Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Necessary Natural Evil and Inevitable Moral Evil

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Necessary Natural Evil and Inevitable Moral Evil

Article excerpt

The question of why bad things happen to creatures of a supposedly beneficent and all-powerful God has been a challenge to Christian thought in modern times. Scientific knowledge makes an appeal to effects of a primordial human sin a very unconvincing response. Here we distinguish between natural and moral evil and proceed on the basis of a theology of the cross. The hiddenness of God's activity in the world suggests that God has given creation its own functional integrity, so that God will not intervene miraculously to avert all danger from creatures. Thus natural evil is, in a sense, necessary. In addition, evolution of intelligent life will result in creatures who, in theory, could trust and obey God but who will inevitably fail to do so. God shares with creation in paying the price for creation of such a world by choosing to be vulnerable to its suffering.


A fundamental aspect of the Christian doctrine of creation is set out in the first creation account of Genesis (1:1-2:4a). This text repeatedly states that aspects of the world which God created are "good," and the story of God's work concludes by saying that God saw everything that he had made to be "very good." First Timothy 4:4a affirms this: "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected."

The Issues

Human experience of bad things happening in the world--the sufferings caused by disease, storms, and fatal accidents along with the harm that people do to one another by their choices--immedi-ately raises questions about this claim of creation's goodness. Is the way creation is described in the Genesis account consistent with these realities?

And there are further questions. The Bible pictures God's ongoing involvement with creation after the initial creation. We are not given a deistic picture of a clock-maker God who once created the cosmic machinery and then lets it run on its own, but of a creator who is active in the world that he created. In fact, the picture is not just of sporadic divine interventions in the world but of a God who is involved in everything that happens. Creation includes both the originating creatio ex nihilo and the ongoing creatio continua. Does this then mean that God not only created a world in which bad things take place, but that he also actually causes those things to happen?

It is now common to distinguish between "natural evil" and "moral evil." The first includes all the bad things that can happen to creatures in the natural world, such as diseases, storms, earthquakes, and attacks by animals, as well as smaller accidents such as tripping and falling. These things happen, not because some moral agent intends harm to another person but because they are simply "out there" in the world. They affect not just humans but other animals as well, and, in fact, even the inanimate and inorganic features of the world. Natural evil, in the last analysis, infects all of nature.

"Moral evil," on the other hand, includes all the bad things that we, as rational animals, do. We can damage or destroy other humans, nonhuman animals, and, as the rise of ecological awareness in the past century has shown us, inanimate and inorganic parts of creation. These things do not "just happen," but they take place because people want them to happen, allow them to happen by culpable negligence, or bring them about as collateral damage in the process of getting what they want.

While it is helpful to distinguish between these two types of evil, we need to remember that in some cases both the forces of nature and human action or inaction combine to bring about evil effects. The problems caused by climate change, for example, are due in part to human activity and are exacerbated by denial of the problem by some people in positions of power. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln could not have taken place if the natural processes of an explosion exerting a force on a projectile in a gun had not functioned. …

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