The Problem of Natural Evil

By Brian Marston

Taken from:

Philostop (a page on the net that has now been taken down)

Published by permission from the author

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature . . . and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

--Fdor Mikhailovich Dostoevski
The Brothers Karamazov
Bk. V, Ch. 4
trans. by Constance Garnett


The Argument from Evil

The atheist's argument from evil to the conclusion that God does not exist can be outlined as follows:

1) If God exists, then there exists a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
2) If there existed a being who were omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, then there would be no evil.
3) But there is evil.
C) Therefore, God does not exist.

The first premise follows directly from the theist's definition of God. "Omniscient" is taken to mean "one who knows all true propositions," "omnipotent" is understood as "able to do anything logically possible," and "perfectly good" is defined as "one who does no morally bad action." Thus, in the second premise of the argument from evil, the atheist asserts that the existence of God and the existence of evil are incompatible, since a being who knows when evil will occur and is both able and willing to abolish all evil would necessarily create a world free from serious evil. Yet, a considerable amount of severe evil undeniably exists as evidenced by the appalling depth and range of human wickedness and suffering witnessed during the twentieth century. Hence, according to the atheist, the fact of evil poses a powerful positive objection to belief in God because the existence of evil entails the nonexistence of God.

Moral Evil vs. Natural Evil

Evil can be divided into two distinct categories: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is evil that results from an act, or failure to act, of man. Without the action, or omission of an action, by a human agent moral evil would not occur. For example, murder is an evil brought about by a human agent, and therefore is a moral evil. Even if the murder victim's death was directly caused by the effect of a poison on his central nervous system, the ultimate agent of the victim's death was the murderer responsible for introducing the poison into his system. Likewise, the mass starvation in Ethiopia is a moral evil resulting from the refusal of Ethiopian government officials to distribute emergency relief food supplies, which would alleviate the famine, or to allocate more of the country's annual budget for agricultural assistance, which would help Ethiopia's farmers produce more food.

In contrast to moral evil, natural evil arises through no fault of man. Man has no control over natural evil, and is completely powerless to prevent its occurrence. Thus, an excruciatingly painful death resulting from an incurable terminal disease is a natural evil, as is the suffering caused by catastrophic natural phenomena such as tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

Evil vs. the Mere Absence of Good

It is important to distinguish between the presence of evil and the mere absence of good. A murderer's malice is more than just the absence of a sunny disposition. Similarly, the pain of a terminal illness entails more than simply the absence of euphoria. Furthermore, despite the grief and mourning that it may cause, death after a long fulfilled life can hardly be considered an evil or an objection to the existence of a good God. Only severe, undeserved evil is a real threat to a belief in God.

The Theist's Response: The Free Will Defense

The theist wishes to maintain that God exists in the face of the world's various evils and that the conclusion of the argument from evil is false. Since the argument from evil is deductively valid, the theist must assert that at least one of the premises of the argument is false if he is to deny the truth of the conclusion. Therefore, he argues that the second premise is false and that the existence of God and the existence of evil are not incompatible. According to the theist, Premise 2 depends on the false assumption that God could only allow evil to exist if: 1) God does not know about the occurrence of particular evils, and therefore is not omniscient; 2) God is not able to get rid of all evil, and therefore is not omnipotent; or 3) God does not want to get rid of all evil, and therefore is not perfectly good. Because of this assumption, claims the theist, the atheist overlooks the possibility that God may have a good, morally justifiable reason for allowing evil to exist. Therefore, all the theist must do to avoid the charge of inconsistency is to posit a possible reason God may allow evil despite his ability to abolish it.

By employing the free will defense the theist maintains that evil is logically necessary for a greater good, which outweighs the evil state of affairs. Unless the evil state of affairs is allowed to occur, the good state of affairs cannot come about since it is logically impossible to have the good without the evil. The greater good for which evil is logically necessary is the formation of morally excellent characters. Morally excellent characters are only valuable when they are the result of freely choosing good actions. Therefore, God must create people as free agents if the existence of morally excellent characters is to be made possible. If God instead made people choose only good actions, then their choices would not be free, and his effort to create morally excellent characters would be defeated.

