Natural Order and Natural Evil

Here’s a paper I did recently, exploring the Problem of Evil a bit.

Postscript:  After reading it, I recommend reading this “disclaimer.”


Of all the challenges attendant to the development of a theodicy, explaining the existence of natural evil may be the most difficult to overcome.  The free will defense and theodicy built around the value and merit of free will certainly make the existence of moral evil consistent with the existence of an all-benevolent, omnipotent God.  But as Richard Swinburne has argued, “The trouble with this defense is that although it may explain why a good God might permit evil, it only explains why he might permit evil of a certain kind—moral evil.” (Peterson, ed. The Problem of Evil, p. 303) While various theories have been offered to explain the existence of natural evil, none are entirely satisfactory to me.  For example, Swinburne argues that natural evil is necessary in order for creatures to have the knowledge required to commit moral evil, which is itself necessary for the existence of true free will.  (Ibid.)  John Hick sees the existence of natural evil as a necessary component of divine “soul-making”.  (Peterson, 215)  C. S. Lewis argues that it was necessary that God create “a relatively independent and inexorable Nature” in order to accommodate the existence of free souls. (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p.19) Gregory Boyd has developed a theodicy that attributes natural evil to the “irrevocable free wills of spiritual agents who have been given some authority over nature.”   (Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, p. 283)

In this paper I will address briefly each of these arguments, suggesting that each is, to varying degrees, inadequate.  I will argue that the experiential realities of natural evil make the purely theoretical arguments of Swinburne and Hick unacceptable.  Put simply, they do not sufficiently justify God’s seeming passivity in the face of extreme suffering and injustice.  Agreeing with Lewis, I will argue that the existence of natural order and natural laws is an independent good thing, despite the fact that natural order tends to entail some natural evil.   But I will agree with Boyd that it is unsatisfactory to conclude that God permits natural evil to occur, even though he has the power to prevent it, merely for the sake of “order.”  With respect to Boyd’s theodicy, I will argue that while I agree with him that much natural evil may be attributed to the free acts of Satan and fallen angels, he has nevertheless failed to consider adequately the role of natural order in restraining these evil spiritual beings.  As a thesis to this paper, I will argue that through the existence of natural order, and the laws of nature, God has created natural limits to the evil that can be committed by supernatural evil beings.  Finally, I will identify and attempt to respond to likely objections to my thesis.

Why Swinburne’s explanation of natural evil is inadequate.

Swinburne insists that “there must be serious natural evils occurring to man or animals,” in order for men to have the knowledge necessary to employ their free will to cause, permit or prevent evil. (Peterson, 314)  From a purely philosophical perspective, Eleonore Stump has quite effectively rebutted Swinburne’s argument. (Peterson, 317-329)  Swinburne’s argument is, as Stump notes, circular.  For example, Swinburne argues that someone must actually suffer the effects of a horrific disease such as rabies, in order to provide the positive knowledge of the disease, which free humans may then use to prevent, negligently permit, or even malevolently cause the disease.  In response, Stump points out that if God had not permitted rabies to exist in the world, no such knowledge would ever be necessary.  Swinburne has side-stepped the question of why it would not have been preferable for God simply to create a world without that particular evil, obviating any need to gain “knowledge” of it.  Thus, while Swinburne’s argument may philosophically justify some natural evil in the world, it fails to justify the magnitude of the natural evil that actually exists.

It seems to me that there exists a further compelling objection to Swinburne’s position on natural evil.  Viscerally, it is unthinkable that an all-benevolent God, particularly the God worshipped by Christians, would permit or ordain creatures that he loves to suffer the slow, agonizing death caused by rabies, merely to teach some sort of lesson on the effects of rabies.  As Christians, we acknowledge that Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3).  I submit that the vast majority of Christians would agree that Jesus’ actions on earth are incompatible with the notion that he would willingly create a horrific disease and allow humans to suffer from it, for such a seemingly trivial purpose.   And as the exact representation of God, if Jesus would do no such thing, neither would God.  I will resist the temptation to turn this paper into a sermon, and simply conclude by observing that Swinburne’s explanation takes no account of the love and mercy of God.  At the experiential level, it does not take the horrors of natural evil seriously enough.  Any satisfactory theodicy must allow for the maximal love and benevolence of God, not merely his omnipotence.  In this respect Swinburne fails.

