Tag Archives: Omnibenevolence

The Problem of Earthquakes

1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey.  Photo Credit: USGS
1999 Earthquake in Izmit, Turkey. Photo Credit: USGS

The problem of evil or suffering in the world has often been used by atheists to attack the idea of the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God. Yet, much of the suffering in our world can be traced back to causes related to our free choices as humans. Even natural effects like birth defects in an area might be tied to hazardous waste deliberately covered up in the community, drug use by the mother during pregnancy, or to the use of lead-based paints in an older house, for example. In the first 2 cases we see the suffering was the result of malicious (or at least irresponsible) human activity, while the last one highlights our woefully finite knowledge of the future effects of our actions.

But the skeptic can turn to natural disasters and say that if God exists, these can surely be blamed on Him. We even tend to call them “acts of God” in our insurance policies. If He is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and desires the good of His creation, then surely He has either directly caused these horrible disasters, or known they were going to happen and refused to stop them. The skeptical reasoning then goes that either God is not good, or He is unable to stop these events (and therefore not worthy of being called “God”), or He simply doesn’t exist. It’s hard to see the misery and suffering in the wake of something like the Haitian earthquake of 2010 (magnitude 7.0 – 220,000 dead), or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake – 230,000 dead), and not ask “Why?” But while I would agree with the skeptic that this is a legitimate question to ask, I propose an alternative response: that even as awful as things like earthquakes can be, they are actually a necessary part of human existence. Allow me to explain.

I’ve seen occasional comments about the role of plate tectonics (the process that results in earthquakes) in making earth suitable for life for a few years now (like in the 2004 book “Origins of Life” by Dr. Fazale Rana & Dr. Hugh Ross, both Christians), but the always thought-provoking blogger Wintery Knight recently shared 2 non-Christian sources that had come to similar conclusions. One was a 2013 Forbes.com interview with atheist paleontologist Peter Ward regarding his and agnostic astronomer Donald Brownlee’s view on the potential for life on planets outside our solar system. They had written on this in their book Rare Earth back in 2000. In the interview, Ward is asked about the common appeal to the sheer number of extra-solar planets as statistical evidence for life having formed elsewhere in the universe. He responds that “Without plate tectonics, we might have microbes but we’d never get to animals.” Tilman Spohn, director of the German Space Research Centre Institute of Planetary Research, also views plate tectonics as likely being essential to the existence of complex life on any planet. In 2009, he pointed NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine readers to plate tectonics’ role in 1) the formation of granite, a necessary element in forming continents, 2) the replenishment of key elements essential for life chemistry as we know it, 3) the generation of the earth’s protective magnetic field through formation of convection currents in the molten core, and 4) the recycling of carbon to regulate temperature on the planet. On that last item, it’s worth mentioning, with all of the concern over the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and mankind’s “carbon footprint” over the last few years, that 80% of the natural capture of greenhouse gases is accomplished through plate tectonics as carbon is captured in freshly exposed silicates that are eroded and pushed under the tectonic plates to be recycled in the earth’s mantle. The other 20% is sequestered by plants and animals storing carbon in their bodies, dying, being buried, and eventually being turned into deposits of hydrocarbons (i.e. “fossil fuels”).[1]

Now what is interesting about these proposals is the significance plate tectonics is having in whether non-Christian scientists view a potential alien planet as even capable of supporting life. It seems that as we learn more about the role of tectonic activity in our own world, it becomes increasingly unlikely that simply being in a “habitable zone” of a distant star is enough. Thus, despite the odds put forward of “700 quintillion” exoplanets throughout the universe, and statistically, some other planet surely having evolved life of similar complexity to us, it simply can’t happen without the earthquakes we fear and despise. Instead of being an indication of a cruel, uncaring, or nonexistent god, we are beginning to see that these earthquakes that inflict so much suffering are actually a part of a very special (and so far, entirely unique) habitat that appears to be especially designed to allow our overall flourishing.  Rather than evolutionary chance causing life on earth and potentially other worlds, what we keep running into is very deliberate, precise, design of systems of complex interacting systems indicative of an omniscient and omnipotent Creator.

Lastly, as an engineer, I’d like to point out that the extreme loss of life in the 2 earthquakes cited above should be compared with that in some other significant quakes. Chile has endured earthquakes like few countries in the world, including the largest earthquake ever recorded. But they have also worked hard to develop seismic-resistant buildings. The magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake of May 22, 1960, the largest magnitude ever recorded, killed less than 6,000 people. Chile’s magnitude 8.8  quake in 2010  occurred only a month after the Haitian quake, and was roughly 500 times more powerful, yet less than 600 people died in Chile. Less than 20 people died in the magnitude 8.3 quake in 2015. In the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, the 2nd largest ever recorded at magnitude 9.2, 139 people died. Even the devastating 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in 2011 killed less than one-tenth of the people that the 7.0 Haitian quake did. While earthquakes are serious business anywhere, their effects can be mitigated. It is good to remember that while these appear to actually be essential to the existence of life on Earth, they are also something we can design for. The experience of the Chileans, the Japanese, and Americans has shown that these major components of our planet’s lifecycle don’t have to be an obstacle to belief in God, for He has also given us the minds to work around these events, and the resources to implement those plans and prevent the suffering so often cited as “evidence” against God’s goodness. In fact, maybe the suffering caused by earthquakes is not so much evidence of God’s inadequacy, as it is our own, in our lack of cooperative development of disaster-resistant construction around the world.

