Creation Untamed 1

“… if God cares for so much for all creatures, why didn’t God create a world in which there would be no natural disasters?”

That question, by Terence Fretheim, professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis in his fifth decade of teaching, is perhaps one of the best questions we could perhaps face. Yes, bad things happen, but why does God create a world in which bad things happen? This is one of the questions he addresses in his slender but profound new book: Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic).

The big one: Do you think God is at work in natural disasters? And, if so, do you think God is “judging” at some level? Or, if not, how do you explain a good God making a world where such bad things happen?

In his opening sketch of themes, including the interaction of human evil and cosmic disturbance, Fretheim quotes Hosea 4:1-3:

4:1 Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites!
For the Lord has a covenant lawsuit against the people of Israel.
For there is neither faithfulness nor loyalty in the land,
nor do they acknowledge God.
4:2 There is only cursing, lying, murder, stealing, and adultery.
They resort to violence and bloodshed.
4:3 Therefore the land will mourn,
and all its inhabitants will perish.
The wild animals, the birds of the sky,
and even the fish in the sea will perish.

Acts do have consequences, he observes. Even cosmic consequences.

So he asks the big one: “Is there not at least a kernel of truth in the linkage of such natural developments to the judgmental activity of God?” (6).Sure, there are manifold ripple-like layers of consequences: and he mentions Katrina and inadequate human preparations and responses and and the possible effects of global warming … and how the poor and needy experienced these more than the wealthy…

How does one excuse God in all this? So, he says, “in considering such disasters, we cannot let God off the hook” (7). How so?

First, such natural disasters are part of God’s creational designs; second, some disasters are made more severe by human sins. If God is involved in healing, why not also in judgment?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jason Lee

    To what degree does some version of open theism resolve issues? …God as master chess player in non-coercive interaction with a world becoming what it chooses.

  • Jeff Doles

    Are such natural disasters part of what God observed in the beginning to be “very good,” or are they part of the creation that came under curse when Adam rebelled against God? Is not the whole creation groaning together, eagerly awaiting the manifestation of the sons of God?

  • paul

    as for the first point i agree at least in part. while earthquakes and volcanoes are no fun, without them (and the plate tectonics that create them) the land would have eroded away long ago.

  • Jeff Doles

    The Bible speaks of a number of things that “defile the land.”

    1. Sexual Immorality
    Leviticus 18 lists various forms of sexual immorality: fornications, adulteries, homosexuality, and bestiality. Then it says,

    Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25)

    2. Bloodshed

    So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35:34-35)

    3. Idolatry

    For my eyes are on all their was; they are not hidden from My face, nor is their iniquity hidden from My eyes. And first I will repay double for their iniquity and their sin, because they have defiled My land; they have filled My inheritance with the carcasses of their detestable and abominable idols. (Jeremiah 16:17-18)

    4. The Broken Covenant

    The earth mourns and fades away,
    The world languishes and fades away;
    The haughty people of the earth languish.
    The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants,
    Because they have transgressed the laws,
    Changed the ordinance,
    Broken the everlasting covenant.
    Therefore the curse has devoured the earth,
    And those who dwell in it are desolate.
    (Isaiah 24:4-6)

  • Rick in TX

    So, Jeff Roles, are we to interpret that in your view, natural disasters are indeed God’s judgment on the human sins you have described? Just seeking clarification.

  • Jeff Doles

    Rick, I believe natural disasters are a result of the curse that Adam brought upon the earth by his disobedience to God (i.e., the Fall). That the physical realm is dependent upon the spiritual realm, since God, who is Spirit, is the one who created the physical realm. That man was created in the image and likeness of God and given dominion over creation, and that what humankind does affects the planet. That, because man was created as a being who is spiritual as well as material, whenever he violates the spiritual realm, it affects the material realm as well. So, in the Fall of humankind into sin, creation came under a curse; likewise, in the redemption of humankind, the whole creation is also redeemed (which is, I believe, Paul’s point in Romans 8 about creation groaning and waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God).

  • dopderbeck

    This is a fascinating book.

    I do not believe “natural disasters” are a consequence of the Fall in the sense that there would have been earthquakes and so on long before humans appeared on the scene. Young Earth Creationists will argue otherwise. I don’t want to enter into that debate right now, but I don’t find YECism convincing. Absent YECism, you must acknowledge that earthquakes and so on predate human sin.

    Fretheim, however, makes some important moves with which I’m not comfortable: namely, he is an open theist and therefore constructs his theodicy of natural evil based on God’s willingness to be open to risk. I don’t think that works.

