Why does God allow so much natural evil from phenomena like earthquakes?

My friend Eric Chabot of Ratio Christi shared this video with me, which features chemist Fazale Rana.

The video runs under 4 minutes:

Basically, there was an atheist who challenged the idea that nature is designed because there are things in nature which cause suffering, like earthquakes and volcanoes.

Now the first thing to note is that atheists commonly think that God’s job is to make humans happy. If he doesn’t make humans feel happy – regardless of their knowledge of him and relationship with him – then he is a big failure. Many atheists think that, it is one of the most common reasons why people become atheists. But of course anyone who reads the Bible and reads the story of Jesus knows that the purpose of life on God’s view is for humans to know him and to be disciples of a suffering Messiah who sacrifices himself in order to obey God the Father.  So that’s the first thing to say – purpose of life not happiness, but knowledge of God and being a disciple of Jesus. This may involve all kinds of suffering, and that’s to be expected.

Second, there is a response to the problem of evil based on the necessity of natural laws. The argument goes that you can’t have genuine morality without a predictable, knowable system of natural laws.

But I want to talk about something different in this post. In the video, Dr. Rana thinks that many of the things that cause suffering in the natural world are actually necessary for life to exist at all. He provides the example of plate tectonics in his video above, and I want to take that one and add to it the example of heavy element production and the stellar lifecycle. These are both from a book called “Rare Earth”, which is written by two non-Christians – Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, but I’ll link to web sites to make the case.

Plate tectonics.

Here’s an article from Reasons to Believe by Dr. David Rogstad, who has a PhD in physics from Caltech – the top school for experimental science. The article not only goes over the basic plate tectonics to carbonate-silicate cycle connection, but it adds a newer discovery to boot.

Excerpt:

Earthquakes are a byproduct of plate tectonics, a theory in geology developed in recent years for explaining motions near the surface of the Earth. One of the benefits from plate tectonics is that Earth maintains the right levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere to compensate for the Sun’s increasing luminosity. This is accomplished by what is called the carbonate-silicate cycle. CO2 is removed from the atmosphere through weathering. The weathered products are eventually drawn into the Earth’s interior via plate tectonics. Processes inside the Earth’s interior release the CO2 back into the atmosphere via volcanoes. While all aspects of this mechanism are not yet fully understood, it has been instrumental in providing a stable environment for life on the Earth for billions of years.

New research provides yet another component that appears fine-tuned for life. In a letter in the September 27, 2007 issue of Nature together with a corresponding news release from the University of Bonn, Arno Rohrbach and his colleagues have discussed another mechanism similar to the carbonate-silicate cycle. It also depends on plate tectonics but, in this case, the mechanism controls the amount of oxygen on the surface of the Earth.

Oxygen becomes bound up in various oxides which are then drawn into the Earth’s interior, where various processes result in its being incorporated into an exotic mineral called majorite. The results reported in this letter established that majorite functions as a kind of “reservoir” for oxygen, and when the majorite ascends nearer to the surface of the Earth it breaks down and releases its oxygen. Some of this oxygen also binds with hydrogen released from the interior of the Earth to form water. The authors have referred to the whole process as an “oxygen elevator.”

They go on to say that “without the ‘oxygen elevator’ in its mantle the Earth would probably be a barren planet hostile to life. According to our findings, planets below a certain size hardly have any chance of forming a stable atmosphere with a high water content.”

This research confirms the existence of one more finely tuned mechanism that depends on plate tectonics and contributes to an environment that can support life. It also gives humans one more reason to be appreciative rather than dismayed when we experience an earthquake that breaks some precious possessions beyond repair.

Astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross who has a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Toronto and did a 5-year post-doctoral work at Caltech, adds to this with another discovery.

