Question... can God allow 'natural' evil to occur?

(created 7/21/96)
(updated 8/15/96)

Every so often I get a question like this, about 'natural evil' (as opposed to 'moral evil', in which there are intelligent agents/perpetrators involved)...

I have a couple questions for you. I have not found them covered in your material, but I haven't read through everything you have, so it's possible I missed it. Anyway, I was wondering how you would explain the problem of natural evil. I have heard the argument that evil is a result of sin. A tragedy such as a murder happens because someone commits a sin. A child is killed by a drunk driver. There is sin here as well. But what of the tornado that destroys homes and kills several people? Or an earthquake? Or any other tragedy that is a result of natural disaster and has nothing to do with what people have or have not done. I cannot explain to a non Christian why God would allow such things to happen. Any thoughts?

and, one focusing more on pain...

Have to complement you on a very reasonable Christian WWW page.

However (there's always one :-) I have a question concerning your thought on the problem of natural evils :

Even after concluding that such pain hurts God more, the basic question _why_ does He allow it remains unchanged and unanswered. In fact, I'd have thought such a problem would be _more_ unsatisfactory : not only does present a God who causes unnecessary suffering, it shows that God ends up causing himself unnecessary pain too.

Your dialogue seemed mainly confined to mental pain, and the benefits of empathy. For an example of a seemingly unnecessary natural evil, read the section on Hot Viruses at

Such things are even harder to console with a God that only allows as much pain into the world as is necessary.

Let me know what you think.

These are good, good questions, and no doubt questions that most of us have wrestled with, agonized over, pondered deeply, and even experienced ourselves. Before I get into 'dissecting' the questions in the various pieces embedded in them, let me make some preliminary remarks.

First, I must remind you that we are taking a SPECIFICALLY THEORETICAL approach here. Any answers/guidelines we develop here are NOT going to be any help to those experiencing grief associated with these types of situations. Grief is to be experienced and to be expressed--not necessarily answered. The problem of pain and suffering CAN be approached in a semi-detached, philosophical, analytical manner, but it MUST BE UNDERSTOOD from the outset of this discussion that I am in NO WAY 'insensitive' to these issues. (Some of you out there will be familiar with the experiences of me/my family with unexpected child death, long-term terminal illnesses, personal trauma. I can say with some depth that I am no stranger to this arena.)

Second, we must focus on clarity of terms. 'Natural evil' is, strictly speaking, a misnomer. What is actually under discussion is the problem of 'agent-less pain' or 'agent-less untimely death' or the such like.

This distinction is important. "Evil" implies some kind of moral agent--local or remote. But in the two cases we will examine here--children being killed in a natural disaster earthquake, or the excessive pain felt in certain types of terminal illnesses (such as the 'hot virus' referred to)--there is no 'agent' to do the 'evil-ing' as it were. The issue is NOT 'evil' per se, but something else. We will need to isolate those 'something elses' for analysis.

It should also be noted that in the bible there WERE natural disasters that occurred that were NOT 'agent-less.' In situations involving the nation of Israel, God sometimes used natural disasters such as disease and earthquakes to accomplish judgments or victories (e.g. Ex 8-13; Num 11; Num 14; I Sam 6; Num 16; 2 Kings 19; Acts 12). These, however, fall into the category of special miracles (due to their agent-character) and do NOT fall into the general scope of our investigation.

We generally do NOT have that kind of information about today's events being of this type--we cannot therefore assume that any specific event (e.g. earthquake, volcano, plague) is a judgment from God. It would somehow fall into some 'global' will of God--in some indirect/permissive kinda sense--but this would not have enough 'predictive power' to dismiss the event easily.

[Mind you, the above issue cannot itself be dismissed so easily; the biblical witness sometimes has the most RANDOM of events being direct acts of God--cf. especially I king 22.34. But again, this is in the VERY special case (IMHO) of the theocratic kingdom of Israel, and NOT in general usage OUTSIDE of those parameters...Many Christians will recognize events in their lives that approximate this, of course, based on passages such as I Cor 11.27-32 and Heb 12.5-11, and we may even approximate the OT model TO A CERTAIN DEGREE. But I am addressing a "agent-less" model here--NOT the version of the 'problem' that surfaces in the "with agent" model. (This is not to say that God does not do this today, but rather that, if He does, He does not very often identify these events to us as such.)]

[We must also point out the complexities of the problem of suffering in general. 'Agent-less' pain is NOT RANDOM in the lives of those in personal relationship with God. When one enters into this special relationship of honesty, trust, and 'adoption' into the family of God, he or she 'switches status' from mere creature (with only the barest of relationship to God), to both citizen (with its corresponding privileges and responsibilities) and child of God (with its corresponding privileges and responsibilities). In this new relationship, God 'filters out' SOME pain (but allow much of it to pass through, of course), but His commitment is to make sure the experience is not ultimately destructive of our character--which we get to 'keep' for all eternity. He has to 'approve' all of the painful events that might be 'scheduled' according to natural law, and those events perhaps initiated by malignant intelligence's in the universe (cf. the book of Job). So what we must exclude from consideration here are cases of 'suffering' in the lives of those in commitment-acceptance relationships with God.]

