The Problem of Pain in Nature (continuing the discussion of flaws in theodicies begun in the previous post)
Nature contains a variety of pains that few people simply accept as part of God’s wonderful design. Instead, humans struggle to bypass or avoid such pains via city planning, safety regulations, modern medicine, dentistry, and devices that predict changes in the weather or environment (including marking danger zones). Neither are “sinners” the ones who are plagued most by nature’s pains but simply people unlucky enough to be in the paths of disasters or epidemics, or people unintelligent enough not to take safety measures, or people economically impoverished so their city or country cannot afford modern safety techniques and conveniences. Therefore nature’s pains are not focused on “sinners.” Nor do such pains lead one toward any one deity or religion in particular. In fact such pains can traumatize people and lead them away from God entirely.
Attempts by Christian apologists to respond to the problem of pain in nature often begin with a proposition as cold as nature itself, beginning with the idea that God does not owe anybody anything. In fact Genesis 3 depicts God cursing the first couple, “to dust you shall return.” Such apologists start with the idea that humans are born into a cursed and fallen world, and humanity itself is fallen, and God is doing them a great favor by preserving anyone at all from disasters, either in this life (viz., the so-called worldwide flood of Noah) or the next (hell). In fact, seeing video of disaster victims makes Christians trust in the truth of both the “fall” and the promised resurrection and their other religious beliefs even more. That is how the ball of their philosophy/theology tightens when you tug on that string called, “natural disasters.”
Therefore it does not matter to Christians that natural disasters and epidemics may kill millions, tens of millions, or even a hundred million. Such disasters may appear utterly pointless, pure wreckage, and it may appear that any infinite Being with a true love for what it has created, knowing the immense pain, sorrow, and trauma such disasters bring, could and would have designed a cosmos without them. Christians certainly believe God is capable of doing so, since they believe God can create a heavenly cosmos that lacks such disasters. So they know a world without natural disasters is possible.
Indeed, an infinite Being has infinite resources at its disposal, and it is difficult to imagine how anything such a Being created could ever go disastrously awry if such a Being has infinite knowledge, infinite power and infinite compassion (“God is love”).
Even the tale of “the fall” (understood literally or metaphorically) only makes one wonders why such a Being would have made the “forbidden fruit” “pleasing to the eye,” and placed its tree “in the middle of the garden” like some police sting operation waiting to be sprung. And when the ”serpent tempted Eve” couldn’t this Being have showed up and argued against the serpent? It could have granted Adam and Eve a vision of the future horrors their children would endure not only in this life but in the afterlife–if they ate of the fruit.
Christians might also ponder where this Being was when Islam was born, knowing how Islam would grow faster than Christianity and Muslims would wage war against the faith of Christians. Couldn’t this Being have ensured that Mohammed received the correct revelation if this Being truly wanted everyone to be saved?
Even granted “a fall,” such a Being still has infinite resources at its disposal to influence, lead, instruct, discipline, everyone to help them come to agreement concerning what is true and trustworthy even if it takes billions of years. Satan has no such resources at his disposal, and humans have merely a finite intellect. So how could an infinite Being with infinite resources and knowledge fail to influence every finite creature eventually? Or as the Jewish saying goes, God and time are the best teachers.
Speaking of God and time being the best teachers, Shana, a Christian, a First-Grade Teacher, and Therapist for Autistic Children put it this way:
A Christian brother told me that when we are in heaven we will have no concern for those who will be in eternal hell. But if we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” how can this be true? God has said that He will have “all” come to Him. Is any heart so dark (and without the slightest flaw or crack) such that the light of Christ could never penetrate it? Doesn’t emptiness abhor a vacuum? And what could be more vacuous than a heart trying to keep itself pumped up with lies and deceit which have no substance of and by themselves. Surely such vacuous hearts cannot avoid being eventually filled with the only solid and substantial Truth that is, was or ever will be? Something written by the 19th-century universalist Christian, George MacDonald, encouraged my own heart…
Jesus said for us to love even our enemies. We were His enemies at one time and He came down into our hell. And what shall we say of the man Christ Jesus? Who, that loves his brother, would not, upheld by the love of Christ, and with a dim hope that in the far-off time there might be some help for him, arise from the company of the blessed, and walk down into the dismal regions of despair, to sit with the unredeemed, and be more blessed in the pains of hell, than in the glories of heaven? Who, in the midst of the golden harps and the white wings, knowing that one of his kind, one miserable brother in the old-world-time when men were taught to love their neighbor as themselves, was howling unheeded far below in the vaults of the creation, who, I say, would not feel that he must arise, that he had no choice, that, awful as it was, he must gird his loins, and go down into the smoke and the darkness and the fire, traveling the weary and fearful road into the far country to find his brother?–who, I mean, that had the mind of Christ, that had the love of the Father? Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Will He not continue to seek out and save all of the lost? Will we have the love of Christ in heaven?
Cold Comfort for Christians
Nick Peters, Christian Apologist, has recently published a debate book on the topic of Natural Evil
The bottom line for Christians like Nick is that God can do whatever “He” wants with what “He” has created.
