Problems with the Problem of Evil: Natural Evils

August 9, 2011

It's only natural to suppose that a theistic religion with a great god must promise only good things.  

That's why nonbelievers frequently use the "problem of evil" to criticize religion.  This problem is raised in just about every book defending atheism, and takes pretty much the same form.  

However, wielding this handy weapon must be used carefully against religion.  Christian theology is hardly unprepared for evil's "problem."

When Christians hear atheists raising the problem of evil, they listen with trained ears and filtering minds.  Christianity developed its own interpretations of the sinfulness of humanity, the lesson from the Garden of Eden, and the sacrificial life of Christ to preemptively solve the problem of evil.  There's a reason why there's hardly a Christian who is stunned and dismayed by the problem of evil.  If nonbelievers want the problem of evil to really hit home and change minds, they would be smart to deal with the mental framework of religious believers.

Just one example can be raised in this blog, with more to come in future blogs. A typical version of the problem of evil points to "natural evil" as God's responsibility.  It's convenient to separate natural from human evils, since the evil deeds people do to each other can be easily attributed to just us, not to God.  This segregates arguments over the existence and value of free will, messy enough by themselves, safely insulated away from the much easier way to blame god for natural disasters.

Why is the world such a difficult and dangerous place?  Surely a good god would have fabricated a nicer home.  Well, Christianity in its infancy saw that one coming. Two prominent theological strategies were designed to handle this problem of natural evils. 

First, God never promised everyone a pleasant worldly life, but only an opportunity at a pleasant eternal life.  God still has a great plan!  If worldly suffering only makes someone turn to god faster, that's all to the good.  Second, humanity itself is responsible for all natural evils, since humanity ruined the Garden and had to live in a much wilder and rougher nature instead.  If we live in a tough world, that's our fault, not god's.  Call the first strategy the "God never promised a rose garden" stance.  Call the second strategy the "God attached strings to the rose garden" stance.

Smart ways to keep the pressure on the Christian over the problem of natural evils have to adjust to these two theological strategies.  

To adjust to the "God never promised a rose garden" strategy, the nonbeliever has to re-direct the problem of evil to the problem of asking why god would bother testing creatures that god created in the first place.  The problem of evil now squarely looks like a problem of god's evil: no truly good and loving god would unnecessarily torture its own creatures. God looks like a torturer?!

To adjust to the "God attached strings to the rose garden" strategy, the nonbeliever has to re-direct the problem of evil to the problem of asking why god would permit humanity to effectively become co-creators of nature.  How did humanity obtain the power to change nature from what god originally intended?  In effect, this is the "Two Gods" solution to evil available to theistic religions.  The role of Satan works this way, too.  The basic idea is that natural evils aren't god's fault, because some other Power determined what nature is like. By elevating the Fall to not merely accounting for human depravity, but natural evil as well, humanity is elevated to god-like status in that theology.  Responsibility is shifted away from god to another quasi-god.  This theological strategy is unwise in the long run, because god now looks less than omnipotent.  God needs help making creation?!  

When applying the problem of evil, be prepared to penetrate theological defenses like these, with a couple of simple extra tactics.  At the very least, you'll score some debating points on topics where Christians feel invincible.  And you just might arouse some skeptical doubt along the way.



#1 scinquiry on Wednesday August 10, 2011 at 7:36am

Great points.  I love to use Gene Roddenberry’s quote:
“We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes”

But this argument only works with the primary abrahamic religions for they believe that their god carries the qualities of the three O’s.  Deists and new agers are the more difficult unsinkable rubber ducks as their beliefs are a bit more nebulous.

#2 Pau (Guest) on Wednesday August 10, 2011 at 8:56am

I find this discussion on evil completely useless and pointless. Evil is a religious problem, if not invention. It has nothing to do with a well thought humanistic system or ideology. To classify anything as evil, one needs to assume the role of judge, which would be congruent to a well organized legal society and in such a society the concept of evil is absurd, unless one wishes to equate evil to outlaw or unsocial and then get his thoughts closer to religious thinking.
As any other living creature, we act mainly in order to preserve our subsistence (or our genes, if you prefer). But our brains are constantly indicating contradictory or erroneous directions, as a result of bad past experiences and equivocal neuronal connections. This may result in antisocial or harmul acts. But who can seriously relate this actions with a thing called evil?

