‘(…) We trust that God is love, but we also believe that God is the Creator of nature, and nature simply does not seem to point to a God of love. Parasites, viruses, bacteria, diseases and cancer kill millions and torment millions more, humans and animals alike. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, mudslides and volcanoes do the same. And the animal kingdom is, as Tennyson said, “red in tooth and claw.” (So is the human kingdom for that matter). The creation looks almost as much like it was created by a cosmic predator (I Pet 5:8) as it does like it was created by an all loving, peaceful, benevolent Creator. There seems to be a “Lucifer Principle” at work in the world, as Howard Bloom noted. “Nature does not abhor evil,” he says. “[S]he embraces it.” (The Lucifer Principle, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995).
This is the problem of “natural” evil, and it’s arguably the most formidable objection that can be raised against the belief in an all-powerful, all good God. (I shall put “natural” in quotes when referring to “natural” evil to signify that I don’t believe there’s anything “natural” about it.) Evil that humans inflict on one another can be explained by appealing to free will. But how are we to explain evils where there is no human agent responsible?
Charles Darwin’s own faith suffered in the face of the incredible suffering he witnessed in nature. In a letter to a friend he commended, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!” (Francis Darwin, ed., More Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols. [New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1908], 1:94).
Theists have traditionally argued that God has a greater purpose for allowing “natural” evil to exist in creation. They argue that through “natural” evils, God is teaching us, punishing us, refining us, or something of the sort. Other less traditional theists have argued that these things are inevitable side effects of other positive things in creation, such as allowing for creation to exemplify its own creativity and spontaneity.
I believe both views contain some insight as well as many problems. But what I’d like to do in this essay is suggest that both views fall short because they fail to acknowledge the role that Satan and fallen Powers play in creation. In his great book Mephistopheles (Cornel University Press, 1986), Jeffery Russell said, “No theodicy that does not take the Devil fully into consideration is likely to be persuasive.” This is my conviction in a nutshell.
I’m going to argue that we cannot adequately explain “natural” evil unless we accept that Satan and other rebellious cosmic forces have had a corrupting influence on creation. This isn’t to deny that there aren’t other important things to consider in explaining “natural” evil. But my contention is that if we leave Satan and other nefarious spirit-agents out of the picture, no explanation of “natural” evil can be adequate.
In what follows I offer seven brief arguments supporting this position.
1. The Argument From Animal Suffering.
I contend that animal suffering is an evil that needs to be accounted for by theists who believe that God is all good and all powerful. Many have tried to argue that animals don’t really suffer, but their arguments are simply unconvincing. (For a superb refutation of these arguments, as well as an eye-opening account of how animals suffer in our Industrial Farms, see Matthew Scully’s book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. It’s brilliant.)
Consider this: All developed societies punish people when they inflict unnecessary pain on animals. This practice only makes sense if we share a fundamental conviction that animal suffering is an evil that should be avoided and remedied when possible. So, if we accept that God is the Creator of nature, and if it’s true that nature sometimes (often!) makes animals suffer, then it seems we have to either:
a) hold that God is responsible for animal suffering, hence is not all good;
b) hold that God is all good, but animal suffering is necessary; or
c) hold that free agents are responsible for animal suffering.
Option (a) obviously isn’t viable for people who believe God is all good. Option (b) is a possibility, but I’ve frankly never found a convincing argument in its defense. An all-powerful God surely could have created an animal kingdom where survival doesn’t hang on devouring other animals, for example. So, we’re left with option (c). This is the option we presuppose when we hold humans culpable for inflicting suffering on animals.
But when no human is involved, who are we to hold responsible?
The only possible answer, so far as I can see, is non-human free agents.
2. The Argument From Demonically Influenced Infirmities
The Gospels frequently (but not always) attribute infirmities to demonic activity (I’m using “infirmities” here to cover all forms of illness, disease and disabilities). In Luke 13, for example, Jesus comes upon a woman who has a deformed back and says, “How long should this woman, a daughter of Abraham, suffer under Satan’s oppression?” (vs. 16). Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry in Acts 10 by saying that Jesus went about freeing people from Satan’s oppression by healing them of their diseases. In fact, the word the Gospels sometimes use for disease or infirmity is mastix, which literally means “flogging.” (I review all this material thoroughly in my book, God at War).
