An asteroid collides with earth and initiates the ice age.
A volcano explodes and destroys the major metropolis of Vesuvius.
A group of killer whales stalks a humpback and her baby, driving them to exhaustion until the mother can no longer hold onto her baby. The baby drowns, and the killer whales only bother to eat one fin, leaving the rest of the body for scavengers.
A star burns through its fuel over the eons, collapses and then balloons into an explosion which slowly annihilates everything that lies in its path.
The world is a constant cycle of death and destruction that has no (obvious) direct link to human evil or sin. It’s just how the universe seems to work. It is cycling down into an ever deepening well of entropy until all useful energy is exhausted, resulting in the heat death of the universe.
This point hardly needs defending. On the order of the microscopic, the world is full of incurable diseases. Some are all-too-common such as AIDS and cancer, some are bizarre and specific to the few poor victims they target, such as Progeria – a disease that causes children to grow elderly and then die only a few short years after they are born.
Diseases come in a vast variety of forms from viral to bacterial; from genetic disorders to parasitic organisms; from toxins and poisons to fungal and yeast infections.
On the order of the macroscopic, nature conspires against human life with seeming indifference. The continents heave and move causing massive destruction of property and loss of life. Currents in the atmosphere swirl and erupt in catastrophic storms, annihilating life apparently at random. Both fire and flood consume and destroy plant and animal; man, woman, and child without remorse.
Some critics even go so far as to point out the vicious and parasitic methods of nature itself. Tropical ants become host to a brain-eating fungus that seizes control of the ant’s movements and behavior to propagate its infection to the entire colony of insects. Wasps lay their eggs in the body of caterpillars, and then their larva eats the caterpillar from the inside out. These exotic methods that various life forms have developed of preying upon and destroying other life forms seem – to certain critics, at least – incompatible with a perfect God.
An all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God could easily stop these things or, at the very least, direct them in such a way as to spare human beings the loss and suffering they entail.
That God should allow such things to indiscriminately destroy the lives of broad populations of people regardless of their age, race, gender, nationality, or religion indicates a randomness and complete lack of the kind of intentionality that one would otherwise expect from a wise Creator God.
Is it at all possible to reconcile this seemingly imperfect system with a good and perfect creator God?
The Perception of a Problem
One of the first things worth noticing in this objection is that the person raising the objection clearly recognizes an imperfection. This is interesting because if a person perceives a problem, then either there really is something wrong with the universe or there is something wrong with their perception.
That these things are a problem is largely an intuitive conclusion. Why shouldn’t animals die in order to feed other animals or fertilize the ground? Why shouldn’t the universe run down and end? To show that this is an imperfect system would suggest that there is a better potential system, but what would that system look like? Can one construct a model of a perfect universe against which to compare this one?
If the intuition is correct, then it is as much as an admission that there is a problem that requires fixing. More than this, it is an admission that humans have some innate sense of perfection against which they may justify their complaints.
Creation as a plateau
From literal Six-Day Creationists to Theistic Evolutionists, it is generally agreed among Christians that God’s creation of the universe was a process that occurred over a period of time; the only thing in question is how long that period of time was. It is also agreed upon that human beings were the final act in the creation process. In fact, even an atheist will allow that Homo Sapiens are so newly arrived on the planet as to be the pinnacle of current evolution.
Seen this way, human beings represent the peak of creation. This matches the Biblical model, wherein humans were created last, created “in God’s image,” and given dominion over the earth, after which God rested. At this point, it could be said that creation “plateaued.”
The philosopher and theologian Augustine argues that “evil” is the result of a diminishing or absence of good. This tends to make sense. Darkness is not a force. It is not energy or material. It has no volume, weight, or properties. It is the absence of light. Even so, evil is not a thing that can be systematized and measured and correlated. It is the absence of good.
Ask yourself the question “What is the WRONG answer to 2+2?” It could be anything but “4.” It could be “5.” It could be “armchair.”