  • Tim

    I don’t agree with the premise. I don’t think God created the world in the sense that most people think, as an engineer or something.

    I do think God was involved in the creative process, but in a far more indirect level. So the whole deistic idea of God tweaking the universal constants and setting off the Big Bang, then standing back and watching things play out, maybe dipping his hand in affairs every once in a while is not something I subscribe to. Nor do I subscribe to the notion that God micromanages through every step of the way the unfolding of the universe and the evolution of life here on Earth.

    Rather, and perhaps using an analogy would be most appropriate, I think of how the wind propelling a ship across the seas. The wind is what gives life to the boat in the ocean, it’s what makes all travel possible. But the wind isn’t going to chart a course for that ship, nor is it going to save it from being dashed against the rocks or sailing safe into harbor. Perhaps there is some real directional influences, where God directs affairs, but if so I think it is of a far gentler nature and would operate on a far subtler level.

    Of course, I guess I could take the strong interventionist point of view. But then I feel God would be morally culpable for highly negligent behavior. A four year-old gets kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Why didn’t God do anything to stop it? Or why not intervene with natural disasters to save lives? Or why not prevent the holocaust? The list goes on….

    Now, I don’t for a second buy the arguments of “mysterious ways” or “God’s hidden plan” or “consequences of a sinful world” stuff. The bottom line is, if God has the power and functions in a direct intervening role in human events, he’s doing a terrible job at keeping a lot of really good people from otherwise entirely avoidable loss, heartbreak, and suffering. That would either entail incompetence, a trait I would never attribute to God, or a moral failing through gross negligence, again, a trait I would never attribute to God.

  • Jason Lee

    dopderbeck, please elaborate

  • Jeff Doles

    So, Dop, these natural disasters that do so much harm to so many, are they a part of that which God saw to be “very good”? It seems to me that if they are not part of the Fall they will not be part of the redemption, so that, in the Resurrection, we will still have to watch out for tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other such disasters. (I believe that out eternal state will not be as “disembodied spirits,” to use N.T. Wright’s words, floating around heaven, but as physical beings in resurrected bodies on a renewed earth.)

  • dopderbeck

    Jason (#9) — on Fretheim’s theology? I’m sure Scot will get to it as we blog through the book. Basically, Fretheim suggests that God doesn’t “cause” natural disasters because God doesn’t fully “control” creation — creation is free to “become,” and God doesn’t necessarily know every direction that becoming might take. The argument is much more subtle and sophisticated than this, and actually has some strong Biblical merit. But, I’d suggest there are better ways of thinking this through without giving up on the classical notion of divine foreknowledge.

  • dopderbeck

    Jeff (#10) — yes, they are part of God’s “very good.” Tectonic activity is an absolutely necessary result of numerous forces (such as gravity) that are required for the earth to function as a habitable planet. And you can’t have tectonic activity without earthquakes and tsunamis. To deny that these things in themselves are part of the “very good” of creation is to disagree with God about the goodness of the embodied creation, IMHO. It’s a Gnostic move.

    Now, the effects that these things have on human beings is a different question. If human beings lived in perfect, unbroken fellowship with God and with each other, would something like Hurricane Katrina have been a human disaster? Or would the way we live and build, and the things we would know, and the ways in which we would care for each other, have mitigated all the human cost? IMHO, we have to think about “natural evil” along these latter lines.

    BTW, I completely agree with you about NT Wright’s view of the new creation. Wright, of course, is not a YEC, and though he’s written a few confusing things about natural evil (in his “Evil and the Justice of God” book), I’m pretty sure he would not deny the fact that earthquakes and so on are part of nature as God created it long before humans came along. I suppose all I can say here is “I don’t know,” but I suspect there will be beautiful displays of majestic power such as volcanic eruptions and other tectonic activity — but I think that human culture and human fellowship with God will be such that we will have the wisdom and knowledge to avoid the harm to us that these things could otherwise cause.

  • Linda

    These disasters are from God, God controls everything, disasters do not just happen. God is using these disasters to show people they He takes sin seriously, and that there will be an ultimate judgment to come. So sending these disasters is actually gracious of God. If God never sent disasters we would think that God is okay with our sin. Would it be good for God to ultimately judge us, but yet never let us know that He took sin seriously in a tangible way?

  • Robin

    1. Any God that can cause/allow the great flood is perfectly capable of causing/allowing Katrina or any other disaster you want to consider

    2. God controls which sparrows fly and which ones fall, he can tame the waters and walk on them as he pleases.

    3. God has, in the past, brought about catastrophe explicitly as a judgement

    4. When question about a horrendous accident, Jesus basically responded that the lesson to draw wasn’t about the judgement visited on the people that died, but about the fact that death is coming for us all and there is an urgent need for all men to repent.

