Thursday, September 22, 2005

Natural evil


Christianity is the only belief-system that has any answers to the problem of evil. Hence, we blow a great opportunity when we fumble the question.

i) Islam denies original sin. Hence, it has no explanation for the universality of sin.

ii) Hinduism refers evil to reincarnation. This explanation has its own internal difficulties. It begs the question of how the cycle got started in the first place. And if we don’t remember our past lives, then how can we learn from our mistakes and do better the next time around.

Hinduism and Buddhism also tend to treat the sensible world as illusory or delusive. But this only pushes the question back a step, for you must then account for the illusion.

iii) Buddhism counsels radical detachment in the face of evil and suffering. This treats the symptom by dehumanizing the subject. We became numb in the face of evil.

iv) Secularism blames moral evil on our predatory ancestry. But predators don’t regularly kill members of their own species. And if this analysis were correct, then evil would be insoluble since it is programmed into our genes.

There is also the Marxist diagnosis, which, even if otherwise accurate, only pushes the problem back a step by failing to explain why the haves oppress the have-nots in the first place.


i) Traditionally, theodicy distinguishes between moral and natural evil. The freewill defense, even if otherwise valid, is logically accessory to moral evil rather than natural evil.

ii) One attempt to extend the freewill defense to natural evil is to attribute natural evil to consequences of the fall. This makes sense with respect to disease and certain forms of death (by aging, illness, and crime).

iii) It makes less sense with respect to natural disasters. In general, hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, and wildfires are not intrinsically evil. They are either side-effects of something else, or function as a natural safety-value for releasing and equalizing the build-up internal pressures or thermal invariances in the natural world.

It some cases it’s just a difference of degree—water is good, too much water, or too little, is bad.

Is fire good or bad? It all depends.

What makes a natural disaster an evil is not its intrinsic character, but its relation to human life and livelihood.

iv) Attributing a natural disaster to the sin of Adam or the agency of Satan is a rather ad hoc explanation.

a) A robust doctrine of original sin is incompatible with the freewill defense. Those who affirm freewill deny that original sin is that debilitating.

b) Scripture does not attribute natural disaster to the devil. That would turn the devil into some sort of storm-god of the kind worshipped by idolaters.

Moreover, it only pushes the problem back a step. If the devil lies behind a natural disaster, who lies behind the devil? Is God not in control of the devil?

c) Another possible move is to attribute natural disaster to divine judgment. This strategy has the merit of some Scriptural precedent. However, collective guilt is ill-suited to the freewill defense.

v) I have no reason to assume that a natural disaster could not occur in an unfallen world. What would not occur are human fatalities as a result of natural disaster.

God would warn us, or shield us. Or perhaps we’d be so technologically advanced that we could regulate nature and divert a hurricane away from a population center.


For some reason, there are ministers who feel that any dumb answer will do so long as it is long on warm-fuzzies.

But this simply won’t do. The laity are not a bunch of five-year-olds. Many laymen have advanced degrees in intellectually demanding fields of study. This habit of talking down to the laity is a sorry excuse for pastoral ministry.

For that matter, unbelievers aren’t stupid either. And when they hear stupid answers, they feel justified in the contempt for the faith.


It’s revealing that when an Osteen or Warren or Campolo publicly misrepresents the Christian faith, you have folks who rush to their defense and put words in their mouth.

Now, one could make allowance for flubbing the answer if they were out of character. But when someone has a track-record of sloppy theology, why give him the benefit of the doubt?

And, more to the point, why is the priority to defend human falsehood rather than divine truth?


  1. That storms could not have occurred in pre-fall earth is false based on a proper understanding of Genesis. The earth’s atmosphere did not have these wide pressure variances that spawn these storms. According to Genesis, all plants were watered by dew at night - there was no rain until the flood. There were no polar ice caps (they came from the rapid freezing – the nuclear winter of sorts created during the flood), everywhere was a tropical climate, there were no seasons – only the stars gave hint to whether it was summer or winter. In this perfect atmospheric condition, there would be no storms. It was a perfect greenhouse (its likely a thick troposphere existed). That’s why we are returning to this state. It is like the flood stirred up the teacup, and after 4,400 years, it is returning to the pre-flood equilibrium (what junk-scientists call “global warming”) So if there was no rain, than there were no storms.

    Also, while I subscribe to all the doctrines of grace (sovereignty, specifically) it seems that claiming that Christianity has the answer to evil is to gloss over the existence of the antinomy that exists. The other belief systems mentioned use heretical teachings because they want to avoid an antinomy or don't comprehend that such a position of apparent contradiction is logically allowable. I would rather have seen a clear spelling out of how the Bible deals with the fact that God is the primary cause of all evil via His decree, while not being culpable or perpetrating an evil.

