Creation Untamed 3

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

Terence Fretheim asks why God created a world in which bad things happen in his new book, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic).

Here is the problem: we live in a world that we believe is created by God, and we believe God is good. The good God created this world. But God’s goodness is hard to square with earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and volcanoes and other “natural” disasters. Why did the good God make a world that can devastate?

One traditional answer is that the world was perfect or good until the Fall. That is, prior to Adam and Eve there were no “natural disasters.” In fact, prior to Adam and Eve, so the traditional view goes, there was no death because death only entered the world through sin. This view conflicts with science.

Perhaps there’s another solution, though it is not one I’ve heard: perhaps there was a cosmic disturbance in the Fall of Lucifer (Satan et al) and it was that Fall that unleashed natural disasters. I’ve never heard this view, perhaps you have.

But if one doesn’t opt for this Fall of Lucifer theory and one posits a more theistic evolutionary theory for both origins and history, then one is left with the problem of the first paragraph unresolved.  A good God created a world in which world there are natural disasters and those natural disasters are part of the way God made this world. One could also then argue that “death” itself was part of the theistic evolutionary theory and that death — say of plants and animals — was at work well before Adam, Eve and their sin.

How do you explain natural disasters with a good God as sovereign?

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  • Tim

    I don’t think natural disasters present that big of a challenge. I mean, one can simply argue that they are unavoidable side-effects of necessary natural processes that keep us all alive, or allowed for the Earth to progress to the hospitable state it is in now.

    Other causes of death and suffering could be a different matter, however. Maybe that’s a question we could look into. Why cancer? Why malaria? Why other diseases? I mean, I get that bacteria are essential for recycling material and serving as a source at the bottom of the food chain, but why is disease-causing bacteria necessary – not to mention viruses? Why genetic defects? I get that random mutation provides the necessary genetic diversity for evolution to take place, but if God’s intimately involved, couldn’t he have reigned that in for us by now and saved a lot of children and grieving mothers their suffering? I don’t want to get this thread off-track, but just some for me those are far more relevant issues if one posits a God intimately involved in how this Earth and all life on it are created.

  • The cosmic disturbance option has been suggested by the Blessed Economist
    and by Julie and Jenny.

  • “A good God created a world in which world there are natural disasters and those natural disasters are part of the way God made this world.”

    Two questions should be kept in mind. 1) Does the fact that God is good entail that he must, necessarily, create what is known as “the best possible world” (Leibniz)? I think that we (as in our previous discussion) limit God’s creative capacity to think he is bound to any action based upon our understanding of him.

    2) Are we qualified to determine what entails “the best possible world” or might our wisdom be inferior to God’s? The Bible (esp. Job) does not shy away from God’s activity of creating ALL things, doing so by his superior wisdom of the universe. (And when Job presents his main challenge: that God is incompetent in running the universe, God speaks and reveals himself.)

    Further, I again (from previous posts) state my belief that it is a big philosophical step to say that natural disaster is an effect of human moral failure. For example, are we to believe that this ecosystem did not fully operate (with seeds and seasons) until sinfulness entered humanity? In Fretheim’s perspective, What, then, needed to be subdued and ruled on God’s behalf?

  • ron

    When it comes to dealing the problem of theism and suffering, there are two traditional ways to deal with it. One, you redefine God. If you are in the school of Rabbi Kushner, you say God is all loving and not all powerful. If you are in the Geisler camp, God is all powerful but not very loving. Or two, you redefine evil and suffering. Suffering is a lesson (Ireneaus and Hicks), evil is an ontological category (Augustine and Hart).

  • ron

    Or suffering is an illusion (Buddhism)

  • Tim

    Ron (#4),

    That last option, redefining suffering, leads to the sort of thinking satirized in Voltaire’s Candide. To make this a little more personnel and a little less literary – I have a beautiful baby girl who I love deeply. If she were to develop childhood leukemia, suffer, then die – all to teach me a lesson that some supernatural being wants me to learn, then I won’t be thinking very highly of that supernatural being. To me, that’s just needlessly cruel. No lesson I could learn would be worth that (outside of fantastical scenarios such as me going on to save lives, etc.). Of course, I don’t think God’s a cruel jerk of a teacher, so I don’t attribute suffering to him and then just not call it suffering, just learning.

  • dopderbeck

    The idea of a pre-Adamic angelic fall that introduces evil in the creation has a long history in the tradition, particularly in the East (e.g. Origen).

  • BrianH

    @7 dopderbeck – and interestingly it is a theme picked up in the section of (the very Catholic) Tolkien’s Silmarillion which deals with the creation of Middle Earth – which although a work of fiction is steeped in theology.

  • Jon G

    One theory that I heard from Peter Van Inwagen, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame (Brilliant, by the way!), is that God, in order to have the kind of earth we have, must include these natural ‘disasters’ and that it is, at least, possible that we have made the freewill choice to seperate ourselves from an imparted knowledge of how to avoid these perils because we have moved away from intimacy with him.

    Perhaps it’s not comforting, but plausible.
    Here’s the link to the video (this is part 2 of 2 so you are jumping in to an earlier discussion).