[1] Hugh Ross & Fazale Rana, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2004), p. 215.

The Challenge of a False Dilemma, Part 2

Decisions_smallIn last week’s post (here), we looked at how to tell if a dilemma before you is legitimate or not. This week, let’s apply that training in logic to a classic case, the Epicurean Dilemma. This is a series of questions regarding the goodness of God allegedly proposed by Epicurus in the 3rd century BC to show that God could not be omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good or all-loving) if evil exists.[1]

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

The 4 questions have 2 base assumptions: 1)  omnipotence and omnibenevolence are required attributes of God, and 2) Evil exists. The first, depending on the definition of the terms, is in accord with traditional lists of attributes of God accepted by theists.[2] The second is reasonable given our observations of the world around us – just look at the news headlines and you’ll find abundant evidence of the existence of evil.  The horns of the dilemma then form a choice between:

A) God, if He exists, does not meet the “minimum job qualifications”, or
B) evil doesn’t exist.

Since evil is so readily apparent, “Whence cometh evil?”is a rhetorical question attempting to make the simultaneous existence of a good God and a world of evil an absurdity, and to steer us to accepting choice A. How then should we respond?

Actually, once we clearly define the terms, we’ll see that 3 of the 4 questions fall away, and the remaining has a reasonable answer. Let’s start with clarifying what we mean by these terms:

  • Omnipotence means having unlimited power to do whatever is possible. God cannot make square circles or stones so heavy He couldn’t move them. These are logical contradictions, and God cannot do what is contradictory.[3]
  • Omnibenevolence refers to God’s “infinite or unlimited goodness”, or His love for all.[4]
  • To love is “to will the good of its object”.[4]
  • Evil may be defined as a deprivation of some good that ought to be there; not a substance in itself, or a mere negation of substance, but a corruption of the good substances God made; analogous to rust on a car or rot in a tree.[5]
  • Free will is simply the ability to choose between alternative possibilities.

With clearly defined terms, we can now examine the argument. Though not mentioned in the dilemma, God has free will, which governs the use of His omnipotence. So then, just because God can do something, doesn’t mean He must. While His power to do anything possible is unlimited, His use of that power is limited by His will and His love. He could overwhelm us, and force us to only do what is right, but He doesn’t because of His love for us. Instead, He desires our freely-given love in return, since forced love isn’t really love at all. And so we have been created  with free will, able to choose to love or hate, to obey or rebel, to build up or destroy. This is where we start to see the nature of the false dilemma: the “problem of evil” really isn’t a choice between either God’s omnipotence or His omnibenevolence. It must factor in free will, both of God and man, and this actually answers the question “Whence cometh evil?” As Norman Geisler has highlighted, “God is responsible for making evil possible, but free creatures are responsible for making it actual.”[6] Free will is that two-edged sword that allows moral good and evil.

People often ask why God couldn’t simply eliminate all the evil in the world. But how many of us stop to think that if He did that, He just might start with me? We like to think other people are always the problem, or that He would take out the Hitlers of the world (and, you know,  maybe the guy that cut me off in traffic last week), but not sweet little me! Yet none of us are perfect, and perfection is the standard. Then, if we got our wish that a perfectly just God eliminate all the evil in the world, would any of us survive?

So is He able to prevent evil? Yes. He could make us all robots without the ability to disobey (but also unable to obey out of love). He could potentially give us “free will” but take away any bad choice that we were about to choose. Is that really freedom when the game is rigged like that? Is it really love when there’s actually no other possible option? He could potentially make every bad choice somehow have only good results, but (if possible) this seems to eliminate any concept of moral responsibility for our actions. I could go out and kill people knowing that God would simply follow behind me resurrecting them on the fly (or some other compensatory act). Is He willing to prevent evil? Yes, but not at the expense of free will that makes a morally good world possible.

We can therefore “escape between the horns” by showing how free will allows a third option that reconciles God’s attributes and the presence of evil in the world, or we can “take the dilemma by the horns”, by showing that the premises are false because of an unclear definition of the term “omnipotent”. In the end, God is willing and able to prevent evil, but it’s for our own good that He restrains His power and grants us the freedom that so often sadly results in the evil we observe.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil#Epicurus, accessed 10/17/2015.
[2] See Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Bethany House Publishers, Bloomington, MN, 2011), p. 410 for a longer list of attributes.
[3] ibid, p. 487-8 (see also Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, & Titus 1:2, NASB).
[4] ibid, p. 585.
[5] “Evil, Problem of”, in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norman Geisler, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2000, 5th Printing), p. 220. Condensed for brevity.
[6] ibid, p. 219.