    To differentiate between moral evil and natural evil is to claim they have a different cause. But everything has God’s decree as its primary cause. In my uneducated opinion, secondary cause arguments are man’s attempt at exonerating God’s character just as disingenuously as the Muslim or Hindu teachings, which were rightfully pointed out to be in error this post.

    So you see, to claim we have evil all figured out to those who don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear, is to not have it figured out in their estimation. So, why lead with it or even try to answer it to someone like a Larry King. It seems to me to cast pearls before swine. To the uneducated, it appears to make God seem evil, or it makes us appear to suspend the law of non-contradiction when we get into a tight spot. I’d like to see more humility and recognition of the mystery of this doctrine because in truth, we do not have it figured out from a truly epistemological standpoint. We will have it figured out only when we behold Him face to face.

    I would happily be set straight on any of this.

  2. My apologies.

    The first sentence of my previous post should have read; "That storms COULD HAVE occurred in pre-fall earth is false..."

  3. 1.You seem to be assuming a very old-fashioned, creationist exegesis of Gen 1-2 a la Morris/Whitcomb and/or Patton, a la the vapor canopy, or a Velikovskian collision between planet earth and a comet or some such.

    The exegetical foundation for these inferences is exceedingly shaky, and the science is even worse. The younger generation of creationists retired these ad hoc arguments a long time ago. Cf. Kurt Wise: Faith, Form, & Time (Broadman 2002).

    2.In particular, you appear to be universalizing from Gen 2. A more likely interpretation would favor a local narrative viewpoint Gen 2. It has to do with conditions obtaining inside the garden, not outside of the garden.

    3.Gen 1:14 presupposes the existence of agricultural seasons, does it not?

    Sure, you can take it otherwise if you have to, but why?

    4.As I read Gen 2 (cf. vv10-14), it is describing the upper Tigris-Euphrates river valley. That’s how the vegetation irrigated.

    5.To my way of thinking, what made the banishment from Eden a punishment is that conditions outside the garden were naturally harsher than within. They were leaving a hospitable for an inhospitable environment. Otherwise, why debar reentry into the garden (3:24)?

    6.Unless you believe that the earth was not tilting on its axis before the fall, then why assume the absence of polar ice caps?

    7.I’ve discussed God’s relation to evil in the following essay:

    8.To distinguish between moral and natural evil is simply to distinguish between personal agents and impersonal agencies. A hurricane is not a person.

    9.To distinguish between primary and secondary causes is to distinguish between the Creator and the creature. Man is not God.

    10.We should give whatever answers the Bible gives. And if we’re not prepared to talk about touchy issues, then we shouldn’t go on national TV where we’re going to be quizzed on touchy issues.

  4. 1. I do not attribute these atmospheric conditions to Eden only as wooly mammoths found above the artic circle have undigested buttercups in their mouths, so obviously conditions were radically different than they currently are. You know all the arguments, so I will not degenerate this into a young-earth, old-earth debate.
    2. My critique of how Christians are to answer questions of God’s sovereignty was not specifically directed at the author, but to all those have a proper understanding of the doctrine and make a public response to questions. The other posts on the matter are certainly recognized.
    3. While I have not studies exhaustively in the area, I have never read anything to cause me to abandon a young earth, catastrophism position. That being said, it seems counter the frustration that occurred in creation at the fall to presuppose that hurricanes and tornados were commonplace just outside the borders of Eden. That begs the question: will the new earth have natural disasters? Will the new Jerusalem have a FEMA equivalent? Something tells me they won’t.
    4. To suppose that being prevented from re-entering Eden was merely a climatologically punishment seems incorrect to me. Could the angel with the flaming sword represent the loss of being able to personally approach God? Actually, I found it interesting that the angel prevented “access to the tree of life.”
    5. I do not believe any impersonal agencies when it comes to evil. Yes, a hurricane is not a person, but the One who decreed it is a person. I have no trouble saying that God decreed the hurricane, caused it to come to pass, and used it to His ultimate glory. The hurricane is only impersonal when viewed under the rubric of secondary causes, for which I don’t see any evidence or purpose. For that matter, the hurricane is only an “evil” in regards to its thwarting of human desires and the taking of life and health. It is not an evil for God to cause it. He has every right to do with His creation what ever He wishes. Are we agreed on that, or do I carry things too far? I admittedly wrestle with Christian fatalism.
    6. I may be having a semantic problem here. If by secondary cause we mean that man has limited freedom to make minor decisions that still ultimately achieve that goal willed by God, then I do not believe that is biblical. But if we mean that God decrees every behavior, every decision, every reaction of man, and its just that man is doing the executing of the decree, then I do believe that. But I think it is to draw a fine line that only serves to exonerate God of evil. The London bombers didn’t kill people on the subway, the dynamite did. The dynamite was the secondary cause. I’m not discussing responsibility, just causality.
    7. As far as avoiding TV unless we have Biblical answers ready to go, amen to that!

