God is good.