Theological and Scientific Explanations for the Origin and Purpose of Natural Evil

Gary Emberger

Department of Natural Sciences
Messiah College
Grantham, PA 17027

From: PSCF 46 (September 1994): 150-158.

Events such as earthquakes and crippling illnesses are often viewed as evils and raise troubling questions about God's goodness. While science does not recognize these events as evils, it does offer insights into their origins. Theodicy attempts to explain theologically how evil originated and for what purpose God allows it to exist. Adopting either Augustinian or Irenaean theodicy has important implications concerning the question of whether evolution could be one of God's creative mechanisms. Finally, recognizing that all truth is God's truth, Christians seek to develop a world view that includes both scientific and theological understanding of harmful natural events.

Suffering, extreme pain, and death are part of the natural world. Consequently, Christians tend to view the natural world with ambivalence. We believe God created it, pronounced it good, and rules over it. We read that God provides food for the lion and raven (Job 38:39, 41), birds of the air (Matthew 6:26), notes the death of sparrows (Luke 12:6), sports with leviathan (Psalm 104:26), creates the beauty of the flower (Luke 12:27), and that all of creation praises him (Psalm 148). The complexity, beauty, and apparent design of our world is presented in the Bible as a clear witness to God's "invisible qualities his eternal power and divine nature" (Romans 1:20). And yet, what about aging and death? What about disease, parasites, predators, droughts, earthquakes, birth defects, floods, blindness, mental retardation, and accidents? Are these the stuff of God's good creation? Or, more likely, are these not considered evils by many, Christian or not?

Christian attempts to account for the origin and purpose of suffering, pain, and death arise from a serious theological question how could an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God have created a world that includes evil? Hick (1966, p. 5) states the dilemma as follows. "If God is perfectly good, he must want to abolish all evil; if he is unlimitedly powerful, he must be able to abolish all evil: but evil exists; therefore either God is not perfectly good or he is not unlimitedly powerful." To many non-Christians, this argument is a stumbling block to finding faith. To many Christians, these questions weaken faith already present. We find it difficult to reconcile ourselves to the presence of evil in a world created by an omnipotent God of love.

Christian Explanations for the Origin and Purpose of Natural Evils

Attempts to resolve this dilemma must, as Lewis states,

guard against two sub-Christian theories of the origin of evil Monism, according to which God himself, being "above good and evil," produces impartially the effects to which we give those two names, and Dualism, according to which God produces good, while some equal and independent power produces evil (1962, p. 69).

Against these views, the Bible asserts that evil is real, is attributable to sin, represents an intrusion into God's world, and will one day be removed. Further, the Bible reveals that only God is eternal and that he is completely sovereign. Evils and evil beings arise through the misuse of free will and continue to exist only by God's will and for his purposes.

Christian explanations for the origin and purpose of suffering, pain, and death belong to the theological discipline of theodicy. Theodicy is "the philosophical attempt to justify the ways of God to humanity, an attempt to think about what God does with evil and why" (Willimon, 1985, p. 34). Most theodicies attempt to classify evils as either moral or natural. Moral evil is that which human beings originate: lying, stealing, murdering, greediness and selfishness. Natural evil is that which originates independently of human actions: hurricanes, tetanus, drought, birth defects, earthquakes, extreme pain in animals and humans. Problems occur with all attempts to define and classify evil. There are uncertainties and questions as to what is truly evil. For example, Clark (1961, p. 206), states that "man's struggle against nature is not, as a rule, a struggle against something evil, but a struggle to keep something potentially good and useful in the right place." Clark (1961) and Harrison (1989) suggest that animal pain is not a problem for theodicy because animals suffer little or no pain. Wennberg (1991) disagrees. Hick (1966, p. 18) states

...that it is a basic question whether events in nature which do not directly touch mankind, such as the carnage of animal life, in which one species preys upon another, or the death and decay of plants, or the extinction of a star, are to be accounted as evils. Should evil be defined exclusively in terms of human actions and experiences, with the result that events in the natural universe and in the sub-human world do not as such raise questions for theodicy? Or should the scope of the problem be extended to include the whole realm of sentient life, or perhaps only vertebrates, or perhaps only the higher mammals?