One other subtlety that I must mention here: the difficulty of assigning significance of these events, in the contexts of multiple audiences/participants. For example, in the case of a child who is killed in an earthquake, we must also consider the effect of that on the parent, any observers, those who hear about the event, those perhaps responsible for the civil relief/protection plans, etc. In our discussion here, I will focus only on the issue of the 'victim' per se. For example, if our discussion turns out to indicate that 'early death' is no more 'wrong' than 'later death' (for the victim), then the issue would shift to the effect of grief on the family (e.g. could God have used a morally-neutral death--assuming 'early' is such--to highlight the need for preparation for death on the part of other family members?). The potential web of connections between these events and other effects can be seen all other the world AND throughout scripture. Some people respond to adversity by humbling themselves and seeking God (e.g. Psalm 119:67, 71; ) and some respond by cursing Him (e.g. Rev 16.9-11). This wider effects-network is FAR beyond the scope of this document. And, even the most extreme of such events--hot viruses for example--cannot be ruled out as having no 'significance'; some observers may need this level of 'shock' as a 'wake up call' about the frailty of life. Again, this is NOT the issue when it comes to the victim, but it would play a part in a wider theodicy (justification of the allowance of suffering in the world.) We will accordingly need to remember that even when we cannot find a 'good reason' for something to happen to an individual, there MAY BE very good reasons for it to happen to them--in the wider context of the 'audience' around them. The downstream implications of that overall situation may demonstrate some 'fortuitous' character of the event. And one must always be mindful of the role of suffering in the mission of Jesus: " Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered " (Heb 5.8)

Finally, I can only address the issue of rapid and terminal suffering. Suffering which does NOT kill the victim is a separate issue, and one that is considerably more subject to human conditions. How a person responds to adversity in one's life--illness, accident, deformity, imprisonment, deprivation--seems to be unpredictable. The world is full of people who have reached much greater heights of personal achievement, actualization, and fulfillment--due to their response to suffering. The motivational speaker industry, for example, that consistently presents to senior business execs such as myself, is dominated by individuals who faced such painful situations and achieved greatness through focused response and development. And, as the Christian slogan goes "Difficulties can make you Better or Bitter--the choice is yours." So, I will focus this discussion on those types of experiences that occur so rapidly and terminally to the victim as to render the possibility of improvement in other areas (e.g. character, humility, openess to God, sensitivity) negligible.

With the disclaimers 'locked and loaded,' let us peruse the issue of 'agentless suffering' or 'extreme suffering' as it relates to a victim.

With that in mind, let's probe these two situations.

Let's first try to isolate the 'rub'. What specifically in these situations 'bothers us so much?'

At a surface level, I can identify three items for exploration:

  1. The issue of "undeserved" suffering (the kid didn't "deserve" to die; the virus victim didn't "deserve" to suffer so much);

  2. The issue of "failed expectation" (the child died "before his prime" or before she got to "even experience the joys of life");

  3. The issue of "unnecessary" pain (the virus sufferer could have simply gone unconscious and died without anguish and without delay--the "quick and painless" death model).

Let's look at these in turn...

First, The issue of "undeserved" suffering (the kid didn't "deserve" to die; the tourist catching the hot virus didn't "deserve" to suffer so much)

Let me make a couple of observations here.

The net of this analysis is that the 'undeserved' issue presupposes God already, and is un-intelligible, un-usable, and too imprecise to be taken very seriously as a 'complaint' against God.


So, let's look at the issue of "failed expectation" (the child died "before his prime" or before she got to "even experience the joys of life").

  1. First, let's size this problem. What % of the world's population dies 'abnormal' deaths?

    Well, obviously we immediately are confronted with the problem of what do we mean by 'abnormal' or 'unexpected'. For this sizing step, let's oversimplify and ask a more general question--"What % of deaths occur by natural disaster?" This question appears surpisingly small--the percentage is less than 1-2%--hardly a significant mass of 'evil.'

    (Remember, this is a theoretical document--I have experienced loss first-hand and am no detached stranger to this awesome pain. There is no 'sizing argument' that can bridge the gap between 'acceptable casualties' and the death of a young soldier.)

    But how far can we expand the abnormal causes of death before we cross over into the 'normal' causes of death? What constitutes a 'normal' cause of death? Heart failure? Car accident? Drowning? The situation is just not that clear, and even if I take the most plausible of the top ten causes of death and add them together, I still am still below 10%. So, in spite of how disturbing these are, we must conclude that they are extrema and not anywhere near a norm of our experience.

