By Vexen Crabtree 2007
Some theists argue that the reason there is suffering and pain is because of human free will. That we imperfect humans make imperfect choices. This reasoning must have seemed natural to pre-literate humankind in the days before we understood scientifically what the causes of natural disasters were. Natural disasters such as floods and volcanoes are caused by geological and physical processes, such as the movement of tectonic plates. Such things are far beyond the influence of human free will. Not only that, but natural disasters effect human beings indiscriminately - unborn babies lay amongst the victims, and have had no chance to exercise their free will. Animals and humans alike suffer as a result of natural evil. Such things have occurred for all of Earth's history. For example, the ten most catastrophic natural disasters caused by asteroid impacts all occurred before mankind was around1 and each one resulted in a massive loss of animal life, undoubtedly involving much animal suffering. Not only that, but the Moon, Mars and most other planets and large moons are covered in craters too. The entire universe has always been steeped in large-scale destruction and violence, right from the beginning. It is not true that such natural disasters have anything to do with mankind's endeavours. There is no 'good' design behind it all, and the existence of universal natural evil and indiscriminate suffering indicates that there is no good god.
If God is all-powerful and all-good, it would have created a universe in the same way it created heaven: with free will for all, no suffering and no evil. But evil and suffering exist. Therefore God does not exist, is not all-powerful or is not benevolent (good)2. Such arguments have been used by many philosophers as evidence against belief in god3,4. A theodicy is an attempt to explain why a good god would have created evil and suffering. The most popular defence is that it is so Humans could have free will. However the entire universe and the natural world is filled with suffering, violence and destruction so any Humanity-centric explanation does not seem to work.”
Much suffering, pain, distress, death, horror and unhappiness result from the events of the natural world that are unconnected to Human free will. Earthquakes, floods and volcanoes all form part of the normal geological behaviour of the earth. If a good God designed the way our planet was formed and how its tectonics work, then, it wouldn't have designed it in such a way that random catastrophic disasters occur as part of the normal working of the planet. The suffering of the unborn, of infants, children and animals all occur as a result of god's natural earth regardless of issues of free will or morality. The suffering of innocent people results from things that are beyond their own control. Natural evil causes suffering because of the nature of the elements, the nature of nature itself. It is the way the world works.
The major physical events only form part of natural evil. Zoonotic diseases travel between animals and humans, humans and animals, and diseases in general travel haphazardly and opportunistically from being to being with no care for whether people deserve infection. Would a good god let animals suffer as a result of the diseases passed on by mankind as a result of the 'free will' to choose evil? Many religions hold that non-human animals are somehow more innocent than human animals, yet, many human diseases cause suffering of animals. Such human-sourced anthropozoonotic diseases that affect primates include "measles, polio, scabies, influenza, tuberculosis"5.
Natural disasters and disease effect people and animals indiscriminately. The workings of the Earth itself result in cataclysms and disasters which have predated humanity. 248 million years ago, 95% of all animal species were wiped out, at the end of the Permian Era in a shocking case of mass extinction caused by some random stellar event: five such episodes have occurred in Earth's history6.It only a matter of time before another such event wipes out humanity too. This is not an indication that there is a good-natured supremely intelligent God, and it seems that there is no such thing as divine justice.
In a moment of irony that goes a little too far, the author of some verses in Genesis 6:13 is found to be quoting God itself as God attempts to justify the global flood that wipes out all life on Earth. God says "the end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth". As God designed the universe to be full of violent physical events, and designed the food chain so that animals have to fight each other with much violence in order to eat each other, then God wouldn't then be surprised to find that the Earth, like the rest of the universe, is full of violence. you'd expect God, apparently being all-knowing, would have known that that was going to happen! Biblical justifications for violence make very little sense, even to the point of being condescending.
The famous naturalist David Attenborough was interviewed on the very point of there being a creator god that "designed" all of life, and his reply highlights the fact that natural evil is simply indifferent to humanity, and not a result of free will or design:
“People say: 'How can you see hummingbirds, roses, orchids and not believe in the Lord's splendour?' But if you're going to look at these things, you should look at other things too. Think of an African boy with a parasitic worm boring into his eye. If you tell me God not only created but cares for us all, what about that boy? Are you telling me he says: 'I understand God deliberately created a worm that's going to blind me?' I find that intolerable.”
