Toward a View of Natural Evil

By J. Kenneth Grider

A proper view of the problem of natural evil, of why the righteous and innocent suffer, has several elements in it.

Absolutistic Meliorism is one element. God should be viewed as absolute--as long as this does not mean that He is removed from us and untouched by our troubles. God is infinite in His nature, and in the wisdom and goodness and power that are out-workings of that nature. He is not finite in any of the senses studied in this chapter, nor is He beset by an eternal and uncreated evil opposite, nor by many eternal opposites, as in James's pluralism.

At the same time, creation's desirable aspects, as well as its undesirable ones, are both actual. It is ours to work with the God of infinite resources in promoting the good and in thwarting, or at least hindering, the evil.

The Light from Arminianism [the view that "in some sense both good and evil are, but good is dominant in that the state of affairs in the universe is always susceptible of improvement" [Brightman, A Philosophy of Religion, pp. 276-77]. A proper view of righteous and innocent suffering should also be in keeping with the Arminian tradition in theology--close to Arminius himself, and not to the overly tolerant and liberal wing of Arminianism. This Arminian orientation means that we do not believe (as Calvin did) that God is the absolutely sovereign One who directly orders whatever happens. We understand that He works often through secondary causes, mediately, instead of by direct fiat. He works through what we popularly call natural laws: instances of natural evil occur because of the laws of nature-as in tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, for examples.

God, as all-powerful, can work miracles whereby natural laws are set aside; and in graciousness, He sometimes does work miracles on behalf of His people. Yet the righteous and innocent often get sucked into natural laws and their devastation, even as the wicked do. In those cases, God does not directly order the frustration in the lives of righteous and innocent persons. He permits them only in a remotely removed sense: by establishing natural laws, which usually work for our good, and which are better for us than a topsy-turvy world without them would be-in which, say, there would not be any way of predicting the direction in which a leaning tree would fall when cut.

Scripture suggests that God usually works mediately, through secondary causes, instead of by direct fiat. He created Eve in that way, using Adam's side, not creating her outright. And once He had the first pair, He created other humans through the human reproductive process.

Leading His people through judges and speaking to them through called prophets are instances of God working with people through intermediaries. Besides this, and even as part of all this, God orders His world through human beings who are free either to do His will or to oppose His will. This is basic to an Arminian type of theology. We humans really can and often do thwart God's will. Though God is absolutely sovereign, this does not mean that He directly orders whatever happens on the earth. He persuades rather than drives, and He gets only more or less the ideal of what He had in mind. This is so in the moral sphere, and it is so also in the natural sphere. An Arminian does not talk about lightning or tornadoes or floods or other instances of natural evil as acts of God"--as Calvinism does.

With this kind of understanding, an Arminian does not say to bereaved parents that for some strange and inscrutable reason God took their small girl who was run over when she fell through a hole in the floor of a pickup truck. The Arminian understands that God is not the one who does what we humans are too good to do, but instead He is on the sufferer's side as a refuge and source of strength in the midst of the sorry some circumstance--which God did not want to happen any more than we did.

Light from Natural Laws. Many of the involuntary frustrations of the ideal existence of innocent and righteous persons arise from the operation of what we often call natural laws--although natural laws as such have been somewhat brought into question by the theory of relativity and by quantum physics. No matter what our metaphysics, and regardless of our type of religion, we must, since we are living in these times rather than in ancient or medieval times, recognize the regularly established procedures of nature.

We cannot, therefore, ascribe the results of every accident to the direct will of God. We realize, for example, that automobile accidents cause suffering and untimely death because the law of the inertia of motion usually remains in effect even when innocent and twice-born persons are involved.

No longer can we ascribe the results of every fire to the direct will of God. We know that when the kindling point of combustible materials is reached, a fire will likely begin, even though it will cause suffering to persons who do not particularly deserve it.

No longer can we attribute every fall from a precipice to the direct will of God. We know that if a child or a twice-born person steps on a loose rock, stumbles, and falls into a mountain gorge, the likelihood is that he or she will be killed. The law of gravity, be that law conceived in theory as Newton stated it or as Einstein has put it more recently, will probably remain in effect, the type of person notwithstanding.

