How can evolutionary creationists explain natural disasters, theologically?


(Brad Kramer) #1

I’m pondering the idea of writing an article on the topic above. It seems timely in light of at least five major natural disasters in North America in the last two months. I’ll write out a short summary of my thoughts on the subject, and I’d love to get feedback and ideas from everyone.

If God is good and loving, why do natural disasters cause so much chaos and pain? This Ken Ham tweet sums up the typical YEC answer.


The problem is that this makes no sense either biblically or scientifically. When the Bible talks about natural disasters, it never uses this “perfect world screwed up by Adam and then made perfect again” narrative (even in obvious cases where it might be appropriate, such as Job or Jonah). God is always portrayed as being in charge of nature, and the ultimate origin of natural disasters is never discussed. Nowhere are they blamed on a single primordial sin.

Scientifically speaking, earthquakes and hurricanes are very natural parts of our Earth. They give no signs of being some sort of unnatural curse, or having begun at some point in Earth’s history. A world without it would be so fundamentally different than our own that it would demand a completely separate creation act, which the Bible says nothing about. This is only one of the many problems with the “perfect pre-Fall world” idea.

So what to do? Do we simply ascribe all natural disasters to God’s wrath or judgment? I, for one, think that is a very shallow reading of the Bible as well, which ignores the Christ-centered movement of the Bible in favor of systematizing the Bible’s theology.

My proposal is to take a fresh look at the bookends of the Bible for new insight: Genesis 1 and Rev 21. The book of Genesis opens with an unexplained “initial condition”: a universe filled with primordial waters. How the universe got that way is not a concern of the writer. But the whole story of creation revolves around God’s uncontested mastery over the cosmic waters. And that same theme shows up again and again through the Bible, whether in the parting of the Red Sea, or the calming of the Sea of Galilee. Revelation 21, describing the “new creation” that fulfills all of God’s purposes, makes an explicit reference to the sea being permanently gone. This makes no sense in modern terms, but to the ancient audience, who thought of the sea as the source of chaos and disorder, it was a clear message that God’s victory over the seas will be made complete at the end of the story. So just as we are living in a time when Death has been defeated, but not eliminated, we are also living in a time when chaos and disorder has been “defeated” through God’s creative power, but not yet eliminated. This in-between time exists for God’s ultimate purposes, which are not always clear.

I’m going to quote liberally from D.B. Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, which is the best book on theodicy and nature I’ve ever read. I don’t have time to paste in any quotes right now, but I might do so if the thread gets some conversation going. His essential point is that to treat death and destruction—in any form—as nothing but God’s providential hand (or nothing but an inscrutable mystery, or just quirks in the natural system) is a major betrayal of the Gospel message, and thus the whole biblical witness.

Practically speaking, though, the biblical message should move us to offer compassion and healing to those affected by natural disasters. We should also care for our neighbors by addressing issues such as climate change which make natural disasters much worse.

That’s the rough outline. Thoughts?
@Jon_Garvey @Christy


(Laura) #2

I can’t add much to your timely analysis of this topic, but I can really appreciate the application at the end. It doesn’t seem that this would flow quite as naturally out of the perspective that all natural disasters are simply our fault for original sin. Growing up, it seems the Christian voices I heard the loudest were busy blaming “the other” for bringing these things upon us – implication being that it couldn’t possibly have happened because of us.


(Phil) #3

I was just reading Genesis 8:21 as part of a bible study, and was struck by the God’s statement that he would never again curse the ground on account on man. While like a lot of ancient writings it is hard to know exactly what that means, it seems as a"plain reading" to not be consistent with the “curse.”


(Christy Hemphill) #4

@Jay313 @Mervin_Bitikofer and I were just talking on another thread about the man born blind in John 9,

It’s not a natural disaster but it kind of speaks to the idea of bad things being part of the state of affairs in the world we live in. People wanted a “why” and they assumed the “why” to be someone’s sin. But Jesus pretty much side steps their questions (after telling them they got it wrong, it wasn’t sin that was the cause of the bad situation) and basically tells them they asked the wrong question. He doesn’t answer the “why” he answers the “what for.”

