Man…trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrek’d against his creed/”
Tennyson, In Memoriam
Tennyson nailed it. We trust that God is love, but we also believe that God is the Creator of nature, and nature simply does not seem to point to a God of love. Parasites, viruses, bacteria, diseases and cancer kill millions and torment millions more, humans and animals alike. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, mudslides and volcanoes do the same. And the animal kingdom is, as Tennyson said, “red in tooth and claw.” (So is the human kingdom for that matter). The creation looks almost as much like it was created by a cosmic predator (I Pet 5:8) as it does like it was created by an all loving, peaceful, benevolent Creator. There seems to be a “Lucifer Principle” at work in the world, as Howard Bloom noted. “Nature does not abhor evil,” he says. “[S]he embraces it.” (The Lucifer Principle, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995).
This is the problem of “natural” evil, and it’s arguably the most formidable objection that can be raised against the belief in an all-powerful, all good God. (I shall put “natural” in quotes when referring to “natural” evil to signify that I don’t believe there’s anything “natural” about it.) Evil that humans inflict on one another can be explained by appealing to free will. But how are we to explain evils where there is no human agent responsible?
Charles Darwin’s own faith suffered in the face of the incredible suffering he witnessed in nature. In a letter to a friend he commended, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!” (Francis Darwin, ed., More Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols. [New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1908], 1:94).
Theists have traditionally argued that God has a greater purpose for allowing “natural” evil to exist in creation. They argue that through “natural” evils, God is teaching us, punishing us, refining us, or something of the sort. Other less traditional theists have argued that these things are inevitable side effects of other positive things in creation, such as allowing for creation to exemplify its own creativity and spontaneity.
I believe both views contain some insight as well as many problems. But what I’d like to do in this essay is suggest that both views fall short because they fail to acknowledge the role that Satan and fallen Powers play in creation. In his great book Mephistopheles (Cornel University Press, 1986), Jeffery Russell said, “No theodicy that does not take the Devil fully into consideration is likely to be persuasive.” This is my conviction in a nutshell.
I’m going to argue that we cannot adequately explain “natural” evil unless we accept that Satan and other rebellious cosmic forces have had a corrupting influence on creation. This isn’t to deny that there aren’t other important things to consider in explaining “natural” evil. But my contention is that if we leave Satan and other nefarious spirit-agents out of the picture, no explanation of “natural” evil can be adequate.
In what follows I offer seven brief arguments supporting this position.
1. The Argument From Animal Suffering.
I contend that animal suffering is an evil that needs to be accounted for by theists who believe that God is all good and all powerful. Many have tried to argue that animals don’t really suffer, but their arguments are simply unconvincing. (For a superb refutation of these arguments, as well as an eye-opening account of how animals suffer in our Industrial Farms, see Matthew Scully’s book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. It’s brilliant.)
Consider this: All developed societies punish people when they inflict unnecessary pain on animals. This practice only makes sense if we share a fundamental conviction that animal suffering is an evil that should be avoided and remedied when possible. So, if we accept that God is the Creator of nature, and if it’s true that nature sometimes (often!) makes animals suffer, then it seems we have to either:
a) hold that God is responsible for animal suffering, hence is not all good;
b) hold that God is all good, but animal suffering is necessary; or
c) hold that free agents are responsible for animal suffering.
Option (a) obviously isn’t viable for people who believe God is all good. Option (b) is a possibility, but I’ve frankly never found a convincing argument in its defense. An all-powerful God surely could have created an animal kingdom where survival doesn’t hang on devouring other animals, for example. So, we’re left with option (c). This is the option we presuppose when we hold humans culpable for inflicting suffering on animals.
But when no human is involved, who are we to hold responsible?
The only possible answer, so far as I can see, is non-human free agents.
2. The Argument From Demonically Influenced Infirmities
The Gospels frequently (but not always) attribute infirmities to demonic activity (I’m using “infirmities” here to cover all forms of illness, disease and disabilities). In Luke 13, for example, Jesus comes upon a woman who has a deformed back and says, “How long should this woman, a daughter of Abraham, suffer under Satan’s oppression?” (vs. 16). Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry in Acts 10 by saying that Jesus went about freeing people from Satan’s oppression by healing them of their diseases. In fact, the word the Gospels sometimes use for disease or infirmity is mastix, which literally means “flogging.” (I review all this material thoroughly in my book, God at War).