To this question he offers a moderate position, accepted in this paper, suggesting that

...the organic cycle in non-sentient nature offers no problems to theodicy, but wherever there is pain, as there appears to be far down through the animal kingdom, there is a prima facie challenge to be met. On this view, natural evil consists in unwelcome experiences brought upon sentient creatures, human or sub-human, by causes other than man himself (1966, p. 19).

Hick (1966) explains the two major types of theodicy, Augustinian and Irenaean, which offer contrasting explanations for the origin and purpose of natural evils. Augustine (A.D. 354-432), the Bishop of Hippo, saw evil as arising from misused freedom  the wrong choices of free rational beings, either man or angels. The sin of these beings resulted in the corruption of God's good and perfect world. A radically different theodicy is attributed to Irenaeus (A.D. 130?-202?), Bishop of Lyons. To Irenaeus, the world containing natural evils was the type of world God originally intended "as a divinely appointed environment for man's development towards the perfection that represents the fulfillment of God's good purpose for him." (Hick, 1966, p. 221). In this view, man and creation never were in the paradisical state pictured in the Augustinian theodicy. Irenaean theodicy has not been the dominant view of western Christianity, but its tenets, in one form or another, are held by significant numbers of people.

In the Augustinian tradition, natural evils are traced to the sin of free, rational beings. This is the view of most recent creationists, who believe that natural evils truly are evil and originated with the fall of Adam and Eve and with God's subsequent judgment on them and on creation. Accordingly, God created a perfect world without moral or natural evils less than 10,000 years ago (Morris and Clark, 1987). Man and at least the higher animals were created immortal, not susceptible to illness or aging. Carnivores did not exist, animals were herbivores. Evolution or at least macroevolution was not one of God's creative mechanisms. The Second Law of Thermodynamics stating that all things move toward increasing disorder either was not in effect or was neutralized by God's continual sustaining or organizing power. Into this world came moral sin, the willful turning from God, with natural evils quickly following. All of creation was corrupted. Parasites, predators, and disease organisms are postulated to be post-Fall microevolutionary developments. Aging and death began. Sin was followed by further judgment, with the Flood and accompanying movements of the earth's crust giving rise to earthquakes, volcanoes, the ice age, massive extinctions (as evidenced by fossils), and other natural evils. In short, natural evil exists because of man's sin.


"If God is perfectly good, he must want to abolish all evil;
if he is unlimitedly powerful, he must be able to abolish all evil:
but evil exists; therefore either God is not perfectly good or
he is not unlimitedly powerful. "This is the dilemma.


Other Christians (Lewis, 1962; Wennberg, 1991) are persuaded that the earth is much older than recent creationists allow and see a fossil record showing evidence of death and suffering as having occurred long before the Fall of Adam and Eve. Yet, not wanting to say that God willed these events as part of his creation, they have suggested that these ancient natural evils originated with an angelic fall occurring long before Adam and Eve were created. Satan, cast down to earth with the other fallen angels, attacked God's perfect creation, disrupting and distorting it, causing earthquakes, volcanoes, disease, predation, and death. The fall of Adam and Eve resulted in further evils including human death and the further corruption of the natural world due to man's broken relationship with God and thus his broken relationship with God's creation. This theodicy leaves room for evolutionary processes but it is an open question as to how much "good death" could have occurred. Lewis (1962) speculates that carnivory with an accompanying high fecundity to compensate for it are both a Satanic perversion of God's original design.

All variations of Augustinian theodicy maintain the innocence of God and the guilt of his creatures in terms of the origination of natural evils. Hick, critiquing Augustinian theodicy, finds it inconceivable that evil could arise "ex nihilo" with "wholly good beings in a wholly good world becoming sinful" (1966, p. 286).

Hick advocates, instead, Irenaean theodicy. Here, ultimate responsibility for natural evil in the world is placed on God. Man, arising through an evolutionary process, imperfect and immature, came to a point in his development where he was capable of fellowship with God, capable of acknowledging his presence. But God could not "force" the next phase of his purpose for man to bring into existence children of God, beings who will freely choose to love God and to grow in this knowledge. In order to accomplish this second phase it was necessary to place humans in an ambiguous world much like our current world.


Hick argues that if God were unambiguously present in the world,
man would not truly be free to choose to come to God,
he would be overwhelmed by God.
And so, God created an ambiguous world...