Now, there are three points that I think are significant about this as it concerns the issue of accounting for “natural” evil.
First, there’s no reason to think that a scientist couldn’t give a perfectly natural explanation for these infirmities that the Bible attributes to Satan and demons. They are, on one level, simply the “natural” results of “natural” processes working in accordance with the laws of nature.
This establishes that there’s no intrinsic incompatibility with attributing infirmities to spirits, on the one hand, and explaining them in natural terms, on the other. This is actually a very important point, since the most common objection to the view that spirits are responsible for some aspects of “natural” evil is that these evils can be accounted for scientifically.
Second, and closely related to this, if infirmities are the natural result of natural processes operating according to the laws of nature, on the one hand, while also being, at times, the result of demonic activity, on the other, then it seems that the laws of nature as we now find them must to some extent be demonically influenced. In fact, the New Testament says that Satan holds the keys of death (Heb. 2:14). Yet, death is a “natural” result of “natural” processes operating in nature. This should be enough to tell us that natural processes can, in some cases, and to some extent, be satanically influenced.
Third, for Satan and demons to be involved, on any level, with bringing about infirmities, they must be able to affect matter. And if they can affect matter to bring about human infirmities, on what basis can we argue that they can’t affect matter to bring about other aspects of nature that seem incompatible with the perfect goodness of God?
On top of this, we need to remember the incredible stature and authority ascribed to Satan in the New Testament. He is called (among other things) the “lord” (archon) of the world (Jn 12:31, 14:30; 16:11), the principality and power of the air (Eph 2:2) and the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4). He is said to control the entire world (IJn 5:19) and to own all the authority of all the kingdoms of the world (Lk 4:5-7). In this light, why should we think it impossible that this fallen archangel, along with his minions, has messed with the natural order of things?
Consider also that humans have the capacity to affect natural processes, for better or for worse. For several millennia we have brought about new breeds of domesticated animals, for example. And today, we’re acquiring the power (Lord help us!) to genetically engineer everything from ears to fluorescent fish. If we as intelligent free agents have the “say-so” to impact the natural order, why think spirit agents uniformly lack this capacity?
Recall that in Genesis 6 we’re taught that angelic beings materialized and had sex with “the daughters of men” (Gen. 6:2,4). Their offspring were apparently hybrid creatures who were abnormally large. Hence they were called “Nephilim.” If that isn’t messing with the natural order of things, what is? [The author of crosstheology does not agree with this interpretation of Genesis 6:2-4 but rather sees it as describing mighty selfish human rulers.]
So, we have solid biblical reasons to conclude that spirits can affect matter and mess with the general order of things. This provides us with an important component of an adequate explanation for why nature is so “red in tooth and claw,” despite having been created by an all-good, peaceful, Creator.
[The author of crosstheology does not agree with the Darwinian theory of evolution, neither does he agree with the gap-theory, Therefore he left “The Argument from God’s Creational Battles” out.]
3. The Argument from God’s Non-Violent Creational Ideal
In Genesis 1.29-30 the Lord says to humans:”I give you every seed–bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food” (emphasis added).
Notice, God didn’t give animals to each other to eat. Nor did God give animals to humans to eat. This is reiterated in Genesis 2 when the Lord tells Adam he was “free to eat from any tree in the garden” (vs. 16-17). Adam was not free to eat any of the animals.
It seems, then, that the food chain in God’s ideal creation was non-carnivorous and non-violent. I have to of course grant that there’s room for debate over how literally or figuratively these passages should be interpreted. But even if one sees these chapters as mostly, or even totally, figurative, I don’t see how one can get around the implication that God’s ideal creation was, and is, non-violent.
That non-violence was part of God’s original design for creation is reiterated when God makes a new covenant with humanity after the flood. The covenant of Gen. 9:1-4 parallels the covenant of Genesis 1 very closely, except now God concedes the reality of fear, dread and violence in creation. To Noah and his sons the Lord says:
“Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”
Notice that, in contrast to Genesis 1, the entire animal kingdom now has “fear and dread” toward humans. Also in explicit contrast to Genesis 1, God now allows humans to eat meat (so long as the blood is drained out), just as God previously allowed humans to eat vegetation. This sharp and explicit contrast highlights the fact that God’s ideal creation included no fear, dread or violence.