In Book I of his signature work The Republic, Plato quotes Socrates as saying:
“Would you have the goodness also to inform me, whether you think that a state, or an army, or a band of robbers and thieves, or any other gang of evil-doers could act at all if they injured one another? But if they abstain from injuring one another, then they might act together better? And this is because injustice creates divisions and hatreds and fighting, and justice imparts harmony and friendship; is not that true?”
This is the famous idea of “honor among thieves.”
Good, order, justice, rule, these are things that – when present – are good and recognizable and praiseworthy. Bad, chaos, injustice, and lawlessness only reflect the absence of these things.
If God is pure good, pure justice, pure love, and if the “evil” is the absence of “good,” then the presence of evil logically reflects a withdrawal of God from the functioning of the universe.
If there was a ceiling in the creation process in which the universe was as good as it possibly could be, then the decline and corruption of the universe must have occurred after this point. If the potential goodness of the universe began to decline, this indicates a retreat on the part of God. If the universe was at its peak upon the creation of humans and began its decline at some point after humans were created, this strongly supports the premise that God “withdrew” to some degree because of a rebellious act on the part of humans, as the Bible suggests.
It is shown at several points in scripture that God has the capacity to protect humans from “natural evil.” In the book of Job, Satan complains that God has shielded Job from evils:
Job 1:10 English Standard Version (ESV)
Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.
Presumably this includes the lightning and storms that the character of Satan later uses to kill Job’s sheep, servants, and children.
It is also seen that God has the power to reduce or eliminate natural evils as they effect humans:
Mark 4:39-41 English Standard Version (ESV)
And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
It’s worth mentioning that Jesus also regularly healed people of diseases which represent natural evil in the forms of bacteria and viruses.
Presumably, then, if all of creation were infused with God’s presence to its maximum degree, the effects of natural evils, at least as they pertain to the well-being of humans, could potentially be entirely negated. And scripture predicts exactly that.
Almost from the beginning, scripture predicts a future time when the Messiah will return and bring with him an earthly paradise.
Romans 8:19-22 English Standard Version (ESV)
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
This passage restates the common Christian premise that God’s purpose in Creation will be fulfilled only through pain and struggle, much like a woman who labors to bear a child; enduring the pain because of the new life and joy that will come in the end.
The prophet Isaiah tells of a time in the future when, ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’.”
Whether metaphorical or actual, this is just one of many sections of the Bible that predict an era of unprecedented peace and harmony among humans and nature alike. This all occurs in the future upon the return of the Messiah.
Assuming the truth of Christianity, then the physical return of Christ to the Earth is an undisputed certainty. This “God-on-Earth” scenario is depicted throughout scripture as a virtual earthly paradise. Assuming that there is something out-of-sorts with the physical universe, a saturation of pure goodness (i.e. God), would ensure that the universe would be as good as it could possibly get.
One additional note on this topic: there is a fairly consistent message through scripture of God not simply inhabiting, but actually recreating the universe. The Old Testament book of Isaiah is saturated with this kind of imagery. In addition to the verses cited above, one can find this imagery in passages like these:
Isaiah 65:17 English Standard Version (ESV)
“For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
Isaiah 66:22 English Standard Version (ESV)
“For as the new heavens and the new earth
that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
so shall your offspring and your name remain.
This theme is then picked up in the New Testament in passages such as these:
2 Peter 3:13 English Standard Version (ESV)
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Revelation 21:1 English Standard Version (ESV)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
In conclusion, that humans look at the world around them and find it problematic is highly suspicious on the assumption that the world is all that there is, and no God or standard of good exists to inform humans about this so-called problem. The problem of natural evil is, therefore, either a made-up problem, or an actual problem. If an actual problem, it reflects some kind of instability in nature that requires fixing. This problem is both allowed for and resolved in Biblical eschatology. To use the problem of natural evil as a tool to attack Christian beliefs, one must first address the fact that the Bible both explains and then presents the solution to this apparent problem.