Now, there are three points that I think are significant about this as it concerns the issue of accounting for “natural” evil.
First, there’s no reason to think that a scientist couldn’t give a perfectly natural explanation for these infirmities that the Bible attributes to Satan and demons. They are, on one level, simply the “natural” results of “natural” processes working in accordance with the laws of nature.
This establishes that there’s no intrinsic incompatibility with attributing infirmities to spirits, on the one hand, and explaining them in natural terms, on the other. This is actually a very important point, since the most common objection to the view that spirits are responsible for some aspects of “natural” evil is that these evils can be accounted for scientifically.
Second, and closely related to this, if infirmities are the natural result of natural processes operating according to the laws of nature, on the one hand, while also being, at times, the result of demonic activity, on the other, then it seems that the laws of nature as we now find them must to some extent be demonically influenced. In fact, the New Testament says that Satan holds the keys of death (Heb. 2:14). Yet, death is a “natural” result of “natural” processes operating in nature. This should be enough to tell us that natural processes can, in some cases, and to some extent, be satanically influenced.
Third, for Satan and demons to be involved, on any level, with bringing about infirmities, they must be able to affect matter. And if they can affect matter to bring about human infirmities, on what basis can we argue that they can’t affect matter to bring about other aspects of nature that seem incompatible with the perfect goodness of God?
On top of this, we need to remember the incredible stature and authority ascribed to Satan in the New Testament. He is called (among other things) the “lord” (archon) of the world (Jn 12:31, 14:30; 16:11), the principality and power of the air (Eph 2:2) and the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4). He is said to control the entire world (IJn 5:19) and to own all the authority of all the kingdoms of the world (Lk 4:5-7). In this light, why should we think it impossible that this fallen archangel, along with his minions, has messed with the natural order of things?
Consider also that humans have the capacity to affect natural processes, for better or for worse. For several millennia we have brought about new breeds of domesticated animals, for example. And today, we’re acquiring the power (Lord help us!) to genetically engineer everything from ears to fluorescent fish. If we as intelligent free agents have the “say-so” to impact the natural order, why think spirit agents uniformly lack this capacity?
Recall that in Genesis 6 we’re taught that angelic beings materialized and had sex with “the daughters of men” (Gen. 6:2,4). Their offspring were apparently hybrid creatures who were abnormally large. Hence they were called “Nephilim.” If that isn’t messing with the natural order of things, what is?
So, we have solid biblical reasons to conclude that spirits can affect matter and mess with the general order of things. This provides us with an important component of an adequate explanation for why nature is so “red in tooth and claw,” despite having been created by an all-good, peaceful, Creator.
3. The Argument from God’s Creational Battles
When people think of the Bible’s creation story, they naturally think of Genesis 1 and 2. What most don’t realize, however, is that Old Testament scholars generally agree that there are dozens of other passages that refer to God’s act of creation. And what’s significant about these other creation accounts is that they all involve God battling forces of evil and/or chaos. This is what scholars refer to as the chaoskampf (meaning, “conflict with chaos”) motif of the Old Testament. (I discuss this at length in God at War).
Some of these passages explicitly state they are describing creation, while others are determined by scholars to be creational accounts on the basis of the way they parallel the creation accounts of Israel’s ancient near eastern neighbors. Some of these accounts depict God battling hostile personified waters that were believed to encompass the earth, while others talk of cosmic beasts (e.g. Leviathan, Rahab, Yamm) that all ancient near eastern people believed threatened creation (see, eg. Ps. 29:3-4; 104:3-9; 74:10-13. 89:9-10; Prov. 8: 27-29; Job 9:13; 38:6-11; Hab 3:8-15). Biblical authors are uniformly confident that Yahweh can handle these cosmic foes. Yet, his victory is considered praiseworthy precisely because these foes are real and formidable.