I submit that the fear, dread and violence that we now find permeating nature no more reflects God’s ideal for nature than the fear, dread and violence we presently find in ourselves reflects God’s ideal for us.
Related to this, scripture teaches us that someday the creation will be free from this fear, dread and violence. This supplies further proof that fear, dread and violence were never part of God’s creational ideal. Isaiah gives us an eschatological vision of the coming Kingdom of God when he writes:
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:6-9).
When the reign of God is fully established on the earth, the fear, dread and violence between animals, on the one hand, and between animals and humans, on the other, will completely cease. God’s ideal for creation will be attained. There will be a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:13; Rev. 21:1).
We of course find it hard to imagine what this renewed world might look like or how it would operate. We simply can’t conceive of a lion that eats “straw like an ox.” But this is simply because the only lions we are familiar with are the kind that eat other animals instead of straw. Paul teaches that the natures of humans and animals in the coming kingdom will be as different from the way they are now as a plant is from its original seed (I Cor.15:37-44).
I see no reason why we shouldn’t conclude that this same difference applies to the distinction between God’s original ideal for creation and the violent creation we presently find ourselves in. In the beginning God’s creation was non-violent. In the end God’s creation shall be non-violent. And this is enough to tell us that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our present violent creation.
What’s wrong with it, I submit, has something to do with the one who is called the lord of the world (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), the god of this age (2 Cor 4:4) and the principality and power of the air (Eph 2:2).
4. The Argument from a Cursed Nature
Genesis 3 gives us an account of the “fall” (or “rebellion”) of humans. In my view, insufficient attention has been paid to how this passage describes nature being affected by this rebellion. Between verses 14 and 19 we learn that because of the fall:
* there will be hostility between snakes and people (vs. 15)
* women will experience pain in child birth (vs. 16)
* the earth will be stubborn in yielding vegetation (vss. 17 & 19)
* vegetation will now contain thorns and thistles (vs. 18)
* humans will die (vs. 19)
There is, of course, an age-long debate over how literal or figurative we should interpret this passage. I’ll return to this at the end of my discussion, but it need not concern us at the moment. However one interprets this passage, it clearly teaches that nature fundamentally changed as a result of the human rebellion. The world we now live in is cursed. This means that the laws of nature that have naturally brought about hostile snakes, pain in childbirth, hard-to-till soil, thorns and thistles and death are not altogether “natural.” They do not conform to God’s creational ideal. They rather reflect a nature that has been cursed.
Something similar is arguably entailed by Jesus’ rebuking of the storm (Mk 4:36-39). As a number of scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), Jesus is here treating the storm as something demonic. The narrative is a reenactment of Yahweh’s battles with the raging seas in the Old Testament. This suggests that Jesus is carrying on Yahweh’s age-long battle for creation, which in turn suggests there are demonic forces at work in creation as we presently find it that God must battle against.
Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (…) also seems to point to the demonically cursed nature of the present creation (Mk 11:12-14). In the apocalyptic worldview of Jesus’ day, barren fig trees were considered cursed by Satan. As N.T. Wright and many scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), this suggests that Jesus cursed the fig tree as an act of “reversing the curse.” In God’s original creational design, trees would always produce fruit. As Origen, Tatian, Athenagorus and other early church theologians argued, all barrenness, droughts, famines and other “natural” disasters result from the effects of demonic powers at work in the world.
Paul also expressed the view of creation as cursed when he said that ” the creation was subjected to frustration” and that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:20-22). Whatever else Paul intends by saying creation is subject to “frustration” or “futility” (mataiotais), it certainly includes the fact that everything dies. Yet, death is as natural as anything can be, according to the laws of nature as they presently operate. In fact, the law of entropy (2nd law of thermodynamics) is one of the most fundamental laws of physics. Yet, if Paul (and Genesis) is correct, this law does not reflect the Creator’s creational ideal.
According to the author of Hebrews, it rather reflects the anti-creational goals of Satan. Christ came to “break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Put all of this together, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the creation has been subjected to Satan, the lord of death, decay and destruction.