New Scientist7 (2009)
Natural disasters including earthquakes, volcanoes, etc, are part of the geological design not only of planet Earth, but of all stellar bodies. Mass destruction and violence are part of the design of the entire universe; meteor strikes and earthquakes have been witnessed throughout the galaxy, and, such violence predates the existence of humanity.
There is evidence of earthquakes, collisions and catastrophes on every stellar object we have observed. Linda Morabito, a member of the Voyager Navigation Team, saw the plumage of a volcano on Io, one of Jupiter's large satellites, as she watched footage filmed by the passing Voyager satellite. "We know now of nine large volcanoes, spewing out gas and debris, and hundreds - perhaps thousands - of extinct volcanoes on Io"8.
Everything in the universe is affected and ultimately destroyed by the processes of tumultuous cosmic change. That this happens on the Earth, too, is merely unfortunate and has nothing to do with human free will.
Natural evil, then, is universal. Cataclysmic events have continued from the Universe's inception through to the arrival of living beings, and continues into the future. As the free will, choice, volition of living beings is irrelevant, why would a god design such a dangerous universe? As a moral god would not allow earthquakes and disease to cause undue harm, theologians try to reconcile the existence of natural evil to the existence of a good god. "The Problem of Evil: Why Would a Good God Create Suffering?" by Vexen Crabtree (2011) examines many such explanations - to date, none have been found that can explain why such disaster and suffering exists in the universe if there is a good God.
There are only a few possible explanations for the existence of natural evil:
God is not all-powerful and cannot change the way the universe works
God does not exist.
To the present day, all theodicies have failed to explain why a good god would create evil, meaning that the existence of evil is simply incompatible with the existence of a good god. After thousands of years of life-consuming passion, weary theologians have not formulated a new answer to the problem of evil for a long time. The violence of the natural world, disease, the major catastrophes and chaotic destruction seen across the universe and the unsuitability of the vastness of reality for life all indicate that god is not concerned with life, and might actually even be evil. Failure to answer the problem of evil sheds continual doubt on the very foundations of theistic religions.”
“The existence of such large quantities of suffering, despair, pain, of natural disasters such as earthquakes, of the death of the unborn and the immense suffering of lovers & kind-hearted people means that god is evil and intentionally creates life in order to create suffering. That all life exists in a food chain means that life is completely tied to death, and such a barbaric biological cycle could only have been made by an evil god. Also, that such a god appears not to exist, or actively hides itself, is a source of confusion, conflict, war and stress and is again more likely the antics of an evil god. Given the state of the natural world, it is impossible that a good god exists. It is more likely that an evil god exists, but, it is sensible to assume that there is no god of either type. Even if there is not a god of either type, as the dominance of death and violence in the natural world, a result of nature being abused by life and not being designed for life, I think the evil symbol of Satan is the best representative of the state of reality and the universe, whether or not an actual evil god exists.
If God did exist and was evil, it would undoubtedly lie and tell everyone it was a good god and that it loved them. It would create maximum confusion by preaching multiple conflicting religions. It would create heaven and make it hard to get to in order to tease and torture people into making their own lives hell. As all of those things happen, if there is a God, it is doing the things an evil God would do!”
Current edition: 2007 Dec 03
Last Modified: 2015 Nov 09
Originally published 2002 Jan 14
Parent page: The Problem of Evil: Why Would a Good God Create Suffering?
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The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
National Geographic. Magazine. Published by National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, USA.
(1984) God And The New Physics. Paperback book. Penguin 2006 edition. Davies is a Professor in theoretical physics who has published ground-breaking research.
(2016) "A Biblical-Theological Response to the Problem of Theodicy in the Context of the Modem Criticism of Religion". Published in the Evangelical Review of Theology (2016) 40:3, 247-263.
(1995) Cosmos. Paperback book. Originally published 1981 by McDonald & Co. Current version published by Abacus.
Silverton, Wood, Dodd & Ridge
(2008) Biodiversity and Ecosystems. 2nd edition. Originally published 2003. Current version published by The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. By Jonathan Silverton, Carlton Wood, Mike Dodd and Irene Ridge. Book 2 of Open University course U316 The environmental web.