Why Would God Allow Diseases and Other Natural Evils?

Apr 22, 2020

With the world in the midst of a global pandemic that has already claimed more than 150,000 lives, the question of “natural” evil is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Why does God allow bad things to happen to innocent people? If God truly exists, why is there evil, and why is there suffering? Isn’t He capable of stopping it? In this timely rebroadcast of an episode from November 2017, Vince and Jo discuss the problem of suffering due to “natural” causes, and how we might make sense of this suffering in light of a God who Himself entered into suffering for our sake.

You can read Vince’s recent article responding to this issue here.

Questions Asked in This Episode: 1) “People often explain moral evil to be the result of our free will. But if that is the case, then how do you explain natural evil (ex. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and things like that)?”

2) “If God exists, why would He allow things like cancer in children to occur?”

Have a question you want Ask Away to cover? Email us at askaway@rzim.org or use the hashtag #askrzim on Twitter. You can also talk about this episode with fellow podcast listeners and the RZIM team on our online community

Don't miss another episode, subscribe wherever podcasts are found (quick links: iTunes, Google Play Music, and Spotify).

Follow Ask Away on Twitter:

Vince Vitale - @VinceRVitale
Jo Vitale - @Joanna_Vitale
Michael Davis - @mdav1979

Want to listen to this later?


Please Note: Ask Away is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. Many people in the west have a view that if God truly exists, He should protect them from the evil of this world. Why does God allow bad things to happen to innocent people? If God truly exists, why is there evil and why is there suffering? Isn't He capable of stopping it?

Michael Davis: Before we get started, Vince, Jo and I would like to say that we hope you're doing well and finding peace in Christ in these very challenging times. We're excited to announce the new episodes are coming soon, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, today we're republishing an episode on natural evil, because more people than ever are asking about this topic. God bless all of you, and thank you all for listening.

Michael Davis: So we are going to go to our first question. “People often explain moral evil to be the result of our freewill, but if that is the case, then how do you explain natural evil? Examples, earthquakes, tsunamis and things like?”

Jo Vitale: Yeah, I want to thank you so much for asking this question. It's one that I think we all wrestle with at different points, I think particularly this year, and we've been face to face with so much natural evil, especially over in the states with hurricanes and flooding and fires going on. So I think we're all feeling the full force of the question in a fresh way at the moment.

Jo Vitale: I think the first thing I would want to point to you before I'm passing this on to Vince, he actually wrote his PhD on the topic of the problem of evil and suffering, so he has a few things to say to this question in particular, but it's interesting to me the way this has been phrased. The question I actually asked was, "How do you explain natural evil?", and the implication behind that is actually that what is going on in the world isn't just a natural event, but it's actually evil. It's attaching a kind of moral value to it in terms of saying, "This isn't good, this is bad," and of course, if you take God out of the picture, then we actually can't label it that way. We can't call it evil. We just have to say, "Hey, this is just a natural event. This is just the way that the world is," and Richard Dawkins puts it like this when he says, "In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice."

Jo Vitale: That would be the response of the naturalist, and yet there's something about it that I think in every single one of us as human beings, we're dissatisfied with that, because actually we do experience it as evil, and I think the natural response of every one of us is to ask the question, why? Why is this happening? To feel like actually there's something deeply wrong with the world that isn't supposed to be this way. I love the words of the poet Dylan Thomas. I think he really gets it when he says, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." That sense that actually death shouldn't happen, that it's profoundly wrong.

Jo Vitale: Actually, what I really appreciate about Christianity is actually, Christianity affirms that intuition, that that sense we all have of something being profoundly wrong with the world is actually a right sense, and that makes it unique among other worldviews. As we've already said for naturalism, it is just the way the world is. If you're a Hindi, then actually evil and suffering, they're not reality, but actually that they are illusion that we just need to sort of move beyond. If you're a Buddhist, then yes, there's a recognition that suffering is a real thing, but actually, the way you deal with it is to detach yourself from it. If you're an Islam, then you it's not to be questioned. You just say, actually, this is the will of Allah, but only in Christianity do we have that sense of actually, there is something really wrong with the world, and this is the right question for us to be asking.

Vince Vitale: Yes, it is a really interesting term, “natural evil.” You might think it's an oxymoron that if it's just natural, if it's just a matter of matter, plus chance, plus time, if that's all the universe is, if it's just natural, then it's not really evil, or on the other hand, if it is genuinely evil, then it's not natural, then it's unnatural, then there's something wrong. So maybe unnatural evil is a better term, but I find it helpful to recognize that some of the things we call them natural disasters are not evil in and of themselves.