It is logically impossible for God to create free agents and guarantee that they will never do evil. If God gives an agent the power to choose between moral alternatives, i.e. good actions and evil actions, how the agent exercises that power is beyond God's ability to control while the agent remains free. If God were to interfere to stop the evil actions of man, then man would no longer be free, and God's plan to create moral excellence through free choice would be undermined. Therefore, free will requires that the possibility of choosing to do bad actions may sometimes be realized. Thus, much evil can be attributed to the actions of men exercising their free will. However, it is not morally wrong for God to create men as free willed beings, even with the possibility of their doing moral evil, because free will is a logically necessary condition for the formation of excellent characters.

Arguments and Counter-Arguments Regarding the Compatibility of God and Natural Evil

According to the free will defense, moral evil is a result of human free will and is necessary for the formation of morally excellent characters. Therefore, assuming that men have free will in the libertarian sense, the existence of moral evil is compatible with the existence of God since God must remain a passive spectator of the world's moral evils if he is to allow human beings to freely choose between good and evil. However, even if a perfectly good God is justified in allowing moral evil to exist, the existence of natural evil remains to be reconciled with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good deity. Some theists attempt to use the free will defense to justify natural evil as well as moral evil. One such attempt is based on the assumption that, despite outward appearances, men are ultimately to blame for natural evils. Theists who advance this view maintain that God links man's moral goodness to the well-being of the world and that human wickedness leads to natural disasters. However, the assumption that all evil is essentially moral evil is unable to explain the natural evil that existed before there were men, such as volcanic eruptions and animal pain. Therefore, man cannot be held responsible for the occurrence of natural evil.

A second suggestion of the free will defense advocate is that God gave free will to creatures other than men and that these creatures, who freely choose to do evil, cause natural evil. Thus, the devil and his minion of fallen angels are held accountable for the existence of natural evils not brought about by human actions. According to theists who hold this point of view, these evil-doing creatures have abused their duty to care for the natural world, but God is not obligated to interfere to prevent the suffering that stems from natural evil because it was caused by free willed beings whose decisions are logically beyond God's power to control. However, while the thesis that fallen angels are responsible for natural evil is not clearly false, neither is it clearly true. There is no positive evidence that such beings exist and an argument based on their existence cannot be highly cogent. If the possibility that natural evils stem from the free choice of an agent other than man is disregarded on these grounds, then neither man nor a free willed agent other than man can be held accountable for natural evil. Therefore, the theist must attribute natural evil to the direct action of God.

In order to explain why God may act directly to bring about evil, or at least why God has created a world in which natural evil inevitably occurs in certain circumstances, other theists maintain that natural evil, like moral evil, is logically necessary for soul making. However, moral evil is of sufficient frequency and severity to provide for this end without the addition of natural evil. Often the most exalted characters arise from the most severe evils. Nonetheless, the evils resulting from a severe moral evil, such as a war, are no less severe than those resulting from a natural evil, such as a hurricane. A soldier who saves a comrade during war is no less brave than a man who risks his life to save a child during a hurricane. Furthermore, moral evils are not held in check by any natural laws and therefore are potentially more widespread than natural evils. With respect to every type of moral virtue, the danger, anguish, and pain resulting from the free action of men is enough to generate evil on a large enough scale to produce morally excellent characters on a level with those produced by natural evils. Therefore, natural evil is extraneous evil that is over and above the amount of evil necessary to produce morally excellent characters.