    From these I believe that God plays an intimate role in all disasters, indeed in all deaths everywhere, that he has his own purposes which are not for me to know until creation is restored, and that my imperative is to know and love God and others.

  • Rick


    “I think that human culture and human fellowship with God will be such that we will have the wisdom and knowledge to avoid the harm to us that these things could otherwise cause.”

    I don’t have it in front of me, but I think Ireneaus had a similar line of thought (good creation, even with natural disasters, the problem is with our wisdom and response), as opposed to Augustine’s (most of the natural disasters are a result/consequence of the Fall).

    Again, I don’t have that data near me- so please correct me if I am off on those individuals and summaries.

  • Robin

    I also don’t understand the focus on natural disasters. I mean, which is worse, being swept away in Katrina or progressively dying with dementia? If it is about “all creation” I don’t see how a Lion ripping a wildebeast to shreds is preferable to a wildebeast dying in a brush-fire.

    Death is hard, and it is harder to think about now that I have children, but I don’t get worked up about “How could God allow this specific event to happen.” God created a world in which hundreds of billions (Assuming hmo sapiens have been around for ~50,000 years) of people have lived and died, some peacefully and some tragically. The deaths cause me grief, not so much the manner in which they die.

  • dopderbeck

    It’s interesting even to consider our use of language here: “natural disaster“. A volcano, however, isn’t a “disaster” in “natural” terms. It’s just an impersonal result of tectonic forces, and it often has the benefit of renewing the soil for new growth. The same is true for, say, a fox eating a mouse. It’s “bad” for the mouse, but then it allows the fox to live, so it’s “good” for the fox (and it might even be good for “mice” as a whole because unchecked populations tend to develop their own problems of disease and starvation).

    These things are only “disasters” or “evil” insofar as they affect people.

  • Jeremy

    Katrina doesn’t work as an example of judgment. The most immoral bit not only survived but flourished. So unless God was really after black people too old,sick or poor to evacuate, it was a pretty shoddy judgement.

    I agree with David. We assume that a world with natural disasters isn’t the best possible world. It may simply have been that for the universe to function a certain way, God had to allow for some potential nastiness. Funny thing is, when natural disasters are about to occur, animals tend to know and move to safety…who’s to say we weren’t supposed to work similarly?

  • Rick Presley

    I find it fascinating that people seem to think that if God intervenes on behalf of one person that he is obligated to intervene on behalf of others. This was a common misconception that Jesus tried to remedy both by precept and demonstration, whether it be perceived inequality in pay (Matthew 20:1-6) or his healing of a single cripple at the pool of Bethesda, leaving the rest unhealed.

    Only selfish human beings are the kind of creature that will begrudge a God who does good to some, simply because he does not do the same good to all. The problem is not how we reconcile an all-loving God with seemingly capricious acts of mercy, but how we reconcile our hearts with a God who has no interest in living up to the expectations of avaricious creatures.

  • Tim Gombis

    I’ve wondered about the covenantal context of many of these statements in the prophets, and I wonder if T.F. will work with this notion. That is, God revealed the positive and negative covenantal consequences for Israel’s obedience / disobedience, which included rain & fruitfulness or famine & disaster. So, when the prophets are speaking to Israel, it is indeed the God of Israel who is responding to disobedient Israel with these “natural disasters.”

    I simply don’t know to what extent we can extrapolate the action of the God of Israel with that nation in the OT to all “natural disasters” today. It seems to me a stretch to see God as the cause of these large-scale destructions.

    Seems more likely that these out-of-control dynamics are something that the Lord Christ is “subduing” (in his fulfilment of the creation mandate to subdue) and will one day finally subdue and then hand over creation to God the Father (1 Cor. 15).

    Still thinking through this, but I think the covenantal context is a major factor in all this.

  • Jeremy

    Tim, I wonder the same as far as extrapolation is concerned.
    A few things occur to me:

    A) we’re not Israel and our nations are not “elect,” and B) Part of Jesus’ healing ministry seemed to be to show that illness was not necessarily a direct result of the sin of the victim. Can we not extrapolate from this that most natural disasters have nothing to do with the sin of the victims? It’s funny how it’s a tragedy when North Carolina gets flattened, but Judgement when New Orleans drowns.

  • Percival

    Death from disasters or dementia is still death. It is an artificial distinction to call one a disaster because it happens to a group of people at one particular time. But physical death and suffering are not in themselves evil. So God should not be charged with negligence for allowing the laws of thermodynamics to work. They work very well.

