Ehrman’s Problem 2: Free Will and Natural Evil

As I mentioned yesterday, Ehrman admits that free will can explain much human evil, but he asks how it can explain malaria, dysentery, drought, hurricanes, mudslides, or a “tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands overnight.” (12) In other words, how does the misuse of free will explain “natural” evil?

Although there are other answers to this question, here I’m going to briefly give the two major answers.

Adam’s Sin Brought Natural Evil

The first reason is natural evil exists because Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Adam ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” (Gen. 3:17) I ask my classes all the time, “What natural evil couldn’t have been enabled by God looking at the ground and saying, ‘You are cursed’?”

Then, after God cursed the ground, He banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and thus removed them from the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life. This ensured that they and their descendants would die. No specification was made as to when or how death might come. One might die at eight-months, eight-years, or eighty years from drowning or heart disease. Regardless, most natural evil arose because of Adam’s misuse of free will.

Saying that we all suffer and die because of a decision that some couple made long ago, although perfectly Biblical, brings up a problem that Ehrman doesn’t ask, Why is it fair that we all suffer so terribly for their decision?

The Bible gives two answers here.1 First, the Bible says that we all inherit Adam’s sinful nature and so all of us grow to become sinners: “sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men—because all sinned.” (Rom. 5:12.)

Second, the Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were not just some disconnected couple who happened to live thousands of years ago who just happened to sin, and now, for some strange reason, we suffer for it. No. It teaches that they are our first parents, our original parents, and that they made a decision that resulted in our deaths and the suffering that our deaths entail. In other words, free beings named Adam and Eve made a decision that adversely affected us—their family. God commanded them not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for doing so would bring death. They ate; death came—and we’ve been attending funerals ever since. We, their children, have all ratified their sinful choice by choosing evil ourselves. Adam and Eve tasted of good and evil, and we’ve been tasting it ever since.

We all understand being hurt, sometimes even injured, by a parent’s decisions. What I mean is, we all know of families where a parent has driven drunk and injured a child, gambled away the family’s future, abused or molested one or more of the children, or abandoned the family to run off with someone new. Free beings hurt their families all the time and Adam similarly hurt his family. Adam did it, of course, on a much, much larger scale, but it was the act of a free being. Much of natural evil resulted from Adam’s free will choice.

If we are offended that sin can lead to so much death and destruction, then we should hate sin! “Hate sin!” is perhaps the biggest lesson of this life. Hate sin! One sin killed us all. Let’s learn from that. The trouble is that we humans rarely hate sin (at least our own sin anyway) until it affects us adversely. Because we don’t hate sin, God’s punishment for sin seems terribly severe (I’ll talk more about this in future posts).

Spiritual Forces Cause Natural Evils

The second answer is that the Bible teaches that diseases and natural disasters often arise through the actions of spiritual beings who can and do wreak havoc upon humankind. The classic example is Satan’s killing Job’s children with gale-force winds and then afflicting Job with boils. Ehrman grants that this is indeed a Biblical perspective:

One of the virtues of the apocalyptic perspective embraced by many (most?) of the New Testament authors is that it insists quite vociferously that God does not bring disasters; his cosmic enemies do. Not just earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis, but sickness and disease, mental health problems, oppression and persecution: it is the Devil and his minions, the demons, who are at fault…. This is an age in which they have been given virtually free reign. (232)2

But “virtually free reign” is just another way of saying that they had a lot of opportunity to exercise their free will, and this is an example of how free will can explain many natural disasters.

There’s much more to this issue, but that’s enough for now. Suffice it to say that the misuse of free will has brought into our world most of the suffering we endure.

  1. For more on this see: Clay Jones, “Original Sin: It’s Importance and Fairness” Christian Research Journal (December, 2011), 24-27. []
  2. Emphasis mine. []
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11 Responses to Ehrman’s Problem 2: Free Will and Natural Evil

  1. Brian Mason says:

    Wonderful writing! Clay makes understanding of Bible difficulties very clear. Thanks for posting this on Beacon Apologetics on facebook!

  2. Brian Mason says:

    Great writing! Easy to comprehend. Thanks for posting this on Beacon Apologetics on Facebook!

  3. Boz says:

    clayjones, I don’t think your responses to the problem of natural evil will be persuasive to non-christians.

    Do you have an answer to the problem of natural evil that might gain traction with non-christians?

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Boz,
      The problem of evil is one of logical contradiction. Namely, the skeptic argues that the Christian can’t reconcile how the God we worship would allow so much evil. If we can show that there is no contradiction, even if they don’t like the answer, then we have succeeded. That they don’t buy it is irrelevant to whether we have resolved the contradiction.

  4. Greg Reeves says:

    I wonder if you could clarify what you mean by the fall bringing natural evil to the world. People often consider a major component of natural evil to be natural disasters (volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and landslides).

    Just want to be clear, are you implying that no earthquakes or hurricanes ever took place on earth before the fall?

    • clayjones says:

      I don’t know whether EQs and hurricanes did or not occur before the fall, Greg. If I had to guess, I’d say that they didn’t.

  5. Pingback: Free will and “natural” evil « Common Man Apologetics

  6. Alex Blagojevic says:

    Dr. Jones,

    Great article. I also completely agree that although the skeptics may not like our answer to the problem of natural evil, at least they need to know that we have a Biblical way of reconciling it.
    When I was an atheist, I went as a student to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Although not born again, I felt disgusted by the amount of sin there. After I became a Christian, I prayed that people would repent of all the sinfulness that surfaced their land. I had also heard that the police was extremely corrupted. When authority is unrighteous, everyone under it pays the price. Think of totalitarian regimes or greedy CEOs. To top all that, New Orleans sea level was too low for 100 years, and authorities did nothing to protect the city against the risk of its low level. If I continuously ride my car while never changing my tires, eventually, I will have an accident.
    As a Christian, I went to Haiti before the earthquake. While there, I wept over the country and prayed God that He would show mercy to a country that worships idols and almost deliberately and proudly practices vodooism. In both cases God showed patience and waited for repentance like He did in the Old Testament where He kept warning them, until He finally destroyed their cities.

  7. Alex Blagojevic says:

    Greg Reeves,

    I don’t know if there were hurricanes and earthquakes before the fall (I guess it depends on whether you are an old or young earth creationist).
    What we need to remember is that Satan had already rejected God before the fall. So, it is possible that those incidents were happening before Adam’s sin. Also, earthquakes, lightnings, etc. are not necessarily evil. Many scientists say that they are actually good for the earth. For instance, lightning helps fertilize soil. Just a thought.

  8. John says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Clay!!!

    Just want to ask about your thoughts on natural evil before the fall?? Isn’t this a big talking point at the moment? Do you think its credible?

    Thanks 🙂

    • clayjones says:

      Depends on whether you hold the young or old earth view, John. The YE view doesn’t need their to be natural evil before the fall. The OE view is answered by Dembski in his book The End of Christianity.

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