Thursday, April 19, 2012

On natural disasters and suffering

Whenever a major natural disaster happens, people tend to fall into one of three groups in how they explain the disaster:
• The first group are the atheists, who say that the disaster is unfortunate but natural and God has nothing to do with it. I will ignore this claim, as my readers are by and large fairly orthodox Christians, and there is no need to preach to the choir.
• The second group (consisting of Christians who, for example, follow the lead of The 700 Club) says that God is giving wrath to the affected area for one reason or another. Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, it is usually not hard to come up with some reason that a disaster happened to someone. I will also ignore this claim, since most of my readers are intelligent and know that this is hogwash already.
• The third group, which comprises most Christians, are mournful, desirous of God to come and rescue us, and say something to this extent—“We live in a Fallen world, and because of our sin, these natural disasters happen.”

This third view, the common Christian view, is on the right track, but I propose that there is a fourth view which is more philosophically sturdy and Scriptural, and one which brings more sense to our lives than the typical views above.

To begin, we must go back to Genesis 3, the Fall of Man. There we must properly understand exactly happened during the Fall…and you will see a slight but very important change to the claim of most Christians above.

When God first created the universe in Genesis 1, we are told that it was formless and void and chaotic, and into this He brought order. He created light and darkness, He created seas and mountains, He created plants and animals. Then finally, He created man. He pronounced these creations, “good”—acceptable, meeting His approval.

Now later in Genesis 3, we will see that God institutes “death” into the world—which most Christian theologians today take to mean that before the Fall there was no suffering or death (and therefore, no natural disasters). But I argue that in its context, this clearly is referring to the death of mankind, for they are forbidden to eat of the tree of everlasting life (Gen 2:17). Nothing whatsoever is said about natural disasters or the death of animals, and where many Christians go wrong is right here: for they take this Genesis 3 statement and from it, believe that there was no death of any kind before the Fall—no suffering, no natural disasters, no animals eating each other in all Creation. Note that this is not actually stated in the Scriptures, though it is commonly assumed to be. Instead, let us go back and review key statements from the first two chapters of Genesis to better understand exactly what did happen during the Fall.

There is no explicit reason from Genesis 1 to believe that animals never died before the Fall; indeed, it seems strange that God would have created an entire food pyramid and given His predators carnivorous teeth, yet forced them to chew cud while waiting on Adam and Eve to screw up! No, there is no Scriptural evidence to believe that the Genesis 1 world was anything unlike our own: it was a world with plate tectonics (Gen 1:9) which naturally causes volcanoes and earthquakes; it was a world filled with “every kind” of animal in the food pyramid, many of which are exclusively carnivorous (Gen 1:20-25); it was a world with a functioning water cycle (Gen 1:6-9) and a given distance from the sun (Gen 1:1-5), which inevitably results in tornadoes and hurricanes. You see, the “natural disasters” that are often assigned to mankind’s Fall and a Genesis 3 world are, in fact, a direct and unavoidable result of the natural laws God built in Genesis 1. You cannot have Genesis 1 without earthquakes and tornadoes and the like. They are the natural results of the Laws He created. They did not come after the Fall, but were present all the time. As we shall see, this is no problem Scripturally.

So then we move into Genesis 2. In Genesis 2, God plants a Garden in the Earth—note that the earth has already been fully created and has all the plants and animals. However, Eden is clearly not subject to earth’s natural laws! Eden appears beyond doubt to be a place separated and sanctified from the rest of the wild Earth—the one “civilized” place in the world. It is a place separated from the water cycle—its gardens are watered only from the ground, nothing from the sky (Gen 2:6). It is a place without any “earth” plant life—God had to specially create all of the “pleasing” plants from the earth and plant them there (Gen 2:9). It is a place that God made after having completed the wild earth in Genesis 1, for He pulled man out of earth and placed him in the Garden (Gen 2:15). It is a place without any “earth” animals: God had to create examples of each for Adam to name (Gen 2:19-20)—which cannot refer to the creation of them in Gen 1:20-26, for in this case Adam is already in the Garden before God creates these creatures (Gen 2:15-20). And it is a place which has only one entrance from Earth (the east side), which can be hidden from all human perception (Gen 2:24).

Do you begin to see that the Bible claims Eden to be something both far more wonderful, and far more strange, than merely a pretty garden that God planted somewhere in Mesopotamia? It appears to be a special creation, tangentially touching the Earth but at a single point only, separated from Earth’s water cycle and natural disasters and biological life forms. Notice that everything in Eden—the water, the plants, the animals—were special creations of God, in addition to the creation of the Earth. Adam is the only person, place, or thing which is pulled from the wild earth and planted in God’s cultivated Garden.

Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are sometimes argued to be complimentary accounts of the same creation (by Christians), or contradictory account (by atheists). I argue that it is neither. They are accounts of two creations: Genesis 1 creates the wild and untamed Earth as we know it—filled with disasters and the food chain and natural selection and the like; Genesis 2 creates a cultivated, civilized Garden of peace and calm and beauty, made completely ex nihilo, and only Adam himself was placed in the Garden. Adam is the child of Earth; Eve is the child of the Garden. (Is this perhaps why men have a natural wildness in their nature, while women have a natural beauty and civility?)

If this interpretation is true, then there is one logical result: Eden was not subject to the laws of nature that Genesis 1 laid out. The fact that it cannot later be located on the earth, and the fact that none of the grasses and trees from Genesis 1 spread into it, shows that it cannot be connected physically to the plates of this earth—hence, no earthquakes. The fact that God only planted the “pleasing” trees means no thorns or poisonous plants existed there. The fact that God recreated examples of the animals means that they could not migrate there, even before the Fall (and it also means that the animals in Eden did not necessarily have the same instinctual drives to be carnivores as those on Earth). The fact that God watered the plants from the ground meant that Eden did not have the normal flow of the water cycle—and therefore, it is safe to assume that the conditions which lead to flooding, drought, tornadoes, thunderstorms, lightning, and hurricanes were also non-existent. The fact that the Tree of Life still exists and will be replanted in New Jerusalem (Rev 22:2) tells us Eden has not been destroyed, but hidden from us.

So what does this tell us? Well, it tells us that the chapters leading up to Genesis 3, when the Fall occurs, read considerably differently than most Christians think—which in turn means that the curse of God in Gen 3:16-24 must be read in a different context. God did not all of a sudden start allowing natural disasters, or animals to eat each other, or cause thorns to grow that had never existed before: Genesis 1 makes it clear that these things had to all exist ahead of the expulsion from Eden. God’s curse on mankind is not that He newly created the dangerous wildness of Earth: it was that we were expelled from Eden—Adam was returned to “the earth from which he was taken” (Gen 3:23).

In Eden, man had been protected from the natural laws of Earth. But after the Fall, God had to send us out of Eden, lest we eat of the tree of life and become immortal sinners and His enemies. Thus, He sent us back to Earth—a place which is beautiful and “good”, and created by God…but a place of wildness, where animals eat other animals, and the order creates natural disasters, and the like.

Most Christians, when they see a major tsunami or other natural disaster, say things like this: “We live in a Fallen world, and creation groans for Christ to return and free us.” That is true, of course—but the implication is misleading, and implies a wrong theology. Their theology, which says that death and suffering did not exist on earth until the Fall and that with the Fall God created such things as a punishment, is wrong.

The true theology of the Fall is only slightly different, but the difference is significant. God created the Earth, a wild place of natural beauty and natural disaster. It was a good creation—not a perfect one, not a deathless one, not a disasterless one. It is a planet which clearly demonstrates God’s awesome power and terrible justice and beautiful creativity and compassionate love and boundless energy and intricate order, all at once. A place where each lightning bolt teaches the power of His hand and the fearfulness of His judgment, yet the clouds from which the lightning bolts strike are beautiful, pillowy testaments to His creativity, love of beauty, and eye for uniqueness. The Earth is both beautiful and horrifying—as in fact God’s mercy is beautiful and His justice is horrifying for we sinners. The Earth is a glorious testimony of who God is and His awesome power.

And then He planted on this earth a place of protection and purity—a place with everything pleasing from Earth, but protected from its natural suffering and disaster. A place where mankind could live in perfect harmony with God in His personal garden, and if they chose to eat of the Tree of Life, could do so for eternity.

But man rebelled against God’s plan for purity. And in this garden is a tree which grants eternal life. To leave man in that garden, God knows, is to invite man to become God’s enemy—for if they eat of the Tree of Life, they will be (like Lucifer and his demons) immortal creatures who have chosen rebellion against God.

So God does the only thing which makes sense for punishment: He exiles Adam and Eve from Eden. Now they must live in Earth. And Earth has natural disasters. Earth has dangerous predators. Earth has all the beauty of Eden…but does not have Eden’s protection. It has the roses, but also the thorns—whereas Eden’s roses were already pruned.

So when someone says, “We live in a Fallen world”, they are only partly right. It is not that we live in a Fallen world, so much as that we have Fallen into this world. This was not the home where we were supposed to be living! We were to be inside the protection of Eden, not in the wilds of Earth.

The best way to say it is not, “We live in a Fallen world”, but rather, “We are Fallen, and as a result live in this world.” The disasters are natural—it is our presence here is what is unnatural.

And so, as long as man remains on Earth waiting for the return of Christ, we will continue to deal with suffering and natural disasters. It is the curse of our exile.


  1. Has no-one commented??

    This is brilliant!

    I'm a minister in the UK - perhaps not surprisingly I liked your analysis as I trained as a mechanical engineer before being saved.

    Thanks for an intelligent look at this topic.

    1. Jeremy, thanks! I tend to not get a lot of comments on the blog...for some reason I have a very high reader-to-comment ratio. I hope you like this and other similar articles, and if so, share them!