Hick argues that if God were unambiguously present in the world, man would not truly be free to choose to come to God, he would be overwhelmed by God. And so, God created an ambiguous world  a world with pointers to himself, but also a world where he could be seen as absent. Man was placed in this world at what Hick terms "epistemic distance" from God (1966, p. 317). It was a world filled with good things but also real evils and real challenges. Hick, using a phrase of John Keats, describes this world as a "vale of soul-making" (1966, p. 289). Only in this kind of world, through a long process of creaturely experiences, both good and bad, could people freely choose to love God and develop the kind of goodness God values.

Hick sees the fall as almost inevitable when man, struggling to survive in a hostile world and distanced from God, chose to think that the natural world was all there was and God did not exist. The justification for creating a world with evil is eschatological that an "infinite future good will render worth while all the pain and travail and wickedness that has occurred on the way to it" (Hick, 1966, p. 376).

To account for the origin of natural evil, Augustinian theodicy looks back in time to a perfect creation and to the misuse of free will by God's creatures. To justify the creation of a world with natural evils, Irenaean theodicy looks forward to a future resolution. What about scientific study of the natural world? Can scientific theories shed light on events that, to the Christian, have moral causality and are supernaturally based? On the surface it would not seem likely, because science views the natural world as nonmoral. Furthermore, one of the goals of science is to explain the material universe in terms of purely physical and material causes, without invoking the supernatural. For example, death is not viewed scientifically as good or evil or as the consequence of sin; it is just the cessation of life. Biological death may sometimes be spoken of as good but only in terms of it facilitating ecosystem functioning, allowing the flow of energy through food webs, or leading to the recycling of nutrients by decomposers. And yet, it may be that not all death is due to sin. To whatever extent death is part of God's good creation, scientific theories of its origin and functioning will be necessary for a more complete understanding of our world.

Scientific Explanations for the Origin and Purpose of Natural Evils

All scientific accounting for the origin of "natural evils" will draw on geological or biological processes operating in accordance with natural law. Earthquakes and volcanoes, for example, originate with the shifting, colliding, and subduction of the earth's crustal plates, as understood by plate tectonic theory. These processes are viewed as the natural outcome of our planet's formation. Similarly, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and lightning storms are meteorological phenomena that, if not reliably predictable, are at least fairly well understood in terms of the laws that govern the dissipation of heat energy and the movement of air masses on a spherical planet. Biologically, many parasites are thought to be evolutionarily derived, structurally simplified (degenerate) forms of previously free-living organisms (Raven & Johnson, 1992). Viruses are considered by many to be escaped portions of DNA from the cells of hosts they now infect (Raven & Johnson, 1992). The origin of many pests, including vertebrate pests, microbial disease organisms, and insects, is attributed to the activities of humans who have moved organisms around the world. As a result, some of these organisms reach locations suitable for their proliferation places that either lack natural competitors or have new hosts without resistance (Schumann, 1991). It is well known that exposure to chemical mutagens or harmful radiation causes certain cancers and birth defects.


To account for the origin of natural evil,
Augustinian theodicy looks back in time to a perfect creation
and to the misuse of free will by God's creatures.
To justify the creation of a world with natural evils,
Irenaean theodicy looks forward to a future resolution.
What about scientific study of the natural world?


All these scientific explanations for the origination of "natural evils" are simply stating that our world operates according to natural law and that suffering, pain, and death are the unavoidable outcomes of living in such a world. The earth is still active, geologically, and destructive events will occur as they have always occurred. Severe meteorological disturbances will occur as they have always occurred and sometimes people and other organisms will suffer. Evolution will continue to generate parasites and pathogens and predators. Host and prey organisms will continue to evolve defenses. Scientific theories offer no other explanation of origin or purpose of these events other than that they are part and parcel of our world. Can the puzzling "evil" of death be similarly explained? For even if they escape accidents, diseases, or predators, organisms still die. They age, degenerate, and then expire. Why would natural selection not select for immortality? What insights into aging and death are offered by science?