No longer do we ascribe tornadoes and tidal waves to the direct will of God. We know they occur because heat from the sun, intensified at times by natural causes, expands the gases that make up our air. The warmed air rises, and cold air replaces it, causing a wind, sometimes so violent that we call it a tornado and occasionally so strong that it produces devastating tidal waves we call hurricanes. Nor can we look upon floods as the direct will of God. Several natural laws operate in causing them and, consequently, the tragic evil they precipitate.

This "natural laws" phase of what is being called a proper response to natural evil accords with the view that involuntary evil is radically actual, because these natural laws really occasion what obstructs the ideal fulfillment of the lives of innocent and righteous persons. It also accords with the view that God is absolute: His infinite power and wisdom are seen in the extensive orderliness the natural laws make possible; and His infinite goodness, if not seen directly in each operation of these laws, is seen in their total function, since they make possible an orderly world rather than a chaotic one, and one that most people would surely think of as the more desirable.

Light from the Fall. A fall in the natural world, to suit the environment to the now-fallen Adam and his posterity, occasions natural evil that is organic-the kind that visits us through organisms such as germs and viruses, poisonous reptiles, ferocious beasts, and mosquitoes. These appear to have originated through a fall in organic creation.

Such organic media of frustration do not appear to be a part of creation as we read of it in chapter 1 of Genesis. After each creative day, in that account, it is declared that what was made was good; and of the aggregate of creation, at the close of the account of it, it was affirmed: "And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31, NASB).

But what does not appear to be included in the geological ages of creation prior to our creation and our initial sin is evidently introduced as a result of human disobedience. To Eve, Yahweh says: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you shall bring forth children" (Gen. 3:16, NASB). And to Adam He says, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat from it'; cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you" (vv. 17-18, NASB).

Evils resulting from natural laws and evils consequent upon the Fall are both consistent with absolutism.

Light from the Incarnation. Though the Incarnation is not of direct bearing on why natural evils occur, it is nevertheless of indirect bearing on that matter. With the doctrine of the Incarnation as a presupposition, our answer to the theoretical problem of natural evil will not be pessimistic. Through the Incarnation, we have unveiled to us the very God whom some did not find and have consequently espoused views of despair. The Incarnation also precludes optimism, because what God did through the Incarnation in the natural realm, such as healing diseased and maimed persons, is evidence that involuntary evils are not of God's will. And the God revealed to us by the Word made flesh does not appear to be limited in any of the ways claimed by the finitists; He is one for whom "all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26, NASB).

Some of the optimists and meliorists we studied believed in the Incarnation but did not give it the significance it deserves in the solution of the problem of natural evil. John Calvin certainly affirmed the Incarnation in its Chalcedon formulation; but for him it was important mainly as a means to the death of Christ, which made expiation for the moral evil. Calvin looked upon every natural phenomenon as the direct will of God. There is no radical evil in nature, according to this view; nothing has gone wrong, and nothing will ever go wrong. All apparent natural evil is the will of God, and if we cannot understand why He wills certain aspects of it, we should not question His wisdom in directing phenomena in that manner. With this prior, optimistic attitude toward the apparent evils of nature, the Incarnation could not be understood as a significant agent in the solution of the problem caused by natural evils, but at the most as a condition of the divine plan for the moral redemption of that segment of mankind who is predestined to life everlasting.

Meliorist Edwin Lewis affirmed the incarnation in its traditional, radical character. He said that "God does not stay in his heaven, as one 'sitting apart, contemplating all,' but enters the arena of conflict as a personal participant. " (Lewis, The Creator and the Adversay, p. 153). He also wrote, "God becomes man" (Ibid., p. 154). And he said, "For by the Incarnation, God the Father in the person of God the Son . . . receives to himself the worst that evil can do" (Ibid.). He speaks of "his [God'sl actual participation in the creative strife by means of the incarnation of the Word, known among us as Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of God" (Ibid., p. 176).

And the Incarnation, in its traditional, radical character, is for Edwin Lewis of a certain significance in the solution of the problem of natural evil: it is through becoming flesh that God is able to "match His Adversary"'76 in the arena where that discreator has brought about natural evil.

But in the view of Lewis, it is not primarily the Incarnation itself that is the instrument whereby God seeks to alleviate the world of such evil; the prime method whereby God combats it is through the death of Christ, which death assured the gradual redemption of natural evil because it was succeeded by the Resurrection.

Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison believes that the doctrine of the Incarnation should be understood as pointing toward an answer to the problem of suffering. As we read through his theodicy, we find that the Incarnation is given a prominent place in the solution of the difficulty arising from natural evil. For example, by emphasis upon the doctrine of the Incarnation, Pringle-Pattison is able to give a Christian tone to his "higher naturalism." (Pringle-Pattison, The Idea of God, p. 209). 209 Also, because God is understood as having entered our sphere in order to fight with us, Pringle-Pattison is able to affirm that God is interested in us, suffers with us, and leads us into a type of life in which suffering is overcome (Ibid., pp. 409-17).

Yet Pringle-Patttson's view of the Incarnation is inadequate. According to him, God is already, by metaphysical status, linked organically to humanity It is not that God the Father, through the person of God the Son, enters the arena of conflict; it is that God, only one in person, is always here, in the conflict, not by any sacrifice, but by His permanent, ontological mode of existence. He speaks of the error of dividing the functions of deity between the Father and the Son, conceived practically as two distinct personalities or centers of consciousness, the Father perpetuating the old monarchical ideal and the incarnation of the Son being limited to a single historical individual" (Ibid., 409). This reveals his denial of the distinction of personalities in the Godhead, a denial that makes impossible both the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Another group of theologians, whose views have not been studied earlier, give too much significance to the Incarnation in the solutions they offer to the problem of natural evil, because they all say the Incarnation has already abolished natural evil.

One of these is the ancient Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 130-ca. 202). Nature's ills, according to him, were corrected by the One who came for the express purpose of recapitulating-or re-creating, remaking-both fallen humanity and the fallen world. This is something that has already been accomplished: all of creation, both human and natural, has been remade. Restored to its prefallen condition, it is supposedly perfect in all its aspects. The empirical fact of continuing natural evil makes it impossible for us to accept Irenaeus' view. We simply do not experience a perfected world.

Athanasius is another ancient theologian who placed the same kind of overemphasis on the Incarnation. He would rather use "re-creation" or "renewal" than "recapitulation," but by these terms he meant to denote virtually the same idea. All aspects of nature have already been quickened. He says that "straightway [because of the Incarnation] all things were set right and perfect." (Ibid., On Luke 10:20, sec. 2).

But again, the ills are still here. The cobra is still a menace to missionaries and their children. There is still an abundance of microbes to bring misery to the innocent and the twice-born the world over.

Certain rather recent theologians have likewise presented an overemphasis upon the Incarnation in relation to natural evil. One of them is Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1943). Bulgakov is an Orthodox theologian in the tradition of Irenaeus and Athanasius. Although he did not give them prominent mention as sources of his theology of natural evil, he quite evidently used them in his oft treated idea of deification, which is a degree of godlikeness found, through the merits of the Incarnation, in both humans and nature. This "deification," as it applies to nature, is a complete redemption of it from its fallen state.

Again, as in Irenaeus and Athanasius, but with more detailed statement than can be found in their writings, it is a redemption that has already been accomplished. The principal criticism, therefore, of this system, as with the earlier ones, is that the Incarnation is supposed to have already redeemed creation.

In still more elaborate detail, Lionel Thornton taught that nature has been already redeemed by the Incarnation. In spite of his philosophical optimism, and regardless of his detailed teaching that the re-creation of nature has already taken place, Thornton does maintain a quite healthy meliorism, in which he urges us to work with God in effecting the redemption of nature. Because of this view; his position, in comparison with that of the other three incarnationalists just discussed, more nearly approximates the incarnational answer that the writer will now present.

The Incarnation might be thought of as the event whereby redemption is made for natural evil; the Crucifixion, as the event whereby redemption is made for moral evil; and the Resurrection, as the event whereby the worth of both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion is validated (as Karl Barth would say). By these events, as Allan Galloway says, "Christ restored all evil to a place within the intrinsic meaning of the world" [Allan D. Galloway, The Cosmic Christ, New York: Harper, 1951, p. 259].

But surely our redemption from moral evil, through the death of Christ, is only provisional. Not all people everywhere, regardless of their attitude toward Christ, are redeemed from sin; only those who by faith personally appropriate to themselves the redemption provided are redeemed.