Now, the language of God resisting hostile waters or cosmic monsters is obviously mythic. Yet, if we accept this material as divinely inspired, as I do, we have to ask the question, “What do these mythic portrayals convey?” And whatever else we might say in response to this question, we would have to conclude that these passages teach that God faces opposition on a cosmic level when he creates and preserves the world.
How are we to reconcile these passages with the Genesis creation account where there seems to be no conflict? It’s not clear. In God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil, I argue that we can plausibly insert them between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1 (this is known as “the gap theory,” since it posits a gap between these two verses). God created all that exists (vs. 1) but we find it to be “formless and void” in verse 2. What happened in between, I suggest, was the angelic rebellion and the corruption of creation.
The chaoskampf material never addresses where the forces of chaos came from, but I submit the New Testament provides us with a ready answer. For here we learn about the rebellion of various angels, headed up by Satan (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; cf. I Tim. 3:6; Mt 25:41). We’re not told when these angels rebelled, but given the chaoskampf material, and given the scientific evidence for a suffering-filled creation long before the advent of humans, it seems evident they fell long before humans were created.
In light of all this, I see no reason to assume that nature as we now find it is in every respect nature as God intended it to be. Rather, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that the warfare between good and evil permeates the very fabric of the creation. C.S. Lewis said somewhere that “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” Given the material we’ve just reviewed, I don’t regard it as an absurd claim to make. C.S. Lewis also speculated somewhere that the violence in evolutionary history might be plausibly explained by the influence of anti-God forces. And given the material we’ve just reviewed, I don’t regard this as an absurd claim either.
4. The Argument from God’s Non-Violent Creational Ideal
In Genesis 1.29-30 the Lord says to humans:”I give you every seed–bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food” (emphasis added).
Notice, God didn’t give animals to each other to eat. Nor did God give animals to humans to eat. This is reiterated in Genesis 2 when the Lord tells Adam he was “free to eat from any tree in the garden” (vs. 16-17). Adam was not free to eat any of the animals.
It seems, then, that the food chain in God’s ideal creation was non-carnivorous and non-violent. I have to of course grant that there’s room for debate over how literally or figuratively these passages should be interpreted. But even if one sees these chapters as mostly, or even totally, figurative, I don’t see how one can get around the implication that God’s ideal creation was, and is, non-violent.
That non-violence was part of God’s original design for creation is reiterated when God makes a new covenant with humanity after the flood. The covenant of Gen. 9:1-4 parallels the covenant of Genesis 1 very closely, except now God concedes the reality of fear, dread and violence in creation. To Noah and his sons the Lord says:
“Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”
Notice that, in contrast to Genesis 1, the entire animal kingdom now has “fear and dread” toward humans. Also in explicit contrast to Genesis 1, God now allows humans to eat meat (so long as the blood is drained out), just as God previously allowed humans to eat vegetation. This sharp and explicit contrast highlights the fact that God’s ideal creation included no fear, dread or violence.
I submit that the fear, dread and violence that we now find permeating nature no more reflects God’s ideal for nature than the fear, dread and violence we presently find in ourselves reflects God’s ideal for us.
Related to this, scripture teaches us that someday the creation will be free from this fear, dread and violence. This supplies further proof that fear, dread and violence were never part of God’s creational ideal. Isaiah gives us an eschatological vision of the coming Kingdom of God when he writes:
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:6-9).
When the reign of God is fully established on the earth, the fear, dread and violence between animals, on the one hand, and between animals and humans, on the other, will completely cease. God’s ideal for creation will be attained. There will be a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:13; Rev. 21:1).
We of course find it hard to imagine what this renewed world might look like or how it would operate. We simply can’t conceive of a lion that eats “straw like an ox.” But this is simply because the only lions we are familiar with are the kind that eat other animals instead of straw. Paul teaches that the natures of humans and animals in the coming kingdom will be as different from the way they are now as a plant is from its original seed (I Cor.15:37-44).
I see no reason why we shouldn’t conclude that this same difference applies to the distinction between God’s original ideal for creation and the violent creation we presently find ourselves in. In the beginning God’s creation was non-violent. In the end God’s creation shall be non-violent. And this is enough to tell us that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our present violent creation.
