Friday, November 11, 2011

Evil, the Fall, and the cause(s) of Natural Disasters

Over the past week, central Oklahoma has been hit with a series of earthquakes and aftershocks. The largest earthquake was a magnitude 5.6, which probably has folks in the Pacific Rim shaking their heads and muttering, 'You call THAT an earthquake? We call that dancing.' Nonetheless, the quakes caused a measure of damage to homes, businesses, and (sadly) a historic and beautiful central building on the campus of St. Gregory's College here in Shawnee, OK.

It caused me to reflect - is it just me, or do natural disasters seem to follow me around? I'm not just talking about the state of affairs in my office at the university. We moved to Louisville, Kentucky in July 2008. In September, Hurricane Ike roared up the Ohio River valley and struck with fury in Louisville - the first ever hurricane to hit Louisville (look at the map - it's nowhere NEAR the coast!). Gusting winds took down tens of thousands of trees throughout the city, and knocked out power to almost half the city. Three months later, a massive (and absolutely beautiful) ice storm struck Louisville, again taking down thousands of trees, and knocking out power to 40% of the city. In both disasters, homes were destroyed, vehicles were demolished, businesses were physically and financially devastated, and lives were lost. Now we move to Oklahoma just in time to experience the most powerful earthquake the state has ever recorded. Is it just me? ...

This raises the question of the cause and nature of 'natural disasters', something that has been on my mind. In the midst of that, I received a comment from a good old friend in response to my September post citing Louis Markos' response to the problem of evil. Here is what Grace wrote:

Hey Tawa - how would you explain to an atheist how the fall of man effected creation? How can a natural disaster be a result from the actions of humans? I can understand it as an act of judgement, but to an atheist this looks cruel.

Grace asks a great question, and one that continues to cause me to ponder. I'll provide three different perspectives - the first two are NOT my perspective, while the third would be the way I tend to approach the question. I’ll close with some additional thoughts.

1. Some Christian philosophers and theologians would argue that natural disasters are the direct result of the fall of mankind. In Genesis 3, the results of the Fall of Adam and Eve are: (a) alienation from God; (b) alienation from self; (c) alienation from one another as fellow human beings; and (d) alienation from the created order. The Fall brings death into the world, as the consequence for sin; but the Fall also affects the rest of Creation. In other words, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc., did not happen before the Fall. They all postdate the fall of mankind, and are a direct result of the human fall into sin. This perspective on "natural evil" (natural disasters) is dependent upon a Young Earth perspective, the view that the earth is only thousands of years old. It is a legitimate perspective, but one that I do not share.

2. William Dembski argues that natural evil (natural disasteres, and also animal predation) are a retrojected effect of the Fall. In this perspective, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. all predate both the creation of human beings and the Fall of Adam and Eve; BUT the Fall of Adam and Eve is the direct cause of such natural evil. The argument is that God foreknows the Fall of mankind, and enacts consequences for the Fall 'before' the Fall occurs - and this makes sense because of God's relationship to time (namely, that God is the Creator of time, and sees past, present, and future in an ever-present eternality). Before you shake your head and think this is just nuts, consider two things:

(a) Jesus' saving death upon the cross is retrojectively effective prior to the New Testament period. The Old Testament saints who die are covered by the blood of Christ. Yes, God works through the temple sacrificial system of the Old Testament, but as Christians we know that salvation comes by the grace of God through Jesus’ atoning death alone. The logical entailment is that Jesus’ death is effective even for those who died BEFORE Jesus’ crucifixion. If there is such a retrojective effect of Jesus’ atoning death, then it isn’t as much of a logical stretch to imagine a retrojective effect of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin.

(b) Think of a wacky Star Trek episode, like the one in Voyager where a time-traveler from the 29th century tries to destroy Voyager because Voyager set in motion a series of temporal events that resulted in a massive catastrophe in the 29th century. Turns out, however, that the temporal series of events was actually initiated by the time traveler’s ill-advised attempt to destroy Voyager, which launched both ships back into the late 20th-century, where they fell into the hands of a megalomaniacal hippie. In other words, the temporal series which the time traveler sought to avoid was actually initiated by his seeking to avoid it – a retrojected effect which had past, present, and future consequences. Think also of the Harry Potter book where Hermione is able to travel through time with Harry, and he sees himself (thinking it is his father) cast the Petronus spell – the future Harry acts in such a way as to effect the past/present Harry. Again, all this shows is that humans can imagine such a thing as retrojected effects; and this imaginatory possibility suggests that it has some correlate in reality (such as the retrojected effects of Jesus’ atoning death, and perhaps also the retrojected effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve).

Again, I raise this as a possibility, a valid Christian perspective, even though I have not come around to embracing it.

3. My own perspective is that there is what we call natural evil in the world prior to the Fall of Adam and Eve, and that as such it is not the direct result of man’s actions or man’s fall into sin. By natural evil, I include such things as animal predation, earthquakes, tornados, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, etc. I understand natural evil to be the result of one of two things. (a) The rebellion of Satan and his angels; and/or (b) Part of a renewing of Creation which has positive outworkings, except when they negatively impact humanity. First things first.