Nick admits, “Anything I say in this discussion… should not be seen as meant to provide comfort for those who are undergoing suffering from a natural disaster.”
Nick adds that “if a person knows about Christ and rejects Him, he is doing wrong,” which reduces all questions of evil, natural or otherwise down to one, convert or be damned. Obviously, if a Christian can defend damnation, they can defend anything. What are natural disasters, mutations, diseases, parasites, death and extinctions, compared with damnation? To quote Nick, “Sometime we do not respond to gentle nudges and wooing but rather require difficult circumstances to come out way to wake us up to what is going on in the world. If other means have not worked and a natural disaster could keep us from a greater suffering (such as eternal separation from God), then I would find that the suffering would be justified.”
That’s the bottom line for Christians, avoiding “eternal separation from God.” The pains in this life could just as well be God “nudging and wooing” us toward faith (not a very precise nudge since one’s faith and beliefs could wind up veering off in several directions, from Buddhism to Islam, not to mention cursing God).
And if individual day-to-day pains don’t work, God uses firmer “nudges” like full scale natural disasters (including health disasters like epidemics and persistent diseases like malaria and TB, or in the past, influenza, the plague, smallpox. and dozens of childhood illnesses) that have killed countless millions, far more than died in all the wars of humans against humans.Which reminds me of a dialogue I once read by Mark Twain between a devout mother and her questioning daughter over what part nature’s pains play (keep in mind that Twain’s son died of diphtheria at age 19 months):
“In His wisdom and mercy the Lord sends us afflictions to discipline us and make us better… All of them. None of them comes by accident; He alone sends them, and always out of love for us, and to make us better, my child.”
“Did He give Billy Norris the typhus, mamma?”
“Why, to discipline him and make him good.”
“But he died, mamma, and so it couldn’t make him good.”
“Well, then, I suppose it was for some other reason. We know it was a good reason, whatever it was.”
After a pause: “Did He make the roof fall on the stranger that was trying to save the crippled old woman from the fire, mamma?”
“Yes, my child. Wait! Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. I only know it was to discipline some one, or be a judgment upon somebody, or to show His power.”
“That drunken man that stuck a pitchfork into Mrs. Welch’s baby when…”
“Never mind about it, you needn’t go into particulars; it was to discipline the child – that much is certain, anyway.”
“Mamma, Mr. Burgess said in his sermon that billions of little creatures are sent into us to give us cholera, and typhoid, and lockjaw, and more than a thousand other sicknesses and, mamma, does He send them?”
“Oh, certainly, child, certainly. Of course.”
“Oh, to discipline us! Haven’t I told you so, over and over again?”
“It’s awful cruel, mamma! And silly! And if I…”
“Hush, oh hush! Do you want to bring the lightning?”
“You know the lightning did come last week, mamma, and struck the new church, and burnt it down. Was it to discipline the church?”
(Wearily) “Oh, I suppose so.”
“But it killed a hog that wasn’t doing anything. Was it to discipline the hog, mamma?”
“Dear child, don’t you want to run out and play a while? If you would like to…”
“Mamma, Mr. Hollister says there isn’t a bird or fish or reptile or any other animal that hasn’t got an enemy that Providence has sent to bite it and chase it and pester it, and kill it, and suck its blood and discipline it and make it good and religious. Is that true, mamma, because if it is true, why did Mr. Hollister laugh at it?”
“That Hollister is a scandalous person, and I don’t want you to listen to anything he says.”
“Why, mamma, he is very interesting, and I think he tries to be good. He says the wasps catch spiders and cram them down their nests in the ground – alive, mama! – and there they live and suffer days and days and days, and hungry little baby wasps chew the spider’s legs and gnaw into their bellies all the time, to make them good and religious and praise God for His infinite mercies. I think Mr. Hollister is just lovely, and ever so kind; for when I asked him if he would treat a spider like that, he said he hoped to be damned if he would; and then he…”
“My child! oh, do for goodness’ sake…”
“And mamma, he says the spider is appointed to catch the fly, and drive her fangs into his bowels, and sucks and sucks and sucks his blood, to discipline him and make him a Christian; and whenever the fly buzzes his wings with the pain and misery of it, you can see by the spider’s grateful eye that she is thanking the Giver of All Good for…well, she’s saying grace, as he says; and also, he…”
“Oh, aren’t you ever going to get tired chattering! If you want to go out and play…”
“Mamma, he says himself that all troubles and pains and miseries and rotten diseases and horrors and villainies are sent to us in mercy and kindness to discipline us; and he says it is the duty of every father and mother to help Providence, every way they can; and says they can’t do it by just scolding and whipping, for that won’t answer, it is weak and no good – Providence’s invention for disciplining us and the animals is the very brightest idea that ever was. Mamma, brother Eddie needs disciplining, right away; and I know where you can get the smallpox for him, and the itch, and the diphtheria, and bone-rot, and heart disease, and tuberculosis, and…
Dear mama, have you fainted?”