A note on "natural" evil


The short version of the article below is that I’m suggesting that Divine Hiddenness is intentional, and the reason I think God hides himself is so that the integrity of our free-will is protected. This would allow God to place each one of us on an individual journey with Him in that He can then reveal Himself to each one of us as He leads and as we have the faith to seek Him. The advantages of a free creation far outweighs one that isn’t free.

A sketch of an idea

Recently Stephen Fry, comedian, actor and writer, restated the Problem of Natural Evil in an inflammatory tone and in doing so garnered much attention from the press and social media. Fry drew particular attention to bone cancer and to an insect whose lifecycle must including burrowing into the eyes of other creatures, including humans, causing permanent blindness to its host in the process, and then stated that if God had created a world with such misery in it that is not our fault then God must be a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God… Utterly, utterly evil”. This question that Fry is raising is known more generally as the Problem of Natural Evil - not that that commits us to calling earthquakes and bone cancer “evil” - I hope below to give enough reason to show that they could be seen as unavoidable hazards of this creation we live within.

There have been myriad responses of varying quality, but I’ve noticed that the view I hold isn’t represented within the dialogue, one that I’ve been working on for some time and addresses the purpose of life, but I felt it might be helpful to add my own voice here. The view I propose is a derivitive of the classic Free-Will response to the Problem of Natural Evil, but utilises a non-literal-historic reading of the Genesis creation and fall narratives - an interpretive option that is not available to all Christians.

The classic free-will response works really well with regards to moral evil - it’s the idea that as free-agents we are free to choose to do good or evil to one another - but it is fantastical and highly speculative when it comes to natural evil by suggesting that, in an act of cosmic victim-blaming, parasitic insects and earthquakes et al are the fault of our choice to sin and the influence of Satan (in response to our sin opening the door for him to influence creation). We’ll look at why that doesn’t work later on, but for now here is the theodicy I’ve been thinking through, a plausible set of reasons that together show how the existance of natural evil does not affect the Christian claim of God’s omnipotence or benevolence:

  1. The end point of creation (and therefore Christianity) will be a loving community of God, other people and creation.

  2. Love (and this community) must be freely chosen, hence free-will is required, it cannot be coerced or programmed. Love must be freely given, and the possibility of rejection must be genuine. Chosing love also entails not living in anti-loving ways, so repentance should be understood as an act of love.

So far so good. But here is where we deviate from the classical free-will position:

  1. The integrity of our free-will is compromised by God being revealed with certainty. Therefore, God would need to hide himself from us. The primary difference is this: Divine hiddenness is necessary.
    Certainty of God through any field would be avoided, whether physically seeing or touching, or any of the sciences such as maths, astronomy or biology. God’s existence must not be provable through maths or the sciences - He must remain hidden.

  2. We would need a place from which God could begin the process of wooing us into love (including living in love). This would necessarily include at least some experiencing of living without God. It would also include experiencing the pain we cause and suffer through the unloving choices of ourselves and others.

  3. The place where we would live could not point back to its ultimate maker, ergo creation would have to be designed to be self-creating.
    Life within creation would have to be evolved rather than created in the state we find it in. God could not remove all the branches of evolved life that are a threat to humanity because once our scientific knowledge was sufficiently advanced His intervention would be revealed.
    God could not interfere with weather systems and the movement of tectonic plates once our scientific knowledge had advanced sufficiently to detect His intervention with certainty.

  4. (This point needs fully rewriting to make clear the individual journey of faith & love that God wants to take each one of us on). While God does intervene individually at times in ways that are far in advance of our faith, he seems to do it in a way in which only we or a controlled group of people are compelled to believe that an intervention was God, and often only for a short time). The certainty is usually then confined to the past so that faith again becomes an option (rather than being compelled by evidence, thus degrading our freedom to choose to follow God). By default God, His actions & intervention in our lives seem to generally be plausibly deniable. There could never be an action that we performed that would reliably force the revelation of God with certainty. We could not commit heineous acts of evil in order to force God to intervene and be therefore revealed. We could not throw ourselves to the lions and expect God to save us somehow every time, thus revealing God On the times God did intervene we would have to be left wondering whether what we experienced, heard, saw or observed was God or God at work or just chance, nature or something else and, in doing so, faith remains a choice. NB. This is not deism where God does not intervene, cannot intervene or has no interest in intervening in our lives, but merely that the way in which God does intervene cannot create unending certainty. Notice in Acts 9v3 Paul sees Jesus but no-one else does. It’s clearly Jesus to Paul, but not to anyone else, but then Jesus disappears and I wonder how long it would be before Paul started to question what he had seen? Again, if God chose to reveal himself to Paul and negate his Faith for the sake of the Kingdom, Paul would miss out on much of what Free-will and genuine faith has to offer us in our journey with and toward God, but of course he would gladly do so to see the kingdom advance. This doesn’t appear to be the default.

  5. Therefore, so-called “Natural Evil” is unavoidable and inevitable given God’s objectives for this creation project we find ourselves in. God does not abandon us to this creation, red in tooth and claw, but asks and keeps on asking for an invitation to walk with us through it.

One day I hope to flesh this out a bit more.

– Matt Parkins