    Are disasters and misfortunes sometimes a judgment from God? The biblical accounts would indicate they certainly can be at times. But I don’t think we can make a generalization about all disasters based on these specific events and the oracles that accompanied them.

    We are told that every good and perfect gift comes from above from the Father of lights. Does that mean that everything comes from above? No. Why should we think that because God could stop something from happening that he should? Love is not always soft or gentle. The universe was not designed to always be pleasant. God must have other priorities.

    We are supposed to support each other so that the effects of nature – including death – are to be faced together. God is with us as well. But if everything was always pleasant, how would we value love, compassion, faith and hope? Some might say, well what about the really horrific diseases? Surely, those are not necessary. But if God somehow removed the 10 most horrific, then people would still demand that he remove the next 10 most horrific and so on until we all lived forever in sensory deprivation chambers.

    The real mystery to me is not the presence of suffering, but rather how will God remove it from creation? What does it mean that He will wipe every tear from our eyes someday? Will all suffering cease or does that mean that we will still weep, but He will be the one to directly comfort us? The fact that God himself still suffers over His creation indicates to me that we may still weep in the hereafter and somehow continue in the fellowship of His sufferings.

  • Jeff Doles

    I think we need to distinguish between moral evil and evil as a lack of the good. Death and suffering are not necessarily moral evils (unless wrongfully inflicted), but they do lack good. In the beginning, God saw all that He had made, that is was “very good.” He did not create us to die but to enjoy life and immortality. He did not create us to suffer but to enjoy health and blessing. Life and health are good things, and their lack, death and sickness, are in that respect “evil” things.

  • Percival

    Jeff #23,
    Why do you think that we were not created to experience physical death? In the Genesis story, the day they ate the fruit they did not die a physical death even though they were told they would die the day they ate the fruit.

    Furthermore, if God can suffer, what makes us think we should not?

  • rjs

    Robin (#14,16),

    I’m with you on – the distinction between “natural disaster” and normal aging etc. is not really significant.

  • dopderbeck

    This is tricky. I don’t think death lacks good when that death is necessary for life. Unless the physical universe was unimaginably different before the Fall than it is now — so different as to be truly not the same creation as we now inhabit — then death is necessary for life. Even if every creature were vegetarian before the Fall (I don’t think so), the plant that is eaten must die. (Well, maybe you could imagine only the fruit being eaten — does fruit “die?” Certainly at least the cells in the fruit die when they are eaten.)

    Jesus himself employed this concept: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24). Of course, wheat seeds don’t actually “die” in the ground (they in fact transition from dormancy to activity), and Jesus is speaking metaphorically here of his death and resurrection.

    But still: from bacteria to plankton to insects to plants to gazelles — there is no “very good” life-giving ecosystem without death. I think we have to distinguish this sort of “death” from the “Death” that is the “last enemy” defeated by the cross. This is Death personified, all that which separates human beings from God, from each other, and from the rest of the created world. This includes our own physical death as we know experience it, I think, but not the normal, created physical processes by which all matter is creatively recycled.

  • Jeremy

    Percival: I think it’s important here to distinguish between adversity and suffering. Adversity has a positive effect (and some adversity may involve suffering), however as CS Lewis notes in A Grief Observed, some suffering makes no sense as it does not operate to improve the sufferer.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    David Dopderbeck raised the question of “What are natural disasters?” I would like to pull on a particular part of that question.

    The Asian Tsunami that hit several years ago killed, injured or displaced two types of people. The first were the very poor who are forced to live in precarious coastal areas that everyone knows are prone to floods from storms and disasters. That these humans were harmed truly was a disaster in that they had little choice but to live there and “be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

    But there was another group of people, namely the wealthy resort-goers in areas of Indonesia where the mangrove swamps had been destroyed in order to build “ocean-front” resorts and entire islands. They were there, occupying exposed ocean-front areas out of a choice and resources to consume “vacation” in a place made more dangerous just for that reason: so they could vacation.

    I suggest that this Tsunami, though it in some sense affected both groups equally, it affected the groups differentially in terms of any kind of moral culpability. The difference lies in WHY they were where they were when the Tsunami hit. Who made the choices that put them in the Tsunami’s path?

    Randy G.

  • Percival

    Jeremy #27,
    God suffers and is not improved by it.

  • Tim Gombis

    Yes, Jeremy, that’s what I’m getting at. It seems that Israel was supposed to see these events as the hand of the God of Israel when they happened to them. They were signs of punishment for covenant violations.

    But when it comes to other events outside of that covenant arrangement and especially contemporary massive tragedies, it does not seem appropriate to apply these OT passages.