Why Hick’s explanation of natural evil is inadequate.

Hick concludes that “this is the kind of world that God might make as an environment in which moral beings may be fashioned, through their own free insights and responses into ‘children of God.’” (Peterson, 226)  The world is “a place of soul making,” (Peterson, 227) and just as human parents raise their children to be “ethically mature,” so must God.  According to Hick, just as human parents seek to instill moral virtue in their children, rather than pure pleasure, so does God act with his human children.  Essentially Hick argues that God has created a world with evil in it, because exposure to evil helps develop our souls.

The inadequacy of Hick’s argument is amply revealed in the critique of Roland Puccetti.  Hick’s well-structured theoretical argument simply cannot withstand the introduction of specific examples of gratuitous suffering.  No parent, however stern he might be, would knowingly subject his children to the kind of suffering described in Puccetti’s examples of the Cancer Patient, or the Brilliant Pianist. (Peterson, 232-234).  To do so would be seemingly incompatible with genuine love and impossibly inconsistent with the character of Jesus Christ.  Hick, like Swinburne, fails to construct an argument that sufficiently accounts for the supreme goodness of God.

Why Lewis’ explanation of natural evil is inadequate.

In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis argues that consistent, predictable, inexorable rules of nature are necessary in order for creation to function in a stable meaningful way.  “So it is with the life of souls in a world:  fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible.”  (Lewis, 25)  Put differently, humans must have a stable natural world within which to exist.  That world must be governed by some predictable laws of nature, which God may alter miraculously, but only rarely.  Otherwise, Lewis insists, the world would become arbitrary and would cease to be a world in the sense we know it.  “If matter is to serve as a neutral field (for human interaction) it must have a fixed nature of its own.”  (Lewis, p. 22)

In my judgment, Lewis comes much closer to the mark that did Swinburne and Hick.  Rather than attribute the ways of the world to “soul making” or some sort of divine instruction, Lewis suggests that human existence is like a game of chess—and therefore there have to be some unchanging rules.  Otherwise, he says, it ceases to be a game at all.  In this world, the “rules” are the laws of nature, and the natural order.  But, as with Swinburne and Hick, Lewis does not adequately explain why an omnipotent God, who by his benevolent nature should prevent all the evil he can, would create rules that result in so much suffering, pain and evil for the players.

Why Boyd’s explanation of natural evil is inadequate.

In his book Satan and the Problem of Evil, Gregory Boyd constructs a theodicy that satisfactorily accounts of the existence of natural evil, without sacrificing the supreme goodness of an omnipotent God.  Boyd argues that “Satan and his legions are directly or indirectly behind all forms of natural evil.” (Boyd, 318)  The world is part of a cosmic battleground in the state of war that exists between God and the forces of evil. We humans suffer when we are caught in the crossfire.  Boyd boldly argues that “all evil proceeds from wills other than God,” (Boyd, 216) and that “Whatever good (God) can do, he does.  Whatever evil he can prevent, he prevents.” (Boyd, 200)