Excerpt:

In the December 2007 issue of Astrobiology Stanford University geophysicists Norman H. Sleep and Mark D. Zoback note that the higher tectonic activity during Earth’s early history could have played a key role in cycling critically important nutrients and energy sources for life. The production of numerous small faults in the brittle primordial crust released trapped nutrients. Such faults could also release pockets of methane gas and molecular hydrogen. The methane and hydrogen could then provide crucial energy sources for nonphotosynthetic life. Finally, the production of faults could bring water to otherwise arid habitats, such as rocks far below Earth’s surface.

Faulting, generated by active and widespread tectonics, allowed a youthful Earth to support diverse and abundant life. This enhanced diversity and abundance of life quickly transformed Earth’s surface into an environment safe for advanced life. Also, the buildup of biodeposits for the support of human civilization occurred more rapidly due to active tectonics.

The more rapid preparation of Earth for humanity is critical. Without such rapid preparation, humans could not come upon the terrestrial scene before the Sun’s increasing luminosity would make their presence impossible (due to excessive heat).

So that’s the science behind earthquakes. So that’s a brief look at why we need plate tectonics for life, and we just have to buck up and take the earthquakes with it. It’s not God’s job to give us happiness and health. That’s not his plan. People who complain about earthquakes have to show how God could get the life-permitting effects of earthquakes without wrecking his ability to succeed in his plan to make people know him and follow him. But how can an atheist do that? They can’t. I think that people just need to realize that humans are not in charge here and we have to live with that. We have to accept that we didn’t make the universe, and we don’t get to decide what purpose it has. God decides.

On to star formation.

Star formation

Atheists often complain that the universe is too big or too old (which is actually the same thing, since the more time passes, the more it expands). The fact of the matter is that life appeared the earliest it could appear – we needed the universe to be a certain age before it could support life.

Dr. Hugh Ross explains in this article.

Excerpt:

The second parameter of the universe to be measured was its age. For many decades astronomers and others have wondered why, given God exists, He would wait so many billions of years to make life. Why did He not do it right away? The answer is that, given the laws and constants of physics God chose to create, it takes about ten to twelve billion years just to fuse enough heavy elements in the nuclear furnaces of several generations of giant stars to make life chemistry possible.

Life could not happen any earlier in the universe than it did on Earth. Nor could it happen much later. As the universe ages, stars like the sun located in the right part of the galaxy for life (see chapter 15) and in a stable nuclear burning phase become increasingly rare. If the universe were just a few billion years older, such stars would no longer exist.

The Rare Earth book explains the details on p. 40-4:

The trick for getting from helium to the generation of planets, and ultimately to life, was the formation of carbon, the key element for the success of life and for the production of heavy elements in stars. Carbon could not form in the early moments following the Big Bang, because the density of the expanding mass was too low for the necessary collisions to occur. Carbon formation had to await the creation of giant red stars, whose dense interiors are massive enough to allow such collisions. Because stars become red giants only in the last 10% of their lifetimes (when they have used up much of the hydrogen in their cores), there was no carbon in the Universe for hundreds of millions to several billion years after the Big Bang—and hence no life as we know it for that interval of time.

[…]The sequence of element production in the Big Bang and in stars provided not only the elements necessary for the formation of Earth and the other terrestrial planets but also all of the elements critical for life—those actually needed to form living organisms and their habitats.

[…]The processes that occurred during the billions of years of Earth’s “prehistory” when its elements were produced are generally well understood. Elements are produced within stars; some are released back into space and are recycled into and out of generations of new stars. When the sun and its planets formed, they were just a random sampling of this generated and reprocessed material. Nevertheless, it is believed that the “cosmic abundance” mix of the chemical elements—the elemental composition of the sun—is representative of the building material of most stars and planets, with the major variation being the ratio of hydrogen to heavy elements.

[…]Many stars are similar in composition, but there is variation, mainly in the abundance of the heavier Earth-forming elements relative to hydrogen and helium. The sun is in fact somewhat peculiar in that it contains about 25% more heavy elements than typical nearby stars of similar mass. In extremely old stars, the abundance of heavy elements, may be as low as a thousandth of that in the sun. Abundance of heavy elements is roughly correlated with age. As time passed, the heavy-element content of the Universe as a whole increased, so newly formed stars are on the average more “enriched” in heavy elements than older ones.