    And yes, much of the interpretation of all this is perspectival. Reminds me of Reagan’s comment — a recession is when your neighbor loses his job; a depression is you lose yours.

  • Wesley Walker

    I think we can say that at least we must leave open the possibility that God uses natural disasters as punishment. Scripture bears witness to such.

    Second, I do not go as far to believe that every natural disaster is an act of judgment.

    Third, I think the fall has drastically changed our world. And our theology of natural disaster must take that into account.

    Fourth, could suffering not provide real benefit to spiritual growth.

  • Jeremy

    Does the fall really account for it? After all, God tossed Adam and Eve from Eden into the wilderness. This seems to imply that nature as we understand it pre-existed the fall.

    Percival: Sure he does, but scripture seems to imply that he’s doesn’t particularly view this as a good thing.

  • Percival

    Jeremy #32,
    Nor does scripture imply that he suffers unwillingly or for no purpose.

    I wish I could develop these thoughts more, but I’m a protestant so I have no theology of suffering. ;)
    Also, it’s late here and I have to go to bed. Curious to see what develops in this conversation while I sleep.

  • DRT

    Given what I have observed in the world, it seems obvious that the events in the world are never (or extremely rarely) caused directly by God. In my worldview, he is what is, and more.

    He does interact quite frequently (or constantly) through the Holy Spirit talking with each of us. Our actions and attitudes have enormous non-obvious consequences that compound and play out on the world stage. In my view, he works through a bias that he has created in creation. We push and pull on that bias having consequences to us and others. It is not always our doings that cause the effects on us. It is often others.

    So, does God punish now? Only insofar as he has made a system that generates feedback based on its inputs.

    I explain a world where tsunami’s and hurricanes happen as a natural system. It is still a glass half full and half empty thing to me. To me, God is here and the glass is more than half full.

  • Jeff Doles

    Percival@24, God offered them the Tree of Life, from which they could have eaten freely. They could have eaten from that tree, and every other tree except the one forbidden tree, and known life. And the promise in the New Testament is eternal life and bodily resurrection.

  • Jeff Doles

    Dopderbeck@26, the ultimate state God has planned for His people is life, not death. Adam need not have experienced death ~ he could have eaten from the Tree of Life instead of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and he would have known life instead of death.

  • Luke B

    Fretheim has a classic work, The Suffering of God, which deals with God’s “power-sharing” and “dual agency” in the OT (with tectonic plats, lava, oceans, and humans), and “divine consultation” with humans in many instances before dealing an “act of judgment.” I believe the scope of “natural disaster” is broad enough to encompass “normal” disaster in most of these discussions.

  • dopderbeck

    Jeff@36 — I agree with you, with perhaps a few twists about the metaphorical nature of the “Tree” and perhaps of “Adam.” I think the question of human “death” is different than the broader question of “natural evil.”

    Bacteria and gazelles do not die (IMHO) because of Adam’s sin; nor do earthquakes and tsunamis happen because of Adam’s sin. These things are all inherently part of the very good creation.

    Human beings, however, experience “death” — painful separation from each other and from God — because of sin. I put “deat” in quotes here not to suggest a naive distinction between “physical” and “spiritual” death, but to suggest that the human experience of the natural expiration of the physical body may have been different absent sin.

    What would it be like, when the body starts to age and wear out, to be “walking in the cool of the evening” with God — to turn to him with no barriers and no fear of loss? What would it be like for the whole community of humanity to have this experience with no barriers between persons? Whatever would transpire, I don’t think we’d call it “death.”

    I confess that I don’t know exactly how to place this concept in the entire flow of human evolution. Members of the human species lived and died and went extinct for millions of years prior to homo sapiens sapiens — H. Ergaster, H. Habilus, H. Erectus, and many others. I don’t think this is something that science could in any event measure, because it IMHO it involves some of what makes us “human” rather than just another intelligent primate species. And because of the inexplicable reality of sin, the possibility of humanity living without “death” was in any event never realized. In this sense the stories of Eden are like a distant promise and a dream rather than an actualized reality.

  • Jeff Doles


    I don’t think it is naive to see a distinction between physical death and spiritual death, nor between physical life and spiritual life. Paul seems to speak about both physical death and spiritual death, and also of spiritual life and physical life. And Jesus also speaks of them in John 5:24-29:

    “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. 25Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. 26For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, 27and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. 28Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

    Verses 24-25, about the hour that now speaks of passing from spiritual death to spiritual life.

    Verses28-29, about the hour that is coming, in which all who are in graves will hear His voice will come forth, speaks of physical life.

