Natural evils, like the devastating magnitude 7 Abra earthquake and other natural calamities, occur independently of human volition or causation. Unlike moral evil, which results from a perpetrator (usually a person, either through intention or negligence), natural evil has only victims, and is generally taken to be the result of natural processes.
The crux of the “problem of natural evil” may be stated thus: “If an all-powerful (omnipotent), all-good (omnibenevolent), and all-knowing (omniscient) God exists, then natural evils ought not exist. But natural evils happen in the world. Ergo, an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God does not exist.”
Now, let me first lay down the distinction between God’s all-powerfulness and God’s all-goodness vis-a-vis the Abra magnitude 7 earthquake.
1. Can God have the power to prevent or stop the said Abra tremor? Yes, otherwise he is not God, not supreme, not all-powerful. But why did he not? Well, I must surmise that because he is God, he is not without reason for not stopping it. But what exactly is his reason? I cannot put my mind into his, but I can only surmise in the scheme of things in the world.
2. Did God “will” (or want) the Abra quake to happen and cause people to die? No, because it runs counter to his being all-good. But again, why did he not “will” to stop it? It appears then that while God may have not willed or wanted it to happen, he allowed it in view of the “temporal” scheme of things. Allowing it cannot mean “causing” it.
Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between God’s will and God’s permission, claiming that while God permits evil, he does not will it.
This distinction is echoed by some modern theists, like Gregory Boyd, who wrote: “Divine goodness does not completely control or, in any sense, will evil”. Aquinas partly explained this in terms of primary and secondary causality, whereby God is the primary or transcendent cause of the world, but not the secondary or immanent cause of everything that occurs in it. Such accounts explain the presence of natural evil through the story of the “Fall of man” (Genesis 3:16-19), which affected not only human beings, but nature as well.
But still, why do natural evils happen? Here are some explanations from some prominent thinkers, philosophers and theologians.
St. Augustine avers that “natural evil fulfills a higher divine purpose”. Pain, suffering, and disorder in the natural world are ultimately part of a larger good plan of cosmic order.
Augustine further posits that natural evil isn’t evil per se. It is only a “privation or absence of good”. Thus, disease is merely the absence of health. But I’m impelled to ask: If we apply this argument to “all” evils in the world, can it be taken or construed in the extreme scenario as “absence” of God?
John Hick claims that “natural evil is the inevitable by-product of God’s aim of developing souls with moral character”. There must exist between imperfect, immature humans and the perfect God an “epistemic distance” that makes our growth possible. As such, the world has an imperfect character.
Murphy and Ellis explain natural evil as “nature’s way of participating in the self-sacrificial life of God”. All of life has a “kenotic” or cruciform quality to it – some must give their lives that others might live.
Richard Swinburne and Peterson argue that “natural evil results from the potential hazards in a world that makes morally significant choices possible”. In other words, we cannot conceive of a world which would allow for moral evil without natural evil because natural evil is part of an orderly system with consequences.
John Polkinghorne thinks that natural evil results from the random spontaneity that the natural world must have in order to be a changing system that is separate from God.
Karl Barth believes that natural evil is the “nothingness or non-being” that results whenever God creates something and that continues to try and encroach on creation.
Gregory Boyd asserts that “natural evil is the result of demonic forces who control matter in part and oppose God’s will for creation”.
Finally, it is also worth citing here the “necessary or sufficient” reasons for natural evil as put forward by J. Warner Wallace, professor of Christian Apologetics and author of “Cold Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith”:
1. Some natural evil may be the result of necessity. God may tolerate some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of a free natural process that makes it possible for freewill creatures to thrive. As an example, the same weather system that create tornadoes that kill humans also create thunderstorms that provide our environment with the water needed for human existence. The same tectonic plates that kill humans in earthquakes are necessary for regulation of soils and surface temperatures needed for human existence.
2. Some natural evil may be the result of the nature of free agency. God may also tolerate some natural evil because it is the necessary consequence of human free agency. There are times when natural evil is either caused or aggravated by free human choices.
3. Some natural evil may be the result of God’s nudging. God may permit some natural evil because it challenges people to think about God for the first time. When our “present” lives are in jeopardy or in question, we find ourselves thinking about the possibility of a “future” life. If an eternal future life is a reality, God may use the temporary suffering of this life to focus our thoughts and desires on eternity.
4. Some natural evil may be the result of God’s nurturing. God may permit some natural evil because it provides humans with the motivation and opportunity to develop Godly character. The best in humanity often emerges as people respond in love and compassion to natural disasters. Good character (acts of love, compassion and cooperation) must be freely chosen. God has provided us with a world that provokes us to improve our situation, care for those who are in need, and become better human beings in the process.
Have peace. In an imperfect world of natural evils, it is yet comforting to know that there is a transcendent, all-good, and all-powerful God that we can rely on.