As a police officer and homicide detective, I’ve seen my fair share of injustice and hardship. Every time I’m asked to defend the existence of God in light of the evil we observe in our world, I take a deep breath and try to separate the emotional nature of this issue from the rational explanations I might offer. I recognize the impotence of my rational response when trying to address to the emotional pain people experience when they suffer evil. At the same time, I think it’s important for us explore reasonable explanations. Natural evil is perhaps the most difficult category of evil we, as Christians, can address. It’s one thing to explain the presence of moral evil in our world (the evil actions of humans); it’s another to explain the existence of natural evil (earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters). If an all-powerful and all-loving God exists, why does He permit natural evil? If God exists, it is certainly within His power to prevent such things. Why wouldn’t He?
The problem of natural evil is irreconcilable unless there are necessary or good reasons for God to permit such evil. If God exists, it is reasonable to believe that He would design a world in which free agency is possible (this is a necessity for true love to be achievable). In order to understand why God might allow natural evil, we have to do our best to examine the nature of the world around us, the nature of humans and the desires of God:
Some “Natural Evil” May Be the Result of Necessity
God may tolerate some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of a free natural process that makes it possible for freewill creatures to thrive. Scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne suggests that God has created a universe with particular natural laws that make life on earth possible so that humans with free will can exist in the first place. As an example, the same weather systems that create tornadoes that kill humans also create thunderstorms that provide our environment with the water needed for human existence. The same plate tectonics that kill humans (in earthquakes) are necessary for regulation of soils and surface temperatures needed for human existence.
Some “Natural Evil” May Be the Result of the Nature of Free Agency
God may also tolerate some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of human free agency. Humans often rebuild along earthquake fault lines and known hurricane pathways, and they frequently cut corners on building guidelines in order to save money. Much of this activity results in the catastrophic loss that we see in times of ‘natural’ disaster. There are times when ‘natural’ evil is either caused or aggravated by free human choices.
Some “Natural Evil” May Be the Result of God’s Nudging
God may permit some natural evil because it challenges people to think about God for the first time. For many people, the first prayers or thoughts of God came as the result of some tragedy. When our present lives are in jeopardy or in question, we find ourselves thinking about the possibility of a future life. If an eternal future life is a reality, God may use the temporary suffering of this life to focus our thoughts and desires on eternity.
Some “Natural Evil” May Be the Result of God’s Nurturing
God may permit some natural evil because it provides humans with the motivation and opportunity to develop Godly character. A world such as this requires human beings to cooperate and peacefully co-exist in order to successfully respond to its challenges. The best in humanity often emerges as people respond in love and compassion to natural disaster. It’s in the context of disaster that moral character has the opportunity to form and develop. Good character (acts of love, compassion and cooperation) must be freely chosen. God has provided us with a world that provokes us to improve our situation, care for those who are in need, and become better human beings in the process.
There are a number of ‘necessary’ or ‘sufficient’ reasons why God might create a world in which natural evil is occasionally permissible, particularly if God chooses to provide, protect and preserve the freewill of His children.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.