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Thoughts of Evil in a Designed World

Photo credit: Stuart Rankin, via Flickr (cropped).

Not least at a time like this in the world, perhaps the most widely voiced objection against intelligent design is, “Why would a designer, or God, allow so much suffering?” We all experience suffering and we often struggle to make sense of it. Something in us cries out; it’s hard to take it with indifference. 

A person who is a theist is not immune to suffering’s pain and the seemingly contradictory insinuations it carries. If the universe is the work of an all-powerful (by definition) being, and if this being is good, how could he allow so many innocent people to suffer?

Two Causes of Suffering

Causes of suffering appear to stem from two different sources. Natural evil occurs when the forces of nature cause suffering, such as when a landslide destroys a family’s home. Gravity, along with weather conditions, cause the damage. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, and earthquakes are all natural phenomena that cause suffering to people worldwide.

Averaged over the last ten years, natural disasters were responsible for 0.1 percent of all human deaths.1 This value has decreased dramatically over the last century, not due to less frequent natural disasters but primarily due to humans becoming better at preventing deaths from these disruptive natural events.

Low-frequency, high-impact events such as earthquakes and tsunamis are not preventable, but such high losses of human life are. We know from historical data that the world has seen a significant reduction in disaster deaths through earlier prediction, more resilient infrastructure, emergency preparedness, and response systems.2

The populations most affected by natural disasters are not evenly distributed. Often those most affected are the poor.

What we observe is that for most countries the share of deaths from natural disasters are very low in most years. Often it can be zero — with no loss of life to disasters — or well below 0.01%.

Those at low incomes are often the most vulnerable to disaster events: improving living standards, infrastructure and response systems in these regions will be key to preventing deaths from natural disasters in the coming decades.3

This disparity hints that suffering as a result of natural disasters is not unambiguously the responsibility of the forces of nature or the action of God. Is it even reasonable to cast blame on God for failing to design a universe wherein no possibility of injury from natural causes could occur? How coherent would it be for someone to say, “If I were God, I would have made it so that no one could ever fall down and get hurt.” No gravity would certainly mean no injury from falling, and no landslides, but it would also be accompanied by additional subtle side-effects, such as no stars or planets, all of which require the force of gravity for their existence. Tinkering with other aspects of nature would lead to other “natural disasters” that would make the worst hurricane pale by comparison.

Even extremely slight alterations in the values of many independent factors — such as the expansion rate of the universe, the speed of light, the masses of quarks, and the precise strength of gravitational or electromagnetic attraction — would render life impossible.4

A More Personal Natural Evil

Another form of natural evil that often feels more personal is when we’re affected by sickness. We grieve with those who suffer with cancer or any number of various diseases that can affect the human body. Are these afflictions of our physical being more reasonably reconciled with the notion of a purely naturalistic universe or one created by God? Let’s begin by holding in focus the fact that we are beings with physical bodies living in a physical universe. Anyone who is ready to deny God’s existence because we occasionally get sick should first explain the origin of the fantastic complexity and layers of integrated design that our physical bodies manifest in order to be alive at all.5

As beings with physical bodies, should we be surprised that wear and tear and injury and microbial attack might cause breakdowns? Is getting sick a reason to blame God as unjust or uncaring? Do we think poorly of the auto manufacturer if our car gets a flat tire, or if a headlight goes out? The Second Law of Thermodynamics affects cars and bodies alike with inexorable breakdowns.

Some diseases, on the other hand, are preventable, and their prevalence could be ascribed to human evil. 

Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. Absent, inadequate, or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks…. Inadequate management of urban, industrial and agricultural wastewater means the drinking-water of hundreds of millions of people is dangerously contaminated or chemically polluted.6

Is human evil most consistent with naturalism or with theism? Questions such as these are deep and deserve a careful, in-depth analysis. Here, we’ll bring up just a couple of points. First, if human evil aligns with naturalism, then what is the source of our sense of morality, justice, and evil versus good? If all we are is the result of natural forces, primarily the electromagnetic attraction between charged particles, then how can evil or good have any meaningful referent aside from our opinions? (Indeed, how could a collection of elementary particles even form an opinion?)

Evil in the Animal World?

I would submit that nowhere in the animal world do we see evil that comes anywhere close to comparing with the unfortunate depths of evil displayed by humanity throughout our recorded history. The categorical difference in human evil versus animal behaviors is counterintuitive in light of what might be expected from an evolutionary view of human origins.

Theism based on the biblical narrative offers a far-reaching explanation of the origin and spread of human evil. This is not the place for a thorough exposition on the details of human evil from such a perspective, except to note that the explanation and the evidence show appropriate alignment. The existence of human evil stands as a red flag visible to everyone that something is wrong.

Human evil stems from choices that humans are free to make, leading to one proffered “fix” to the problem of evil, namely, removing our freedom to choose. However, as we know, love must be free, and if our love were mechanized, it would become meaningless.

Returning to the issue addressed at the beginning about suffering in a designed world, the long-term view glimpsed in the Scriptures offers us a perspective absent from naturalism. Physical death is not the end for humans. God, far from indifferent to suffering, has been willing to suffer to redeem all. It can be hard for us to even imagine, but in the biblical view, giving humans the choice to choose good in the midst of suffering results in a far greater good where even the memory of suffering is wiped away.


  1. Natural Disasters — Our World in Data.
  2. Natural Disasters — Our World in Data.
  3. Natural Disasters — Our World in Data.
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