Boyd’s argument plainly overcomes the objections expressed above to the theodicies of Swinburne, Hick and Lewis.  Boyd fully accounts for God’s supreme goodness, by essentially absolving God of responsibility for any evil, and contending that God actively works to do all the good he can, and prevent all the evil he can.  Of course this raises the very serious question of whether Boyd has preserved God’s goodness at the expense of his omnipotence.  A great deal of Boyd’s excellent book is addressed to the question of whether his theodicy is consistent with an omnipotent God, and am I satisfied that Boyd has successfully defended himself on that charge.  Yet I have a significant objection to Boyd’s arguments, which he does not address in his book.  Accepting the argument that natural evil is caused by satanic forces, and that God stops all the evil he is capable of stopping, it would seem that God is unable to prevent Satan from committing natural evil.  If that is the case however, then why is there not more natural evil?  If Satan has free reign to visit natural evil on humans, then why does he not use natural evil to destroy us fully?  Why is it that, on the whole, natural evil is the exception, rather than the rule?  Why is natural order generally beneficial to humans (as Lewis observed) if it is under the control of Satan?  I submit that Boyd has not adequately defended his position, in the absence of answers to these questions.

Through natural order and natural laws, God limits natural evil.

I submit that Lewis is correct in supposing that the natural order and natural laws of earth are for the benefit of man, and indeed make life itself possible.  Following through on Boyd’s observations regarding chaos theory and the complexity of causation, I submit that much of what we believe to be “natural” evil is, in fact, the unintended result of the free acts of humans.  Like Boyd, I agree that supernatural evil beings, not God, cause the existence of natural evil.  And like Boyd, I agree that God in his supreme goodness acts to the full extent of his abilities (confined as they are by his created natural order and the free will he gave his creatures) to do good, protect his creatures, and prevent evil.  I will argue that when God created the natural order that governs natural existence, he did so in a way designed to limit the ability of free agents, human and angelic, to cause natural evil.  It is this God-imposed limitation that prevents Satan from completely destroying humanity, thus insuring God’s ultimate victory.  Satan can influence nature, and in doing so he can harm humans.  But God designed nature to be more powerful than Satan.  Natural order is a reflection of God’s love and care.  While natural order, like moral order, has been infected with sin, it is designed in a way that prevents it from being completely under the control of evil.  Thus, the ultimate triumph of God and love is insured.  Satan’s ability to manipulate the goodness of nature in order to cause evil is ultimately insufficient to overcome the redeeming power of God’s grace, as manifested by the cross.  In the end, love wins.

Before discussing the causation of natural evil, it is worth noting that developments in scientific theory on the complexity of causation (particularly chaos theory) may reasonably lead to the conclusion that much of what has been traditionally seen as “natural” evil, unattributable to the free will of humans, may in fact result from human conduct.   Simply put, chaos theory reveals that natural systems are so complex and dynamic that very minor variations in the system may set off a chain of events that significantly alters the system on a long term basis.  This notion has been popularized as “the Butterfly Effect”–based upon the idea that a single flap of a butterfly’s wing in China, for example, may set off a cascading series of atmospheric effects that could result ultimately in the formation of a deadly hurricane off the coast of Florida two years later.  The amazing and virtually incomprehensible interdependency and connectedness of natural order is such that literally every act of every being will create effects well beyond what the actor intended.  Thus, when a mudslide buries innocent children in a Haitian village, it may well be that the mudslide would never have occurred, had a particular African butterfly not flapped its wings at a particular moment years earlier.

Obviously if the intentional act of a butterfly may cause “natural evil” to occur, so may the intentional acts of human beings.  It may well be, for example, that a person in Orlando, sighing in frustration in 2009, may introduce into the atmospheric natural order a series of events that ultimately include a deadly Haitian mudslide in 2011.  While in some sense it might be said that the free decision to sigh caused the deaths of the Haitian children, certainly such an act could not be considered moral evil.  Suppose, on the other hand, that the person in Orlando introduced the change to the atmospheric order not by sighing in frustration, but by cursing his children, or by raising his arm to strike his wife, or by firing a gun in the commission of a murder.  In such a case the ultimate “natural evil” in Haiti may in some sense originate in moral evil in Orlando two years earlier.  I submit that chaos theory, and the butterfly effect, suggest that we must consider the possibility that much “natural” evil actually originates with moral evil, and that such “natural” evil may therefore be properly assigned to the fact that God has given human beings the freedom to do evil.