Vince Vitale: Take a tornado, for instance. A tornado just on its own is a beautiful thing. If you are far enough away from it, you'd love to look at it and to enjoy it and to give praise to God for the fact that there's this amazing piece of creation. It's only evil when people are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vince Vitale: So here's a question for all of us, and it's a question that the Christian worldview asks. What if we're not operating as we were intended to operate in our environment, because we're not in as a whole race as humanity? We're not in the relationship with God that we were intended to live in. A simple analogy would be a feral child, a child that is taken out of the relationships, the family relationships that the child was most made for, and then asked to live in its natural environment. Well, that child wouldn't be able to do that well outside the context of the nurturing relationships that the child was intended for. Could it be the case that something similar is going on with humanity? We're not living in the relationship with God we are most intended for, and therefore, we’re finding it very difficult to operate in the context of our natural environment in the way that we are intended.

Vince Vitale: Now, some of this is speculative. We only can hold confidently to what the Bible tells us on this issue, but it is interesting to think about the relationship between relationship and our ability to live successfully in a natural environment. One thing that I found really intriguing was that about 15 years ago when there was the tsunami in Southeast Asia, I remember reading that when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, none or almost no animals died because Rayleigh waves, vibrational waves from the tsunami which reached the coast hours before the water itself, gave the animals the impetus to run away from the coast, and so they headed up into the hills, and they were far away by the time the tsunami had reached there. Human persons ran to the coast down to the beach to look at all this water that was receding.

Vince Vitale: Interestingly, studies show that human persons also have sensors in our joints that can detect these vibrational waves, but when we detect them and we're asked what we feel, we just say things like, "Oh, I feel a bit odd. It feels a bit weird in this room," those sorts of things. Animals, in this case, they're receiving those vibrational waves, but they're actually functioning in a way that it causes them to realize there's danger and, "Let's get out of here." We are not quite functioning in the way we were intended to in our natural environment. We're functioning in a broken way because, first and foremost, our hearts are broken, but that is also reflected in the way that we're interacting in our creation.

Vince Vitale: So I think that's one interesting way to think about it. Oftentimes, we think about the natural events themselves as evil, but actually, what's evil is when human persons are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and maybe that's partly a result of the fact that we're a broken, fallen people who aren't in the relationship that we're most intended to be in, and therefore, we're not functioning in our environment in the way we were most intended to.

Jo Vitale: I think that really accords with the image we are given in Genesis of people that God places in a garden. A garden in the ancient world is the symbol of an enclosed kind of safe where creation is orderly, and the rest of the world outside of it is wild and difficult, and the garden is an image of God's protection, of being in harmony with nature because you're in harmony with God, but then once they leave the garden, they're stepping out of God's protection once the fall comes and, and there's a rupturing not only in our relationship with God, but with each other and with the whole of creation, and then it speaks of thorns and thistles and the hardship that that comes when we're no longer in that space.

Jo Vitale: One thing I do think is that so often...Obviously, when natural disasters come, we, we focus on the disaster of it and the suffering that's coming from it, but actually, what we don't think about is the other side of it, of actually how much grace we're still under, and that we're even able to live at all, that we're on a planet that actually functions in such a way that we can have life, and this is where it's wonderful being part of a wider speaking team of over 50 speakers on the RZIM team, and borrow great ideas from other team members. Dr. Sharon Dirckx, who is one of our speakers in the UK, and she's also written on suffering.

Jo Vitale: She points out that actually, if you compare even planet Earth to the other planets in our solar system, we see such a wild difference between them. So Venus, for example, has hundreds of volcanoes, and the volcanic plains cover over 80 to 85% of the surface. No life could exist there. Or you look at Jupiter, which has a storm going on that's twice as big as the Earth, and it's been going for 400 years. No one could live in that. So yes, we're in an environment where sometimes we suffer the consequences of the way that the natural world is working, and yet at the same time, we're also in a world where we can see how it's functioning in such a way that actually, we are given the grace of being able to survive and to live at all in a...

Jo Vitale: Often, scientists speak of this as the fine tuning of the universe, and you might even say the same of the planet Earth, that it's so finely tuned that actually we are able to exist within it, and of course, it's that tension we live with when a storm can come and bring destruction that kills, and yet at the same time, we need our weather systems to bring rain so we don't starve, and we can also look at a sunset, at cloud formations and think, "Wow, isn't that beautiful?" I think it just all speaks to how incredibly complex the system is that we're living in and our relationship with it, and yet we also need it to live.