What’s wrong with it, I submit, has something to do with the one who is called the lord of the world (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), the god of this age (2 Cor 4:4) and the principality and power of the air (Eph 2:2).
5. The Argument from a Cursed Nature
Genesis 3 gives us an account of the “fall” (or “rebellion”) of humans. In my view, insufficient attention has been paid to how this passage describes nature being affected by this rebellion. Between verses 14 and 19 we learn that because of the fall:
* there will be hostility between snakes and people (vs. 15)
* women will experience pain in child birth (vs. 16)
* the earth will be stubborn in yielding vegetation (vss. 17 & 19)
* vegetation will now contain thorns and thistles (vs. 18)
* humans will die (vs. 19)
There is, of course, an age-long debate over how literal or figurative we should interpret this passage. I’ll return to this at the end of my discussion, but it need not concern us at the moment. However one interprets this passage, it clearly teaches that nature fundamentally changed as a result of the human rebellion. The world we now live in is cursed. This means that the laws of nature that have naturally brought about hostile snakes, pain in childbirth, hard-to-till soil, thorns and thistles and death are not altogether “natural.” They do not conform to God’s creational ideal. They rather reflect a nature that has been cursed.
Something similar is arguably entailed by Jesus’ rebuking of the storm (Mk 4:36-39). As a number of scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), Jesus is here treating the storm as something demonic. The narrative is a reenactment of Yahweh’s battles with the raging seas in the Old Testament. This suggests that Jesus is carrying on Yahweh’s age-long battle for creation, which in turn suggests there are demonic forces at work in creation as we presently find it that God must battle against.
Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (when it wasn’t even the season for figs!) also seems to point to the demonically cursed nature of the present creation (Mk 11:12-14). In the apocalyptic worldview of Jesus’ day, barren fig trees were considered cursed by Satan. As N.T. Wright and many scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), this suggests that Jesus cursed the fig tree as an act of “reversing the curse.” In God’s original creational design, trees would always produce fruit. As Origen, Tatian, Athenagorus and other early church theologians argued, all barrenness, droughts, famines and other “natural” disasters result from the effects of demonic powers at work in the world.
Paul also expressed the view of creation as cursed when he said that ” the creation was subjected to frustration” and that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:20-22). Whatever else Paul intends by saying creation is subject to “frustration” or “futility” (mataiotais), it certainly includes the fact that everything dies. Yet, death is as natural as anything can be, according to the laws of nature as they presently operate. In fact, the law of entropy (2nd law of thermodynamics) is one of the most fundamental laws of physics. Yet, if Paul (and Genesis) is correct, this law does not reflect the Creator’s creational ideal.
According to the author of Hebrews, it rather reflects the anti-creational goals of Satan. Christ came to “break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Put all of this together, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the creation has been subjected to Satan, the lord of death, decay and destruction.
An Interlude: Two Questions
This last point raises two important questions.
First, both in Genesis 3 and in Romans 8 it is God, not Satan, who cursed the earth and subjected creation to frustration. Does this not make God responsible for the sorry state of the present creation and thus undermine my argument that Satan is behind it? I don’t see that it does.
Throughout the Old Testament God brought judgment on Israel for its disobedience by simply allowing hostile neighboring nations to do what they wanted to do. For example, in Isaiah 10 God referred to Assyria as his disciplining rod as he let the Assyrians raid Israel. Yet, he then turned around and punished the Assyrians for being the kind of nation who would do such things and for going beyond what Yahweh had intended (Isa 10: 5-7).
So too, I suggest we envision God as cursing creation by allowing Satan to do what he wants to do – namely, curse creation. Had Adam and Eve remained obedient to God, this hostile cosmic power would have been kept at bay. But once the primordial couple allowed themselves to be co-opted by God’s archenemy, they opened the floodgates for Satan and his minions to enter into the realm that humans were supposed to have dominion over. (Below I’ll address what area this might have included).
This doesn’t make God responsible for the corruption of nature. The fault lies on Adam and Eve and on Satan and other cosmic powers for freely choosing to go against the will and designs of the Creator. God simply set up the laws that stipulate that disobedience has disastrous consequences.