    As to the body growing old and wearing down, I think that is an effect of the Fall. Given what the New Testament says about eternal life and the resurrection of the body, I don’t think there is a reason why God cannot continually renew our bodies.

    I agree that there will be no barriers or sense of loss in our walk with God. The story of Enoch is very interesting in that respect, and mysterious. In Genesis, it says that “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 3:24). The author of Hebrews takes this to mean that Enoch “did not see death” (Hebrews 11:5).

  • Willie

    I’ve grown a little weary of any attempt at theodicy. Yes, a Christian must affirm that God works through natural disasters. But take for instance the Tsunami..thousands of innocent people (over a quarter of which were children) died involuntarily. Appealing to God’s justice or to any sort of theodicy to justify the suffering can only quell the spirit of revolt and revulsion from which one should have when one is faced which such horrendous evil.

    So I don’t really know how natural disasters fit into God’s creational designs. That’s a really good question. I do want to say though that this world, subject as it is to natural disasters which inflict so much suffering and death upon people is a reality that does not stand in correspondence to God.

    I don’t want to justify and sanction any innocent suffering.

  • Jeff Doles

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “does not stand in correspondence with God,” Willie, but I would say that creation is out of alignment with God, waiting to be redeemed, brought back into proper alignment. It is not just mankind that needs to be restored, but all of creation.

  • Percival

    I had hoped to open up new areas of conversation by my half-blind intuitive leaps into new territory (new for me anyway). I think the idea that we have a God who suffers is a fundamental of the faith that should inform us on these matters. The classic formulation of the immutability of God has been a theological box for our thinking that should be reexamined. Where does the idea of God’s suffering lead us?

    Also, I’ve noted before that we tend to forget that there is a Satanic element to the way suffering happens on earth. Not discussed much. Are we too embarrassed to say much about that?

    Finally, my assumptions about the garden and the presence of physical and biological death are similar to Dopderbeck’s. Sorry, Jeff Doles. I don’t want to engage with you over whether biological death is a result of the fall. It just isn’t, and I’d like the conversation at Jesus Creed to move on. That’s my one vote anyhow.

  • John Palmer

    Right now a natural disaster is unfolding in NY. Sanchez just threw an incomplete pass stopping the clock and leaving Bret Farve and Randy Moss, Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin just under two minutes to win the game.

  • dwp

    The risk of any natural disaster can be greatly mitigated by simple change of location. If I don’t wish to assume the risk of living under the yearly threat of Atlantic hurricanes, then give up the potential economic benefits or some portion of daily quality of life and move inland. I can avoid the severest effect for California earthquakes or wildfires, avoid Midwest tornadoes, river flooding,
    snow blizzards by similar choices or sacrifices. At some level it seems like greed, convenience, or maybe foolishness keeps us in the high risk areas. Sounds like free will to me.

  • Anneke

    Why are we assuming that death from a natural disaster is a terrible thing? For the survivors who have to rebuild their lives and mourn loved ones, yes, it is a terrible thing, but of the sort that we as humans tend to meet during our course in life. The fact that 100,000 innocent souls were all killed at once is seemed as a magnification of a terrible thing, but if those souls were going on to meet their Father and rest in a glorious place, how can that be horrible neglect or punishment on the part of God?

    The problem is that we’re still framing things from our mortal point of view. Perhaps the most horrible thing is the kind of suffering that living people go through as a result of sin. Innocent families of people whose sin causes them to neglect and mistreat those they love the most – those are some innocent victims of suffering. And we understand that perfectly well as a result of living in a fallen world.

    And one more thought about the world before the fall of Adam – a few of the commenters have expressed the view that animals died and ate each other before Adam’s choice, but I don’t know that we can say that. I tend to think that the world before Adam chose death was perfected and operated (in a way we don’t understand) so that there were not victims of disease and violence. I base this guess on the promises of the way the world will be in the future – the promises in Isaiah of the day when the lion will eat straw like the ox and the wolf and the kid will lie down together. Somehow, there is a perfected natural order in which no creatures need to die to sustain the life of other creatures. (It’s noted that plants are somehow different – glorified lions are still “killing” and eating straw)

  • Percival

    Anneke #45,
    The problem with thinking that the world was fundamentally different before Adam is that we have a long long record of biological death. This is creation untamed, not just a fallen creation.

    As for the future when lions eat straw, could that not be symbolic? Trees clapping hands and lions eating straw both sound equally poetic to me.

  • Percival

    I’m surprised no one challenged my thoughts on pain in the hereafter. So, I’ll just have to challenge my own thoughts.

    Percival, you dope, you ignored the rest of the verse about wiping every tear from their eyes.
    Rev. 21:4b – “… there will be no more death or sorrow or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever.”