  5. "What makes a natural disaster an evil is not its intrinsic character, but its relation to human life and livelihood."

    I would disagree with this, as I think it misses the point. The real question is: are natural disasters the result of the Fall? If yes, then they are just part of the curse; consequences of our sin. I would argue that they are just that.

    "iv) Attributing a natural disaster to the sin of Adam or the agency of Satan is a rather ad hoc explanation."

    Really. Come now, all explanations are ad hoc if you want to go that route. I also note that whilke you continue to deal with Satan, you don't deal with the question of Adam's sin. it gets back to the distinction between God's permissive will and directive will.

    "v) I have no reason to assume that a natural disaster could not occur in an unfallen world. What would not occur are human fatalities as a result of natural disaster."

    Neither have you reason to assume otherwise. But I should think that the fact that the perfection of Eden is supposed to be what is restored in the New Creation is a good reason to assume that natural disasters would not occur. Unless you want to argue that tne New Earth will see earthquakes and floods etc.

    "But this simply won’t do. The laity are not a bunch of five-year-olds. Many laymen have advanced degrees in intellectually demanding fields of study. This habit of talking down to the laity is a sorry excuse for pastoral ministry."

    Spoken like someone not involved in pastoral ministry, or at least ought not be involved in it. The fact is that Warren and others are currrently speaking into a time of crisis withthe goal fo offering comfort. There is an appropriate time for the more advanced issues. In the midst of crisis is not that time. It is not about talking down to people or assuming stupidity or lack of education. Its just sensitivity.

  6. 1.I’m not suggesting that you abandon your young-earth creationism. However, it wouldn’t hurt to improve on the exegesis of Morris and Whitcomb as well as bone up on more sophisticated models of creationism offered by the up-and-coming generation, such as the book by Wise.

    2.Evidence that the arctic was at one time more temperate is generally attributed to polar wandering and the precession of the equinoxes. In fact, that idea has been around for a quite a while. Cf. Charles Hapgood, Path of the Pole.

    BTW, nothing I’ve said is incompatible with young-earth creationism.

    3.The New Jerusalem doesn’t need FEMA, it has God!

    4.When the curse includes a diet of thorns and thistles (Gen 3:17-19), and when this is set in contrast to life in the garden, that supports my interpretation.

    5.The doctrine of second-causes is mainstream Calvinism. You find it in the Westminster Confession and London Baptist Confession.

    A pool player hits the cue-ball, which hits the 8-ball. The pool player is the primary cause, the cue-ball is the secondary cause.

    The basic primary/secondary causality scheme can either be framed in determinist or indeterminist ways. The distinction itself doesn’t prejudge the issue.

  7. As to the Oddball pastor:

    i) You are not arguing that natural disasters are the result of the Fall. You are merely asserting that to be the case.

    ii) I have dealt with the question of Adam’s sin. It’s irrelevant unless you can attribute a particular disaster to divine judgment. Warren never made that connection, and, as I said before, collective guilt is incompatible with his commitment to freewill.

    iii) Actually, I have offered some specific exegetical points in defense of my position: you have not.

    Questions about the new earth are necessarily speculative to a high degree, but as far as speculation goes, yes, I see no reason why many natural mechanisms would not carry over into the new regime.

    iv) The way you define pastoral empathy is for a pastor in a time of crisis to mouth a lot of unscriptural, sugarcoated tripe.

    I define crisis counseling as offering people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear—offering them the truth of God and promises of his word; not shoveling out a spade full of heretical bathos.

    If you don’t have a preachable theology, then your theology stinks. If you don’t know how to popularize the truths of Scripture, then you don’t belong in the pulpit.

    I have news for you, when people ask questions, they’re asking for answers.

    People like you and Warren are the reason the Evangelical church is in such crummy state today.

  8. I thought I would toss in chapter 14 of Zechariah for some "after the smoke clears" perspective. No need to copy/paste the whole thing. Here are a couple of relevant (at least to me) passages:

    Zec 14:6 "It will happen in that day, that there will not be light, cold, or frost. (location specific per the book of revelation?)
    Zec 14:7 It will be a unique day which is known to the LORD; not day, and not night; but it will come to pass, that at evening time there will be light.
    Zec 14:8 It will happen in that day, that living waters will go out from Yerushalayim; half of them toward the eastern sea, and half of them toward the western sea; in summer and in winter will it be."

