Why do we have tsunamis and natural disasters, viruses and pandemics?

The existence of natural disasters raises massive questions about God and the world, and people have responded in various ways.

Let me skim over a few possible answers, before spending a bit longer on the final one.

  1. Natural disasters: not a problem? One approach to natural disasters is to argue that they do not indicate a departure from God’s will.
    1. Some might go down the route of process theology, according to which everything (including God) is in a process of becoming. So God can influence the world only through persuasion. God cannot simply eliminate natural disasters. This isn’t something I’ve explored in any depth, but it strikes me as both biblically questionable and pastorally unhelpful.
    2. Some might say that God always wanted us to experience suffering and death in this world, while looking forward to eternal life in the new creation. So they might (rightly) draw attention to the fact that the creation is Genesis 1 was not the final product. It was a ‘very good’ start, but it needed to be filled and subdued, in order, ultimately, to be filled with God’s glory. But then they might conclude that it was God’s intention from the outset that we should experience disease, disaster and death, even before the fall, and that the fall has made what should have been a natural part of life into something we experience as a disaster. This is an interesting idea, but I find it difficult to reconcile with the biblical portrayal of death as an enemy.
    3. Some might say that natural disasters are part of God’s good plan. The image is sometimes used of a tapestry: it looks messy on the reverse, but it all makes sense when viewed from the front. Everything happens for a reason. Everything has its place when viewed in the light of the whole. David Bentley Hart takes this view to task in his book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami, which I have written about previously.
  2. Natural disasters: caused by natural processes that are contrary to God’s will? This approach maintains that something has gone wrong with the natural world. It rolls off the tongue very easily: ‘It’s because we live in a fallen world.’
    1. Some might say that these natural processes exist because of the fall of humanity. Young-age creationists, for example, might suggest that there were no earthquakes in the original creation, while pointing to the flood as the origin of plate tectonics. This is an interesting idea, and not one to be written off without a hearing, but it is fair to say that there are substantial unresolved scientific problems. See my posts on Paul Garner’s book, The New Creationism, and my post on evidence for young-age creationism.
    2. Some might say that these natural processes exist because of the fall of the angels. I have discussed this idea elsewhere: it is very speculative, and raises some difficult questions.
  3. Natural disasters: caused by good natural processes that cause harm because of human sin? This approach maintains that there is nothing wrong with an earthquake, if it doesn’t hurt anybody.
    1. Some might draw attention to the fact that human actions make natural disasters much worse. Bob White does a good job of this in his book, Who is to Blame? Disasters, Nature and Acts of God, which I have written about before. He points out that earthquakes and the like are good and beneficial natural processes, and often it is human actions that turn a natural process into a natural disaster. However, it would be wrong to take this as an answer to the question of why natural disasters exist, since we can never entirely eliminate the danger to human life that comes from such natural processes.
    2. Some might speculate that human beings would have been protected from suffering before the fall. So there would have been powerful earthquakes (and so on) in God’s good creation, but only since the fall of humanity would these natural processes have caused human beings to suffer and die. In other words, the fall has turned natural processes into natural disasters.

I want to explore the final possibility in more depth. How might it work?

First, it depends on making a distinction between what God wills, and what God permits. God and creation are distinct. This means that creation is not simply an expression of God’s brute will, as if God just thought up every tiny detail, and there it is. God creates us as causal agents. While God still upholds creation from moment to moment, God’s creatures really act as causes within creation. This is the difference between primary and secondary causation. As Simon Oliver puts it, ‘What God permits in history may be, in itself, contrary to his eternal will’ (p. 88).

For example, you might let your children play outside, knowing that sooner or later they will fall over and hurt themselves. But that’s different to pushing your child over. In one case you are permitting your child to be hurt, and in the other case you are willing and causing your child to be hurt.

Eleonore Stump, in an article about the problem of evil, proposed that

(9) Natural evil entered the world as a result of Adam’s fall.

She goes on:

As for (9), it can be read in either of these two ways:

(9’) There were no diseases, tornadoes, droughts, etc. in the world until Adam’s fall;

(9”) no person suffered from diseases, tornadoes, droughts, etc. until Adam’s fall.

The weaker assumption, of course, is (9”), and it is all I need for my purposes here. The ways in which an omnipotent God might have brought about (9”) are limited only by one’s imagination, and there is no need to specify any one of them here.

In other words, we just need to imagine that, before the fall, and if the fall hadn’t happened, people would have somehow been protected from being harmed or killed by natural processes.

Stanley Rosenberg, in a chapter about Augustine and natural evil in Finding Ourselves after Darwin, has this to say:

For Augustine, the core problem that humans face is dislocation resulting from the fall. This is fundamentally a relational problem: humans no longer relate properly to God, others, and their own selves. Physical phenomena, objects, and corporeal decay now torment humans and are a cause of pain, but such pain is not because these phenomena come unexpectedly into a once-pristine scene from which they were previously absent (p. 242).

So what has changed?

Certainly, Augustine thought that if Adam and Eve had continued in purity, a greater grace would have been gained, which would have preserved them against decay (p. 243).

The suggestion – and it’s just one suggestion – is that God would have granted people an extra grace – an extra gift – to protect them from harm. But after the fall, that gift has been withdrawn, leaving us vulnerable to being harmed by natural processes. Natural processes, in other words, became natural disasters.

Are there any hints of that in Scripture?

Two passages come to mind.

The first hint is the existence of a garden in Genesis 2 and 3. The garden was a sanctuary, separated from the rest of the world, where God was present. There was a difference between life in the garden, and life outside the garden. Maybe this is a hint that, once the fall has happened, God takes away some of that special protection, and leaves us exposed to the dangers of the world outside the garden?

The second is Jesus calming the storm (Mt 8:23–27; Mk 4:36–41; Lk 8:22–25). When Jesus was confronted with the power of the sea threatening his life, his response was to rebuke the waves, and they obeyed him. Now, Jesus is uniquely God incarnate. But I wonder whether the power that Jesus exercised on earth gives us a glimpse of the power that humanity was meant to exercise, if the fall had never happened?

This approach would flatten the common distinction natural evil and moral evil. If we use ‘evil’ to refer to any kind of pain, harm, or suffering, then people often make a distinction distinction between moral evil, which refers to ‘evils for which human agents can be held morally accountable’, and natural evil, which describes evils ‘for which humans are not morally responsible’.1 But if what we describe as ‘natural evil’ is something that God permits as a result of human sin, then human agents can indeed be held responsible for it, and the distinction isn’t quite so clear. So-called ‘natural evil’ turns out to be another example of moral evil.

To me, this seems to be a pretty good way of understanding natural disasters. Of course, it then raises the question of why God permits any evil at all. Why did God permit humanity to fall into sin? Why did God allow the serpent to enter the garden? Questions for another time, perhaps…

  1. B. R. Reichenbach, ‘Evil’, in New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, ed. by Martin Davie and others, 2nd ed. (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016), 316.