There are two types of evil and suffering in the world. Moral evil as a result of free choices (murder, violence, greed) and suffering as a result of natural disasters (tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes). Since moral evil is a result of independent choices that humans make, it’s possible to convince a skeptic that it’s not God’s fault. However, how do you convince a skeptic that God allows natural disasters while maintaining that He is good and right for doing so?
Dr. James Beebee from the University of Buffalo writes that Christians can’t put all the blame for pain and suffering on human beings. Although much of the evil in this world results from the free choices people make, some of it does not. Cancer, AIDS, famines, earthquakes, tornadoes, and many other kinds of diseases and natural disasters are things that happen without anybody choosing to bring them about. He continues: “This objection leads us to draw a distinction between the following two kinds of evil and suffering: moral evil is evil or suffering that results from the immoral choices of free creatures, and natural evil results from the operations of nature or nature gone awry.” I disagree with Dr. Beebee and contend that poor choices humans make do have a direct impact on natural disasters too.
Both you and I know that selfish human activity has resulted in detrimental changes to the Earth’s atmosphere. The increase amounts of greenhouse gases, aerosols, the burning of fossil fuels, and other contaminants that release carbon dioxide into the air affect our climate by altering incoming solar radiation and out-going infrared (thermal) radiation that are part of the Earth’s energy balance. Changing the atmospheric abundance or properties of these gases and particles can lead to a warming or cooling of the climate system. Since the start of the industrial era, the overall effect of human activities on climate has been a warming influence. The human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.
What about famines? Was the Irish famine that led to one million deaths a result of the failure of the potato crop, or a deliberate plan by the British authorities to destroy the Irish people? Irish revolutionary John Mitchell stated, “despite the failure of the potato crop there was still enough food in the country to feed the population.” The suffering wasn’t a result of natural disaster, but because of the laissez-faire economics.
As a Christian, I don’t find it contradictory to maintain that natural disasters are a result of seismic activity, air pressure, ocean currents, and soil erosion while also being influenced by the curse of sin. God said that when we sinned, the whole human race and the environment in which we are responsible for was affected. Romans 8:22 states: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.”
From a purely naturalistic perspective, atheists don’t have an adequate answer to suffering as a result of natural disasters. To them, it is simply natural selection maintaining its course with no meaning and purpose. Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, professor at Oxford University, has stated this grim view of reality in his book, River out of Eden: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
I believe the Bible has a better explanation for natural disasters. God is very focused on the physical world. He cares about the trees, rivers, stars, galaxies, goldfish, horses, mountains, you name it. He’s going to reestablish it all. Furthermore, God doesn’t describe heaven as a mystical, disembodied state of existence where we play the harp and sing with angels in the clouds. He talks about a new Earth where even the lion and the lamb, the predator and the prey, will lie together in peace and perfect harmony. I love what C.S. Lewis once said. ““If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This new world is not a figment of our imagination or wishful thinking, but an innate desire that God has bestowed upon us for a future day. Don’t you look forward to it?