  • Percival

    But Percival (#47)
    We may notice that death, sorrow and pain are not equated with evil. They are only associated with evil and the old world. The evil could be the cause of the death, sorrow, and pain. Just as pain can result from the evil of torture or from a skinned knee.

    I will back away from the idea that pain may be forever, but I still think the Bible does not teach that pain is in any sense evil.

  • Jeff Doles

    In Isaiah 53, which is a Messianic prophecy, Isaiah says, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The Hebrew word for “griefs” means “sicknesses,” and the word for “sorrows” means “afflictions” or “pains.” That is how Matthew understands this verse as he applies it to the healing ministry of Jesus in Matthew 8. The word for “carried” is the same word used in verse 11, where Messiah is said to “bear” our iniquities.

    IF sickness or pain or affliction were good things, why would Messiah need to bear them and carry them for us in the same way that He has borne our sins? And if pain is a good thing, and not evil, then why did Jesus heal so many of their sicknesses and pains and afflictions?

    IF death is a good thing, why does Paul call it an enemy and speak of its destruction? “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

    No, I don’t think the Bible speaks of any of these as good. Rather, it treats them as evil things, as enemies, as things to be lifted off of us, carried far away from us and destroyed, in the same way Messiah deals with our sin.

  • Percival

    Thanks for the feedback. I was beginning to think I was talking to myself. ;)

    I don’t think physical death and pain are good things, except that they are part of a system that functions well doing what they need to do for the system to work. Neither do I think they are evil in the sense that they offend a holy God. However, we all recognize that we too often confuse what is pleasant with what is good. Our current physical state is a weakness that will be done away with when we are resurrected. I, for one, will be glad to trade it in.

    You are certainly correct that death is regarded as an enemy but I don’t think that means biological death. We have eternal life and we are promised that we will not die. What could that mean? We all die a physical death so it must not mean that. We know that the physical body we have now is weak and corrupt, but it is not evil.

    I Cor. 15:42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. 15:43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 15:44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is also a spiritual body.

  • dopderbeck

    Jeff (#49) — that is not really a good reading of Isaiah 53, to begin with. It certainly is not talking in any technical sense about physical pain or physical death, but rather is about the nation’s destruction and exile in Babylon. You can’t just look at the root of Hebrew words and work out a theology from there. That said, the restorationist eschatology in Second Isaiah is a holistic, this-worldly vision.

    Pain is a good thing when it serves its proper function: to warn us of danger. Without pain, we’d burn our fingers off cooking our food — like how people with leprosy lose appendages because they have lost feeling in them. Death is a good thing in an ecosystem because without death there is no life — no nutrients for plant life, no food for any order of life. A blanket statement that pain and death are only and inherently “bad” is unsustainable.

    Pain and death are bad when they exceed their intended functions and cause suffering to human beings. “Death” is an enemy for us humans because it separates us from God and from each other. “Pain” becomes an enemy because it becomes uncontrolled, gratuitous, and unrelieved.

  • Jeff Doles

    Dopderbeck, you are certainly welcome to your opinion on that, but I think it is a very good reading of Isaiah 53. It is the reading Matthew uses in Matthew 8:17 when he applies it to the healing ministry of Jesus.

    Yes, I understand that physical pain has the function of warning us that something is wrong in our bodies. But once it has done its job, it is time for it to go and healing to come. Jesus did not leave those people in their pain who came to Him or were brought to Him, but the testimony of Scripture is that He healed them all.

    The death that Paul speaks of 1 Corinthians 15 is physical death, and so also the resurrection is of the physical body. That the natural body will be raised as a spiritual body in the resurrection does not mean that it is any less of a body. It will be glorified by the life of God, the power of the Spirit and the glory of Jesus.

  • dopderbeck

    Jeff — yes, but it seems to me your making different points. Second Isaiah anticipates that the Messiah will restore all the blessings Israel was supposed to enjoy. That indeed, as you note, is taken up in Matthew (and in Second Temple literature generally) as involving the removal of demonic spirits, healings, and so on. We see this in Acts as well — a key sign that the Kingdom has arrived is the physical healing and spiritual deliverance that happens wherever the Apostles travel.

    But the hope of Second Isaiah relates to the called-out nation and the restoration of the covenant — not to the restoration of Eden. Restoration eschatology is about the restoration of Israel, not Eden. So, I don’t think Isaiah 53 can be used as a proof text that all pain and death are relics of the Fall. There is not even a concept of “Fall” in the Old Testament, except for the infidelity of Israel to Torah.

