Natural evil

Natural evil is evil for which "no non-divine agent can be held morally responsible for its occurrence."[1] By contrast, moral evil is “caused by human activity.”[2] The existence of natural evil challenges belief in the omnibenevolence or the omnipotence of deities and the existence of deities including God.[3]

Nature of natural evil

Moral evil results from a perpetrator, or one who acts intentionally and in so doing has flouted some duty or engaged in some vice. Natural evil has only victims, and is generally taken to be the result of natural processes. The "evil" thus identified is evil only from the perspective of those affected and who perceive it as an affliction. Examples include cancer, birth defects, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, acts of God, and other phenomena which inflict suffering with apparently no accompanying mitigating good. Such phenomena inflict "evil" on victims with no perpetrator to blame.

In the Bible, God is portrayed as both the ultimate creator and perpetrator, since the “sun, moon and stars, celestial activity, clouds, dew, frost, hail, lightning, rain, snow, thunder, and wind are all subject to God's command.”[4] Examples of natural evils ascribed to God follow:

118.Job Hears of His Misfortunes
Gustave Doré: Doré's English Bible "Job Hears of His Misfortunes" (Job 1:1-22)
  • Floods: God brought “a flood of waters on the earth” (Genesis 6:17).
  • Thunder, hail, lightning: God “sent thunder and hail, and fire came down” (Exodus 9:23).
  • Destructive Wind: God sent a “great wind” that destroyed Job’s house and killed his family (Job 1:19).
  • Earthquake: By the Lord “the earth will be shaken” (Isaiah 13:13).
  • Drought and Famine: God will shut off rains, so neither land nor trees yield produce (Leviticus 26:19-20).
  • Forest fires: God says, “Say to the southern forest, 'I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree'” (Ezekiel 20:47).

Traditional theism (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) distinguishes between God's will and God's permission, claiming that while God permits evil, he does not will it.[5] This distinction is echoed by some modern open theists, e.g. Gregory A. Boyd, who writes, "Divine goodness does not completely control or in any sense will evil."[6] Aquinas partly explained this in terms of primary and secondary causality, whereby God is the primary (or transcendent) cause of the world, but not the secondary (or immanent) cause of everything that occurs in it. Such accounts explain the presence of natural evil through the story of the Fall of man, which affected not only human beings, but nature as well (Genesis 3:16–19).

Especially since the Reformation the distinction between God's will and God's permission, and between primary and secondary causality, has been disputed, notably by John Calvin. Among modern inheritors of this tradition, Mark R. Talbot ascribes evil to God: “God’s foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events.”[7] Such models of God's complete foreordination and direct willing of everything that happens lead to the doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement.[8]

Natural versus moral evil

Jean Jacques Rousseau responded to Voltaire's criticism of the optimists by pointing out that the value judgement required in order to declare the 1755 Lisbon earthquake a natural evil ignored the fact that the human endeavour of the construction and organization of the city of Lisbon was also to blame for the horrors recounted as they had contributed to the level of suffering. It was, after all, the collapsing buildings, the fires, and the close human confinement that led to much of the death.

The question of whether natural disasters such as hurricanes might be natural or moral evil is complicated by new understandings of the effects, such as global warming, of our collective actions on events that were previously considered to be out of our control. Nonetheless, even before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (which many believe was the beginning point of global warming), natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, flooding, fires, disease, etc.) occurred regularly, and cannot be ascribed to the actions of humans. However, human actions exacerbate the evil effects of natural disasters. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says human activity is a key factor that turns “extreme weather events into greater natural disasters.” For example, “deforestation and floodplain development” by humans turn high rainfall into “devastating floods and mudslides." When humans damage coastal reefs, remove mangroves, destroy dune systems, or clear coastal forests, "extreme coastal events cause much more loss of life and damage.” Damage by tsunamis varied “according to the extent of reef protection and remaining mangrove coverage.” [9]

In Europe, human development has “contributed to more frequent and regular floods.”[10] In earthquakes, people often suffer injury or death because of “poorly designed and constructed buildings.”[11]

In the United States, wildfires that destroy lives and property aren't "entirely natural.” Some fires are caused by human action and the damage inflicted is sometimes magnified by building “in remote, fire-prone areas.”[12] Dusty conditions in the West that “can cause significant human health problems” have been shown to be “a direct result of human activity and not part of the natural system."[13]

In sum, there is evidence that some "natural" evil results from human activity and, therefore, contains an element of moral evil.

Challenge to religious belief

Natural evil (also non-moral or surd evil) is a term generally used in discussions of the problem of evil and theodicy that refers to states of affairs which, considered in themselves, are those that are part of the natural world, and so are independent of the intervention of a human agent. Both natural and moral evil are a challenge to religious believers. Many atheists claim that natural evil is proof that there is no God, at least not an omnipotent, omnibenevolent one, as such a being would not allow such evil to happen to his/her creation. However, the deist position states that intervention by God to prevent such actions (or any intervention) is not an attribute of God.


