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.