Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Why does God allow natural disasters?

A burning church in Haiti

At the heart of Haiti's humanitarian crisis is an age old question for many religious people - how can God allow such terrible things to happen? Philosopher David Bain examines the arguments.

Evil has always been a thorn in the side of those - of whatever faith - who believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God.

As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in 1776: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

Faced with this question, Archbishop of York John Sentamu said he had "nothing to say to make sense of this horror", while another clergyman, Canon Giles Fraser, preferred to respond "not with clever argument but with prayer".

John Sentamu
I have nothing to say that makes sense of this horror - all I know is that the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus is that he is with us
Archbishop of York, John Sentamu

Perhaps their stance is understandable. The Old Testament is also not clear to the layman on such matters. When Job complains about the injuries God has allowed him to suffer, and claims "they are tricked that trusted", God says nothing to rebut the charges.

Less reticent is the American evangelist Pat Robertson. He has suggested Haiti has been cursed ever since the population swore a pact with the Devil to gain their freedom from the French at the beginning of the 19th Century. Robertson's claim will strike many as ludicrous, if not offensive.

And even were it true, it wouldn't obviously meet the challenge.

Why would a loving deity allow such a pact to seem necessary? Why wouldn't he have freed the Haitians from slavery himself, or prevented them from being enslaved in the first place? And why, in particular, would he punish today's Haitians for something their forbears putatively did more than two centuries before?

So what should believers say? To make progress, we might distinguish two kinds of evil:

  • the awful things people do, such as murder, and
  • the awful things that just happen, such as earthquakes

Johnson Beharry, Victoria Cross recipient for bravery
Would those hailed as brave still exist in a Magical World?

St Augustine, author CS Lewis and others have argued God allows our bad actions since preventing them would undermine our free will, the value of which outweighs its ill effects.

But there's a counter-argument. Thoroughly good people aren't robots, so why couldn't God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives?

However that debate turns out, it's quite unclear how free will is supposed to explain the other kind of evil - the death and suffering of the victims of natural disasters.

Perhaps it would if all the victims - even the newborn - were so bad that they deserved their agonising deaths, but it's impossible to believe that is the case.

Or perhaps free will would be relevant if human negligence always played a role. There will be some who say the scale of the tragedy in natural disasters is partly attributable to humans. The world has the choice to help its poorer parts build earthquake-resistant structures and tsunami warning systems.

Krakatoa engraving 1883
A still smoking Krakatoa in 1883, which caused a devastating tsunami

But the technology has not always existed. Was prehistoric man, with his sticks and stones, somehow negligent in failing to build early warning systems for the tsunamis that were as deadly back then as they are today?

The second century saint, Irenaeus, and the 20th Century philosopher, John Hick, appeal instead to what is sometimes called soul-making. God created a universe in which disasters occur, they think, because goodness only develops in response to people's suffering.

To appreciate this idea, try to imagine a world containing people, but literally no suffering. Call it the Magical World. In that world, there are no earthquakes or tsunamis, or none that cause suffering. If people are hit by falling masonry, it somehow bounces off harmlessly. If I steal your money, God replaces it. If I try to hurt you, I fail.

So why didn't God create the Magical World instead of ours? Because, the soul-making view says, its denizens wouldn't be - couldn't be - truly good people.

It's not that they would all be bad. It's that they couldn't be properly good. For goodness develops only where it's needed, the idea goes, and it's not needed in the Magical World.

In that world, after all, there is no danger that requires people to be brave, so there would be no bravery. That world contains no one who needs comfort or kindness or sympathy, so none would be given. It's a world without moral goodness, which is why God created ours instead.

But there is wiggle room.

Even in a world where nothing bad happens, couldn't there be brave people - albeit without the opportunity to show it? So moral goodness could exist even if it were never actually needed.

And, anyway, suppose we agree moral goodness could indeed develop only in a world of suffering.

Doesn't our world contain a surplus of suffering? People do truly awful things to each other. Isn't the suffering they create enough for soul-making? Did God really need to throw in earthquakes and tsunamis as well?

Suffering's distribution, not just its amount, can also cause problems. A central point of philosopher Immanuel Kant's was that we mustn't exploit people - we mustn't use them as mere means to our ends. But it can seem that on the soul-making view God does precisely this. He inflicts horrible deaths on innocent earthquake victims so that the rest of us can be morally benefitted.

That hardly seems fair.

It's OK, some will insist, because God works in mysterious ways. But mightn't someone defend a belief in fairies by telling us they do too? Others say their talk of God is supposed to acknowledge not the existence of some all-powerful and all-good agent, who created and intervenes in the universe, but rather something more difficult to articulate - a thread of meaning or value running through the world, or perhaps something ineffable.

But, as for those who believe in an all-good, all-powerful agent-God, we've seen that they face a question that remains pressing after all these centuries, and which is now horribly underscored by the horrors in Haiti. If a deity exists, why didn't he prevent this?

David Bain is a lecturer in the philosophy department of the University of Glasgow.


Below is a selection of your comments.