  2. The next question I have about this issue is: who promised us otherwise?!

    I cannot recall any contract I have seen that said that God was obligated to protect anyone from death before some 'standard' life expectancy. Granted that the goodness of God would imply certain types of His behavior--for example, that He would not create a race of sentient beings and torture them all without relief for some malicious and deviant reason. But the limits to these implications could not plausibly extended to some 'guaranteed' life-span and pain-quota! We don't have any reason to expect that everyone will live forever (or even long at all). There are no guarantees that I know of, and this objection equates God's goodness with guaranteeing a fixed lifespan--a rather restrictive and indefensible position, I might add.

  3. But even this point raises another issue--What is the nature of this 'expected life span'?

    Why do we say that some people lived a 'long life' or lived to a 'ripe old age'? And why do we say some die 'prematurely' or 'in the prime of life' or 'before his time'?

    It seems to me that we are in a statistical realm on this one. In other words, if the world's average life expectancy is 60, then 65 is a 'long life' and 50 is 'before his time'. But, if conditions in the world change, and the 'average' drops to 40, then 50 is great and 30 is 'short'. The implication of this 'averaging' should be clear--just as many people die BEFORE the average as die AFTER the average! If dying before the average is 'abnormal', then so is "after". But I don't see a lot of folk complaining that living longer than some average ("undeservedly"!) is proof against a good God(!)...

    Failed expectations--although seemingly intuitive--sorta disappear into a 'floating' standard, and cannot seem to find its mark as an objection.

  4. Now, the causes-of-death discussion above suggests another interesting approach to this. If we don't consider 'heart failure' to be an 'abnormal' thing--given our known imperfections--why would we exempt other aspects of physical reality from similar 'weaknesses'? In other words, if we can have fits of rage or misjudgment (and hurt the feelings/persons of others), why would we not 'allow' nature to have the same fragmented character--with simply larger scales? [Note that just as OUR flaws in this arena are sub-majority, so too is nature's. The number of deaths due to earthquakes and natural disasters are minuscule compared to diseases (over which we have some control).

    Correspondingly, it is probably unrealistic to expect physical reality to be 'better than us'. So, any standard that says its 'okay' with us, but 'not okay' for other aspects of physicality is simply arbitrary and possibly self-serving

  5. It should be pointed out that the standard answer to the 'natural evil' question is that it is a consequence of the absolutely essential requirement of predictability in the universe. The very factors that generate these natural disasters (e.g. plate tectonics, erosion, friction, thermal transfer) are essential to our existence, and if a god suspended these factors (seemingly randomly to us--I might add) to protect us (a not altogether intelligible concept as far as I can tell), the generalizations that we know as 'natural law' would not be possible. And, consequently, most of life as we know it would still be 'superstitious' in the most bizarre sense.

    Imagine the random suspension of gravity when a child fell off a cliff. Or the suspension of the impenetrability of matter when an elderly person is hit by a car. Or the non-combustion of cotton fabrics (e.g. clothing) or gasoline when exposed to fire. There is a strong possibility that such a world is not even visualizable nor conceivable.

    But, one might well object, it is not the suspension of physics that we are asking of God; only that he would keep the child away from the cliff. But this objection fares no better, for not only does it place an extremely arbitrary constraint upon our freedom (imagine unexplainable age-sensitive 'force fields' around mountains, lakes, campfires, stoves), but it also creates an inconceivable world.

    Consider: we would have God create a world without dangerous inclines (ergo: no hills, mountains, caves, waterfalls, hmmm-He would have to stop us from building multi-story buildings, digging basements, making stairs or even step-stools), without drowning substances (ergo: no oceans, lakes, ponds, pools--hmmm, not even liquids that would cohere--since people drown on glasses of water), without burning processes (ergo: no fires, lightning, sunlight(?), hmmm--He would have to stop us from producing stoves or heaters or building fire or chemical acidic substances). One can quickly see how impossible (not to mention, "undesirable"!) is this demand.

    But this world of beauty and diversity is ours--for good or ill. If we decide to live close to the cliffs, we bear some responsibility for such accidents. If we choose to live in 'earthquake' country, how could we complain? If we live within spewing distance of active volcanoes, why do we assume no responsibility? If we live on the ocean front, why are we surprised by hurricanes (purely natural processes!)?

    But again, one might object that God could at least 'organize' the situation to minimize such situations. And my response is simple: He probably DID. If the objector allows 'exceptions' to occur, then he or she has the challenge of defending some "this many exceptions is 'fair', but that many is incompatible with a good God". I cannot imagine how one would substantiate such an argument! But the good God that I know, does place SOME boundaries on these events (hence their relative rarity), and in many documentable cases, produced extraordinary good from such events. [The stories of heroism, altruism, bravery, nobility, compassion, and character development that occur at almost EVERY such event or such misfortune are well-known.]