The second question that confronts us is how to reconcile the fact that Genesis 3 locates the origin of the curse within human rebellion with the evidence that the creation had been permeated with violence and suffering for millions of years before humans ever came on the scene. There are for possibilities that present themselves.
First, one could simply reject the claim that there was violence and suffering prior to the human fall. This is the view of young earth creationists. This is a possible solution to our question, but it’s frankly hard to seriously a view that the vast majority of scientists in the field think is absurd. I’ve read (but not thoroughly studied) on both sides of the debate, and I have to say I side strongly with the scientific consensus on this one.
Second, many Christian academics interpret the story of the fall to be a myth that expresses the truth that humans are fallen but that cannot be taken literally. The fact that both Jesus and Paul treats Adam and Eve as historical figures simply reveals their first century cultural conditioning. I believe there are a number of theological problems with this view that we cannot enter into at present. But clearly if someone accepts this perspectives there would be little problem accommodating the view that Satan was corrupting nature prior to the arrival of humans with the biblical teaching that Adam’s rebellion opened the floodgates for Satan’s corrupting activity. If the biblical teaching on the fall is mythic, it has no implications for how we understand history.
Third, a number of scholars have argued that one may plausible postulate a “gap” between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis chapter 1. (Hence this view is sometimes referred to as the “gap” theory). In this view the world became corrupted by demonic forces for millions of years and then was judged, reducing it to a state of being “formless and void” (tohu wabohu). God then restored creation, which is what the remainder of the Genesis account is about, and set humans in charge of it. When they rebelled, however, they once again allowed the demonic forces to curse the world.
On an exegetical basis, this view has much to commend it, as I argue in God at War as well as Satan and the Problem of Evil. It also confronts a number of formidable obstacles, however, not least of which is the fact that there is no evidence in the geological record for the sort of global judgment and recreation this view postulates.
A fourth possibility is the one I at present find most plausible. In his book Genesis Unbound (Multnomah, 1996) John Sailhamer presents a compelling interpretation of Genesis 1 that sees it as a historical narrative (viz. not mythic poetry) but that is nevertheless compatible with the standard scientific understanding that nature was full of violence and suffering for millions of years before humans arrived on the scene.
To put the matter succinctly, Sailhamer argues that when people read the Genesis account as though it were an account of creation as a whole, they are reading the account anachronistically. When ancient people thought of the earth (eretz), they thought of the land they knew or of a particular parcel of land that was under consideration. They had no concept of the earth as a planet. Sailhammer further argues that the various things that are formed over six days of creation (light, sun, stars, vegetation, etc.) are spoken of phenomenologically – that is, from the perspective of one situated in this land. And it is the finished production of this specific land– not the whole of the cosmos –that is declared “good” by God. [Interestingly enough, a number of earlier conservative Bible commentators, such as Merill Unger, held this view].
If this interpretation is accepted, we should see Eden as a newly formed beachhead of God’s rule on an otherwise corrupted planet. God populated Eden with newly created, non-carnivorous animals (Gen. 1:31) that reflect his creational ideal of non-violence. As his intended viceroys, he put humans in charge, commanding them to guard (samar) the garden (Gen. 2:15) and subdue (kabas) the earth. The goal was to gradually advance their rule by overcoming forces of evil and restoring creation. Our commission was, and yet is, to carry out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). When the earliest humans rebelled, however, they opened the floodgates of demonic forces into Eden and it quickly became part of the corrupted creation. On this interpretation, this is what Paul refers to when he says sin and death entered the world (eretiz) through Adam.
6. The Argument from Cosmic Redemption
The New Testament teaches that Christ died not just to redeem humans; he died to restore the entire creation. In Col. 1:19-20 Paul says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Now, if “all things” needed reconciliation, this tells us that nature as we now find it is not nature as God originally intended it. So too, Paul says the whole creation is groaning to be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). When humans are reinstated as the rightful rulers of the earth, reigning with Christ, the creation will groan no more and will no longer suffer decay (2 Tim 2:12; Rev. 5:10). (Paul, like all other Jews of his time, saw the earth as the center of, if not synonymous with, creation). Clearly, the creation we currently live in is not in every respect the creation God originally spoke into being. It’s been corrupted.