  1. ^ Trakakis, Nick. "The Evidential Problem of Evil". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP).
  2. ^ "The Problem of Evil".
  3. ^ Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1992), 412.
  4. ^ Baker's Evangelical Dictionary, s.v. “Providence of God.”
  5. ^ David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (William B. Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 82–89.
  6. ^ Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: the Bible and Spiritual Conflict (InterVarsity Press,1997) 20.
  7. ^ Mark R. Talbot, “All the Good That Is Ours in Christ,” in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor, 43-44 (Crossway Books, 2006). Available online at
  8. ^ David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (William B. Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 89–91.
  9. ^ "Natural disasters made worse by human activity". Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  10. ^ “Natural Disasters Made Worse by Human Activity” (May 20, 2008),, accessed December 2, 2009.
  11. ^ “UN Says Poor Construction to Blame for Earthquake Deaths — May 19, 2008,”, accessed December 2, 2009.
  12. ^ “Southern California Forest Fires,”, accessed December 2, 2009.
  13. ^ “Dust in West up 500 Percent in Past 2 Centuries, says CU-Boulder Study,”, accessed December 2, 2009.

Acosmism, in contrast to pantheism, denies the reality of the universe, seeing it as ultimately illusory (the prefix "a-" in Greek meaning negation; like "un-" in English), and only the infinite unmanifest Absolute as real. Conceptual versions of Acosmism are found in eastern and western philosophies.

Agnostic existentialism

Agnostic existentialism is a type of existentialism which makes no claim to know whether there is a "greater picture"; rather, it simply asserts that the greatest truth is that which the individual chooses to act upon. It feels that to know the greater picture, whether there is one or not, is impossible, or impossible so far, or of little value. Like the Christian existentialist, the agnostic existentialist believes existence is subjective.

Argument from free will

The argument from free will, also called the paradox of free will or theological fatalism, contends that omniscience and free will are incompatible and that any conception of God that incorporates both properties is therefore inherently contradictory. These arguments are deeply concerned with the implications of predestination.

Argument from love

The Argument from love is an argument for the existence of God.

Argument from miracles

The argument from miracles is an argument for the existence of God that relies on the belief that events witnessed and described as miracles – i.e. as events not explicable by natural or scientific laws – indicate the intervention of the supernatural.

One example of this argument is the Christological argument: the claim that historical evidence proves that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that this can only be explained if God exists. Another is the claim that many of the Qur'an's prophecies have been fulfilled and that this too can only be explained if God (Allah) exists.

Defenders of the argument include C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and William of Ockham.

Argument from morality

The argument from morality is an argument for the existence of God. Arguments from morality tend to be based on moral normativity or moral order. Arguments from moral normativity observe some aspect of morality and argue that God is the best or only explanation for this, concluding that God must exist. Arguments from moral order are based on the asserted need for moral order to exist in the universe. They claim that, for this moral order to exist, God must exist to support it. The argument from morality is noteworthy in that one cannot evaluate the soundness of the argument without attending to almost every important philosophical issue in meta-ethics.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant devised an argument from morality based on practical reason. Kant argued that the goal of humanity is to achieve perfect happiness and virtue (the summum bonum) and believed that an afterlife must exist in order for this to be possible, and that God must exist to provide this. In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argued that "conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver." Lewis argued that accepting the validity of human reason as a given must include accepting the validity of practical reason, which could not be valid without reference to a higher cosmic moral order which could not exist without a God to create and/or establish it. A related argument is from conscience; John Henry Newman argued that the conscience supports the claim that objective moral truths exist because it drives people to act morally even when it is not in their own interest. Newman argued that, because the conscience suggests the existence of objective moral truths, God must exist to give authority to these truths.

Contemporary defenders of the argument from morality are Graham Ward, Alister McGrath and William Lane Craig.

Arthur Peacocke

Arthur Robert Peacocke (29 November 1924 – 21 October 2006) was a British Anglican theologian and biochemist.

Atheist's Wager

The Atheist's Wager, popularised by the philosopher Michael Martin and published in his 1990 book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, is an atheistic response to Pascal's Wager regarding the existence of God.

One version of the Atheist's Wager suggests that since a kind and loving god would reward good deeds – and that if no gods exist, good deeds would still leave a positive legacy – one should live a good life without religion. Another formulation suggests that a god may reward honest disbelief and punish a dishonest belief in the divine.