[…]The matter produced in the Big Bang was enriched in heavier elements by cycling in and out of stars. Like biological entities, stars form, evolve, and die. In the process of their death, stars ultimately become compact objects such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, or even black holes. On their evolutionary paths to these ends, they eject matter back into space, where it is recycled and further enriched in heavy elements. New stars rise from the ashes of the old. This is why we say that each of the individual atoms in Earth and in all of its creatures—including us—has occupied the interior of at least a few different stars.

What he’s saying is that heavy elements are created gradually because of the star formation lifecycle. The first generation of stars are metal-poor. The next generation of stars is better. And so on until we get to stars that can support life by providing a steady, stable amount of energy – as well as other benefits like planets with an atmosphere.  Our planet is 4.5 billion years old, and the universe is about 14 billion years old. Simple life appears about 4 billion years ago on Earth. That means we got life practically immediately, given that we had to develop the heavy elements needed to make a life-supporting star, a life-supporting planet and us. 

UPDATE: Sean from ReligioPolitical Talk pointed out this related post out to me:

Another examples is that hurricanes help to regulate the earths temperature, and cause “sea deserts” to bloom… assisting in many ways earth’s climate:

“Some parts of the ocean are like deserts, because there isn’t enough food for many plants to grow. A hurricane’s high winds stir up the ocean waters and help bring nutrients and phytoplankton to the surface, where they get more sunlight, allowing the plants to bloom,” Babin said. (NASA)

To support the above, via The Columbia Tribune:

….”Most certainly,” says Steve DiMarco, a Texas A&M University oceanography professor who for 16 years has studied the Gulf of Mexico, which has a “dead zone” where oxygen-depleted water can kill marine life.

In early July, most of the Texas-Louisiana shelf from Freeport, Texas, to the Mississippi River Delta was hypoxic – meaning the salt water has lost large amounts of oxygen. Later in July, Hurricane Dolly disrupted the dead zone and re-oxygenated the shallow waters south of Louisiana and the entire shelf off Texas. Oxygen levels started to drop again within days after the storm.

In early August, Hurricane Eduard re-oxygenated the Louisiana shelf, but by mid-August oxygen concentrations dropped to hypoxic levels.

And guess what?

Hurricane Ike re-oxygenated the shelf when it made landfall Sept. 12 in Texas. The latest data collected in October showed oxygen concentrations nearly all at normal levels, DiMarco said….

Now that’s good blogging.

10 thoughts on “Why does God allow so much natural evil from phenomena like earthquakes?”

  1. I really dislike the term “natural evil”, specifically with the word “evil”, as if there is intent behind it. More objectively accurate terms might be “danger”, “peril”, or the like. I don’t know how to lobby for apologists to use more accurate language than this (reasons.org actually does use more neutral terms on its site), but I wish we could get away from adopting terms that lean toward a bias, in this case the antagonistic stance. It’s strange, but in everyday conversation, news, etc., we call them natural “disasters”, but suddenly when it’s atheism attacking theism, it’s natural “evil”, in an attempt to brand God with that character.

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      1. Definitely a valid SEO approach. This is more likely to be of interest to people searching “natural evil” than those searching “natural disasters”.