As James Kallas noted, the New Testament concept of “salvation” isn’t limited to human beings. He writes:
“…. since the cosmos itself is in bondage, depressed under evil forces, the essential content of the word “salvation” is that the world itself will be rescued, or renewed, or set free. Salvation is a cosmic event affecting the whole of creation…Salvation is not simply the overcoming of my rebellion and the forgiveness of my guilt, but salvation is the liberation of the whole world process of which I am only a small part” (The Satanward View: A Study in Pauline Theology [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966], p.74).
Just as we humans impact everything under our authority for better or for worse, depending on the decisions we make and the kind of people we become, so spirit agents impact everything under their authority, for better or for worse, depending on the decisions they make and the kind of agents they’ve become.
Unfortunately, it seems in a previous epoch there was some sort of mass rebellion among agents who had great authority over material creation, and they used this authority against God as they tried to throw his creational project off track by corrupting it. God couldn’t simply destroy these rebellious agents, for as I’ve argued in Satan and the Problem of Evil, freedom is intrinsically irrevocable.
If God gives an agent x amount of “say-so” to use this way or that way (that is, if God makes an agent genuinely free), God can’t revoke it simply because he disapproves of the agent using it in a certain way. If God did revoke it, then he clearly didn’t give the agent x amount of “say-so” to use this way or that way. In other words, if God revokes freedom whenever an agent tries to use that freedom in ways he doesn’t approve of, he clearly didn’t give it in the first place.
So God must, for a limited amount of time (conforming to the amount of “say-so” he originally granted to agents) put up with and work around the corrupting influence of spirit agents – just as he must put up with and work around the corrupting influence of human agents.
So the scenario I at present tentatively envision is this: evolutionary history reflects God advancing his creational objectives, despite the corrupting influence of diabolic cosmic forces. This is why evolutionary history — and nature and the animal kingdom today — reflect both the marvelous creativity of God as well as the ugly corrupting influence of demonic powers.
By this means, God finally arrived at the creation of human beings, which was his goal all along. Unlike everything that preceded us, we were to be (and yet are to be) the rightful rulers of creation, administrating God’s loving providence “on earth as it is in heaven.” We were specially designed in the image of God and, I believe, we were free from the corrupting influence of the oppressed creation. With the creation of humans God formed a sort of beachhead (Eden) from which he would advance and ultimately bring an end to the warfare that had engulfed his creation. We were to partner with God to take back the earth.
There are a lot of questions this scenario raises that need to be worked out, but I think that at least something like this has gone on, and is still going on.
But humans, like spirit agents, have free will, for love is impossible without it. And, unfortunately, like many spirit agents, we humans used our “say-so” to rebel against God and go our own way. We thus surrendered our dominion over to the very powers we were supposed to protect Eden from and acquire dominion over – at least as it concerned their influence on the earth.
And so it is that God’s goal of reigning with humans on the earth has had to take a much longer and more circuitous route. The biblical narrative is a peek at what this route looks like. Ultimately, God’s union with humanity in Christ, which I believe was at the center of his plan from the get go, had to become a “rescue operation” that involved him in the suffering of Calvary. And it is by means of the this radical “rescue operation” of love that God in principle restored humanity, recovered the earth, and reconciled the entire creation.
Some day, what is true “in principle” shall be manifested as fact. And that is the Kingdom of God. When the Kingdom of God is fully manifested, the lion will lay down with the lamb and eat straw like an ox. The creation will be free of diabolical influences, and we shall reign with Christ over the earth forever.
7. An Argument from the Early Church Fathers
The final argument for the thesis that “natural” evil is due to the work of nefarious spirits comes from the early church fathers. These authors obviously aren’t inspired and thus can’t hold a candle to the authority of the Bible. At the same time, their proximity to Jesus and the New Testament church gives their teachings more weight than theologians of later periods, all other things being equal. While we can certainly detect various pagan influences in some of these second and third century fathers – especially in their increasingly Hellenistic conception of God — we have many reasons to think that their basic theology and worldview was inherited from, and remained true to, the apostolic tradition.