Since moral evil is caused by man, it is conceivably within his power to rectify it. Therefore, a just God may refuse to interfere in morally evil circumstances, no matter how awful. However, it hardly seems compatible with the notion of a good God that he would inflict natural evil on the world which man is powerless to mitigate. For example, poverty is a moral evil which man can conceivably eradicate, and therefore a good God may justifiably refuse to correct it since it is man's duty as a free willed being to responsibly deal with those problems whose causes lie within the realm of human action. However, a benevolent God would not bring about evils, such as tornadoes and earthquakes, which man is powerless to put an end to.

Furthermore, since moral evil is brought about by the action of a human agent it provides the opportunity for the moral virtue of forgiveness, whereas natural evil, which results from the laws of nature implanted by God, does not afford such an opportunity. For instance, a survivor of a death camp could conceivably forgive his oppressors and thus move toward a more morally perfect character. A victim of a violent earthquake, on the other hand, may be able to accept the cause of his suffering, but it makes little sense to forgive the impersonal forces of an earthquake. Thus, moral evil provides more fully for the development of moral excellence than natural evil because it fosters interpersonal moral virtues.

Another justification a theist may give for the natural evil implanted by God in the world is that natural evil is necessary to spur man toward right action. According to this view, God created an imperfect, but improvable world in order to further his end of soul making. To make the world perfect requires cooperative effort by men to subdue evil. God also has a choice as to how he creates the men in the world. A good God would give man some incentives to do good. However, if God made men inclined by nature to do good, he would be imposing a character on them, thereby taking away their free will. Therefore, God must provide causally influential reasons for men to do what is right no matter what their character. According to the theist who adopts this view, God ties some of the imperfections in the material world to biological and psychological pain to motivate man to put things right and eliminate suffering. For example, the pain of a cancer sufferer spurs men to find a cure for the disease through their sympathy for the sufferer.

However, it is inconsistent with the notion of a good God that he would use the mental and physiological pain of innocent people, especially children, to motivate others to do right action. Rather than disciplining man through positive punishment, God could conceivably give man a slight push toward doing right action through positive reinforcement. A dog owner who beat his pet every time it failed to sit would hardly be considered a good master. A more benevolent owner would give his dog a bone each time it obeyed. Likewise, a kind God would encourage man through pleasant feelings when he succeeds in bettering his environment rather than inflicting unpleasant feelings on him when he falls short of improving the world.

Furthermore, the mental anguish and physical torture felt by the victim of a moral evil are more than adequate to elicit the sympathy of his fellow men and move them toward improving the world. For example, the pain of a war victim moves other men to improve the world around them by abolishing the causes of his pain just as surely as the pain of a cancer patient pushes men to find a cure. Thus, men can be spurred to do what is right by moral evil alone, without additional natural evils.


Although an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God could be justified in allowing moral evil, such a God is never justified in creating a world in which natural evil occurs. Moral evil is both necessary and sufficient to produce moral characters and spur men to right action. Natural evil confers no additional benefits that moral evil cannot accomplish to the same degree and extent, and in fact natural evil is not even adequate to foster interpersonal moral virtues, such as forgiveness and tolerance. A benevolent God would allow no more evil than is absolutely necessary to achieve his ends. Because natural evil is gratuitous, its existence is incompatible with the existence of God. God, if he existed, could conceivably alter the laws of nature so that evil would only result when triggered by human action. However, manifest natural evil independent of human will, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tornadoes, and disease, undeniably exists. Since the existence of God and the existence of natural evil are incompatible and natural evil exists, the following revised argument from evil is both valid and sound, entailing a true conclusion:

1) If God exists, then there exists a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
2) If there existed a being who were omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, then there would be no natural evil.
3) But there is natural evil.
C) God does not exist.

Sources Consulted

  • Hick, John H. Philosophy of Religion. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973.
  • O'Hear, Anthony. Experience, Explanation, and Faith. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
  • Swinburne, Richard. "The Problem of Evil." Reason and Religion. By Stuart C. Brown. London: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Mi casa Back to Fredrik Bendz' homepage

Last update: April 14, 1998

© Fredrik Bendz
S-mail :  here
E-mail :