Further, for purposes of my argument, it is not necessary that the bad moral act that results in the “natural” evil be something as obvious as assault or murder.  It may well be that humans collectively are introducing effects into the complex system of natural order, through such things as industrialism and pollution, for example, which will ultimately have catastrophic results .  In such a case the responsible moral evils are things like greed, gluttony and irresponsibility.  American overconsumption and greed, for example, may create a demand for products from Chinese factories that operate without emission controls.  Emissions from those factories may trigger atmospheric events that lead to Haitian children dying in a mudslide.  Likewise, had Haitians not foolishly destroyed their environment, by denuding the mountainsides of trees, the natural conditions for a mudslide would not exist.  Here again, human free will is ultimately to blame for the “natural” evil.

Even as we grant that human free will may account for much more of “natural” evil than previously imagined, we must acknowledge that there still exists natural evil that cannot be attributed to abuse of human free will. It is to an explanation of the possible origins of such natural evil that I will devote the balance of this paper.

As argued above, evil that cannot be attributed to free will poses a significant problem for those who believe in an omnipotent all-benevolent God.  That such a God would so value human free will that he would tolerate the moral evil that flows from it, is easily understood.  But why would such a God permit natural evil, which is not the result of the existence of free will?  As argued above, I find unsatisfactory the theodicies and explanations that claim God is free to prevent such evil, but unwilling to do so.  On the other hand, while Boyd argues convincingly that God in fact does prevent all the evil that he can, and is not therefore any more complicit in natural evil than he is in moral evil, he leaves some troubling questions unanswered.  I will argue that Boyd is correct that gratuitous natural evil is caused by Satan, not God.  I will supplement Boyd, however, by arguing that God created natural order as a way to limit the damage that can be done by abuse of angelic free will.

The Bible clearly supports the idea that Satan causes natural evil.  On the authority of the Bible, and the revealed truths it contains, we know that “the whole world is under the control” of Satan, who is also called the “god of this age” and the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (1 John 5:19, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 2:2), that Satan holds the power of death (Hebrews 3:14), and that he can cause human disease and infirmities (Luke 13:15, Mark 9:25, Luke 11:14).  Satan is a murderer (John 8:44) and it is only natural that he would seek to kill humans and destroy God’s creation.

Wallace Murphree has argued that the only possible explanation of natural evil that is totally consistent with the belief that God is both all-good and all-powerful, is that it is caused by Satan.  Murphree argues that:

(a) If God is perfectly good he must do everything he can “properly” do to prevent evil. (b) The only evil that God cannot “properly” prevent is evil arising from the willing of a free agent, for preventing this would result in a loss of the greater good of having freedom.  (c)  Natural evil cannot be attributed to any human agent.  Hence, natural evil must be attributable to a perverse nonhuman agent. 

Thus, he concludes, “common sense theism is epistemically committed, not only to the affirmation of free will, but to the existence of a devil as well.”   Boyd agrees, concluding: “We thank God for good health and sunny days.  So why should we not credit a nonhuman evil agent for the way our otherwise neutral environment sometimes curses us?” (Boyd, 284)  Tornadoes that kill children in church, for example, originate in the kingdom of Satan and are “acts of terrorism” in the cosmic war between God and Satan. (Ibid.)

So if the whole world is under the control of Satan, who has the power to cause natural evil even when God doesn’t will it to occur, then why is there not more natural evil?  If Satan and his demons possess the unrestrained freedom to strike humans with disease and to wreck their lives with natural disasters, then why do so many millions of humans never experience such horrors?  If we assume that Satan is all-evil, then it follows that he will commit as much evil as possible.  It therefore follows that there is natural evil that Satan is unable to commit.  I submit that the natural order itself limits Satan’s ability to commit natural evil, and that God designed the natural order to do just that–naturally limit the damage which can be done by evil angelic free will.

