We have all listened to news stories about the various natural disasters around the world which have caused thousands of deaths and much destruction. An earthquake in Mexico and multiple hurricanes in our own country are just a few such examples. The question that comes to many of our minds is why does this happen? Why such suffering — such loss of life? It seems so pointless and impossible to comprehend.
What we are speaking about here is what philosophers and theologians call “natural evil.” A natural evil is different from a moral evil in that it doesn’t directly involve a human person. Examples of moral evils are stealing, murder, slander or assault. These all involve a person choosing in some way to do wrong and harming another.
Natural evils, however, are much more difficult to understand. A cold air mass collides with a warm air mass over the Great Plains which causes rotation in the atmosphere which forms a tornado which wipes out a town that took 150 years to build. Plates hundreds or thousands of feet below the earth’s surface shift, cause friction, then buckle, causing a tremor which destroys cities and towns and kills thousands. Lightening from a thunderstorm hits the ground in a forest which is dry, igniting trees and brush, causing a forest fire that destroys hundreds of homes and property. Why do these things happen?
More to the point, the question is often raised as to how a loving God can allow such things to happen. Some individuals have tragically concluded that either God does not care about such suffering or is seemingly powerless to prevent it. Some have abandoned their faith because of this. But as Christians, we look to our faith for answers.
Why does God allow evil, whether moral or natural? Our Christian faith tells us that the Lord is all good and all loving. We know that God does not directly cause cancer, or a murder, or an earthquake. However, he does sometimes permit evil to occur but only when a greater good can come out of it.
The greatest proof of this is the cross — that most vital and important of all Christian symbols. God the Father permitted the evil of the suffering and death of his only Son Jesus in order to bring about a greater good — the greatest of all goods which is our salvation! That’s what Easter is all about: the resurrection, our hope. We believe as Christians that for every Good Friday in our lives there will always be an Easter Sunday. We always look to our own resurrection.
Well, this is fine and well for us sitting comfortably at home in our easy chair reading this article. It is much less pleasant digging through fallen concrete to find the lifeless body of one’s beloved child crushed by an earthquake. So we return to natural evil, why does it exist? A possible answer might be that these natural disasters are another manifestation of original sin and the brokenness of our world caused by the fall of man. That initial act of disobedience by Adam and Eve has sent shock waves of disorder throughout the spiritual and physical universe. And the broken physical world in which we live sometimes manifests its brokenness in these disasters.
In other words, natural evil is a result of moral evil. Another possible answer to the question of natural evil might be that this is just how the natural world works. This is how the “machine” functions and we just happen to get in the way. This is not a very satisfying answer, but one way of looking at it.
Another perspective might be that the so-called evil of a forest fire always brings with it a stronger, healthier forest with new trees. The earth eventually settles after an earthquake and new nutrients are brought to the surface. A tornado brings with it rain which waters the earth and brings forth life, etc. It seems even in natural evils there is a resurrection of sorts after the evil has passed.
In the big picture, this is a mysterious subject which yields many questions. I have only scratched the surface and in a very simple manner at that! In the end, we cry out to God for mercy and we know that in his great love, he will hear us. As always, his ways are not our ways.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”