Thursday, April 03, 2008

Natural Disasters and the Problem of Evil

It's not often that I include other people's writing on The Fuse, but in this instance I was particularly impressed with my old professor, Dr. Ben Witherington's discussion on Katrina and other so-called natural disasters. I have copied his thoughts here and I hope that you will find them as helpful as I did.

The Wrath of Katrina

The beginning of the tidal wave coming ashore in Miss.
The funnel clouds form.
The rains begin.
The sky turns strange colors. The appropriate response to seeing such things is-- get in the car and drive as far away as you can as fast as you can.

This picture clearly was taken too close to the line of fire.
The funnel clouds touch down and the destruction begins.

These pictures are from Mississippi at the onset of Katrina. Were it not the case that human beings and their homes were in the way, various of these pictures depict a beautiful natural phenomenon.

Natural disasters are only natural disasters when they affect the life of higher sentient beings adversely. Over two thirds of the world is water, and indeed close to half the world is uninhabited. Had this hurricane happened on a remote Pacific atoll, we would not even be talking about it.

This raises some interesting theological questions, and not the ones suggested by Bart Ehrman in his recent book God's Problem. Four points are of relevance: 1) human behavior has to be held accountable when people refuse to get out of the way of a hurricane which cannot be stopped. For example, there was ample warning in New Orleans about the magnitude of the storm, and its general time of arrival, but many persons simply chose to ride the storm out. Many of them died. This can hardly be blamed on God; 2) There is another human factor in play as well. The over-heated waters in the gulf of Mexico contributed mightily to the magnitude of this storm. What caused the waters to be overheated? There are a variety of factors and several of them are human in origin: 1) the dumping of massive chemicals in the gulf; 2) the dumping of massive raw sewage in the gulf; 3) global warming which is in part attributable to human pollution. Even if you accept only one of these factors, there is still human responsibility to some degree, and then there is this. 4) according to Rom. 8 all of nature is groaning longing for the day of human resurrection when the world as well will be restored to an Edenic condition. Paul it appears subscribes to a theology that the Fall affected not just human nature but the whole realm of nature. In other words, human sin is the ultimate cause of much of what is fallen in nature. It is interesting to me that insurance companies only call natural disasters 'acts of God'. They don't call positive miracles that, only disasters. Here we have a theology that holds God responsible only when things go wrong.

And this brings up another point. To what extent has God set nature in motion and allowed it to take its own natural courses, bearing in mind that there are various factors human and otherwise that affect eco-systems and ecological patterns? While I do not believe that God is absent or has simply wound up the world of nature and let it run, unless you believe in absolute divine determinism, you cannot simply assume that everything that happens in nature reflects God's hand or will, especially if you have a theology of the Fall that affects nature. I do not pretend to have all the answers to these questions, but they are worth pondering. Think on these things.