My discussion on aging and death will be restricted in this paper in two ways. First, it will be limited to the death of multicellular animals because, interestingly, not all organisms die. Single-celled prokaryotes reproduce by dividing. Each new cell then divides. Infinite cell replication (immortality) is possible (Arking, 1991). Certain single-celled protists reproduce in this manner as well. Some multicellular plants (Hartmann, et. al., 1990) and fungi (Brasier, 1992) have the potential to persist as long-lived clones, effectively blurring the distinction between life and death of the organism. Secondly, discussion will be limited to vertebrates having iteroparous (reproducing more than once in their adult lives) life histories. This group of organisms, including most mammals and birds, is of most concern theologically because the question of animal pain in theodicy is most often discussed with these animals in mind.


This group of organisms, including most mammals and birds,
is of most concern theologically because the question of animal pain in theodicy
is most often discussed with these animals in mind.


Theories that explain the evolution of death fall into two camps, adaptive and nonadaptive (Kirkwood, 1985). Adaptive theories share a common idea that senescence and death have some positive value, offer some selective advantage, increase the fitness or ability of organisms to adapt. One possible advantage to a finite life span is that in a world of limited resources, death is necessary to remove old individuals so that resources are available for their progeny. Aging and death would also ensure a more rapid turnover of generations (and genotypes) which would allow greater genetic adaptiveness (evolution) to a changing environment. Adaptive theories, then, view it as "advantageous, or even essential, to set a finite limit to the life of the individual" (Kirkwood, 1985, p. 36). Several lines of evidence argue against adaptive theories. The "living space" argument weakens with the observation that obvious senescence is rarely observed in wild populations. Accidental mortality is high enough that "there is neither need for a mechanism specifically to terminate life nor opportunity for it to evolve" (Kirkwood, 1985, p. 37). Also, given two genotypes differing only in that one has a mechanism to terminate life at a fixed age, it is difficult to see how the self-terminating genotype is reproductively more fit than the other. To do so would require "that selection for advantage to the species or group was more effective than selection among individuals within the group for the reproductive advantages of a longer life" (Kirkwood, 1985, p. 37). This seldom appears to be the case.

Because of the evidence against adaptive theories, nonadaptive theories, which view senescence as detrimental to the genotype causing it, have become more prominent (Kirkwood, 1985). These theories must explain the evolution of aging more indirectly by suggesting that (1) the force of natural selection declines with age, because the cumulative effects of accidental mortality will progressively reduce the number of individuals surviving to increasingly older ages, or (2) death is a by-product of other, adaptive traits. For example, it has been suggested that aging is due to pleiotropic genes (genes having more than one phenotypic effect) that have good effects early in life (and would be positively selected for because of the large number of young, reproducing individuals) but have negative effects late in life (but would not be selected against because so few old individuals are left due to accidental mortality). Selection against these late-acting deleterious genes, then, may be outweighed by selection for their beneficial effects earlier in life. Aging and death would have evolved as a by-product of selection for the adaptive aspects of such genes.


According to the disposable soma theory,
multicellular organisms can be thought of as consisting of the germ and soma line.
The germ line, represented by the reproductive cells, is potentially immortal.
The soma or somatic cells (body cells) are derived from the germ cells
and are destined to age and die. The theory states that greater reproductive fitness
is gained by allocating a smaller amount of energy to the soma line than
would be required for it to last indefinitely.


Discussion of the disposable soma theory is pertinent here. According to this theory (Kirkwood, 1985; Arking, 1991), multicellular organisms can be thought of as consisting of the germ and soma line. The germ line, represented by the reproductive cells, is potentially immortal. The soma or somatic cells (body cells) are derived from the germ cells and are destined to age and die. The disposable soma theory states that greater reproductive fitness is gained by allocating a smaller amount of energy to the soma line than would be required for it to last indefinitely. Somatic cells (and consequently the organism) age due to the cumulative effects of a variety of random degradative events and processes. These processes are thought to occur at a constant rate but cellular repair processes are not 100% efficient. As a result, the energy needed to repair the steadily accumulating damage and maintain the soma increases with age. No soma, because of the likelihood of accidental death, can last indefinitely. At the eventual and certain death of the soma, all resources invested in maintaining it are lost. In view of this, it is considered wasteful for the organism to allocate the energy necessary to indefinitely maintain the soma. By allocating some lesser amount of energy to soma maintenance the extra energy can be used for increased reproduction. When the energy cost of soma repair begins to outweigh the energy cost of reproduction, evolutionary theory would suggest that the repair activities of the aging organism would decrease, resulting in increased senescence and eventually in death. The disposable soma theory ties in with the concept of pleiotropic genes as discussed earlier. If the genes in question are those that govern the levels of somatic maintenance, then the benefit of reduced maintenance earlier in life would be increased reproduction and the disadvantage later in life would be earlier senescence. And so aging and death, along with the other evils of this world, can have a naturalistic explanation for its origin and purpose.