Before expressing my argument, another preliminary observation is in order. I do not argue that all of what we perceive to be “natural” evil is caused by Satan.  As I argued above, some of what we perceive to be “natural” evil is actually the result of moral evil that affects the complex natural order.  Further, we must acknowledge that God sometimes causes what we perceive to be “natural” evil, either punitively (as in the case of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) or to effect some greater good (as for example when, in answer to a prayer for protection, illness causes someone to miss a flight that crashes).  Lacking God’s worldview, we are often unable to distinguish true natural evil from “natural” evil that is, in fact, caused by moral evil, or caused by God to bring about a greater good.  Nevertheless I submit that such true natural evil exists.  For purposes of my thesis, by “natural evil” I mean evil that is “gratuitous.”  By “gratuitous” I mean not caused by God to serve some greater good.

My argument may be expressed as follows.  (a) God is all-good and will therefore prevent all the gratuitous natural evil that he can prevent.  (b) Gratuitous natural evil occurs.  (c) There is therefore some gratuitous natural evil that God cannot prevent.  (d) The gratuitous natural evil that does occur is caused by Satan and his demons, through the exercise of their corrupt angelic free will. (e) Satan is all-evil and will therefore commit all the natural evil that he can commit.  (f) The amount of gratuitous natural evil that occurs is less than the maximum amount of gratuitous natural evil that could potentially occur.  (g)  Satan is therefore unable to commit the maximum amount of natural evil that could potentially occur.  (h) The potential gratuitous natural evil that does not occur, is not prevented by the active inference of God, whose supreme goodness would cause him to prevent all gratuitous natural evil, rather than just some of it.  (i) Satan is therefore prevented from committing a significant amount of potential gratuitous natural evil by something other than the active interference of God.  (j) It is the natural order created by God that limits the amount of natural evil that corrupt angelic beings like Satan are able to commit.

Before discussing this argument further, I must point out that I have not overlooked the power of prayer.  In fact, prayer does work to prevent evil, including natural evil.  For reasons unknown to us, however, prayer does not always prevent evil from occurring.  Sadly, sometimes evil occurs despite sincere faithful prayer intended to prevent it.  I submit that the influence and power of prayer becomes part of the complex mix of natural forces, orders and laws that limit the extent of natural evil, as will be discussed below.  Sometimes prayer is sufficient to make impossible the natural evil that would otherwise occur.  At other times, it is not.  Jesus taught his disciples to include in their prayers a petition for protection from the evil one.  Millions of Christians regularly pray for such protection.  And many millions of other faiths pray similarly.  While it cannot be proven, of course, I submit that such prayers for protection are often effective.  Why are they alone not universally effective?  At this point I must press the Mystery Button.  Beyond being confident that prayer becomes part of the limiting natural order of proposition (j), I have no further answer.

Returning now to my argument, I support proposition (d) with the arguments of Murphree and Boyd, and with the biblical authority cited above.  Each of the other propositions, with the exception of (j) are, I submit, self-evident or logically inescapable.  The part of my argument that requires defense, therefore, is proposition (j).

Initially, let us consider what other factors might limit Satan’s ability to cause natural evil, other than limits imposed by nature itself.  Perhaps it could be argued that Satan simply inherently lacks the power to cause more natural evil than that which does occur.  Put differently, maybe Satan’s ability to cause natural evil is restrained by nothing other than his own limitations.  In human terms, maybe Satan is not physically capable of doing any more than he does.  While it seems that this possibility cannot be conclusively disproven, history and experience suggest that it is incorrect.  If Satan and his allies can cause tsunamis, droughts that last for decades, epidemics that kill millions and volcanic eruptions that bury civilizations, surely he is not somehow too weak to assure that Haiti experiences mudslides more frequently, for example.