Augustinian theodicy

The Augustinian theodicy, named for the 4th- and 5th-century theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo, is a type of Christian theodicy designed in response to the evidential problem of evil. As such, it attempts to explain the probability of an omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good) God amid evidence of evil in the world. A number of variations of this kind of theodicy have been proposed throughout history; their similarities were first described by the 20th-century philosopher John Hick, who classified them as "Augustinian". They typically assert that God is perfectly (ideally) good; that he created the world out of nothing; and that evil is the result of humanity's original sin. The entry of evil into the world is generally explained as punishment for sin and its continued presence due to humans' misuse of free will. God's goodness and benevolence, according to the Augustinian theodicy, remain perfect and without responsibility for evil or suffering.

Augustine of Hippo was the first to develop the theodicy. He rejected the idea that evil exists in itself, instead regarding it as a corruption of goodness, caused by humanity's abuse of free will. Augustine believed in the existence of a physical Hell as a punishment for sin, but argued that those who choose to accept the salvation of Jesus Christ will go to Heaven. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas – influenced by Augustine – proposed a similar theodicy based on the view that God is goodness and that there can be no evil in him. He believed that the existence of goodness allows evil to exist, through the fault of humans. Augustine also influenced John Calvin, who supported Augustine's view that evil is the result of free will and argued that sin corrupts humans, requiring God's grace to give moral guidance.

The theodicy was criticised by Augustine's contemporary Fortunatus, a Manichaean who contended that God must still be somehow implicated in evil, and 18th-century theologian Francesco Antonio Zaccaria criticised Augustine's concept of evil for not dealing with individual human suffering. Hick regards evil as necessary for the moral and spiritual development of humans, and process theologians have argued that God is not omnipotent and so cannot be responsible for any evil. The logic of Augustine's approach has been adapted by Alvin Plantinga, among others. Plantinga's adapted Augustinian theodicy, the free will defence – which he proposed in the 1980s – attempts to answer only the logical problem of evil. Such a defence (not a "theodicy" proper) does not demonstrate the existence of God, or the probable existence of God, but attempts to prove that the existence of God and the presence of evil (or privatio boni) in the world are not logically contradictory.


Evil, in a general sense, is the opposite or absence of good. It can be an extremely broad concept, though in everyday usage is often used more narrowly to denote profound wickedness. It is generally seen as taking multiple possible forms, such as the form of personal moral evil commonly associated with the word, or impersonal natural evil (as in the case of natural disasters or illnesses), and in religious thought, the form of the demonic or supernatural/eternal.Evil can denote profound immorality, but typically not without some basis in the understanding of the human condition, where strife and suffering (cf. Hinduism) are the true roots of evil. In certain religious contexts, evil has been described as a supernatural force. Definitions of evil vary, as does the analysis of its motives. Elements that are commonly associated with personal forms of evil involve unbalanced behavior involving anger, revenge, fear, hatred, psychological trauma, expediency, selfishness, ignorance, destruction or neglect.Evil is sometimes perceived as the dualistic antagonistic binary opposite to good, in which good should prevail and evil should be defeated. In cultures with Buddhist spiritual influence, both good and evil are perceived as part of an antagonistic duality that itself must be overcome through achieving Nirvana. The philosophical questions regarding good and evil are subsumed into three major areas of study: Meta-ethics concerning the nature of good and evil, Normative ethics concerning how we ought to behave, and Applied ethics concerning particular moral issues. While the term is applied to events and conditions without agency, the forms of evil addressed in this article presume an evildoer or doers.

Some religions and philosophies deny evil's existence and usefulness in describing people.

George I. Mavrodes

George I. Mavrodes is an American philosopher who is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, is a term found in English translations of the Bible that is understood differently among the Abrahamic religions. The term is also used to describe aspects of other religions and belief structures.

Irenaean theodicy

The Irenaean theodicy is a Christian theodicy (a response to the problem of evil). It defends the probability of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent (all-powerful and perfectly loving) God in the face of evidence of evil in the world. Numerous variations of theodicy have been proposed which all maintain that, while evil exists, God is either not responsible for creating evil, or he is not guilty for creating evil. Typically, the Irenaean theodicy asserts that the world is the best of all possible worlds because it allows humans to fully develop. Most versions of the Irenaean theodicy propose that creation is incomplete, as humans are not yet fully developed, and experiencing evil and suffering is necessary for such development.