An Interlude: Two Questions
This last point raises two important questions.
First, both in Genesis 3 and in Romans 8 it is God, not Satan, who cursed the earth and subjected creation to frustration. Does this not make God responsible for the sorry state of the present creation and thus undermine my argument that Satan is behind it? I don’t see that it does. [The author of crosstheology believes that it was (primarily) God’s punishment. See also Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 23.3.]
Throughout the Old Testament God brought judgment on Israel for its disobedience by simply allowing hostile neighboring nations to do what they wanted to do. For example, in Isaiah 10 God referred to Assyria as his disciplining rod as he let the Assyrians raid Israel. Yet, he then turned around and punished the Assyrians for being the kind of nation who would do such things and for going beyond what Yahweh had intended (Isa 10: 5-7).
So too, I suggest we envision God as cursing creation by allowing Satan to do what he wants to do – namely, curse creation. Had Adam and Eve remained obedient to God, this hostile cosmic power would have been kept at bay. But once the primordial couple allowed themselves to be co-opted by God’s archenemy, they opened the floodgates for Satan and his minions to enter into the realm that humans were supposed to have dominion over. (Below I’ll address what area this might have included).
This doesn’t make God responsible for the corruption of nature. The fault lies on Adam and Eve and on Satan and other cosmic powers for freely choosing to go against the will and designs of the Creator. God simply set up the laws that stipulate that disobedience has disastrous consequences.
[The author of crosstheology skipped the second question, which contains more of the theistic evolutionists’ reinterpretations of Genesis.]
5. The Argument from Cosmic Redemption
The New Testament teaches that Christ died not just to redeem humans; he died to restore the entire creation. In Col. 1:19-20 Paul says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Now, if “all things” needed reconciliation, this tells us that nature as we now find it is not nature as God originally intended it. So too, Paul says the whole creation is groaning to be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). When humans are reinstated as the rightful rulers of the earth, reigning with Christ, the creation will groan no more and will no longer suffer decay (2 Tim 2:12; Rev. 5:10). (Paul, like all other Jews of his time, saw the earth as the center of, if not synonymous with, creation). Clearly, the creation we currently live in is not in every respect the creation God originally spoke into being. It’s been corrupted.
As James Kallas noted, the New Testament concept of “salvation” isn’t limited to human beings. He writes:
“…. since the cosmos itself is in bondage, depressed under evil forces, the essential content of the word “salvation” is that the world itself will be rescued, or renewed, or set free. Salvation is a cosmic event affecting the whole of creation…Salvation is not simply the overcoming of my rebellion and the forgiveness of my guilt, but salvation is the liberation of the whole world process of which I am only a small part” (The Satanward View: A Study in Pauline Theology [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966], p.74).
Just as we humans impact everything under our authority for better or for worse, depending on the decisions we make and the kind of people we become, so spirit agents impact everything under their authority, for better or for worse, depending on the decisions they make and the kind of agents they’ve become.
[The author of crosstheology skipped more evolutionary bogus and a philosophical idea on free will and satan’s authority]
And so it is that God’s goal of reigning with humans on the earth has had to take a much longer and more circuitous route. The biblical narrative is a peek at what this route looks like. Ultimately, God’s union with humanity in Christ, which I believe was at the center of his plan from the get go, had to become a “rescue operation” that involved him in the suffering of Calvary. And it is by means of the this radical “rescue operation” of love that God in principle restored humanity, recovered the earth, and reconciled the entire creation.
Some day, what is true “in principle” shall be manifested as fact. And that is the Kingdom of God. When the Kingdom of God is fully manifested, the lion will lay down with the lamb and eat straw like an ox. The creation will be free of diabolical influences, and we shall reign with Christ over the earth forever.
6. An Argument from the Early Church Fathers
The final argument for the thesis that “natural” evil is due to the work of nefarious spirits comes from the early church fathers. These authors obviously aren’t inspired and thus can’t hold a candle to the authority of the Bible. At the same time, their proximity to Jesus and the New Testament church gives their teachings more weight than theologians of later periods, all other things being equal. While we can certainly detect various pagan influences in some of these second and third century fathers – especially in their increasingly Hellenistic conception of God — we have many reasons to think that their basic theology and worldview was inherited from, and remained true to, the apostolic tradition.