Maybe our focus is supposed to be on God’s purposes, (forward looking/what for?) not God’s reasons (backward looking/why?). That seems to be what you are pointing out about the answers the Creation narrative gives. The initial condition is left unexplained, but the “what for” is made clear.

In these situations I think our calling is to be forward looking. Instead of asking why (or worse, offering lame and potentially hurtful explanations of why), we should ask ourselves, how is God’s power seen in me through this situation? And if God’s power is seen bringing order to chaos, how do I participate in that work, whether it is by physically helping restore order in a devastated environment, or helping to calm the chaos of someone’s internal world by being Christ embodied to them as they suffer from the trauma of a disaster.


(Larry Bunce) #5

It seems to me that most of human suffering from natural disasters is the result of our moving out of the area where we first appeared in Africa. There were plenty of diseases and other hazards there, but before we started building permanent structures, storms and floods did little to disrupt human life.


(Jon) #6

It’s the cost of creation. The processes which result in natural disasters, are the same processes sustaining all life on earth.


(Jon Garvey) #7

Hi Brad

It’s hard to know where to start on this, because one could write a book about it. In fact I have!

Since I’m replying to your thinking process rather than the finished piece, please excuse my taking up disparate points, which I hope may help rather than hinder your thinking.

First, I’m very pleased you start with David Bentley Hart, because one of his strongest, and most provocative, points (from Aquinas, actually) is to challenge the idea that God is “a moral being”, to be judged according to our sense of justice or even by the Law he gave us. Hart is cited in a new article to which Ian Thompson alerted me at The Hump. Although its focus is on animal suffering, much of what Aquinas says can be applied to natural disasters, so I think the way he turns our thinking on its head can be very valuable in this topic. It deals pretty well with the “a loving God wouldn’t cause suffering” argument that is, basically, Leibniz theodicy heated over.

Second, there is an obstacle to be overcome for a good many ECs, who have not in any way come to terms with a truly theistic concept of God involved with nature in terms of evolution, and still less with the daily operation of the world. This semi-deism contrasts not only with Gen. and Rev., but with the whole Bible, and it is exemplified by the way that on threads at BL, the weather has been taken as a gold standard of “natural autonomy” by which other phenomena are assessed. Yet God’s control of the weather is axiomatic in Scripture - to the point that in parts of the OT he’s almost like a storm God, riding on the clouds and speaking through thunder - images continued even in the NT.
It’s going to be hard, in your article, to get on to why God might bring, or allow, natural disasters before getting beyond the tired Deistic idea that science has shown “they just happen” because God set up the laws and can’t interfere - I say Deistic, because one of the early triggers for rationalist Deism proper was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 - the King of Portugal called a Day of Humble Prayer - the rationalists responded by distancing God from nature.

Thirdly, Ken Ham’s “traditional” blaming of natural disturbances on the Fall is not only unbiblical, but historically recent as theology. That’s what prompted me to write my book God’s Good Earth. On the other hand, the control of God over nature, moment by moment, is linked to both blessing and judgement throughout the Bible. Most notably, the covenant blessings and curses which were an integral aspect of the foundation covenant of Israel under Moses, both prospectively and retrospectively, largely invove the natural world - weather, soil fertility, health, wild animals (and what isn’t nature is God’s control of potential human enemies).

Thus faithfulness to the covenant would bring for Israel spring rains, abundant crops, few wild beasts, many children, good health and peace: whereas disobedience would bring drought, hail, locusts, famine, plagues and invasion by foreigners. The later prophets interpret Israel’s history pretty much entirely through the lens of those covenant consequences, up to and including the exiles of Israel to Assyria and Judah to Babylon - which exile events govern the whole of subsequent salvation history up to, and including, the coming of the Lord Jesus (see N T Wright on this).