(a) Satan is regularly called the “prince of this world.” There is a Scriptural understanding that the Created order, made good (very good) by God, is not the way He created it to be. Part of the reason is that Satan and his angels rebelled against God’s authority, and dragged the Created order down with them. If Satan is the prince of this world, then we should not expect the order of this world to perfectly reflect its Creator any longer. Thus, things like animal predation and purely destructive natural disasters (I suspect there are such) are the result, not of human sin, but a result of Satan’s rebellion and its consequences.

(b) Some ‘natural disasters’ are actually positive occurrences from some perspectives, EXCEPT in their effect upon humanity. Think of your experience in Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places in the world (in my humble but probably correct opinion). What is Hawaii? A chain of islands. Where did it come from? The islands are all volcanic in origin. That is, they were formed by violent volcanic eruptions, magma erupting from the ‘center of the earth’, flowing out, and forming new land mass as it cooled and settled. The immediate outworking of a volcanic eruption can be extremely destructive – just ask residents of Pompeii. However, what is the longer-term result? The soil of Hawaii, after the rich volcanic deposits are broken down over time, is some of the richest soil in the world. Volcanic rock becomes extremely fruitful. I don’t understand the hows and whys of it, but I know the ‘that’s’ of it. What we see initially as destructive and potentially harmful, God has utilized as part of the on-going creative process in His Created order. From that perspective, volcanic eruptions, which we call natural ‘disasters’, are not necessarily disasters at all. The same can be said for some flooding, even major and devastating flooding. It carries grave consequences for humans living in the path, but it also brings renewal and increased vitality and fruitfulness to the soil. How about earthquakes, like the ones we’ve experienced here in Oklahoma the past week (minor though they are in comparison to others)? Well, where did the gorgeous Rocky Mountains in Banff and Jasper (and Colorado and Montana, I suppose) come from? Tectonic plate activity – i.e., earthquakes. Earthquakes are another part of God’s created order through which He engages in ongoing creation and renewal. The consequences can at times be dire for those living in the path, but the long-term outworkings are beauty, diversity, and transcendence.

What changed at the Fall of Adam and Eve, then, was not the existence of natural disasters (and animal predation). Rather, what changed is the impact that such ‘disasters’ had upon humanity. Before the Fall, humans were, as it were, immune to both the consequences of Satan’s rebellion and fall AND the potentially harmful effects of creative-renewing natural ‘disasters’. Whether that is because the Garden of Eden was in some protected location set entirely apart from predation and disasters, or whether it was because the Garden was simply providentially protected by God Himself, I do not know and never will (although I can speculate, and frequently have). After the Fall, humans are cast out from the Garden of Eden, and are no longer under the providential or locational protection of God. They are subject to both the effects of Satan’s Fall and the consequences of natural ‘disasters’.

I’m not sure if all of that makes sense – it is at least some ponderings about it. There are three other quick thoughts that I would want to throw in:

(1) From a Christian perspective, I can freely and justifiably use words like ‘disaster’, ‘evil’, and ‘cruel’. When I was an atheist (back in the day), I would use those words as well. However, I have come to see (as C. S. Lewis first pointed out to me in Mere Christianity) that I had no justification for using the morally-laden terms I did. I would say things like “God is cruel to allow people to suffer such evil and suffering from natural (and man-made) disasters.” I am convinced now that, if there is no God, there can be no such thing as objective evil or objective cruelty. As William Provine (atheistic biologist from Cornell University) insists, in the absence of God, there is no good and evil, there just is. The problem is, of course, that almost everyone, including most staunch atheists, do acknowledge the reality and objectivity of evil, suffering, and cruelty. The problem is, how do atheists ground or justify their notions of evil? For something to be evil, there has to be something it is being compared to – something good which it fails to be or to do. Again, in the absence of God, I think this is impossible. That is another topic for another day, but it is something I think worth raising with some atheists, if they are willing to consider it.

(2) I also think we have to acknowledge that sometimes the sin of man (intentional or unintentional) does directly cause natural disasters. This might sound harsh, but what caused the tragedy in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? It seems unfair to me to ‘blame’ it on God for allowing the Hurricane. I can easily point the ‘finger of blame’ (though I think it’s unprofitable to do so in the first place) at human agents. (a) The people who built a gorgeous city below sea level, surrounded by an ocean on one side and a large lake on the other, with man-made dikes its only protection against the inevitable onslaught of water. (b) The people who failed to monitor the strength and efficacy of the dike system.

(3) Think of pollution, and global warming – are these the results of man’s actions? Most would say ‘yes’ without hesitation (including, I believe, yourself). While examples elude my mind this morning, think of countrysides which have been stripped bare of their trees and supporting vegetation. The next time major rains come, instead of the moisture being soaked up by trees, and the cascade of soil down the hillside being stopped by their root systems; there is nothing to impede the water and mud, and a major (and destructive) mudslide ensues. What causes the disaster? Is it not the direct result of the actions of human beings? So there are times at which disasters are directly or indirectly caused by us. Acid rain. Ozone depletion. Soil exhaustion. Desertification. Species extinctions. Etc., etc.

Alright, I wrote way more than I intended to, but it was a topic that piqued my interest this morning when I saw your comment, so I thought I would interact with it. It is good to hear from you, Grace, and it is healthy to wrestle with what is unquestionably one of the deepest and most difficult questions we all must face.