As an Anglican, I always had presumed that God is too big, if you like, too omnipotent to even vaguely notice humanity, after all we are dust: "from dust you are made and to dust you shall return". Though the thought of that kind of horror being suffered by many innocents - and an apparent loving God is contradicting. However at least I find comfort, and probably most Christians, in the world to come where everything would be good, If you like God repaying his debts for letting us suffer.
Dan, Hampshire

The reason why good does not reduce suffering and evil in the world is simply because he does not exist! Or if he does he does not care about humans at least on a individual basis, I am not sure he cares about them on a species basis. Why does he not look after all the animal species that are facing extinction? Evolution explains must of human behaviour and geology and physics explains most natural disasters. If God intervened, there would be evidence. He would have to thwart the laws of physics or/warn people.
John O'Toole, Sligo Ireland

God made man as his greatest creation. In order for humans to be all they can be we must live in a world like this one. Moral courage can't just be a potentiality, it must be an actuality in all it's complexity for it to mean anything. Also, in order for the world to be able to create and sustain the complexity of life that it has, the crust of the earth must move, must regenerate itself. Thus, earthquakes, tsunamis. All religious people can do in the face of a catastrophe is to do what we can to alleviate the suffering and possibly create a world where these sorts of things have much less impact. Isn't the real tragedy of Haiti the poverty that has blighted the island, that lead to substandard buildings and poor infrastructure? This is as much a man-made disaster as divine.
Matthew Thomas, Cattleford

This is a transient life, the real life will come later. We as humans have got a warped sense about what this life means to us, we ignore the reality of the next world. So if your time is up and you die hopefully you were on the path of doing good. There is a story of Khizer & Moses, when the former kills a child and Moses is aghast. Khizer tells him that the child would have grown up and killed his parents for greed. So if Khizer knows that how can we question God when children pass away. As the article also points out, it's a test for the rest of us to see how we respond to the suffering of others. Maybe we can learn to look after the old folks in the neighbourhood when we are moved to help people as far away as Haiti?
Kaz, Ellicott City, USA

Debating the intentions of a mythological character which allegedly has an interest in allowing 'bad' things to happen on planet earth? Are we living in the 21st century or the 12th century ? Natural disasters, disease, accidents and co-incidences are all things that occur naturally and not as the result of the will of any fantastical all powerful Monster. Maybe a comet will hit the earth one day and maybe all that will be left will be a copy of Dr. Dolittle. Just because somebody wrote it down does not make it true.
Andrew Connor, Uxbridge

Perhaps you should include non god-based religions to get out of this dilemma. Try Buddhism for example.
Isabelle Clinton, Forest Row, United Kingdom

God has put us in a 'crucible' and he is very interested in how we cope by us invoking the law of love. No one is immune from tragedy, not least his own son Jesus. So, its more about loving our neighbours rather than puzzling why. We live in a dangerous world let no one doubt it. Some disasters are natural but many others are of our own making but throughout we must live the law of love.
Alan Smith, Preston, Lancashire

The Japanese (90% Buddhist) have a saying that pain is our best friend. Because for the most part we learn and grow the most from painful experiences. If we are not born new, but simply coming around for another shot at growth (reincarnation), then the notion of a child being pure is put aside. If pain is our friend, then the notion of pain as cruel is put aside. If death is not the end, then the notion of unfair or untimely death being the worst thing imaginable is put aside.
John Roberts, Tulsa, Oklahoma USA

A thoughtful article on an enduring problem. God is perfectly good and perfectly powerful. Haiti was fully within his control. Why did it happen? Because men's deeds are evil. The Haitians'? Not particularly - see Jesus on the Tower of Siloam - "repent, or you too will perish". Because there are murderers and rapists in the world? Not just them - there is no one good, not even one, all have turned away and fallen short of the glory of God.
Jon Hall, Jacksonville, Florida, USA

This is a very interesting article. It is a classic philosophy question that can never be convincingly answered. This article lists some interesting points. In one part, there is the argument that why can't god just create good people with free will? If god just created good people with free will, it logically follows that all their actions will always be good since they are good people. Doesn't this defeat the whole purpose of free will where you can choose your actions as opposed to being restricted only to good actions? It almost feels like an oxymoron to say that we should only have good people with free will. Secondly, in vedic philosophy there is a belief in the continuum of the soul. Many scientific studies and real world experiences show that this could be true. To believe or not is a question for another day. However, if we allow for this continuum then we can easily explain natural disasters (where even innocent babies die) by attributing the punishment to their past lives' actions, also known as Sanchita Karma in Sanskrit. The other answer to the question posed could just be that god's ways are so intricate and complex that to comprehend the greater good out of seemingly painful punishments are just beyond human comprehension. This is one of those questions that we could argue about all day and yet arrive at no answer.
KRL, Old Bridge, New Jersey

Having lost a sister to a brain tumour aged 49, and a close friend to cancer at the age of 30, and being a C of E priest, you might imagine this kind of matter has been a part of my own, and many others' formation. Archbishop Sentamu is right on one level; for the sake of those caught up in this tragedy we need to pray and act now, and think later. But for many of us there has already been much thought. John Polkinghorne and others successfully argue that free will is not just about humanity, it is also about the freedom of the universe to be what it is. It has to 'work' to make sense. In order for life to exist on this planet there simply has to be tectonic activity. Without the 'recycling' processes involved there would be insufficient carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and earth would become a lifeless snowball. It has to be a dynamic system and given the freedom to be what it is. Likewise, without mutation there could be no progressive evolution. Most mutations are dead-ends, some are useful and retained if they provide breeding advantage, and some are deadly. But you cannot have one without another, at least not if you want life. Could God have done it differently? Probably. But then if his hand was that obvious, would we have the freedom to choose whether to seek him out? Probably not. But back to Archbishop Sentamu's sentiments; the importance of what needs to be done now far outweighs the philosophy of why it happened.
Paul, Birmingham



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