Does natural disaster equal natural evil?
Anyone who follows the news will know that, in recent weeks, there have been natural disasters in different parts of the world: one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded struck the Pacific coast of Mexico and there was a major earthquake along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Events like these, in which there is injury, loss of life and destruction of property, are often referred to as examples of ‘natural evil’. Serious illness, too, sometimes attracts this label.
I have never really been comfortable with the term ‘natural evil’, which relies on a philosophical definition of evil as either the presence of harm or the absence of good. While it is true that the presence of harm is bad, I don’t know that it is right necessarily to equate that with evil. For me (and I admit I am not a philosopher), evil requires conscious intent. An act is evil when it is perpetrated with the purpose of causing harm to another, or to benefit oneself at the expense of another without regard for their well-being. Clearly, this cannot apply to an earthquake or a hurricane. A hurricane doesn’t set out to find a populated coastal area and destroy it. Hurricanes and earthquakes aren’t entities with consciousness or the ability to form intent to act. But what about God’s role in such things? Christians (and those of other faiths) certainly believe that God is a conscious being who can form intent and act on that intent. So when natural disaster or disease occur, has God caused an ‘evil’? There is biblical precedent for ascribing to God the presence of an evil in a human life, namely the ‘evil spirit from God’ that tormented King Saul in 1 Samuel 16. But is it right to presume that every occurrence of natural evil is sent from God? I don’t think so.
As a Christian, I do believe that God has a deep and personal relationship with his creation. But I don’t think that this means that God personally manipulates each and every natural phenomenon that we experience. Scientific enquiry, observation and investigation have enabled us to understand the natural physical processes that underlie things like hurricanes and earthquakes, and while I think we can ascribe the laws that give rise to those processes to God the creator, that is not the same thing as saying, “God caused that earthquake.”
This does, however, raise another question: why would God create processes (or the laws that give rise to processes) that cause harm? If such things exist, is it God’s intention to cause harm? No. The processes that give rise to what we term natural disasters are the very processes that enable life to exist on earth. Earthquakes, for example, are the result of plate tectonics, the gradual movement of the earth’s crust caused by the movement of the the molten rock, or magma, that lies beneath. It is this movement that creates the earth’s magnetic field which deflects much of the harmful radiation that comes our way from the sun. Without the magnetic field, earth couldn’t support life, or at least not complex life, such as us. So although we consider an earthquake to be a natural disaster, it’s really just part of a much larger process that, ultimately, allows us to be here. The same is true of some diseases. Sickle-cell anaemia, for example, is a dreadful disease caused by a genetic mutation. If a person inherits the mutated gene from both parents, they develop the disease (a harm). But, if they have only one mutated copy of the gene, they have an increased resistance to malaria (a good). So the disease is an unfortunate by-product of something that could be viewed as beneficial, although I recognise that this would be of little or no comfort to someone suffering from sickle-cell anaemia. The point is that while we can rightly say that these things are, to the people affected by them, harmful, traumatic and devastating, I don’t think it is right to ascribe to them the character of evil. The evil comes when we see suffering, and willingly allow that suffering to continue.