Fourth the last point impacts hugely on understanding Revelation. As it happens I’m teaching Revelation to a home group currently (I think the fourth or fifth time I’ve taught it in depth). It’s no coincidence that much of the “scary imagery” that puts people off the book is directly derived from those Mosaic blessings and curses. There’s somewhat to say about how those are developed. In the “7 seals” series, they’re presented as part of the mystery of God, things that “have to happen” before the end, without piercing God’s mind to know why, other than that it’s the future made possible by the victory of Jesus on the Cross (and so presumably also part of the remedy for the sin that made that necessary). In the “7 trumpets” series, they are presented as warnings to sinful mankind, and moreover are linked to a general failure to repent - much as they are with respect to Israel in the prophets. In both cases, they are clearly presented as of God’s direct authorship, leading me to sketch a biblical theology of nature for you to play with…

Fifth it seems to me that Scripture uniformly presents nature (as you rightly say, including even the symbolically chaotic elements such as sea) not as an autonomous realm over against God, but as an instrument, or agent, which serves his purposes (whatever they may be) obediently. That’s why it cuts directly across the versions of Evolutionary Creation that stress nature’s “freedom” etc. The Levitical and Deuteronomic blessings and curses exemplify this - the same nature is used to bless or judge Israel in response to “events on the ground”, but always in obedience to God’s inscrutable wisdom.

For God to send Joel’s locusts or the Babylonian army does bear a fairly simple correspondence to national sin. But both in the OT, and par excellence in Revelation, the more sophisticated realisation that God’s governance of the entire world, respecting the “just deserts” of each individual human, let alone each sparrow that falls to the ground, are not to be reduced to crass simplifications like “there was an earthquake, ergo it’s because of Trump/Gays (etc)”. If you want an instance of how that divine sublety plays out, check out the Armenian earthquake of 1988, of which I heard an Orthodox priest at the time say on BBC news (deistically) “Sometimes God isn’t there - things just happen.” Yet now, the earthquake is widely regarded there as the catalyst for both national and spiritual revival there. Not many Ken Hams would have predicted that, nor would semi-deists credit it, but a prophet might have!

The absence of sea in Revelation is, as you rightly say, an apocalyptic representation of the absence of chaos, tohu wabohu, rather than of oceans, in the new creation, and so is a direct allusion to the Genesis 1 creation and the tehom. Incidentally, sea and the Abyss are synonymous in Rev., and “abyss” in the Septuagint is used for tehom, so “no more sea” is the culmination of a theme. (Also incidentally, the presence of sea before God’s throne in ch4 is not incompatible, even in visionary terms, because it refers to the imagery of the bronze laver, or “sea”, in Solomon’s temple, only made of crystal to give added whiteness to God’s heavenly priests!)

Sixth and last (for no good reason other than having waffled on enough and having work to do!) the gleanings from the Biblical worldview above, although they prevent us taking any old natural phenomenon and tying it to a sin of our choosing, nevertheless alert us to seeing God’s moral governance of the world in our Christian response to natural disasters. I mentioned the response of believers to the Lisbon earthquake - a national day of repentance and self-examination in the light of God’s visitation. They took Amos 3.6 seriously: “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?”

The same happened in England immediately after the Fire of London - the process was not so much soapbox orators using the disaster to highlight their favourite complaints, but God’s people, recognising God’s unusual allowing such a thing, examining their national conscience and praying for renewal, in the knowledge that the doings of God should not be divorced from the doings of his servant, the natural creation.

One might think about how that could apply to global warming: if it’s anthropogenic, then human irresponsibility and greed are the sins responsible, and maybe as well as the Paris Accords there is a place for humble confession - and (if we are theists rather than deists) also pleas that God might mitigate it. If it isn’t anthropogenic, then (according to Scriptural theology) it’s not independent of God’s government, and we ought still to be, as Christ’s Church, examining ourselves and calling on his mercy.

Blessings to you

Jon


(Jon) #8

That’s a huge problem.


#9

Mankind pretty much had to keep moving when faced with droughts, famine, over-hunting, over-fishing, etc. And floods could indeed be disastrous to human life, as they are today.


(George Brooks) #10

@Jon_Garvey, How interesting!

I have to say, even though I’m not jubilant about Hart’s observation that I quote immediately above, it sure rings true when I read some of the various things that the O.T. scribes have said about what God says or does.