Michael Davis: That makes a lot of sense, Jo. I think that we have to also understand that the fall, and you touched upon this, the fall didn't just affect our relationship with God. It did affect the entirety of creation. When we have an understanding that this is not the way that the world is supposed to be, it doesn't make it that we should be like, "Okay..." It shouldn't make us flippant. It should still break our hearts that people die in tsunamis and in earthquakes and in fires, but we also understand that there are good things that come out of natural events, that people get hurt in those natural events, but ultimately, where we're leading, where things are going will be a restoration of creation where we just don't have to experience those things anymore.

Vince Vitale: Yes, I think we underestimate the potential relationship between, like you said, Michael, the fall or freewill and natural evil, or what we often refer to as natural evil. We often think these things are unrelated. We have free will that is involved in moral evil, then we have natural evil, and that's a completely separate thing, but I think you're right that these two things are related, and you can think about the relation in at least a couple of different ways. One, we know biblically that we're not the only types of beings that God has created.

Vince Vitale: We know that God has created angels. We know that some of those angels have fallen away from Him as well. We know at the beginning of the book of Job that in at least some cases, God allows, in that case, Satan himself to have some sort of control over our environment, and this is not that unusual of an idea, in that if you think about it, even we as human persons have an impact on the environment of lower creatures. So how we affect the environment is going to determine how many lower species of the world are impacted, and we can easily see that in many places of the world.

Vince Vitale: Could it be the case that God has created a rich tapestry of life? We are one of the living things He's brought into existence, but He's brought into existence many other forms of animals that are below us, He's also brought into existence angels as well, and has he brought together a meaningful tapestry of life where our actions don't just have an impact on us as individuals, or even just on our species, but they can have an impact beyond ourselves as well, and that makes life challenging, but it also makes life meaningful.

Vince Vitale: The other just hypothetical to consider is imagine, and this gets set, the potential relationship between free will in the fall and the way that we're currently operating in our natural environment. Imagine that the fall had not taken place, that we had never misused our free will to walk away from God. What would the world be like then? What if we had never sinned? We had developed as a human race in perfect community. We had helped each other at every turn. We had never had any stress or any anxiety.

Vince Vitale: I know not long ago, my mom, my parents were under a lot of stress because of a situation with their house, and I couldn't believe the way it affected my mom physically because of the stress that she was going through. Imagine no stress and no anxiety at any point in human history. Imagine if we had sought knowledge for good reasons rather than for selfish reasons, if we had actually walked in the garden with God continually and had asked him all of our questions about the things that we needed to know to develop this sort of technology that we need to develop to cure potential diseases that might be able to come about.

Vince Vitale: It is hard to imagine where we would be as a human race if we had never dealt with selfishness, stress, anxiety, enmity against each other, and that ultimately is what was intended. So we sometimes think, well, natural disasters don't have anything to do with free will. I actually think if we had used our free will as God intended and instructed us to from the very beginning as a human race, things would look radically different in terms of the knowledge we would have, the wisdom we would have for how to operate in our environment, and the technology we would have as we used our intellectual gifts that God had given, together without selfishness, in cooperation with Him walking alongside of us, giving us all of the insight that we needed to produce all of the technology that we might have needed to produce to operate in our environment in an ideal way. So let's not separate too much natural evil from free will, because if we had used our free will as God intended it from the beginning, things would look really, really different.

Michael Davis: Absolutely. So that leads us into question number two, and I think it's actually an appropriate question considering the conversation that we've had. This is from Steven Jay. "My brother-in-law is a nonbeliever. He says his main objection is even if God exists, why would He allow things like cancer and children to occur? I have read Amy Orr-Ewing's book, Is It Real?, and he says an excellent book, we're not just plugging, he actually says an excellent book, but I'm still struggling with this question. Can you please help me with an answer?"

Jo Vitale: Gosh, it's such a big question. We spoke in part to this recently when a question came in from someone called Mike, who was writing in about the death of his son. So if you have a chance to listen to that episode, hopefully some things in there might be helpful as well. Particularly when it comes to this extremely painful question of cancer in children, I think so often, we do, as Christians, find ourselves at a loss as to what to say. I can't imagine if... Anyone listening who has lost a child in this way, I'm so sorry for what you have experienced and what you've been through.