Similarly, our redemption from natural evil is only provisional. The Incarnation does no more than make it a possibility; it only points out, particularly to those who come to be redeemed from moral evil, the way of redemption from natural frustration. We must, on our own part, as the condescended God assists us, make actual what is by that event only made provisional. This redemption becomes actual only as we take advantage of the fact that God is metaphysically one-with-us, thus near us; and experientially one-with-us, thus understanding of our predicaments; and as we see that He is consequently able and willing to assist us in preventing natural frustrations and in transforming them into creativity if the prevention measures fail and such evils still intrude themselves into our lives.

Through the Incarnation, God has become metaphysically one-with-us. The metaphysical wall of partition, because of this event, has been abolished, so that there is no longer a chasm between us, as finite existents in the universe, and God as the supreme, infinite Existent. It is not that we have become gods, or deified, as Irenaeus, Athanasius, and others have maintained; it is that God, although still existing as the Transcendent One, has be-come what we are and has in this way bridged the metaphysical chasm between himself and us. The writer of John's Gospel says that "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (1:14, NASB). And Paul wrote of Christ, "Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant" (Phil. 2:6-7, NASB).

Through the Incarnation, also, God has become experientially one-with-us. The writer of John and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews have a more profound conception of this experiential oneness than do the other New Testament writers. But if the others did not stress it as much, and even if some of the others did not mention it at all, none of the New Testament writers denied this corollary truth of the Incarnation. This means that those of us today who walk with God and whose ideal lives tend to become frustrated by involuntary evil can be assured that the God who, in Christ, came down to be metaphysically one-with-us went through frustrating experiences when He was in this sphere and therefore knows our experiences on the basis of like ones that came to Him.

Since God, therefore, through the Incarnation is both metaphysically and experientially one-with-us, and since we know that natural evils are not in each instance His direct will but occur through natural laws and the Fall in the natural world, we can be certain that He will assist us in our efforts to prevent involuntary frustrations. Because of His metaphysical oneness with us, we can know that God is not the Wholly There, the Wholly Then, but the Wholly Here, the Wholly Now; and since He is this, we can be assured that we will have His help in preventing involuntary frustrations. Further, because of His experiential oneness with us, we know He understands both the strain of the task and what the impending evil will be like if the prevention measures do not succeed. God thus rides in our machines when we build dams and levees. He is in our heaving when we make a levee of sandbags to prevent a flood's devastation. God rides with pilots out into the hurricane eyes hundreds of miles off the coast of Florida as they seek an early knowledge of a coming wind so that preparations for it can be made.

God is predisposed to be with us whenever we seek to prevent natural evils. Sometimes He is present to give us guidance as when, through prayer, a person seeks to learn which of alternative prevention measures should be employed. Occasionally direct revelational assistance may be given, as for the research scientist who needs but one key for unlocking a door that, when opened, will permit exploring new territory and finally learning ways of preventing some means of human frustration such as a disease. But whether God is with us for guidance, special revelational assistance, or other helps, a proper conception of the Incarnation assures us that He is always near and always humanly sympathetic.

In like manner, since God is metaphysically and experientially one-with-us, and since natural evils are not His direct will, He assists us when they have not been prevented and they flood in upon us. At such times, the God of natural laws and the Fall in organic creation becomes, because of the still-in-effect Incarnation, the God who knows something about their frustrating effects and who is therefore able and willing to assist righteous persons in transforming such frustrations into what is creative.

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, then, has only an indirect bearing on the theoretical problem of why natural evil exists, but it has a most direct bearing on the solution of the life-situation problem of preventing natural evil and of reacting to it creatively when it comes calling.

This view of the Incarnation, coupled with the absolutism espoused earlier in this chapter, makes conceivable the hope of most people of every age, that righteousness will finally triumph over all evil. John the Revelator expressed this hope when he wrote:

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them . . . and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away'" (Rev. 21:1-4, NASB).

Having treated the doctrine of creation in the previous chapter, and in this chapter the corollary problem of natural evil, we are prepared to study the doctrine of ourselves.



From J. Kenneth Grider, A Wesleyan Holiness Theology, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri, copyright 1994, pp. 220-229. This material may not be reproduced without Beacon Hill's permission.

June 22, 2000