    Although I often wonder about these individual events as they occur, I am aware that forces much larger than I are at work, and that issues much more difficult for my puny mind to master (e.g. moral governance of a universe with BOTH relatively free intelligent agents in it, AND moral directives to maintain (e.g. justice, mercy, protection), AND physical 'laws' to maintain (e.g. plate tectonics, combustion, biological processes)) are at play. I am thankful (as are most of the people who know me!) that I AM NOT GOD!

    I think my response here shows that 'objection' cannot be maintained since it is inconceivable (and, I might add, a much worse condition!).


The most intriguing of the three issues (for me) is the "unnecessary pain" one. This, of course, is dramatized in the hot virus examples (a bit theatrical, in light of their extremely rare occurrences). One cannot sit through a reading of such an experience without a response of abject horror and shock at the power of such amazing semi-lifeforms.

But as I analyze the implications of these experiences vis--vis the argument of 'unnecessary pain', a number of problems arise.

  1. What is the difference between "necessary" and "unnecessary" pain? Necessary for what? Unnecessary by what standard? Even if I try to substitute the term 'excessive' I don't get much more clarity.

    In the case of rapid damage and death of that type, I would expect a massive amount of suffering. In the case of heart failure, the pain is somewhat localized and specific (oxygen depletion in the brain), but in the case of being crushed to death , I would expect every nerve ending to do what it was supposed to do. Why would I expect natural law in fail in the aggregate?!

    Let me point this out clearly. Physical pain is absolutely essential to our safety and happiness. As an 'early warning signal', pain alerts us to go to the doctor, to get off our feet, to avoid the fire, to seek help. We are BUILT by God to try to avoid destruction, and one of the means that He built-into us for this is this early-warning system.

    So, the fact that one nerve ending fires off a message to the brain is 'goodness.' It alerts us when we have touched something dangerously hot, or destructively sharp, or disturbingly unfamiliar. And the more of these warning signals we receive in the brain, the greater the communication of urgency. This cumulative effect is also 'goodness'--it incites us to more urgent action, than say an itch or a tickle. [The same thing is true of internal dangers--bleeding, cancers, obstructions, disease.]

    I NEED these signals to 'scale upwards'. I NEED them to 'override' my brain at times. So, why in the world would I want them to ever quit?! Is this not another case like we looked at above, where an objector wanted natural law to simply 'fail' at some points? At what point does it become 'unnecessary'?

    Now there are two physiological issues worth noting here: (1) Sometimes pain itself becomes a problem and (2) There are some 'overload shut-off circuits' that do operate at these extreme conditions.

    The first point--that the warning signal itself can become dangerous--can be illustrated by fever. Fever is can be seen as such a warning signal (although it is technically different than pain), but at certain high temperatures can become dangerous to the brain in itself. This is not the issue we are discussing here--pain, specifically--so I won't talk about this here.

    The second point is more germane. We do know from physiology that in many situations of extreme pain, our brain simply 'shuts off'. We go unconscious, we get 'knocked out', we 'pass out'. We generally can be roused from this situation, but it is some indication that we DO have some such "overload circuits" to minimize the suffering (somewhat). This is not the case always, for many types of cancer (for example) produce pain levels that do not manifest this behavior (to the best of my knowledge).

    If you think about this for a moment, you can see an important distinction between 'suffering' and 'damage'. We know from the usage of anesthesia, that one can inflict huge amounts of bodily damage (e.g. radical surgery) without the conscious agent feeling ANY PAIN at all. By blocking the signal (chemically or whatever), the 'self' is not consciously aware of the damage being done to it. Would this constitute 'natural evil'? Probably not.

    Well, if this distinction holds, then what about those situations in which the agent is unconscious? This probably would be 'okay' to the objector as well (since we are focusing on the pain as opposed to the damage). So, my question is now, 'how conscious' does the agent have to be? I have had surgery in which I have been fully awake and able to co-operate with the doctor, yet "I" felt no pain nor had any memory of the operation. Was "I" really there? Or there have been dream states in which I felt 'pain'--was "I" really there?

    The reason I raise this question of 'who was there' is that I suspect that in some cases (esp. the case of the hot virus) the conscious 'checks out' very early in the process, so that the 'real agent' is 'not there' in the same sense that an unconscious or 'detached through anesthesia' person is 'not there'. I DO know from consciousness studies that 'pain' is a MAJOR theoretical problem--both 'what it is' and 'who' experiences it. It IS a mental phenomenon. I am not convinced that all cases of 'extreme' pain are even experienced by the natural agent.

    Now, it may be that the original objection about the hot viruses was NOT about the intense suffering they cause (although that is how I have understood it). It might have been a different question--"why would a good God create such a thing, that can do such damage?"