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    1. If a god created all things (assuming your own version of a god was the one and only correct and true version and it existed) then it would, too, be the creator of evil/danger/peril for it’s plan and if we are nothing more than it’s mere puppets, set ‘free’ to ‘prove’ something he/she/it already knows, our loyalty level, whether or not we’ll ever be loyal, etc, who is to say it would be a god deserving of worship and follow in the first place. Because if it created all things (I don’t believe this, but just rolling with it), and can destroy all things, it can’t be all good if it created the negatives that exist or allows the negatives to exist. Or unless you go with it’s god it can do whatever it wants so if it tells us murder is good and correct, then murder will from henceforth be good and correct. In which case, I would never be able to substitute that being’s morals for my own because I find that highly immoral. Also, if it’s all powerful and can do anything, and chooses to allow harm to come to people to try to sway them to love him, that’s a jealous, petty, insecure and tyrannical act and not one I’d follow even if there were an ounce of evidence that such a being actually existed, if that was his/her/it’s nature. To try to get people to love and follow and worship it and punish and hurt them when they won’t, oh but call it free will. What sort of creature you can call a god would need or even want people to worship it in the first place. But I also see zero evidence that ‘most’ atheists become atheists on the basis of they don’t feel a god makes them happy and so he can’t therefore exist. I posit that most atheists are or become atheists when they find zero evidence of the existence of such a being.

      Even in religions that claim a kind, loving, just god, it makes no difference to appeal to the emotional aspect when there is nothing that shows a means of a supernatural entity being in control or having any part of anything in the universe.

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      1. Here are four pieces of evidence:
        https://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/four-ways-that-the-progress-of-science-conflicts-with-naturalistic-speculations-2/

        How is it possible that you did not know about these? Everyone knows about them. Maybe you didn’t do a thorough job of investigating the evidence. Or maybe you’re just too young to have done a study of the evidence for theism yet.

        I noticed that in your comment, you sort of expressed your feelings about God, but didn’t link to any evidence from scientific publications, like I did. Is it possible that you see no evidence for atheism, either?

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      2. Jess, are you familiar with the concept of the straw man? Many of your premises and conclusions seem to fall prey to that. We need to be sure we’re responding to reality instead of someone’s version of it, whether it be Wintery’s, mine, or whosever. Your disgust with the various versions of God you describe is understandable, but it relies on descriptions that are dangerously simplistic and not even necessarily the kind of God that is either being posited or even may actually exist.

        The responsibility that any of us has is not whether or not we believe in the kind of God others try to convince us of, but to make a sincere effort to understand His actual nature. Jesus even put such an idea to His disciples, asking them “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” They gave Him various answers, and then Jesus asked them, “But whom do you say that I am?” The Bible elsewhere promotes this call to self-responsibility, calling some believers “more noble” than others because they “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things [Paul preached] were so.”

        It’s very easy to disbelieve in a God of our own (or anyone else’s) creation or description, but that’s no more valid than believing in a false model of a natural law. We can believe in a wrong version of gravity or of the shape of the earth all we want, but that doesn’t make us immune to the consequences of how gravity or any natural phenomenon actually works.

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  2. This is slightly off-topic, but I have a huge problem with the atheist statement “God created evil”. To me, that makes no sense. “Good” and “evil” are merely adjectives based on a subjective judgement of circumstances based against a moral framework.

    We see a man punch another man to the ground for no apparent reason. Was what he did good or evil? That depends on the context. Was it an unprovoked attack? Then, yes, it was evil. But what if the man being punched was holding a detonator to a huge bomb? What if the apparent aggressor was actually saving the lives of dozens of people? Suddenly, the “evil” becomes “good”.

    God did not create evil. Rather, he created the capacity for evil, which is very different. He also gave us a conscience and set of rules to help us live good lives and avoid doing evil. We can’t push him away, defy his rules, and ignore our conscience, and then complain about evil in the world.

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  3. I also dislike the way insurers refer to natural disasters as “an act of God”. It seems God gets blamed for a lot that is, well, just natural. We live in a fallen world where “bad things happen to good people” (as the saying goes) – and also to bad people! Of course, disasters can prompt people to turn to or call out to God, but one wonders if this is just until “the storm blows over” – people crying out in the midst of a disaster is not the equivalent of someone trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation and their life being transformed (although I’m not saying this doesn’t happen – it could be the start of them coming to know the Lord).

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