Considerations on the Argument from Natural Evil

The argument from natural evil typically goes something like this:

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
  2. This kind of God would not allow natural evil to exist, where natural evil is understood as pain or suffering that isn’t caused by human choice.
  3. Natural evil exists.
  4. Therefore, there is no God as so defined.

How should a Christian respond?

If you think that Christianity should be and properly considered is robustly empirical and practical, then it is reasonable to wonder whether these sorts of theological arguments, important as they may be in pointing to conceptual inadequacies or tensions, are in some way missing the point of what is important about the phenomenon in question.

Consider. It is as if someone, noting the belief in gravity, also noted the seeming theoretical incompatibility between relativity theory and quantum theory, and concluded that, therefore, gravity did not exist. The correct response, it seems, would be to say that, whatever gravity turns out to be, what is relevantly important about it is real and so therefore overcomes such theoretical puzzles that are involved in relativity theory and quantum theory. It might be that gravity turns out be multiple phenomena, or it might be that our current conception of the ultimate nature of gravity is incorrect in some other way (and this is true about most everything). Regardless, our notion of gravity does important work. We know that gravity in some important sense exists, whatever it might turn out to be.

Consider that notions of God’s goodness, foresight, and benevolence are built up out of Christian experiences of providence, non-chance coincidence, the ‘Holy Spirit’, and so on. Arguments against Christianity of the above sort gain much of their perceived import from the mistaken notion that Christianity is primarily built on abstract theological speculation, when that sort of theology is, properly and as a matter of historical development, rather a result of consideration of a significant empirical base.

I.e., even if an argument such as the one above succeeded, it would only succeed in displacing a theological aspect, not the evidentiary bases that undergird that theological movement.

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