    This, of course, is a different question in structure than the one I am dealing with here. Instead of 'why is suffering experienced?" the question is "why are agents of suffering created/allowed to exist?" The questions are related, of course, but they are NOT the same at all.

    The question of pain-causing agents is a much different question (although we broached it above). It includes questions like:

    1. why would a good god make/allow hot viruses?
    2. why would a good god make/allow cancers?
    3. why would a good god make/allow hearts that eventually 'wore out'?
    4. why would a good god make/allow mosquitoes?
    5. why would a good god make/allow predators (e.g. wolves, bacteria, humans)
    6. why would a good god allow humans to make surgical instruments, which have been know to be used as instruments of torture?
    7. why would a good god make/allow humans that could turn into agents of destruction and torture?
    8. why would a good god make/allow human friendships that can go sour and hurt us so?
    9. why would a good god make/allow families, in which so much damage can be done?
    10. why would a good god make oxidation processes that, when speeded up, become combustion--fire?
    11. why would a good god make electricity, that kills people every year through electrocution?
    12. why would a good god allow the 2nd law of Thermodynamics to be (e.g. "things run down")--(even through it is required for friction to work--such as we use in walking)
    13. why would a good god make anything at all--anything of which could be used to do damage to anything else?

    The insightful person will already see the answer present in the above list--evil is parasitic. It occurs ONLY among the good, and it presupposes a vast amount of good.

    The vast majority of things in the universe we already know the 'reason for', but there are things that have yet escaped our 'analysis'. (E.g. we are not omniscient!!!). Decades ago, we did not know the purpose of the spleen or appendix. We branded them 'vestigial organs'--and causes of 'unnecessary suffering' when they went bad on us. We know better today--they contribute vital functions and hormones.

    We do not know the reason for hot viruses (and maybe not for mosquitoes), but we must be much less dogmatic and arrogant that we have in the past about these issues.

    The net here is that (1) we have a strong need for predictability in biological processes and an 'early warning system'; and (2)we do not have adequate basis for describing ANY pain as being 'unnecessary'.

  2. And then there is the simple fact that death was not necessarily intended to be 'pleasant'.

    The scriptural data (e.g. Romans 5.12) leads us to believe that death is an alien experience in the universe--that it was not originally a part of God's purpose for us, and was instead an aberrant condition eventuated by other volitional agents in the universe (e.g. As angels and humans created their own sub-universes (by playing God), we injected 'separation' and 'irrational spaces' into the mix of experience). We 'created' death as a process, and the experience of death--as an aberrant process--is not expected to be 'fun' like the original creation was.

    The implication of this for our study is simply that we have no reason to expect death of ANY kind to be 'pleasant' or comfortable. So, why would we be justified in considering some kinds of death-experiences 'okay' and others 'not okay'? Seems rather arbitrary to me.

  3. I also wonder if this objection is not hiding another version of the 'statistical average' issue. That is, that death 'on average' only involves X levels of pain; therefore any death involving 'more than X' is (be definition) abnormal. But, as we saw above, we have just as many case of sub-normal suffering as we have of supra-normal suffering--by definition of 'average'. The result is that the objection cancels itself out with its contrary.

  4. As I mentioned above, there do seem to be some limits to this experience. Besides the 'overflow shutoff' mechanism that sometimes operates, there is also the obvious termination that occurs at death. In the case of the hot virus, for example, the time frame is exceptionally small, and death occurs quite rapidly--it does not go on at that level of intensity for long periods of time. However, in some long term terminal illnesses, the pain can be progressive and durative. This problem is difficult to gauge, however, for the same reason the objection is weak--the issues are simply too vague, nebulous, 'fuzzy'. In my case, how long would it have to go on (and at what pain intensity) for it to be 'incompatible' with the notion of a good God? And for the objector, the same applies to "how long and intense must suffering be BEFORE it becomes an objection?"

    Given the complexity of the situation and all the principles that are operative in governing a universe, I would hesitate to pronounce judgment on God on the basis of statistically infrequent situations. IF every person that has ever been born, began to suffer upon birth, was subjected to torture constantly for an entire lifespan of some 70-90 years, and then died--without the slightest experience of good, THEN I would be inclined to agree that any god directly responsible for that--without intermediate agents--could not be considered 'good' by our standards.

    But it is obvious that NONE of these parameters obtain. Instead of "Every" we have "very, very few". Instead of "from birth" we generally have "sometimes during life". Instead of "torture" we have "at various levels of suffering". Instead of "for an entire lifespan" we generally have "for an extremely small subject of the lifespan". And instead of "without any experience of good", we have "with a substantial experience of the normal goods of life--family, friends, existence, laughter, growth, development, pleasure, etc." And instead of "without intermediate agents" we have "with the confusion of responsibility engendered by having multiple relatively independent operating agents."