If Satan is not self-limited in his ability to cause natural evil, then the only remaining alternative to the existence of natural limitations, are supernatural limitations.  Thus it might be argued that Satan is restrained by God, by angels, or by the prayers of the faithful.  God does not directly restrain Satan, however, for the reason stated by Murphree–to do so would compromise Satan’s free will.  So what of angels and prayer?  I submit that angels and prayer do in fact act to limit Satan’s reach, but that they do so in combination with the natural order.  In effect, the protection of angels and prayer are part of God’s natural order, designed by him to help hold Satan and demons in check.

To use Boyd’s metaphor, humans live amid a cosmic battlefield, where a war is raging between Satan and God.  We are caught in the crossfire.  Satan is seeking to do all the evil he can to us, but is constantly being battled and frustrated by angelic protectors and by the power of prayer.  Further, his evil is limited by the natural order itself.  Boyd observes that while Christians trust God to protect them from evil, they still lock their doors at night.  I submit that the natural order is God’s way of locking the doors of nature to Satan.  For example, Satan may use his power to start a forest fire, which may burn to death a trapped fawn.  But the natural order will cause the fire to eventually be extinguished by rain, or by diminished winds, or by exhaustion of fuel.  The fire will not burn to death every creature in the forest.  Satan may cause a disease to appear and kill millions of people.  But eventually God’s natural order, through antibodies and immunities, will defeat the disease.  Satan may cause devastating earthquakes, but God’s natural order prevents them from occurring where there are no fault lines.  Innumerable natural defenses, the vast majority of which are probably still unknown to modern science, constantly hold Satan’s evil in check, assuring the continued survival of mankind.  Satan rages on, visiting death and disease on man, but he was mortally wounded on Cavalry.  He is now just a wounded animal in a corner, lashing out, while bleeding to death.  God’s natural order limits the harm that Satan can do in the interim between the resurrection and the final victory of love.

I will conclude by addressing two likely objections to my thesis. First, the objector will contend that my thesis denies the omnipotence of God.  Secondly, the objector will contend that a God who is unable to prevent the occurrence of natural evil is unworthy of worship.

Surely, however, an omnipotent God could create a natural order wherein natural evil occurs that cannot be prevented by him.  Once God sets the laws of nature, and through his omnipotence creates and defines those things that will affect those laws, they become, in Lewis’ words “inexorable laws.”  At that point they are fixed, and God cannot alter them any more than he can make a square circle, or a married bachelor.  Further, I have argued that everything we know as natural evil is actually caused by the free will of man or fallen angels.  Free will is absolutely necessary to achieve the greatest good–love.  And once granted by God, such free will must be irrevocable.  To create the opportunity for free agents to freely choose love, an omnipotent God had to irrevocably surrender some control.  The Bible clearly reveals that God’s will is not always done on earth.  Jesus even instructed his disciples to pray that God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  There would be, of course, no need to pray that God’s will be done on earth, if it already is being done, or if it is impossible for God’s will not to be done on earth.   In the end, those who protest that a God who cannot intervene to prevent gratuitous evil is therefore not omnipotent, must remember that a God who can intervene to prevent gratuitous evil, and does not, is not all-good.

As to the second objection, that a God incapable of preventing all natural evil is unworthy of worship, the objection is disproven by considering its opposite.  The objector asks, “Why should we worship a God who does not have the power to prevent all gratuitous evil?”  I respond, “Why should we worship a God who has the power to prevent all gratuitous evil, but refuses to do so?”  Which is more worthy of worship:  a God who, despite having the power to stop it, allows a mudslide to bury innocent children in Haiti, or a God who does everything he can to prevent such a tragedy, which ultimately proves unstoppable?

“Where…did these weeds come from?”  “An enemy did this,” he replied. Matthew 13: 28

God, in his omnipotence, and to accomplish the creation of love, created a world inhabited by natural and supernatural beings possessed of irrevocable free will, which has been misused by them to cause moral and natural evil.  To protect humankind from the evil that could otherwise be done to them by Satan, God has established a natural order that limits the amount of damage Satan can do, and that assures humans will survive and that love will prevail.

Love Wins