  • @7 dopderbeck — That theme is also found in the works of C. S. Lewis and is the view of Prof. Stephen H. Webb, who makes use of it in his recent book “The Dome of Eden: A New Solution to the Problem of Creation and Evolution.” Before the creation of Adam and Eve, Satan fell into the world except for the Garden of Eden, which was protected by a dome (the firmament).

  • The historic Christian view has been that the earth was created a few thousand years, at most, with the landscape pretty much as it is now. The existence of humans, animals, the flora and fauna, and the climate is the same except maybe in a fallen state.

    I readily accept what science tells about the age of the earth, how the earth developed, and evolutionary processes. The presents some challenges in how we understand sin and human nature. RJS hits this topic often. But it also presents problems for Christian environmentalism.

    While embracing evolution and an ancient world, many Christian environmentalists argue for creation care based on caring for the garden “God created” and because God called creation good. There is also a frequent assumption that there is equilibrium in ecosystems and disruptions are aberrations that will be brought back into balance. The climate we have is the climate “God created” and must not be altered.

    Well there was no garden and at what precise point in the past 14 billion years did make is pronouncement that creation was good? Particularly when God’s “Book of Nature” tells that God has “created” many ecosystems and species over eons only to wipe them out and create other things. Scientists refute the eco-system equilibrium idea and climates have changed significantly over the past 100,000 years and changed wildly before that. So drawing on the Biblical narrative for creation care … at least in the way it is frequently done … strikes me as highly tenuous.

    Many environmentalists tell us we have lost touch with nature and must become reconnected … live in harmony and equilibrium. But the order of nature is not harmony and equilibrium. It is competition and survival of the fittest. To get “in touch” with nature, humans should make their species prevail over all others no matter the cost. Preserving nature as is what me must NOT do if we are to rejoin nature.

    Yet there seems to be a widely shared sense among humanity that nature is of some value and that we have some obligation to it. We are not simply part of the natural order but somehow transcend it. Has God brought forth entities (humans) that transcend the natural order and yet are responsible to that order in some way for some purpose? That is where my thinking is headed.

    I don’t know that I can explain natural disasters but rather I think God is brings something about that transcends these natural events.

  • How do you explain natural disasters with a good God as sovereign?

    I ascribe to the “traditional answer”.

    How does this view conflict with science?


    Further, I again (from previous posts) state my belief that it is a big philosophical step to say that natural disaster is an effect of human moral failure. For example, are we to believe that this ecosystem did not fully operate (with seeds and seasons) until sinfulness entered humanity?

    The ecosystem worked fine pre-Fall and continues to work albeit with more hard work required after the Fall (per Gen 3). The philosophical leap is made by Paul in Romans 8. See RJS first blog on “Fall and Sin After Darwin” in the comments for details.

    Let’s for a minute assume that Gen 1-11 are a literary device – then what happened when God cursed the ground in Gen. 3? What was the point?

  • DRT

    In brief, it seems to me that God made this world in a way that allowed for people to have obvious choice and free will in their pursuit of him. If he had made us immortal or without pain or without the possibility of sin then we would not be striving for anything. He has given us a world where we have to look inside of us to find him.

  • Douglas E

    Many good comments, and much food for thought. What strikes me is that the more complex and detailed the definition is of “G_d” the more convoluted the theology required to “explain” everything. I would suspect that if you called for all of your readers to anonymously submit their definition of G_d, there would be quite a bit of variability, and that if you distilled the definition down to common attributes, it would be quite simple. 🙂

  • DRT – But isn’t heaven supposed to be a situation where everyone’s “immortal,” “without pain,” and “without the possibility of sin”? Wouldn’t it be as pointless as our world’s supposed to be if that were the case?

  • DRT

    Ray, thanks for asking. I guess I will give my rudimentary theories the light of day now.

    I have an inherent belief that is shared with many of the world’s religions; we are here on earth to learn something. In the words of Jesus it is to love God, love neighbor, and be authentic (do not commit the eternal sin).

    Many have hypothesized that man has every inclination to do evil, and that evil is the absence of God. So we all have that in common. It is the inherent backdrop to our existence on earth.

    Many also believe in fallen spirits or fallen angels. I would characterize them as those, despite being in God’s presence have followed evil. It seems to me then that evil can be followed in the presence of God, and for whatever reason they can’t overcome their nature. So in the permanent existence of God’s realm, we have those who seem to be forever outside of the love of God.

    Perhaps we have something quite in common with the fallen angels. We share one of the defining characteristics of the fallen angels. Perhaps we are given an opportunity to change our nature. To have been given a gift in this world that lends a perspective that can allow or facilitate our change in eschewing evil and seeking the glory of God. Why is there evil here in this world? So that all can see the glory of God.

    Once we choose God, we will live a fulfilled and eternal existence because we will have aligned ourselves with God.

    So to round this back to my statement made earlier. We have these things (mortality, pain, and sin) to help us understand the glory of God and have the opportunity to exercise free will in light of these to choose God and thereby and forever be in one with him in his presence.

  • Michael Kruse,
    I suspect this will be lost to you. I wonder out loud if we’re not to live well with the order of nature in which we live. What does it mean to be stewards and rulers over all God has made? Scientists know that the order of life is needed to sustain life on this planet. If we hack away at that, we can end up destroying ourselves in the name of self-interest. True?