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Theodicy: Taking a Stab at Natural Evil

Theodicy is a big subject, but for many people it relates closely to acceptance by Christians of the theory of evolution. I recall conversing with one friend who commented that while he could understand my acceptance of evolution, he just had a terribly hard time accepting a loving God who could, at the same time, use a process that involved so much killing and destruction in the creation of life.

Now personally, I have a much harder time dealing with the holocaust, the Russian revolution, or the death of Saudi Middle School girls because of the actions of religious police. Those actions represent clear evil to me, moral choices made in favor of evil resulting in pain and death. The fact that God allows such things requires a bit of explaining.

Nonetheless, the sheer bloodiness of the evolutionary process is certainly troubling to many. Since I grew up believing in young earth creationism I can understand this. To go from the idea that God painlessly and bloodlessly created all the creatures essentially as they are, and that all pain and death are the result of evil, to a view that pain and death are simply a part of existence in the universe is quite a step. There are those who will say blithely that evolution really doesn’t make any theological difference. It’s just a matter of the technique God used to create. But that is to ignore serious implications.

In this case, however, the implications also apply to old earth and/or intelligent design creationists just as much as they do to theistic evolutionists. The blood and guts exist, and they exist before any human being has made a choice to sin. Thus they seem to be a feature of the universe rather than the result of some wrong action. This is called “natural evil.” Wikipedia gives a fair definition, but when dealing with creation one needs to note in addition that the traditional Christian view that has accomplanied young earth creationism is that there was no natural evil in the world prior to the fall of man (Genesis 3), and that all natural evil resulted from that moral failure. Thus while you can distinguish natural evil from moral evil on an ongoing basis, even natural evil ultimately was caused by the actions of a moral agent.

Dr. William Dembski has written an excellent article on this subject, Christian Theodicy in Light of
Genesis and Modern Science
. Those who read this blog regularly will be aware that I generally don’t hold a positive view of Dembski’s work, so listen to me here. This article is the best single discussion of natural evil that I’ve read. It’s clear, well argued, and creative. I think those who write on theodicy will be responding to it and referencing it for some time to come. Having said that, I disagree with the major conclusion and would debate a number of individual elements. Dembski believes in an old earth, though he also supports intelligent design, which makes his overall view very close to that of most old earth creationists. I’m going to quote it here simply to demonstrate the widespread acknowledgement that this is a problem. In some later posts I plan to respond to individual elements of Dembski’s view.

With regard to Hugh Ross, he says:

Nonetheless, the actual arguments I’ve seen from old-earth creationists that attempt to preserve both theological and scientific orthodoxy have struck me as inadequate if by theological orthodoxy one means a traditional understanding of the Fall that traces all natural and personal evil in the world to human sin. Take Hugh Ross. Ross does not believe the Garden of Eden was free of death, decay, pain, and suffering. For him, there was never a perfect paradise. To justify this claim scripturally, Ross will cite Genesis 3:16, in which God informs Eve after she has sinned that he will greatly multiply her pain in childbirth. Since zero multiplied by anything remains zero, Ross infers that God did not here initiate Eve’s pain but rather increased her existing pain in childbirth. More generally, Ross will suggest that God uses randomness, waste, and inefficiencies (his terms) to bring about the “very good” world into which he placed Adam.

I will simply note that I sympathize with the problem here. For people who are used to thinking of a God who uses no “randomness, waste, and inefficiencies” this seems a pretty serious problem. Dembski cites Ross as accepting that, and indeed he accepts that he himself has a need to discuss this particular problem.

I was thinking about all of this when I ran across a post by Carl Zimmer on The Loom, Cancer: An Evolutionary Disease (follow links from there to an abundance of additional information). My son died of cancer, and suddenly the whole issue becomes personal. In my view of evolution, cancer is just as much a product of natural selection as is anything else. So “natural evil” touched me rather directly in this case. At the same time, I’m extremely interested in seeing evolutionary research aid our understanding of cancer and help find cures.

Now let me try to get to the point of this note. After thinking a bit about how I’ve answered this question before, I simply don’t believe in natural evil. What we call natural evil is simply the environment in which we live, and which rewards our good choices and “punishes” our bad choices. Further, the sort of environment proposed by young earth creationists–which I believe for the first 20 odd years of my life, is non-sensical. Dembski quotes Ross as referring to the “increase” in labor indicated in Genesis 3 as part of the curse as a reason to believe that there was hardship and death prior to the fall and it was merely increased.

I would suggest that there’s a better reason: It simply couldn’t be any other way. And Genesis confirms this, I believe, when it says that God placed the man in the garden ” to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15 NRSV). Do you suppose that if Adam did not till the garden, the plants would grow equally well? If he chose one seed over another, would there be more of what he did plant than of what he didn’t? Even the much maligned author of the second creation story (Genesis 2:4b and following) doesn’t imagine a perfect world in the way that Christian theology imagined. There would still be choices and there would still be consequences, ultimately confirmed simply by the fact that the human couple were able to make the choice to sin, and noticed consequences even before God came a talked to them.

There would simply be no meaning to moral evil, or no possibility of it in a world in which there were no consequences to one’s choices, and if there are consequences, then it must be possible for them to be negative as well as positive.

I’ll be posting more details. This is just my opening shot on the topic. Watch for the category Theodicy in the coming weeks.

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  1. kehrsam says:

    I see no reason why “Natural Evil” should exist as a category. Without a human mind to call something good or evil there is neither; I assumed this was the point of Genesis 2.

    Death, in general, is certainly not evil, merely part of the cycle. And if God chooses to abolish death in heaven, what is that to us? The fact that it would be different than our current experience is, in itself, neither good nor bad, merely different.

    This is true of many things labelled evil, such as global warming. The warming itself is not good and not bad, just different. Our response may be good or evil, but, again, that is a separate question.

    That some deaths are evil is a matter of context, not a characteristic of death in general. A lot of people are confused by this for some reason.

  2. Martin LaBar says:

    Thanks for posting this, and for the link to Dembski’s article. I’ll try to slog through it.

    In reference to the previous comment, the Bible refers to death as “the last enemy,” and the shortest verse in scripture tells us that Jesus wept because of the death of Lazarus. I believe that death is, generally evil.

  3. kehrsam says:

    In what context? I fully agree that a death out of season may well be evil, this is a circumstance of that situation, not an indictment of death qua death.

    A good friend of mine is watching her grandmother die tonight. While it is heartbreaking to watch, if the alternative is six more years of Alzheimer’s, death does not seem like an evil.

    To move to the trivial, thousands of cells in my body will die today. Is this evil? How about a spontaneous abortion? Where are we to draw the line so as to give the word evil any meaning?

    My point is simply that death is part of the process of life; as nearly as I can tell, it has always been part of the plan. In Genesis, Adam is cast from the Garden, “Lest he should eat from the Tree of Life.” Death was part of the plan from the beginning.

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