Jo Vitale: I think a couple of things to say here about some of the assumptions we make when people ask us this question and they point to this particular kind of suffering and say, "Well, why this piece, why this thing in particular?" One is that, I think smuggled into this question, is the thought that maybe other people deserve to suffer in some way, but children are innocent. It just seems so unbelievably unfair, but I actually want to even challenge that assumption that links someone's suffering with something that they've done, because I think Jesus himself speaks to this.

Jo Vitale: When a tower falls on a group of people, and Jesus actually says it wasn't because of some particular sin that they did that caused that. It's actually the reality of the broken world that we're living in that we've been talking about that these kinds of tragedies do happen. So I think we need to be very careful not to assume there's a blame when we see suffering taking place in somebody's life, a particular instance of suffering.

Jo Vitale: The other thing that I want to say is I think we feel the unfairness of it when we look at children suffering with cancer, because we think, if someone dies in their old age, we at least sort of feel like, "Well, they had a chance to live, they got to experience life," whereas a child hasn't had that chance, and so we're kind of comparing our lives with one another and saying that doesn't seem fair. I understand why we think this way, because as human beings, we are running on a timeline and we're comparing ourselves to one another, but actually, I think having the eternal perspective of God makes a radical difference when it comes to this question.

Jo Vitale: I was reading Psalm 90 the other day, which talks about a thousand years and God's sight being like a day that has gone by or like a watch in the night, and it talks about our lives being like a morning that sprang new, but by the evening, they're dry and withered, and the Psalmist teach us to number our days that we might gain a heart of wisdom. The difference between the way we see time and the way time flows for us, and the way God sees it and understands it, and how every one of our lifespans from God's perspective are literally gone in the blink of an eye, it's just that fast.

Jo Vitale: Actually, that makes a profound difference when it comes to this question, because the real question, I think, is not how much time do we get on this earth, but actually the bigger question is, will we have the eternal life with God that He actually died to bring us and give us and that he desires for every single one of us? However much we grieve the loss of somebody, I actually believe God grieves it more, that every life is infinitely precious to God, but that's why he's done everything he possibly could to ensure that actually whatever we experienced in this lifetime isn't the end, but actually that we could have an eternity with him when, when those timeframes, our perspectives will be reoriented, and I think we'll just see things so differently from the other side of eternity than we can in this lifetime.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's good. I think it was Billy Graham who once said, "One day, you will hear rumors that I have died. Do not believe them. They will not be true," and just a wonderful perspective for it to be real to someone that actually, death is not truly death, actually, is just the beginning. An analogy I was thinking about not long ago was that idea of waking up from a dream. I'm careful about this analogy, because I don't in any way want to trivialize some of the suffering that is experienced in this life, but when you have a terrible dream and then you wake up, the dream may still have been terrible, and there may have been something horrific about the dream, but you have woken up into a reality which is so much richer and more real and more robust, and it is not a reality in which you're suffering, and there's great relief and comfort that comes from that.

Vince Vitale: Well, what if it's the case that the world that ultimately we are headed for, or the state of being that ultimately we are headed for that eternal state, is one that is so much richer and so much more robust and so much more real than what we're experiencing right now, that it will be something like waking up from the terrible dream with that great relief and that great comfort. It is, I think, biblical to think that way, even though we can just barely imagine it, but I think of first Corinthians two, "No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor humankind imagined what God has prepared for those who love him," and Romans eight as well, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us," and every time I read that verse, I think, "Wow," that is a really strong statement to be able to make given the severity of some of the suffering in this life, but how strongly that then speaks to what it is that we are headed for, and there's great hope to be found in that.

Michael Davis: When I was an atheist, I would look at things like cancer or wars or earthquakes and just all these different things, and I didn't even have a paradigm to be able to put it into. It was just the way things are and the realization that I was hurdling to the same fate that those people are facing. It could be that it was an accident the next day, or it could be dying of cancer at the age of 80, but ultimately, what we have is exactly what you said. It is the hope that is in us that it is not a blind hope, it is a blind hope in what we can accomplish and that science will eventually cure a certain disease, because at the end of the day, in this world, short of God coming back or us coming home, that we are all going to face it. It might be delayed by a little while, but what we have is we know that Christ has defeated this.

