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Natural evil, or surd evil, is a term generally used in discussions of the problem of evil and theodicy that refers to states of affairs which, considered in themselves, are those that are part of the natural world, and so are independent of the intervention of a human agent. It stands in contrast to moral evil. Both natural and moral evil are a challenge to religious believers. Many atheists claim that natural evil is proof that there is no God, at least not an omnipotent, omnibenevolent one, as such a being would not allow such evil to happen to his/her creation. However, the deist position states that intervention by God to prevent such actions (or any intervention) is not an attribute of God.
Nature of natural evil
Moral evil results from a perpetrator, or one who acts intentionally and in so doing has flouted some duty or engaged in some vice. Natural evil has only victims, and is generally taken to be the result of natural processes. The "evil" thus identified is evil only from the perspective of those affected and who perceive it as an affliction. Examples include cancer, birth defects, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, acts of god, and other phenomena which inflict suffering with apparently no accompanying mitigating good. Such phenomena inflict "evil" on victims with no perpetrator to blame.
In the Bible, God is portrayed as the ultimate perpetrator for the “sun, moon and stars, celestial activity, clouds, dew, frost, hail, lightning, rain, snow, thunder, and wind are all subject to God's command.” Examples of natural evils ascribed to by God follow:
- Floods: God brought “a flood of waters on the earth” (Genesis 6:17).
- Thunder, hail, lightning: God “sent thunder and hail, and fire came down” (Exodus 9:23).
- Destructive Wind: God sent a “great wind” that destroyed Job’s house and killed his family (Job 1:19).
- Earthquake: By the Lord “the earth will be shaken” (Isaiah 13:13).
- Drought and Famine: God will shut off rains, so neither land nor trees yield produce (Leviticus 26:19-20).
- Forest fires: God says, “I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree” (Ezekiel 20:47).
Classical theism’s Mark R. Talbot concurs with Scripture in ascribing evil to God: “God’s foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events.”
Natural versus moral evil
Jean Jacques Rousseau responded to Voltaire's criticism of the optimists by pointing out that the value judgement required in order to declare the 1755 Lisbon earthquake a natural evil ignored the fact that the human endeavour of the construction and organization of the city of Lisbon was also to blame for the horrors recounted as they had contributed to the level of suffering. It was, after all, the collapsing buildings, the fires, and the close human confinement that led to much of the death.
The question of whether natural disasters such as hurricanes might be natural or moral evil is complicated by new understandings of the effects, such as global warming, of our collective actions on events that were previously considered to be out of our control. Nonetheless, even before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (which many believe was the beginning point of global warming), natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, flooding, fires, disease, etc.) occurred regularly, and cannot be ascribed to the actions of humans.
Another common argument, espoused by Alvin Plantinga, is that everything that appears at first glance to be natural evil could in fact be moral evil committed by freely acting supernatural beings, such as fallen angels.
- Baker's Evangelical Dictionary, s.v. “Providence of God.”
- Mark R. Talbot, “All the Good That Is Ours in Christ,” in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor, 43-44 (Crossway Books, 2006). Available online at http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/OnlineBooks/ByTitle/.
- Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: the Bible and Spiritual Conflict (InterVarsity Press,1997) 20.