Augustinian Theodicy Two Difficult Questions

In this section, my operative premise is that truth is revealed in the Bible and gained through the scientific study of the created world. Rejection of one over the other will invariably lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

The central tenet of recent creationism, its complete rejection of scientific (and biblical) evidence for an old earth, is open to severe criticism for its biblicism. The evidence for an old earth is strong, and it seems presumptuous to reject it out-of-hand when there are other, legitimate interpretations of the Bible that considerably lessen the tensions between science and faith on this issue (Blocher, 1984). Given an old earth, there are no compelling reasons to attribute all natural evils to the sin of the first humans. Rejecting recent creationism, however, is not rejecting Augustinian theodicy.

Irenaean theodicy perhaps errs on the other extreme by not doing justice to the veracity of the biblical revelation (Wenham, 1985). Hick sees the first humans set at a greater epistemic distance from God than the biblical text warrants. The fall becomes a virtual inevitability, and as such, almost understandable. The horribleness of it is minimized, as is the difference between good and evil. Finally, to attribute to God the origination of natural evils does not allow us, as Wennberg (1991, p. 134) states, "to preserve the principle that God never directly wills or creates evil; he uses evil that others have created, brings good out of evil, but does not himself call into existence the evil he employs for his own good ends."


The most plausible theodicy,in my opinion, involves the
Augustinian notion of an angelic fall giving rise to the natural evils of our world
and the corruption of an originally perfect creation.


The most plausible theodicy, in my opinion, involves the Augustinian notion of an angelic fall giving rise to the natural evils of our world and the corruption of an originally perfect creation. This view maintains God's innocence, attributes evil to the misuse of free will, allows for an old age of the earth, and recognizes suffering and death as existing long before the sin of Adam and Eve. But serious questions remain. For example, why would God have permitted Satan to disrupt his world? Secondly, much controversy occurs over God's creative mechanisms. Did God use evolutionary mechanisms or did he create from nothing? Does Augustinian theodicy help here?

A traditional response to the first question is the free-will defense, as outlined by Plantinga (1967). This response, summarized by Wennberg states that "it is possible that the possession and exercise of free will, by both humans and angels, and the use of free will to do more good than evil (something that God foreknows will be the case), is a good of such value that it outweighs all the evil in the world" (1991, p. 136). God may have permitted an angelic distortion because of the value he places on free will.

An additional response to the first question involves the soul-making theodicy outlined by Hick and discussed earlier. If God's purpose in creating humans is to bring into existence beings who are capable of freely choosing to know and love God, and capable of being transformed into the image of Christ, then the kind of world we live in is the best possible world to allow this decision-making and soul-making to occur. God is not overwhelmingly and dominatingly present in our world. Natural evils exist causing pain, suffering, and death but there are also pointers to God in the beauty, harmony, goodness, and order of the world. In this ambiguous kind of world our free commitments and loyalties are worked out. Wennberg writes,

An ambiguous environment, one in which there is good and evil, light and darkness, is one in which one's hopes and desires must play a role in one's ultimate commitment, because of the fact that matters are not clear beyond all doubt. And so one moves toward the light and goodness, in part because one wants it to be the truth about the universe, one wants there to be a God of love and justice who will ultimately triumph over all forces of evil, death, and destruction, and one's faith is partly expressive of that hope. (1991, p. 138)


It has been suggested that it is a commitment made to God under these circumstances that has deep value and significance to God. And so God permitted fallen angels to distort his perfect creation because the resultant kind of world was the best possible kind of world for fallen humans to develop the freely-given love and loyalty that God desires.