What’s significant for our purposes is that the primary way these early theologians explained evil in nature was by appealing to the work of Satan, powers and demons. These fathers uniformly believed that angels, like humans, were created free and given a sphere of influence and responsibility over creation. As with humans, angels could use this influence for good, as God intended, or they could choose to use it for evil. They understood that this is simply what it means for God to genuinely give us free will.
The earliest fathers thus believed that, just as God had given humans “say-so” over the earth, which we could use for better or for worse, so God also gave “say-so” over aspects of the cosmos, and to some degree over humans, to angels.
For example, Athenagorus – who in my mind is one of the most insightful of the earliest fathers – argued that “the Maker and Framer of the world distributed and appointed…a multitude of angels and ministers…to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heavens, and the world, and the things in it, and the godly ordering of them all.” Then he adds,
“Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice…so is it among the angels. Some, free agents, you will observe, such as they were created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them” (A Plea For the Christians, 10).
So too, Origen — who in my mind was the single greatest thinker in the early church — held that every aspect of nature was under the care of “invisible husbandmen and guardians” (Against Celsus, 8.31). St. Gregory at a later date reiterates the prevailing view of the early church when he says, “In this visible world…nothing can be achieved except through invisible forces” (Dialogues, IV.5).
“Natural” evil was consistently explained in the early church as resulting from these spirits rebelling against God and thus abusing their authority over creation. Hence, for example, Origen argued that famines, scorching winds and pestilence were not “natural” in God’s creation: they were rather the result of fallen angels bringing misery whenever and however they were able (Against Celsus, 8.31). These rebel guardians were also “the cause of plagues…barrenness…tempests… [and] similar calamities” (Against Celsus,1.31).
Along the same lines, Tertullian argued that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were the result of demons whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” When “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” one can discern the work of these rebellious guardian spirits (Apology 22). For Tertullian, as for Origen and Athenagorus (and we could add Tatian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and others), creation doesn’t consistently reflect the beauty of its Creator because it has been, and is being, corrupted by demonic forces.
Following the teachings of the New Testament, these early theologians all understood that the leader of the rebel army that ravaged nature was Satan. In the words of Athenagorus, Satan was “the spirit” originally entrusted with “the control of matter and the forms of matter” (A Plea, 24). [crosstheology: do I smell a little influence from Hellenism/Gnosticism here, as in: matter is evil?] The entire material creation was to be administrated by this highest ranking angel, according to this theologian! Unfortunately, this “spirit” used its free will to rebel against God. He now exercises his tremendous authority over material creation against God. He abuses “the government entrusted to [him].” Given the nature of moral responsibility, God could not simply revoke Satan’s sphere of influence. Hence, Athenagorus argued, “the prince of matter exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God”( A Plea, 25).
Reflecting the basic vision of the early Church, Athenagorus concluded that everything in nature that obviously looks contrary to God’s character appears that way because it is contrary to God. It didn’t arise from the omni-benevolent hand of the Creator (as the atheists of his day and ours object) but was rather due to the activity of an evil “ruling prince” and “the demons his followers” ( A Plea, 25).
Much more could be said about this, but I hope this suffices to show that the early church fathers all saw creation as a war torn battlefield. It had been corrupted to its very core. And this is why nature is violent, both towards animals and people. I don’t believe this view would have arisen in the church were the foundation for it not laid in the apostolic tradition. These early fathers are simply working out the implications of the biblical view that Satan is the “lord of the earth,” the “ruler of the air” and the “god of this age” who “controls the entire world.” I believe they were on the right track.
If I and the early church fathers are correct, we don’t need to search for good divine purposes behind “natural” evil any more than we need to search for them behind evil that humans inflict on one another. All evil, “natural” or otherwise, is ultimately due to wills other than God.
So next time a tsunami wipes out an entire village or an earthquake massacres thousands of people; next time you consider the millions dying from AIDS or the millions tortured by parasites; next time you hear about the millions suffering from drought and famine, or consider the untold pain of millions suffering and dying from any number of other diseases, don’t say “This is the work of God.”Say rather, “An Enemy has done this” (Mt 13:28).’
source: Gregory Boyd (reknew).