    Winter but no frost...hmmm. Not sure I get that one.

    Zec 14:16 "It will happen that everyone who is left of all the nations that came against Yerushalayim will go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of Hosts, and to keep the feast of booths.
    Zec 14:17 It will be, that whoever of all the families of the eretz doesn't go up to Yerushalayim to worship the King, the LORD of Hosts, on them there will be no rain."

    Seems that we will not be returning to the "no rain, water up from the ground" days. And the "year to year" cycle according to the biblical calendar is still happening, hence the Feast of Booths.

    Yet there also appears to be a supernatural suspension of natural events happening in the new Yerushalayim during this time. No sun, no night, no adverse conditions at all along the lines of what we are seeing now, today.

    If sin is at the root of natural disasters, and I know both sides have been represented here, what would be the condition of the people who live in those remaining nations if not similar to today?

    Does anyone know?


  9. As to the triablgger:

    1) I am asserting that Katrina is quite possibly nothing more than a resultof the Fall. That's a live option that is credible for a Calvanist to hold.

    2) You have not dealt with Adam's sin. It is not necessary to attribute it to a particular act of judgment. I am not defending what you characterise as Warren's view on this point.

    3) There are good reasons doctrinally to reject the notion that natrural disasters will continue in the New Earth, such as the essential goodness of creation. Granted that arguments from silence on their own are not pewrsuasive, in tandem with the notion of goodness, which is not an issue of silence, the scales seemed tipped towards seeing such natural disasters as being a result of the Fall which would be eliminated inteh New Earth. You'll have to come up with some exegetically based reason for the oppsite. That is not to say that your logic is flawed. But it seems to me thatwhile both possible premises are speculative, what eveidence we do have favours my position rather than yours.

    4) Your notion of what I consider empathy is of course a serious misrepresentation. That God is a God of comfort is neitehr sugar coating or tripe. That Katrina is not God's will in the directive sense is speculative, but it is nt unscriptural.

    Your idea of crisis counselling is a good reason why you should do none of it. Telling poeple your "correct answer" (that God has some reason we don't know." may be true, but it is also irrelevant in a time of crisis. What people ned to hear is that God is there to provide comfort, and he is, despite appearances, in control of things. As I said, it is speculative of Warren to declare that Katrina is not God's directive will, and I consider such declarations imprudent if not impious. We just don't know. We don't need to rush to God's defense, either by clearing Him of responsibility or by attributing it to Him while justifying His alleged actions.

    You don't know me, or my theology. You can't judge it or me. For the record I am calvanistic in my theology. If you want a name whose beliefs most closely resemble mine on the matters of Calvanism, try Eric Svendsen. That isn't to say that Eric agrees with me on Warren. Frankly, we have not discussed Warren.

    I have news for you: When people ask you questions they want questons to their questions, not the ones you think need answering. Like it or not, when people ask why did this happen they are not really asking for a theological treatise.

    "People like you and Warren are the reason the Evangelical church is in such crummy state today."

    That's a serious charge. Slanderous in fact. You are speaking rashly and out of ignorance of me and my beliefs, so you are to be forgiven.

    The Evangelical church is not all it could be, but that is not Warren's fault. The problems predate him. And me. It is not even clear that the problems are what you think they are, or that Wareren (or I) contribute to them.

    Scapegoating is easy, but it is seldom wise. Its unfortuante that you should choose to get so personal with so little reason.

    A word of encouragement: You do a lot of good work here, and you have my respect. I don't agree with you on everything. (I can disagree and still repsect you and be respectful.) However your words are generally well thought out and the points you raise are worth considering. Just don't cheapen what you do with such personal comments when they are not called for.

  10. Steve,

    What do you think about looking at the issue from the perspective of man (and the fall) as a microcosm and syndesmos of all creation?

    Baby-steps to Maximus.


  11. Hi Ephraim,

    The interpretation of Zech 14 is not transparent. On the one hand, this is a book full of obscure visionary symbolism. In addition, how we interpret Zech 14 is not unrelated to our overall eschatology.

    On the other hand, the distinction between real and surreal, ordinary and extraordinary, blurs in the face of a wonder-working God, a la the Exodus.

    So, I'd just fasten my seatbelt and take a wait-and-see attitude.

  12. Matthew 24:7,8 - "For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But R875 all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs."

    Can we explain more than what God's Word has said?

  13. "Photius,"

    The old hermetic notion of man as microcosm is an interesting idea in the history of ideas, but I wouldn't use it as a hermeneutical grid for adjudicating theological claims.

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