    The net effect of this is that not only are there limits apparently built into the individual situations, but in the aggregate these situations are very limited (statistically speaking). They rarely occur (relative to other experiences) and always occur in the context of massive 'ordinary goodness of life.'

  5. This last point brings up an interesting perspective--that these experiences are dwarfed by the 'experience' of excessive goodness!.

    Consider a hypothetical world in which MOST people, began to suffer constantly at Birth, but in which SOME people SOMETIMES had intermittent episodes of 'relief from suffering'. The problem in THAT world would be how to explain 'unnecessary goodness' or why ALL children didn't fall off cliffs, etc. In other words, the statistically ordinary becomes the base from which to 'define' the aberrant.

    What this means for us is that the very existence of this as a 'problem' implies that it is 'minor' relative to 'ordinary experience.' But what this SHOULD RAISE is the question of the vast amount of 'goodness' in human experience--often unrecognized.

    The goodness of family, friends, beauty, work, love, sleep, sexuality, music, food, pleasure, healing, development, insight, community, etc. is everywhere in our lives. We generally take such things for granted (often until we are confronted with 'natural evil'!), but they form the vast majority of our experience. Granted, we find things to complain about--at various levels of justification--but we only 'notice' the difficulties against the backdrop of good.

    It is important to notice that this occurs both Individually and Communally. As individuals we experience this wealth of ordinary goodness, and as a race of humans it also aggregates.

    If we were to total up (somehow) the experiences of ordinary goodness, it would so dwarf the experiences of 'natural evil'--in frequency, duration, even intensity--that we would be forced to 'suspend judgment' on the 'why' of the individual cases we are considering here. We have adequate evidence of a 'good God' (using these criteria), so why would we assume that our judgment in the extrema was comprehensive enough to reflect the complexity of the actual situation?

  6. And why would we assume that God has pain-minimization as THE major objective?. From where I sit, it seems obvious that He is much more interested in character development, justice, compassion, ethics, community, love than in pain-abatement. To be sure, He has seemingly constructed a world in which pain is NOT the dominant characteristic of our experience, but this does not mean it is His highest priority.

  7. But let's get closer to this last point--why are we using the word "necessary" at all? The original objection was cast in a "best possible world" mold, and a later piece by the same author bears this out:
    In effect, your conclusion is to dismiss the notion of 'unnecessary' in the context of pain as too unclear to be dealt with. But I'm not entirely sure this solves the 'problem'. For example, I have problems defining exact criteria for what is and isn't alive, but I have no problems putting myself, other people, and most animals into the 'alive' category.

    Are you proposing that the notion of 'necessary pain' suffers equally from these problems?

    If so, then by what criteria can a Christian justify preventing pain (e.g., curing a headache, preventing a fatal disease, stopping a child falling off a cliff)?

    If not, then the 'hot virus' question can be changed (or rather, restated in a better way than my first attempt), to "can you honestly believe that every second of pain caused by the hot virus is necessary?". If you, personally, were given the ability to somehow will such a virus into non-existence, would you do it?

    It would be unfair to expect you to answer that without me first giving you chance to object to my own answer, which would be 'Yes'. Further, I'd be hard-pressed to think of any justification that would dissuade me from doing it. It would seem, from a limited human perspective, to be the best ('moral', 'ethical', 'right') thing to do. And yet God doesn't. This is the strength of the argument from a non-theistic point of view - the sheer inability of us to imagine how every aspect and every second of that infection must occur. That had God created the virus to be slightly less painful, that this would somehow no longer be the best of all possible worlds.

    The question can be undermined partly by pointing out that it is based solely on human perception of what is and isn't necessary. But this answer; to say "He hasn't told us the 'why' in specific cases, but He has given us ample reason to believe that He is trustworthy" is to eventually admit to no answer for the question, while presupposing that which the question attempts to bring into doubt - the existence of God.

    This statement of the 'necessary' argument at least clears up ONE of the ambiguities of the issue--that of 'necessary for WHAT?' The author states that we cannot believe that every firing of every nerve ending associated with the virus is ABSOLUTELY essential to having the "best possible world." (And, on the basis of this assumption, raises the traditional "they why fight against God" argument--a la The Plague)

    But once again, when we probe this seemingly reasonable statement, we will find nothing underneath.

    Take for starters, the notion of the '"best possible world." Philosophers know this to be a meaningless and contentless phrase, like "square circle" or "infinite rock." If (as most people agree) human beings are "good", then any world God created could have been improved ("made into a better possible world") by the addition of ONE MORE PERSON! And then THAT world could have been improved yet farther by the addition of another person...etc...etc...etc. (And if one objects that other constraints such as space limitations would have started 'subtracting goodness' from the overall 'pool', then we could simply have had God make a bigger universe--"finite, but unbounded" remember!)

