Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Natural disaster

Mr. Kettle,

A friend drew my attention to your column on the problem of evil.



It is hard to know where to begin.

1. Unlike you, many Christians don’t wait around for disaster to strike before working out a position on the problem of evil. Augustine wrote about the problem of evil in his magnum opus on _The City of God_. This is widely available in translation. Aquinas wrote about the problem of evil in his commentary on the Book of Job. This is also accessible in translation. Cf. _Thomas Aquinas, The Literal Exposition of Job: A Scriptural Commentary Concerning Providence_, A. Damico & M. Yaffe eds. (Scholars Press 1989). There is even an online precis of the argument at:



For a more recent treatment of divine providence, cf. P. Helm, The Providence of God (IVP 1994).

I notice that, when it comes to the subject of religion, many op-ed writers feel that they have a perfect right to air their opinions without benefit of research. Perhaps you can explain that presumptuous policy to me and your other readers.

2. For reasons you never explain, you set up a dichotomy between a theological explanation and a scientific explanation. What makes you think that belief in a seismic mechanism is incompatible with belief in God? Christian theology is not opposed to the idea of second-causes. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith discusses second-causes in relation to the plan and providence of God (cf. WCF: 3:1; 5:2).

3. You describe the Lisbon earthquake as “appalling.” Interesting choice of words. Is that a scientific analysis? Is that an empirical property adhering to earthquakes?

To call an earthquake appalling is not to render a scientific judgment, but a value judgment. But, according to your column, there are only two types of explanation: scientific and theological. And you treat these as mutually exclusive. So where does the ethical evaluation of a natural event fit into your worldview?

4. How, exactly, do you think that a natural disaster undermines the notion of a divine order? How can you ask why an earthquake will strike in some places, but not others?

Natural disasters are not random events. To begin with, natural disasters (e.g., volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, forest fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, electrical storms) serve a natural purpose. Many of them function as a natural safety valve to equalize the buildup of potential energy, extreme pressure or heat imbalance.

Moreover, different natural disasters are generated by different natural conditions. This may be news to you, but one only encounters a volcanic eruption where one encounters a volcano.

5. We choose to characterize certain natural events as “disastrous” or “catastrophic” because they are disastrous or catastrophic for us. But natural elements and natural forces have a constructive as well as destructive aspect. Fire warms, but fire burns. Too little water will kill you, but too much water will kill you as well.

6. Many natural disasters are avoidable. Men choose to live in regions prone to certain natural disasters. Men choose to wait until disaster strikes before they take precautions. Men often create the conditions for a natural disaster through shortsighted policies.

One consequence of living in a moral order is that if you tempt fate, if you choose to be foolhardy, you may lose the bet. If you choose to live in the tropics, you expose yourself to tropical storms. If you choose to live at sea level along the shoreline, you expose yourself to coastal flooding. If you live in a dry, wooded area, you expose yourself to wildfire. If you love to live around mountains, you expose yourself to volcanoes, earthquakes, and snowslides. If you deforest a hill, you expose yourself to mudslides. If you build on a landfill, you expose yourself to liquefaction. If you live on a riverbank, you may get inundated. If you live in a drought-prone region, you may suffer from famine. If you go outside in a thunder storm, you may be struck by lightning. If you swim with sharks, you may be eaten. If you swim at all, you may drown. If you live around rattlesnakes, you may be bitten. If you hike in the mountains, you may die of exposure. If you climb a mountain, you may tumble to your death.

My point here is not to assign blame. My point, rather, is that where you choose to live is often a calculated risk. Life consists in a series of tradeoffs. A natural disaster is only a challenge to religious faith for a columnist who entertains an utterly childish notion of how the world should work.

7. You can only become disillusioned if you nurse illusions in the first place. You can only see your expectations dashed if you foster false expectations. People in Bible-times knew about earthquakes (Amos 1:1; Zech 14:5).

8. Nature is cyclical. God has made it so in order that we can plan our lives accordingly (Gen 8:22). Without a measure of constancy to the natural world, life would be utterly unpredictable, which would, in turn, make it very difficult to live at all.

This enables us to harness the forces of nature. But, by the same token, we must respect the forces of nature. In ancient Egypt, the agricultural economy was dependent on a natural disaster--the annual flooding of the Nile.

Electricity is a source of electrocution and electrification alike. Used the right way, it will make life a lot easier; used the wrong way, it will put an end to life.

Life would be pretty inconvenient without gravity. Imagine trying to survive in a weightless environment? But if you fall off a cliff, then gravity becomes, for you, a natural evil. Ought God to suspend the laws of nature every time someone somewhere does something dangerous? Consider how that would jeopardize everyone else? If everything were miraculous, life would be a nightmare.

9. Yes, there's a sense in which many accidents and natural disaster are indiscriminate. Yet they are indiscriminate, not in the sense that the innocent die along with the guilty, but in the sense that some sinners live, while other sinners die. Jesus spoke of this. He refers to an incident, fresh in the minds of his audience, of a tower that collapsed, killing eighteen people (Lk 13:4). He then says something which must be shocking to modern sensibilities: “Do you think they were worse sinners than anyone else? Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish!”