It has been suggested that it is a commitment made to God under these circumstances that has deep value and significance to God. And so God permitted fallen angels to distort his perfect creation because the resultant kind of world was the best possible kind of world for fallen humans to develop the freely-given love and loyalty that God desires. The necessity of this kind of world for fallen humanity is confirmed by Lewis, who states, "Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself" (1962, p. 34). What if Adam and Eve had not sinned? Lewis speculates about their unfallen biological state, their possible task of redeeming the angelically distorted creation, and about the biological consequences of their fall (1962). Wenham speculates that in an unfallen world even something like an earthquake might be seen as a good (building mountains) and that harm

...comes when man, out of touch with his Maker, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Man, in touch with his Maker, being in the right place at the right time, enjoys divine protection, so that Jesus could safely sleep in the storm (1985, pp. 196-197).

What about animal pain in this theodicy of soul-making especially that of sentient animals such as mammals and birds? Wennberg addresses its role in forming a soul-making environment and examines whether it allows us "to make peace with a vision of a God whose compassion extends to all his creatures" (1991, p. 121). Certainly, human soul-making should not be seen as the only reason for the existence of animals. Animals have intrinsic value to God. They are part of his creation which he pronounced as good.


Could a mechanism (evolution) that emphasizes selfish efficiency
 be one of God' screative mechanisms?Could the death that accompanies it be considered good?


Now the second question how much did God employ evolution as his creative mechanism in view of a theodicy that attributes natural evils to fallen angels? An accompanying question is just how much did the angelic fall corrupt God's creation? It is helpful to look at two extremes.

In examining this question, one view is that God does not use evolution as his creative mechanism. Van Dyke (1986) and Rice (1987) argue that evolution is an inherently selfish process based on resource scarcity, competition, and death. Generations of organisms live and die, slowly adapting to a changing environment. Species become extinct as others form. Individuals are concerned with perpetuating themselves, not with the good of the ecosystem. Could a mechanism that emphasizes selfish efficiency be one of God's creative mechanisms? Could the death that accompanies evolution be considered good? If the answer to these questions is no, what might the original creation have been like? It was probably without death, without parasites, carnivores, mutations, or birth defects. Sentient animals were immortal and were created from nothing perhaps at intervals over the long history of the earth.

The angelic fall introduced extensive changes. Parasites, pathogens, predators, and death became perversions (perhaps through a satanically guided evolutionary process) of God's plan. Angelically caused imbalances led to the extinction, as evidenced by fossils, of various species over time perhaps even dinosaurs! For reasons discussed, God permitted these disruptions and has worked to bring good out of these evils.

Would this kind of world be possible? Perhaps. We must be careful not to measure the world that was by that which is. A danger here, though, is to begin seeing God's creation as so corrupted by evil angels that it, itself, is evil. This is a form of dualism which has been implicated by Granberg-Michaelson (1988) as contributing to the lack of concern by Christians for stewardship of the environment.


On the other hand, evolution can be accepted as one of God's creative mechanisms.
Rice suggests that evolution is an example of the spiritual principle of
God bringing blessings out of adversity.


On the other hand, evolution can be accepted as one of God's creative mechanisms. Rice (1989) suggests that evolution is an example of the spiritual principle of God bringing blessings out of adversity. Murphy states that "the biblical picture is precisely that God brings life out of death, being out of chaos, and hope in hopeless situations" (1986, p. 23). Perhaps we are not to derive moral teachings from a nonmoral creation, but rather from the written word of God (Rice, 1987). Murphy (1986) and Wilkinson (1976) suggest that the death involved with evolution is not truly an evil. In this view, death was part of God's good creation, part of the "harmonious pattern of exchanges that God made and declared good" (Wilkinson, 1976, p. 323). Death became seen as an evil only after man's fall. At that point, because of man's broken relationship with God, death was viewed as an enemy, as a rejected good. As a result, all death past (fossils), present, and future is interpreted as evil. These writers suggest that the paleontological record and all extant life be accepted as the history and outcome, respectively, of a divinely guided and good evolutionary process. But questions remain. Does adversity originate with God? Is it unreasonable to expect to see something of God's moral nature in his creation? The distinction between good and evil seems blurred. What evil did the fallen angels cause?