What’s significant for our purposes is that the primary way these early theologians explained evil in nature was by appealing to the work of Satan, powers and demons. These fathers uniformly believed that angels, like humans, were created free and given a sphere of influence and responsibility over creation. As with humans, angels could use this influence for good, as God intended, or they could choose to use it for evil. They understood that this is simply what it means for God to genuinely give us free will.
The earliest fathers thus believed that, just as God had given humans “say-so” over the earth, which we could use for better or for worse, so God also gave “say-so” over aspects of the cosmos, and to some degree over humans, to angels.
For example, Athenagorus – who in my mind is one of the most insightful of the earliest fathers – argued that “the Maker and Framer of the world distributed and appointed…a multitude of angels and ministers…to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heavens, and the world, and the things in it, and the godly ordering of them all.” Then he adds,
“Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice…so is it among the angels. Some, free agents, you will observe, such as they were created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them” (A Plea For the Christians, 10).
So too, Origen — who in my mind was the single greatest thinker in the early church — held that every aspect of nature was under the care of “invisible husbandmen and guardians” (Against Celsus, 8.31). St. Gregory at a later date reiterates the prevailing view of the early church when he says, “In this visible world…nothing can be achieved except through invisible forces” (Dialogues, IV.5).
“Natural” evil was consistently explained in the early church as resulting from these spirits rebelling against God and thus abusing their authority over creation. Hence, for example, Origen argued that famines, scorching winds and pestilence were not “natural” in God’s creation: they were rather the result of fallen angels bringing misery whenever and however they were able (Against Celsus, 8.31). These rebel guardians were also “the cause of plagues…barrenness…tempests… [and] similar calamities” (Against Celsus,1.31).
Along the same lines, Tertullian argued that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were the result of demons whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” When “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” one can discern the work of these rebellious guardian spirits (Apology 22). For Tertullian, as for Origen and Athenagorus (and we could add Tatian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and others), creation doesn’t consistently reflect the beauty of its Creator because it has been, and is being, corrupted by demonic forces.
Following the teachings of the New Testament, these early theologians all understood that the leader of the rebel army that ravaged nature was Satan. In the words of Athenagorus, Satan was “the spirit” originally entrusted with “the control of matter and the forms of matter” (A Plea, 24). The entire material creation was to be administrated by this highest ranking angel, according to this theologian! Unfortunately, this “spirit” used its free will to rebel against God. He now exercises his tremendous authority over material creation against God. He abuses “the government entrusted to [him].” Given the nature of moral responsibility, God could not simply revoke Satan’s sphere of influence. Hence, Athenagorus argued, “the prince of matter exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God”( A Plea, 25).
Reflecting the basic vision of the early Church, Athenagorus concluded that everything in nature that obviously looks contrary to God’s character appears that way because it is contrary to God. It didn’t arise from the omni-benevolent hand of the Creator (as the atheists of his day and ours object) but was rather due to the activity of an evil “ruling prince” and “the demons his followers ( A Plea, 25).
Much more could be said about this, but I hope this suffices to show that the early church fathers all saw creation as a war torn battlefield. It had been corrupted to its very core. And this is why nature is violent, both towards animals and people. I don’t believe this view would have arisen in the church were the foundation for it not laid in the apostolic tradition. These early fathers are simply working out the implications of the biblical view that Satan is the “lord of the earth,” the “ruler of the air” and the “god of this age” who “controls the entire world.” I believe they were on the right track.
If I and the early church fathers are correct, we don’t need to search for good divine purposes behind “natural” evil any more than we need to search for them behind evil that humans inflict on one another. All evil, “natural” or otherwise, is ultimately due to wills other than God.
So next time a tsunami wipes out an entire village or an earthquake massacres thousands of people; next time you consider the millions dying from AIDS or the millions tortured by parasites; next time you hear about the millions suffering from drought and famine, or consider the untold pain of millions suffering and dying from any number of other diseases, don’t say “This is the work of God.”Say rather, “An Enemy has done this” (Mt 13:28).