The victims were sinners, and the survivors were sinners. Those who died didn't die because they were especially sinful, especially deserving of death over and above those who came out of it alive.

In a fallen world, every life is forfeit, every life under divine judgment. God is under no obligation to spare the lives of sinners. Everyone dies sooner or later. And death is a sanction for sin.

You say there is only one big question to ask about the tidal wave: why did it happen? But, no. The one big question to ask is this: what happens to you after you die? And the lesson we should take away from a natural catastrophe is this: “Repent, lest you perish as well!”

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<< Some comments about choice:

You talk about people "choosing" to live in the tropics, or on the coast, or various other places where potential dangers lurk. Actually, the vast majority of people in the world don't choose where they live. They're born there and grow up there. They're part of societies and cultures that have been rooted in a given place for hundreds or thousands of years. >>

This objection teeters on an obvious equivocation. No, people don't choose where they are born. But that wasn't my point, was it? There is a clear difference between where you were born and whether you choose to live out your days in your place of birth.

Yes, they are rooted in an ancient culture. And this supplies a disincentive to pull up roots. People generally like to live among their own kind, stick with what they know.

That's natural and understandable. There's nothing wrong with that. Often there's a lot that's right with that. But it's a choice all the same, and it comes with certain consequences.

<< Also, most of these people are not in a financial position to just pack up and go somewhere else. >>

i) Isn't it often the other way round? People emigrate to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves? To take one example, the Irish emigrated to America to escape the potato famine.

ii) The question of poverty is where natural and moral evil sometimes intersect. Why are people poor? Well, there are a variety of reasons. They may live in a region that lacks the natural resources to support a large population. That is a natural evil, but to some extent it is an avoidable natural evil.

Or they may be poor because a powerful few exploit the masses. That is a moral evil. At the same time, some oppressed peoples revolt while others suffer under the yoke for generations on end. That is a choice. Both choices have consequences. To mount a revolt is not risk-free. But to live under oppression carries a cost as well. Each choice is reasonable. Each choice has its tradeoffs.

iii) Some people continue to have more children than they can support. This was understandable before the days of contraception, but it continues to be the case in many parts of the world where contraception is available.

That, again, is a choice. I have no objection to large families. But there are consequences in either case.

<< Certainly the kids who were killed were not in a position to assess the dangers of living there and decide to move elsewhere. >>

Parents make choices for their kids. Kids benefit from having prudent parents, and suffer from having imprudent parents. If a father is jailed for theft, his kids will suffer. One of the things that makes a moral evil evil is that the innocent may suffer along with the guilty, for things done by evil-doers.

<< Besides, tsunamis are not a frequent phenomenon in the Indian Ocean region. >>

True, but that's a gamble, isn't it? A calculated risk.

<< As for the millions living on the coasts of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, or Tamil Nadu (southern India) being a foolhardy bunch -- if anything, it's the opposite. >>

Now you're applying my characterization to examples to which it does not apply. Risk ranges along a continuum. If I build a house on the bluffs of La Jolla, erosion may eat away at the foundations. If I build a house on a riverbank, or shoreline, or dry, wooded area, I assume a heightened risk. I do so for a heightened advantage--the pretty view.

Fine, I like pretty views. But if disaster strikes, I either have no one to blame but myself, or else it isn't a question of assessing blame at all.

If mountain-climbing is my hobby, I assume an added risk. You could multiply examples as well as I can. Some risk-taking is reckless, other forms are more reasonable, but they still play the odds, and when you choose to play the odds, you're luck may run out.

Only an ideology drenched in the politics of victimology, an ideology which treats every adult as a minor incapable of informed consent, would take exception to my common sense observations on this particular point. But that seems to be where Kettle and Nguyen are coming from.

<< These are all areas where people can earn a livelihood through fishing, coconut harvesting, and various related activities. They're lush, temperate areas that normally provide ample food and materials for shelter. >>

Yes, and that makes it a reasonable choice--a reasonable risk assessment. But the cost/benefit ratio doesn't make it 100% safe or risk-free. It only means that the positives generally outweigh the negatives.

<< To talk about "choosing" the region one lives in is a very American way of looking at things, where people pack up and move pretty much at will. >>

Surely you're not serious? How was America colonized in the first place? And not just by the Europeans. What about the Mesoamerican civilizations (Inca, Aztec, Maya). These are not indigenous to the new world.

Trade & travel (by land and by sea), immigration/emmigration, invasion, conquest, empire-building are a commonplace of Far Eastern, ANE and Levant--of Orient and Occident alike. Writers like Charles Hapgood (Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings) and Cyrus Gordon (Riddles in History; Before Columbus) have written extensively on this subject, while field archaeologists like the late Thor Heyerdahl have actually recreated some of the ancient mechanisms of cultural diffusion. The itch to discovery the unknown is not a modern phenomenon--think of Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and Pytheas of Massalia? Think of how Alexander sent cultural artifacts back to Aristotle.