Between Hart’s scenario and the Gnostics who solved the same problem by proposing the God in the O.T. was “a demi-urge”, instead of God the Father, Hart’s interpretation makes the most sense.


(Jon Garvey) #11

Georger, I’m not aiming on participating in this thread (just feeding some thoughts to Brad for his article), but perhaps i should clarify Hart’s interpretation of Aquinas for the benefit of those not willing or able to read either.

The point is not that God is morally deficient, but that he is the source of human morality, not a participant in its creaturley tenets. That’s why all non-human created beings can reflect his divine nature even when they do not behave according to the divine standard for human nature.

Clearly he is not subject to the Law like a human - who would he steal from or covet, since he is the Lord of all things? Who would he commit adultery with when he created marriage for the humans he created male and female? How could he honour his father and mother? How could he worship graven images when he creates all things, including mankind as his true image? And so on.

That’s enough to clarify - Demiurge he is not.


(Jon) #12

What do you do with the passages which state explicitly that God would not breach the moral guidance He lays down for us, and the passages which describe the moral guidance He gives us, as based on His own moral standards? To what extent have you assessed the argument for ethical independence? Here are three relevant arguments.

“In response to Abraham’s moral objections to His proposed course of action, God does not reply that His conceptions of justice and mercy diverge from Abraham’s, nor does He suggest that Abraham is mistaken in any other way. On the contrary: God concedes Abraham’s ethical point. If there are a handful of righteous men in Sodom, the city should indeed be saved.”, Michael J. Harris, Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (Routledge, 2004), 6.


“All this means that the laws, so far from requiring ‘irrational’ obedience, are looking for a rational response. They are there to reason the reader into accepting certain moral judgements as right and rejecting others as wrong, and applying legal principles pragmatically and with common sense. This whole approach is radically incompatible with a simple divine command theory of ethics in which a deus dixit closes down all argument. On the contrary, there is a conscious attempt to show how excellent and reasonable God’s demands are. The approach is summed up perfectly in Deut. 4:8: ‘What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?’”, John Barton, Ethics in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 148.


“In Gen 1, when God creates the heavens and the earth, he looks at his work and then calls it good. The assumption is that he does not determine the nature of goodness, but judges his own work according to a presupposed universal standard already in existence. This also assumes that the word “good” is the same “good” humans call good (that no doctrine of analogy is presupposed). If so, it follows that moral goodness was indeed assumed to be something independent from the deity and with reference to which he could be called “good” (or not).”, Jaco Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion (Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 412.


(George Brooks) #13

When the General of a vast army passes through your land … and the General says he would never kill any of your people … because all of your people belong to him …

      • how long do you wait after he departs before you and your entire family evacuate the area?

(Jay Johnson) #14

Closer to a natural disaster is Luke 13 and the tower that fell on a bunch of people. They were not worse sinners than anyone else to deserve this fate, but the lesson that Jesus draws is that “unless you repent, you will all perish as well.” This always seemed odd to me, but I suppose the lesson is illuminated by the parable that follows, the fig tree that bore no fruit. The master was ready to dig it up, but the worker asked for more time to fertilize it. Nevertheless, eventually it would be cut down if it bore no fruit. Christ’s perspective is always eternal. His concern is eternal life, not the length of our lives here on earth. God is patient with us, but we presume upon his grace if we presume that tomorrow will be soon enough to repent and bear fruit.


#15

Though this logic may not work to an atheist or anyone who doesn’t believe in the scripture (not sure if that is the kind of logic you are searching for), but I think @Jonathan_Burke expert explains a plausibility of that well with the cost of creation.

But in Biblical terms Rom 9:20-24 pretty much sums it up.
But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ”h 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

22What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Job 15:8 Do you listen in on God’s council? Do you have a monopoly on wisdom?

Isaiah 40:13 Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor?

Jer 23:18 But which of them has stood in the council of the LORD to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word?

1 Cor 2:16 “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

If we believe God is just and merciful, which He is, there is no need to explain it. Though I understand attempting to maybe gain logic of how to explain to a non-believer.


(Brad Kramer) #16

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