    This changes the whole equation rather dramatically, for no longer can the objector hold some model up as a limitation to God's freedom of action or permission. In fact, the actual objection becomes semantically non-sensical (like sentences containing square circles or infinite rocks). All God "has" to do is create a "good" world (and only then, at the start--He can allow independent subsequent agents to foul it up, subject to issues of the more general Problem of Evil.)

    Next, consider the analogy to 'alive.' As the objector is using the term it is descriptive, and NOT value-laden. But if we moved it into a value-context (e.g. "alive, and therefore worthy to be protected") we would be in trouble quickly. We might be undecided about certain predatory life-forms, and mistaken about others (e.g. rabbits in Australia). In any such 'necessity' type argument, we inject notions of value, importance, etc.--which are NOT as intuitive as one might hope. Thus, this analogy doesn't add much to the discussion.

    Next, when we get to the "why fight against God?" question--justification of preventing pain--the problem gets swallowed up in the complex of multiple agents and causes. The over-arching 'good possible world' plan of God operates (typically) THROUGH natural agents. In other words, it could be God deciding to reduce pain THROUGH the use of human agents (or pharmacological means). We are called by God to give ourselves to improving the scenario--and this is the normal and preferred means He uses to eventuate such improvements. He doesn't just step in and change the rules of nature on us (for reasons delineated above). Indeed, one can argue that the rules are predictable, so that we CAN learn/develop ways of dealing with the minority aberrations that occur.

    So, when we get the question "can you believe every second of pain is necessary" question, we have lost the word 'necessary'! The question is gone. In its place is "Would God want us to use every natural means to reduce it"--with a resounding "Yes" for an answer.

    But would this require God to use every available means at His disposal to eliminate pain (as suggested by the objector)?

    This is not quite as obvious. We are supposed to help people fight 'death', but everyone dies. Should we require God to keep everyone alive forever? And we are back to the issues of what commitments and what guarantees we have--none in this arena. He apparently facilitates some minimization of overall pain and suffering (from the statistical data we have seen), so He seems to have some interest in it. But He clearly has a larger agenda in the governance of the universe that we are not responsible for.

    I remember my first trip to Yosemite National Park a few years back. There were seven forest fires (albeit small ones) in progress in the Park. I asked the Park officials if they were worried about those, and what they were doing to quench them. Their response was that (1) they were NOT worried and (2 they were doing nothing to put them out (but were watching to make sure they did not spread too widely). The explanation they gave was something to the effect that the fire burned off the underbrush and allowed the trees to grow better. I was struck by the similarity to a "theodicy"--(1) allowable 'suffering'; (2) no guarantees to the underbrush; (3) no wanton / malicious damage; (4) the probable 'inscrutability' of the actions to the affected areas; and (5) strictly a minority/small-scale phenomena. I found myself wondering what they would do if there were no NATURAL fires; would they have started some themselves (like a farmer sometimes burns a field before planting)?

    The point should be obvious: governance of an entire universe containing space, time, persons, matter, ethics, freedom, predictability/integration of physical and biological processes just MIGHT be more complex than our atomistic judgments of individual cases would assume!

    Thus, some apparent (and occasional) disparity between God's responsibility and ours in individual cases might be expected, and should counsel us to lower our arrogance and presumption levels!

    And, as the author suggested, it might be due to "a limited human perspective". We DON'T have to have the "ability to imagine how every aspect and every second of that infection must occur" to believe that SOMEONE ELSE could so understand it. The problem is not so much that we don't have an answer (the "Why") but that we have scores of "whys"--but we do not have the ability to sort through them and make specific assignments and weights in an individual case. So the objectors statement that we "admit to no answer" is misleading; we "admit to a precise and well-balanced structure of factors and reasons" but only one that we cannot specify in detail. We have general principles (many of which might apply in a specific case), but something like a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle plays here--we can specify what factors are probably at play, but not in what "% mix" they occur. Our answer IS an answer, but not a very precise one.

    Let me be so bold as to even question the "Yes" in his statement about willing the virus out of existence. At the surface, it is something that looks attractive. But it might best be answered "I don't know" or "it depends".

    We, of course, don't have the option of "willing things out of existence"--that is only something God COULD DO, and something I don't think He ever HAS done. So, if the question is equivalent to "what would you do IF YOU WERE GOD?", then I would have to answer (in light of the challenges of governance) "I don't know."

    As a human, of course, He seems to expect me to fight it with all the means at my disposal--but that is AS A HUMAN--on the same 'level of existence' as the virus.