<< And even in the US, millions live in harm's way, for example, in Charleston, South Carolina, which is in a hurricane zone, in Florida, also hurricane country, the Midwest, which is prone to tornados, Southern California, which is prone to earthquakes and wildfires, etc etc. >>

Yes, and the point of that is...what? I referred to general geographical phenomena which are applicable wherever they apply. We happen to be talking about S. Asia because that's where the tsunami struck, and not because the US is immune to natural disasters.

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Thanks for the Safire article:

msafire/index.html?inline=nyt-per>

By way of comment:

1. The date of Job is any one's guess, but I'm inclined to date it to the Solomonic age or a little thereafter.

2. Safire appears to date it to the Exile. I don't see that the book was occasioned by a national crisis of faith. On the face of it, the book was occasioned by a personal crisis of faith. The inspired record of Job's tribulations was canonized for its benefit to other believers who must suffer in the dark.

3. I seem to recall reading a review of Safire's book which indicated his belief in a finite God--a la Kushner.

4. Readers are often disappointed by the fact that God, in the speech from the whirlwind, never directly answers Job's question. But this misses the point:

i) The answer is given, not at the end of the book, but the beginning (prologue).
ii) The answer is given, not to Job, but to the reader. The very nature of Job's ordeal is that he cannot know the reason. If he were in on the huddle between the Lord and the Accuser, then the tension between faith and sight would be dissolved.

5. There is a difference between saying that so-and-so got what he deserved, and saying that so-and-so's calamity is a direct punishment for his sin.

Due to sin, we are all liable to suffering and/or punishment. None of us get worse than we deserve from God. But it does not follow from this that because so-and-so got what he deserved, he got it because he deserved it.

Sin makes me deserving of punishment. Thus, if I suffer for sin, I suffer no injustice on account of sin--not from God.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm suffering a particular punishment for a particular sin. It is just that, as a sinner, I have no claims on God, so God can treat me more harshly than a sinless person. Now, he may not be treating me harshly because I'm a sinner. He may be treating me harshly because that serves a long-range objective which has very little to do with me, except as a means to an end. But my sinful status is a precondition for this treatment.

To take an example from the proverbial illustration of lifeboat ethics, suppose the ship is on fire and taking on water. There is only one lifeboat left. Suppose I have a handgun. That gives me the power to say who gets on and who gets left behind. There are more passengers than room on the boat. I have to choose between an abortionist, on the one hand, and a wife and mother, on the other.

Given that choice, I would let the mother and child onto the lifeboat, but bar the abortionist. In effect, I'm handing him a death-sentence.

Now, I'm not doing so because he's an abortionist. All other things being equal, it's none of my business. Ordinarily, I wouldn't throw him over board on sight! His occupation, taken by itself, is not a sufficient reason for me to discriminate.

But in this situation, given the different moral status of the abortionist in relation to the mother and child, I do treat him differently. His occupation does supply a necessary condition, to treat him less well than the mother and child. (If you don't like the example of an abortionist, you can make a mental substitution more to your liking.)

So sin gives God a moral warrant to treat sinners rather ruthlessly. Sinners are not entitled to a sense of entitlement. Given that the sinner's life is forfeit to God, God wrongs no sinner by taking his life or causing him to suffer.

And in some cases, that may be a direct punishment for a specific sin. But it need not be.

Job is not being punished for anything in particular. But given that he is deserving of punishment, this renders his ordeal at the hands of God a just desert, even if, as is the case, it was inflicted for reasons other than the exactation of divine justice.

4. Sinners never have a right to get angry with God. This is an irrational reaction. If you believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and beneficent, then it is unreasonable to challenge the wisdom of his ways.

Now, when men are in a state of physical or emotional pain or exhaustion, or when they find themselves in a truly desperate situation, they are prone to mindlessly lash out.

And God, in his magnanimous mercy, puts up with a certain amount of this--like a father with an ill-tempered child. But when the sinner recovers his right state of mind--which only obtains in the case of a Christian--then he should repent of his folly and impiety, praising God for his long-suffering love.

5. I'd add that getting angry with God is a half-truth. When unbelievers get angry with God's disposition of the world, they pay a grudging regard to the fact that God is, indeed, the Lord of all.

When unbelievers deny the existence of God on account of evil, they act like a child who is disillusioned with his father. Their reaction bears an attitude which is at once childish (in the bad sense), and childlike (in the good sense).

6. Safire is mistaken to insinuate that the OT lacks a doctrine of the afterlife.

7. The happy ending is not a prosaic add-on. God is not a sadist. Because Job passed the test, he is restored. This is not like Greek tragedy where Oedipus gouges out his eyes and curses the darkness for the remainder of his days.

Of course, there are losses in life which cannot be redeemed on this side of the grave. Yet there has also been a moral and spiritual progression in the Book of Job--from beginning to end. It is not all loss without compensatory gain, and the gain is more than a mere reversion to the status quo ante.

This is the difference between Greek tragedy and Christian comedy. Comedy, in the technical sense, is a uniquely Biblical genre. Tragedy is the genre of the damned, and comedy of the redeemed.

8. It is certainly a gross misreading of Job for Safire to suppose that God is in charge of the natural order, but not the moral order. In the wisdom literature, God is very much the Lord of both domains.


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