Second-century philosopher and theologian Irenaeus, after whom the theodicy is named, proposed a two-stage creation process in which humans require free will and the experience of evil to develop. Another early Christian theologian, Origen, presented a response to the problem of evil which cast the world as a schoolroom or hospital for the soul; theologian Mark Scott has argued that Origen, rather than Irenaeus, ought to be considered the father of this kind of theodicy. Friedrich Schleiermacher argued in the nineteenth century that God must necessarily create flawlessly, so this world must be the best possible world because it allows God's purposes to be naturally fulfilled. In 1966, philosopher John Hick discussed the similarities of the preceding theodicies, calling them all "Irenaean". He supported the view that creation is incomplete and argued that the world is best placed for the full moral development of humans, as it presents genuine moral choices. British philosopher Richard Swinburne proposed that, to make a free moral choice, humans must have experience of the consequences of their own actions and that natural evil must exist to provide such choices.

The development of process theology has challenged the Irenaean tradition by teaching that God's power is limited and that he cannot be responsible for evil. Twentieth-century philosopher Alvin Plantinga opposed the idea that this is the best possible world, arguing that there could always be at least one more good person, in every possible world. His free will defence was not a theodicy because he was trying to show the logical compatibility of evil and the existence of God, rather than the probability of God. D. Z. Phillips and Fyodor Dostoyevsky challenged the instrumental use of suffering, suggesting that love cannot be expressed through suffering. However, Dostoyevsky also states that the beauty of love is evident, in that love can continue to grow, withstand and overcome even the most evil acts. Michael Tooley argued that the magnitude of suffering is excessive and that, in some cases, cannot lead to moral development. French theologian Henri Blocher criticised Hick's universalism, arguing that such a view negates free will, which was similarly important to the theodicy.

List of philosophies

Philosophical schools of thought and philosophical movements.

Moral evil

Moral evil is the result of any morally negative event caused by the intentional action or inaction of an agent, such as a person. An example of a moral evil might be murder, or any other evil event for which someone can be held responsible or culpable.This concept can be contrasted with natural evil, in which a bad event occurs naturally, without the intervention of an agent. The dividing line between natural and moral evil is not absolutely clear however, as some behaviour can be unintentional yet morally significant and some natural events (for example, global warming) can be caused by intentional actions.

The distinction of evil from 'bad' is complex. Evil is more than simply 'negative' or 'bad' (i.e. undesired or inhibiting good) as evil is on its own, and without reference to any other event, morally incorrect. The validity of 'moral evil' as a term, therefore, rests on the validity of morals in ethics.

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff (born January 21, 1932) is an American philosopher and a liturgical theologian. He is currently Noah Porter Professor Emeritus Philosophical Theology at Yale University. A prolific writer with wide-ranging philosophical and theological interests, he has written books on aesthetics, epistemology, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy of education. In Faith and Rationality, Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and William Alston developed and expanded upon a view of religious epistemology that has come to be known as Reformed epistemology. He also helped to establish the journal Faith and Philosophy and the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Problem of evil

The problem of evil is the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God (see theism). An argument from evil claims that because evil exists, either God does not exist or does not have all three of those properties. Attempts to show the contrary have traditionally been discussed under the heading of theodicy. Besides philosophy of religion, the problem of evil is also important to the field of theology and ethics.

The problem of evil is often formulated in two forms: the logical problem of evil and the evidential problem of evil. The logical form of the argument tries to show a logical impossibility in the coexistence of God and evil, while the evidential form tries to show that given the evil in the world, it is improbable that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good God. The problem of evil has been extended to non-human life forms, to include animal suffering from natural evils and human cruelty against them.Responses to various versions of the problem of evil, meanwhile, come in three forms: refutations, defenses, and theodicies. A wide range of responses have been made against these arguments. There are also many discussions of evil and associated problems in other philosophical fields, such as secular ethics, and evolutionary ethics. But as usually understood, the "problem of evil" is posed in a theological context.The problem of evil acutely applies to monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism that believe in a monotheistic God who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent; but the question of "why does evil exist?" has also been studied in religions that are non-theistic or polytheistic, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.

Theological noncognitivism

Theological noncognitivism is the position that religious language – specifically, words such as "God" – are not cognitively meaningful. It is sometimes considered synonymous with ignosticism.

Tyler Moselle

Tyler S. Moselle is a former Acting Executive Director and research associate of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was educated at Brigham Young University, where he received a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern and African history, and Harvard, where he received a master's in politics. His master's thesis Natural Evil in Politics, has been referenced in a 2010 philosophy symposium in Colombia. and was published by the Carr Center in 2007.

According to the journalist and writer Nathan Hodge, Moselle played a primary role in promoting the human rights elements of America's COIN doctrine while he was at the Carr Center, where he focused on national security and human rights.Moselle has argued against the U.S. surge in Afghanistan for Harvard International Review, criticized the militarization of U.S. foreign policy in an op-ed for the Financial Times, published research about Afghanistan as well as the concept of world order in global political theory, and has written three academic reviews for Human Rights & Human Welfare. In addition, he has been interviewed about humanitarianism, the American military's counterinsurgency training, and international justice.

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