    (I might also mention a slight problem unique to the virus--the meaning of non-existence. The virus is not actually a species of life, but rather fragments of genetic material--with or without the envelope. As such, it is simply a chemical compound. To 'will it out of existence' therefore entails two things: (1) the destruction of matter (violating the conversation of matter/energy on a much larger scale that ANY of the nature miracles in the bible) and (2) modification of the laws of chemical combinations so that those particular combinations could never occur. [Notice: this is NOT simply killing off a species of bacteria--a much different problem. The case of the virus involves fundamental changes in physical nature. Our efforts involved in dealing with virus problems today is largely to stop or modify the interaction between it and actual living organisms (see The Science of Viruses, Ann Giudici Fettner, Quill:1990).] And this situation--making fundamental changes to physics and chemistry--may be (1) another case of being "God"; or (2) another case of "be careful what you ask for--you might just get it". The more RATIONAL approach is to find ways of dealing with problem WITHIN the system.)

    My point above is simply to show that statements like "I would will it out of existence" or "I would manage the universe better than God" (although pious-sounding to some) are basically naive and uninformed, and ultimately presumptive or even silly.

What should be clear from this analysis of the 'unnecessary pain' argument, is that it also dissolves in ambiguity and imprecision. It cannot be formulated in such a way as to be comprehensible (e.g. nerves only work when others aren't!), and the notion of 'unnecessary' cannot be made useful. The very context of goodness in our ordinary experience points out the statistically extreme character of these experiences, which SHOULD tip us off to be careful in rendering trending statements.


One of the things that has always bothered me about questions of "the justification of suffering" is the narrow timeframes we generally consider. We normally try to justify suffering WITHIN the lifespan-to-that-point of the sufferer, instead of looking at all the downstream implications--in the victim's later life, in the lives of the observers, of things pre-empted, of the community as a whole. This 'atomistic' view of events and effects is NOT a scientific one at all. We search for patterns and trends and general laws. In science we do not stop at 'the reason the billiard ball moved is that the other ball hit it'! We try to look at the bigger picture, and we should do this in these issues as well. Unfortunately, we are somewhat constricted in our ability to see the purpose of the whole, and therefore, of individual events which are part of the whole. I consider it presumptuous to glibly make judgments about people (or gods!) on the basis of anecdotal information.

Another problem concerns the somewhat convenient definitions we use for 'suffering' sometimes. We generally assume that the concept is well-defined, but the analysis above should illustrate that this is NOT AT ALL the case. Consider the following situations that, taken in isolation from the pattern in which they occur, might be considered painful.

  1. muscle soreness after exercise
  2. injection of anesthetic before local surgery
  3. confusion over a job offer
  4. adolescent self-discovery confusion
  5. toddler frustration over hand-eye coordination development
  6. stress over a difficult work project/school assignment
  7. embarrassment, with which the peer or social structures have 'taught us' (through censure) not to perform some socially destructive act
  8. misunderstanding the words of a loved one (and being 'hurt' thereby)

How many of these are we willing to call 'suffering' although they manifest the same "family resemblances" to the 'standard' forms of suffering we have been discussing? If we were to eliminate 'suffering and pain' of the 'standard' forms, these would disappear too--but these are endemic to our general human progress and state.

My point is simply this: "suffering" is too complex and fuzzy a concept to use harshly as theistic objections. It is so broad that any 'rules' we might make would also have negative is just not that simple and clear how to turn this into a meaningful objection (without making tons of questionable assumptions and definitions).

Summary: The argument from 'natural evil' has essentially no force as an anti-theistic objection, due to its nature as ambiguous, imprecise, incoherent, statistically extreme, contextually-bound, assumptive of a God, assumptive of causal-ethical connections that are impossible to defend, and blind to the implications from 'excessive ordinary good'.

Although I have experienced suffering--in my life and in the lives of loved ones--I find I am drawn rather to a Good God rather than away from Him. I have good reason to trust Him and to trust that He will explain how the events in my experience fit into the 'big picture' to me when I really, really need to know.

For now, the thinker in me must conclude that 'agentless suffering' and 'extreme pain' do NOT constitute an adequate anti-theistic argument.

So, the short answer to these types of questions --"why would a god allow a child to die in an earthquake" is something like: "He hasn't told us the 'why' in specific cases, but He has given us ample reason to believe that He is trustworthy. We DO know that He made natural laws (even those involved in that death) to be trustworthy enough and absolutely necessary to support the lives of people (and countless other children)--indeed, so much so that it is impossible to visualize a universe without them--, and at the same time, that He allows us the freedom to order our lives as we choose--and sometimes that puts our loved ones at risk. We have no grounds for accusing God of being unfair or unkind or of breaking some imagined 'contract' with us, especially in light of the vast amounts of simple goodness that we DO experience in our lives."

It does not take away the pain and grief, of course, but it does point us in the only Direction from 'whence cometh help in times of sorrow.'

glenn miller, 7/21/96, 8/15/96

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