Michael Davis: It is the already, but not yet. We are in a world that, for many of us, is almost unbearable, but we know that Jesus on the cross has defeated this. He is drawing his people to himself, and one day, this will be no more, and that is just a comfort that I never had as a nonbeliever. The suffering that I had, whether it was in the deployment or suffering of friends and the different things in my life, they bore down on me because I didn't have a hope, but we know, to your point, that at the end of the day, this has been defeated. I've read the end of revelations. I know who wins.

Vince Vitale: Then to that, let me make two just brief further connections on this really critical question. One is sometimes people ask, “Where is God in the suffering?” That's actually a really good question. It's also a question that I find encouraging to be able to respond to from a Christian perspective, because one thing we can say that no other worldview can say is that God is there in the suffering because he has suffered himself, and secondly, where is God in the suffering? You also see God in terms of the image of God being displayed in human persons in the context of suffering, in ways that you almost never see otherwise.

Vince Vitale: In times of terrible suffering, you see the very worst of evil, but you often see the very best of humanity. You get that glimpse of God through the image of God in human people shining through, because it's often in the very worst that we actually, sometimes even without knowing it, receive the promptings of God and we respond to people in sacrificial love and with a selflessness which is so rarely true of us, but you sometimes see in real tragedy, and there's something beautiful about that, even amidst the heartbrokenness.

Vince Vitale: The second point that I wanted to make here, just to connect this to real life experience, sometimes we think of this challenge of why there's suffering in the world, even if God exists in this way. We think it would be evil for someone, for God to create people into a world that includes serious suffering. That might be the thought that's going through our head, but here's the connection I want to make. If that's true, then not only will we have to call God evil, we will also have to call evil any human parents who decide to have a child.

Vince Vitale: Human parents make that very difficult decision as well. They know full well that if you have a child into this world, even the most favorable of human lives is going to experience serious suffering at some point in that life, and yet we think that it cannot only be okay, but it could be an act of love for a human parent to say, "I'm going to have a child anyway." We don't think that a parent is evil just for bringing a child into a world with suffering. We have to ask further questions. Is that parent willing to suffer alongside their child? Is that parent willing to do whatever it takes to, as Michael put it, claim the victory in the end and see that child through suffering? When we ask those questions, then the Christian God can respond in a better way than any other worldview or any other human person ever could.

Vince Vitale: So it's interesting to think that we as human parents do, in some ways, the very same thing, bring children into a world where there's serious suffering, that we then point that God at and blame Him for. It's interesting how quick we are to point at God and blame Him, the same God who, when He suffered at our hands, He looked down and his words out of his mouth, the instinct of his heart was to say, "Father, forgive them." So we have an incredibly gracious God, I think, in terms of the way that we sometimes turn and look to blame him for things that actually we're involved in ourselves, and yet he's the one who can suffer alongside and who can see us through to a better state, like you said, Michael.

Michael Davis: Well that is all the time we have for this episode. Vince, sum it up for us.

Vince Vitale: Well, we've been dealing with this really difficult question of natural evil, and natural evil is something every person needs to deal with, regardless of what you do or don't believe about God, regardless of what worldview you hold. So the question is, what sort of worldview do we need in response to the reality of natural evil? I think we need a worldview that calls natural evil evil, that allows us to use those categories of good and evil, which it's so difficult to get a hold on from an atheistic or naturalistic worldview. We need a worldview that challenges us to resist and alleviate suffering due to natural evil and all evil, and we find that in Jesus, Jesus who says, "However you've treated the least of these, you've treated me."

Vince Vitale: So there's that encouragement to go out and to be people who respond to suffering with love and with charity and by alleviating it, and then ultimately, we need a worldview that offers hope, and as you said, Michael, a worldview that doesn't leave us with natural evil, that doesn't leave us with suffering as the final word, but that brings the final words that there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, in that wonderful passage from Revelations 21, where it says, "Because God will wipe every tear from our eyes." Amazing detail there. Not just that the tears will be wiped from our eyes, but that it will be God himself who intimately, relationally wipes the tears from our eyes. Something absolutely to look forward to.

Michael Davis: An upbeat way of ending a very deep and difficult subject. Thank you guys for joining me, and thank you guys for tuning in, and we will be back next week.

Every article, podcast, and video on this website is made possible by the kindness of our supporters.

If you'd like to support our mission of sharing a thoughtful Christianity to the world, you can donate through our site.

Find more thoughtful content on these topics in RZIM Answers.

Get our free , every other week, straight to your inbox.

Your podcast has started playing below. Feel free to continue browsing the site without interrupting your podcast!