    A better text for you is Isaiah 58. There, the new heavens and new earth depicted by Second (or Third) Isaiah clearly refers back to the Eden narrative in Gen. 2-4. And Rev. 21 clearly refers back to Isaiah 58. I would agree that these texts are a key part of the Biblical narrative in which all of creation is restored and completed and redeemed from sin.

    I don’t think, however, that v. 25 necessarily is to be taken “literally,” since the figure of the “serpent” obviously is a metaphorical reference to personified evil (or, in the later tradition, to Satan). The “wolf,” “lamb,” and “lion,” then, seem to me figures of harmony, perhaps particularly among the nations,

    I also agree that 1 Cor. 15 refers to physical as well as spiritual death. However, I don’t think this means that human bodies were incapable of physical death before the Fall. I agree with Ireneaus that our natural bodies were always susceptible to death, but that absent sin our perfect fellowship with God would have preserved us from death. This idea of “conditional immortality” has a strong lineage in the Tradition, and is implied in the warning to Adam that if he eats of the forbidden fruit he will “surely die.”

    As I’ve said before, I don’t know exactly how this relates to the long line of hominid evolution in which death was ever present. I suspect it has much to do with what it truly means to be “human,” homo divinus, and that even the notion of conditional immortality is in some ways a proleptic vision that was not ever even momentarily realized in the ontology of “Adam,” who from the earliest primal past turned away from God.

  • dopderbeck

    Argh — I should be clear that Is. 58 is a passage that obviously is taken up in Second Temple restoration eschatology and that there is certainly an Edenic vision there. What I’m trying to distinguish is that the Jewish hope was for the restoration of a Jewish state, with cosmological implications. In Christian eschatology this is taken up into a broader context that also includes the gentiles. But contrary to Milton and to Young Earth Creationism, this is not all about returning to a physical paradise. What it’s really all about is returning to God’s rule — about the restoration of the Temple, of which Eden is a figure.

    So, while all this does indeed have physical and cosmic implications, we shouldn’t and don’t need to imagine an alternative natural history in which the physical world literally was, in the recent past, a paradise. That is not really what the Biblical texts are all about; it’s ultimately a misuse of these texts to read this sort of “scientific” narrative back into them.

  • Jeff Doles

    My point here, Dopderbeck, is that death and pain and suffering and not good things. Nor are they neutral things. They are things that are to be removed from the people of God through Jesus the Messiah. Were they actually good things after all, there would be no need to do away with them. So I do not count death as a “good” thing, much less as a “very good” thing. It is a thing that is to be cast, along with hades, into the “lake of fire.” Since it is cast there at the end of the Book, I think it probably would not be considered as “very good” at the beginning of the Book.

  • dopderbeck

    Jeff said — “were they actually good things after all, there would be no need to do away with them.”

    I respond: and my point is that your premise is too strong and your conclusion just doesn’t follow.

    It simply is not empirically true that death and pain are only and all bad. You haven’t addressed the fact that some death produces good (e.g., a fox eating a mouse feeds the fox) and some pain is necessary and important (e.g. it keeps us from burning our fingers off when we cook food). So, your premise that all death and all pain involve no good at all is incorrect.

    Nor does the Biblical narrative suggest that all death and pain are only and all bad. Again, I refer to Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls into the ground and dies in order to produce a harvest (John 12:24). This is a very, very important theme in connection with theodicy both in the Bible and the Tradition: God allows some bad things in order to produce greater good.

    Moreover, the notion that only “bad” things will be “done away with” in the eschaton is Biblically incorrect. Apparently there will be no marriage in the new heavens and the new earth (Matt. 22:30), but marriage certainly is not a bad thing. Classical Reformed theology also usually suggests that there will be no need for “law” in the eschaton, but law in this present age certainly is not a band thing (I happen to disagree with Reformed theology on this point to some degree, however). And so on.

    In fact, marriage was a creational ordinance prior to the Fall, which suggests that the eschaton is far more than a restoration of Eden. When we understand the eschaton as the completion of a design in the heart of the Triune God from eternity past, rather than as a “Plan B” effort to patch up Eden, things start to make a bit more sense. It seems that some pain and suffering and death and danger were necessary to the sort of final eschatological creation the Triune God proleptically envisioned from before the foundation of the world — which is really the central point of Fretheim’s book.

  • Jeff Doles

    Well, dopderbeck, just as this to the list of things we disagree about.

    Peace be with you.

  • Jeff Doles

    Oop! I mean just add this.

  • Percival

    I was thinking along the same lines but I don’t know how to use words like “eschaton.” :)
    When that which is perfect comes, that which is imperfect will be done away with.