The Existence of Evil and a Good God: Part II - Natural Evils
Updated: May 1
This is a five-part series by guest author Dan Marino, currently a graduate student in Classical Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
In my previous post, I discussed the problem of human evil, or moral evil. In this post I turn my attention to the problem of natural evil.
Natural Evil Where moral evil is connected to human activity, natural evil concerns that which occurs naturally. Examples of these evils are natural disasters and sicknesses, and the grief that accompanies both. However it is necessary here to make an important distinction. When considering natural evils in relation to the Problem of Evil, it is typically those natural events which result in human death that cause people to question God’s goodness and power.
For example, every year thousands of tourists visit Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park hoping to view the spectacle of active volcanoes from a safe distance; it is unlikely the same spectacle would have been made of the erupting Vesuvius and its destruction of Pompeii. No one shakes their fists at the heavens when hurricanes rage in the middle of the ocean; it is only when those hurricanes reach landfall and wreak havoc that authors start posing questions such as “It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Hurricane Katrina struck shared your belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while Katrina laid waste to their city?” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 52). Everyday countless imperceptible earthquakes take place around the world; the earthquakes that fall into the category of natural evil, however, are those which cause death and destruction. Consider the loss described by Voltaire in his poem on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which claimed the lives of 30,000 - 40,000 souls. "Oh wretched man, earth-fated to be cursed; Abyss of plagues, and miseries the worst! Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show, That man’s the victim of unceasing woe... Approach in crowds and meditate awhile Yon shattered walls, and view each ruined pile, Women and children heaped up mountain high, Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie; Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death, Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath, Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire And end their wretched lives in torments dire."
(The Works of Voltaire, vol. XXXVI, 1905)
Indeed, not every natural occurrence ends in tragedy, and therefore not every natural occurrence is an example of natural evil. When discussing natural evil, especially in connection with the Problem of Evil, one must keep in mind those natural events which lead to a loss of human life. These can of course be natural disasters, but they can also be, with particular relevance to this moment, sicknesses and plagues. In his autobiography, 19th century English pastor and theologian Charles Spurgeon describes his experience ministering in London during an outbreak of cholera. In Spurgeon’s words, "In the year 1854, when I had scarcely been in London twelve months, the neighborhood in which I labored was visited by Asiatic cholera, and my congregation suffered from its inroads. Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave. At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardor to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions; but, soon, I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it."
(C.H. Spurgeon, The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, 1892, 371) As with natural events such as earthquakes and hurricanes, not all forms of sickness are necessarily treated as evil, at least to the extent that God’s goodness is questioned. No one mourns mild seasonal allergies or is overwhelmed like Spurgeon by an outbreak of the common cold. While even these sicknesses may be considered natural evils, it is the illnesses which result in death that are considered when discussing the Problem of Evil. The examples of the Lisbon earthquake and the London cholera outbreak demonstrate that profound natural evils are those which contribute to the loss of human life, making death itself the ultimate natural evil. As John Milton points out in Paradise Lost, natural evils are numerous, as death can come in many forms. Milton writes, "...many shapes Of death, and many are the ways that lead To his grim cave, all dismal… Some, as thou saw’st, by violent stroke shall die, By fire, flood, famine, by intemperance more In meats and drinks, which on the earth shall bring Diseases dire… Numbers of all diseased, all maladies Of ghostly spasm, or racking torture, qualms Of heart-sick agony, all feverous kinds, Convulsions, epilepsies, fierce catarrhs Intestine stone and ulcer, colic pangs Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy And moon-struck madness, pining atrophy, Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence, Dropsies, and asthmas, and joint racking rheums."
(Milton, The Major Works, 2008, 592) Natural disasters and sicknesses are evil in their ability to bring about human death, making death the supreme evil which all lesser natural evils must serve. This is proven by the universal grief which surrounds death. As William of Auvergne contends, “We are also helped toward this by the natural grief and mourning for dear ones that usually takes place at funerals. For this grief that is characteristic of all… is necessarily natural, and on this account it should be regarded as the voice of nature…Because human nature cries out everywhere by this voice that death is its worst evil, it is necessary that death be the worst evil.” (Auvergne, Selected Spiritual Writings, 2011, 25) Though death may be the great enemy and height of natural evil given its ability to take life, the effects of death extend beyond its victims to touch those left to grieve the dead. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes his process of mourning the loss of his wife to cancer. He paints a clear picture of the profundity and depth of emotional suffering which can accompany death, writing, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me... There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all... One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making out a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace. On the rebound one passes into tears and pathos. Maudlin tears. I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and honest. But the bath of self-pity, the wallow, the loathsome sticky- sweet pleasure of indulging it — that disgusts me."
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 2000, 1-2) Lewis here describes the misery of grief. While sorrow may not be physically painful, the suffering one experiences in the midst of grief is very real and can manifest itself in physical ways. Spurgeon experienced the physical effects of sorrow as a heavy burden beneath which he feared he might sink. Lewis describes it as agony. Natural evil, then, is found not only in the sicknesses and disasters leading to death, but in the emotional affliction of those who must go on living. Natural evil means death for those it takes as victims, and grief for those left behind.
Having explored moral and natural evils, it is now possible to show what problems these evils pose to belief in the existence of the Christian God, which will be the topic of my final post.