Tuesday, April 14, 2020

How Can A Good God Allow Natural Evil?

When our two-month-old son died in 1990, the doctors thought his death could have been caused by a virus that attacked his liver. We now know that his death was caused most likely by a genetic disorder similar to the defect that our oldest daughter has in her genetic code. Why would God allow these genetic defects and viruses that kill children, make parents suffer, and make life more difficult? Why does God allow natural evils? Why doesn’t God get rid of all the needless suffering? How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow thousands of people to be killed by natural things such asearthquakes, tsunami, genetic disabilities, and viruses such as covid-19, influenza, and Ebola? Why would God allow such destruction and death? A common answer to that question is either God is not good and therefore doesn’t care about all the people killed, or that God is not powerful enough to stop the natural disasters. There are several possible answers to those questions; I am going to focus on just two answers that come from science:  1. We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for viruses, tsunami and earthquakes and 2. Some natural evils were not part of the original plan for humanity.

The horrific viruses that cause human suffering are actually very rare exceptions. The earth is filled with an incredible abundance of viruses; the vast majority of which are not associated with any human illness or disease!  A single milliliter of ocean water or a gram of soil can harbor 10-100 million virus particles or more.  Viruses outnumber all other living things by a factor of at least 10 to 1 and even possibly 100 to 1. It is estimated that there are 1031 viruses on earth – that’s 10 million times more viruses than stars in the universe, but only an infinitesimal fraction of viruses are associated with human disease, or diseases of any kind.[1]

In fact, viruses are critical for sustaining the balance in Earth’s ecological webs and for providing higher ordered organisms ecological space to thrive. If it were not for viruses, bacteria and other single celled organisms would rule the planet, sequestering all nutrients and filling all ecological niches, making higher life and the survival of multicellular organisms impossible. Bacteriophage kill 40-50 percent of all the bacteria in Earth’s oceans on a daily basis.[2]  This bacterial death releases an abundance of biogenic and organic molecules into Earth’s biogeochemical cycle and food chain for the survival of other organisms. It is possible that many viruses also exist to regulate animal populations.  Some viruses have a symbiotic relationship with different organisms to help them survive through particular stresses. We need viruses for our very survival.

Although a few viruses are remarkably bad, life as we know it would be impossible without the vast array of viruses that fill the planet. While we understandably focus on the viruses that are dangerous to humans, our existence actually depends on the presence of viruses. Just like earthquakes and tsunami, viruses are responsible for horrific pain.  But also, just like earthquakes and tsunami, viruses are necessary for life as we know it to even exist.

Plate tectonics are necessary for life; which means that earthquakes and tsunamis are also necessary for life.  Mars and Venus are examples of what Earth would be like without active crust movement.  Earthquakes are necessary for two main reasons:  to keep earth within a life permitting temperature range and to recycle nutrients.
Moving plates maintain the correct levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.[3] Throughout the history of earth, the sun has continued to increase in brightness.  This should have resulted in a temperature increase on the earth beyond which advanced life could stand.  One way this temperature increase has been mitigated is with the exposure of silicates through tectonic plate movement.  Silicates remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by reacting to form carbonates and silicon dioxide (which by the way can then be used by humans for industry). The moving plates also are responsible for burying carbon compounds deep within the crust so the resulting carbon dioxide from their decay does not reach the atmosphere.

The movement of earth’s plates are also responsible for the vast array of life we observe. Tectonics have generated diverse habitats, making possible the diverse life we observe on this planet. Crustal movement also keeps nutrients distributed to these diverse habitats.  Without plate tectonic movement, erosion off the land masses would all just end up in the ocean; unusable to any life on the continents.

Since the question of “why” is being asked of God, it is only fair that we can also answer the question from God’s perspective! The Bible tells us that we should expect to see two things when we study creation: 1. Evidence of good design at the beginning of creation and 2. Evidence of decay occurring after the initial design. This is exactly what we see! 

We are finding that the acquisition of bacterial human toxicity is due to decay; occurring when genetic information is transferred from its original intended context into another organism where it is then expressed out of context (by lateral gene transfer for example). Alternatively, decay can simply be due to the loss of genetic information, causing the bacteria to then become harmful to humans.[4] For example, Yersinia pestis (the bacteria which causes plague), evolved through a series of four historically identifiable mutations from a harmless bacteria, for which humans have a natural immune response, into a toxic bacteria for which we have no immunity.[5] Cholera is caused by a bacteria that was infected by a virus at some time in its history.  The bacteria was originally designed to regulate salt content inside crustaceans, but the additional information from the virus allows the genetic information to be move out of its original context into us. Diphtheria is also caused by an infection of bacteria that has itself been infected by a virus; genetic material again operating out of its intended original context.

We are finding that many of the capabilities that bacteria have that enable them to infect humans were not part of the original design! Viruses have not been studied for as long as bacteria, but we are discovering a similar pattern. There is evidence that viruses had the original positive role of information repair; they have the ability to fix genetic code! It is entirely possible that the damage viruses cause in humans is because their information repair systems have decayed and are being expressed out of their original context.

Why does God allow natural evils? Why doesn’t God get rid of all the needless suffering? How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow thousands of people to be killed by natural things such as earthquakes, tsunami, genetic disabilities, and viruses such as covid-19, influenza, and Ebola?  Science is providing us with two possible answers:  1. Viruses and plate tectonics are necessary for us to even exist, and 2. Some natural evils were not part of the original plan for humanity, but instead have come about through the decay that is perfectly consistent with the Biblical description of the world. Knowing this doesn’t change that fact that natural evil causes pain, suffering and hardship, but it does provide a couple answers to the common question, “Why?”  

[1] Anjeanette “AJ” Roberts, PhD, Building Bridges, Reasons to Believe, 2018, chapter 4
[2] ibid
[3] Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet, Baker Books 2016
[4] Frank Turek, Dr. Stephen Meyer, Dr. Scott Minnich, Hope Thru Intelligent Design, Hope One Facebook Broadcast by Cross Examined, April 14, 2020
[5] ibid