#3 Ben Lynema (Guest) on Thursday August 11, 2011 at 4:40pm

Great Stuff! I’m familiar with the counter points being a former believer myself, but hadn’t considered those two angles so I tip my hat to you good sir.

One point I would bring up is the interdependancy of so called evils in nature. When I was a kid they said there were not carnivors prior to the fall ,yet carnivores provide a balance aspect of the food chain that would seem contrary to that as one example.

Keep the good stuff comming.

#4 jerrys on Thursday August 11, 2011 at 10:03pm

I don’t worry much about the problem of evil.  If a creator god exists then we should be able to learn about it from the world it creates.  So the existence of evil tells us something about that god.  And the basic conclusion is that it can’t be an all loving, all powerful and all knowing.  As John shows they can squirm about what the nature of god and satisfy themselves that a creator god could exist that is compatible with the world.  All that discussing the problem of evil can ever accomplish is to provide an argument for a different kind of Christianity (or Judiasm, Islam, etc.)  Atheists should be presenting arguments that belief in a god that intervenes in the world doesn’t make sense.

#5 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Friday August 19, 2011 at 9:59am

Kind of in reference to Jerrys, but that gets back to the “torturer” issue.

Any claim that god is “inscrutable,” as indicated in Job and as Paul riffs in Romans, has the same problem Shook mentioned: WHY is god inscrutable? Why can’t he/she make him/herself better understood to his/her creation?

#6 Apollos (Guest) on Saturday August 20, 2011 at 4:33am

In the following I’m presenting an attempt of an answer to the Problem of Evil, due to its appeal to God’s perfect justice called “Theodicy from divine justice”, which may withstand your objections:

-  God’s perfect justice prevents Him from relieving people with unforgiven sins from their sufferings (see Isaiah 59,1-2).
-  Unlike God Christians are not perfectly just. Therefore, unlike God, they are in a position to help people with unforgiven sins. By doing this they may make those among them who haven’t yet accepted God’s salvation receptive of it (Matthew 5,16, 1 Peter 2,11-12, and 3,1-2), which in turn frees these persons from suffering in the afterlife.
-  The greater God’s beneficial power due to His love, the greater God’s destructive power due to His justice (see Matthew 13,27-29). Striving to prevent as much suffering as possible God can only interfere to such a degree that the beneficial effect of the interference is not neutralized by the destructive effect of it.
-  Someone who dies before he or she reaches the age of accountability, i.e. before he or she can distinguish between good and evil (see Genesis 2,16-17, Deuteronomy 1,39, and Isaiah 7,16) faces no punishment in the afterlife, as he or she would not have been able to commit sins. So, God may not be inclined to prevent such a person’s death.
-  A person’s suffering in this life may have a redeeming effect (Luke 16,25) and consequently contribute to a decrease of the respective person’s suffering in the afterlife; the amount of suffering in this life is so to speak subtracted from the amount of suffering in the afterlife. So, God may not be inclined to relieve this person’s suffering.
-  A person’s suffering in this life may make the person receptive of God’s salvation (Luke 15,11-21), which in turn frees this person from suffering in the afterlife.
-  There are degrees of punishment in the afterlife depending on one’s moral behaviour (Matthew 16,27, 2 Corinthians 5,10), one’s knowledge of God’s will (Matthew 11,20-24, Luke 12,47-48), and, as mentioned before, one’s amount of suffering in this life (Luke 16,25).
-  Those people who suffer more in this life than they deserve due to their way of life are compensated for it by receiving rewards in Heaven.

Discussions of this theodicy can be found in the following threads, in which my comments have been sent under the names “Patrick” or “Patrick (Christian)”.

#7 Apollos (Guest) on Monday August 22, 2011 at 2:12pm

Discussions of the theodicy mentioned before can be found in the following threads, in which my comments have been sent under the names “Patrick” or “Patrick (Christian)”.

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