Perhaps the truth is at neither extreme. Perhaps God, over the long history of the earth, brought organisms into existence through some combination of evolutionary and ex nihilo creative acts. Perhaps these organisms died good deaths at the end of finite life spans. Perhaps parasites, pathogens, predators, excessive pain, and the debilitating effects of aging are, guided by evil beings, evolutionarily derived perversions of this created order. Might destructive meteorological and geological events also represent Satanic attacks on God's world? Human beings, created in the image of God, died spiritual (and physical?) deaths because of sin the willful turning away from God. How much does the sting of our penalty color our view of the possibly good (sinless) deaths found in the rest of creation? It must also be remembered that many of the evils found in the natural world have their roots in the moral evil of man's world.

We will probably not know for certain the answers to the questions discussed here until Heaven, but it is important to recognize that definite answers are not necessary in order to resolve the apparent logical inconsistency of an all-powerful God of love creating a world that contains real evil. It is only necessary to show that evil ultimately does not originate with God, and that he has his purposes for allowing it to continue.

Integrating Theological and Scientific Views of the Origin and Purpose of Natural Evils

For the Christian, what points of agreement and disagreement occur between theological and scientific explanations of the origin and purpose of suffering, pain, and death? In general, theology and science are in agreement when we recognize that each offers a partial view of reality. Disagreements occur when explanations reflective of biblicism and scientism are offered in place of theology and science. The balance here is always precarious, but it seems to me that in today's scientific climate, with its rejection of the spiritual dimension of reality (Granberg-Michaelson, 1988), the balance has swung too far from theology and is in need of correction. For example, scientific understanding of the causes of destructive geologic and meteorological events has increased tremendously, allowing them to be explained using known scientific laws. But scientific laws are descriptions of reality, not prescriptions. To describe the way the earth works is not the same as saying how the earth must work. If the origin of these destructive events truly is due to the activity of fallen angels, then our earth, free of such activity, would function without earthquakes and volcanoes. Also, science cannot say that a particular flood, drought, storm, or earthquake occurring at a particular time in history was not precipitated by the activity of supernatural beings and used by God for his purposes. This matter is outside the domain of science.

Evolution is often described as purposeless, random, and without guidance. These are not scientific statements as much as they are statements reflecting the naturalistic philosophy of certain scientists. The science of evolution is concerned with understanding the mechanisms of change: with how, for example, a tapeworm might have evolved from a free-living ancestor. To whatever extent God or fallen angels used evolutionary processes, there was purpose. To science, the products of evolution (whether panda bears or tapeworms or lions) are morally neutral. If there was malevolent purpose, then tapeworms or lions could be interpreted as evils, perversions of God's intentions for these creatures.

If nonhuman animals were created mortal, with their deaths part of God's good design, then models such as the disposable soma theory may be quite insightful in helping us understand how God planned finite life spans. If, however, animal death is the result of satanic attack, then these theories are not sufficient. No level of scientific understanding or theorizing would reveal that the mechanisms of aging originated as an evil aberration of God's intent. Scientifically, humans are just another species of animal. It can be demonstrated that we age and die for the same reasons as other animals. And yet the Bible, as interpreted by many, indicates that Adam and Eve were potentially immortal. Our spiritual dimension, our being created in the image of God these aspects of human life are beyond the realm of science. Scientism says that spiritual beings and a bodily resurrection are impossible. The Bible reveals otherwise.

Christians can readily accept scientific understanding of the origin of physical processes such as earthquakes and storms that sometimes cause pain, suffering, and death. This understanding is useful, for it allows us to avoid and sometimes ameliorate these destructive events. Scientific understanding of the origin of viruses, parasites, disease-causing bacteria and the processes causing senescence and death is also useful because it allows us to struggle more effectively against these debilitating agents. However, if these physical and biological events are due to the fall of angels or man, then scientific explanations for the origin of those events will always be incomplete. If these evils exist by God's sovereignty and for his purposes, then science will never be able to explain the full significance of these events.

The Christian's world view must be informed by both science and theology. Christians should look to science for explanations of how our world functions but must look to theology to find ultimate meaning and purpose.

1994

References

 

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Granberg-Michaelson, W. 1988. Ecology and Life. Waco, TX: Word Books.

Harrison, P. 1989. "Theodicy and Animal Pain." Philosophy 64:79-92.

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