The biblical doctrine of natural evil… not

I see Joshua Swamidass posted a link to my Martin Luther King piece on the BioLogos Home School forum (now it can be told – it was he who sent me the link to MLK’s sermon). One of the first responses on his thread there, from a BioLogos moderator, challenged my point that, since Dr King attributes sin to the higher, “spiritual” aspect of man’s nature that includes his will, both the attribution of human sin to evolution, and the presence of evil in non-volitional Nature, cannot be valid. There is indeed, she said, another kind of evil apart from sin, “natural evil”.

Now, let me remind you of a basic Evangelical tenet (albeit one not stated nearly so strongly in BioLogos Ts & Cs), here as stated in the Westminster Confession:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6).

That never meant, of course, that Scripture gives a definitive text for everything, nor that it speaks to every issue – such as the contents of science. But the implication is that all we need to know about God and how we live before him (which must be revealed by him) is found in Scripture. This is the principle of the “sufficiency of Scripture”. The matter of “natural evil” would appear to be such an important aspect of our lives in relationship to divine power and goodness that the Bible, surely, must contain the doctrine either explicitly or implicitly. And there are some good reasons to say, almost a priori, that it can’t possibly do so.

Earlier this year I reviewed an old book by C S Lewis on philology, drawing out the fascinating history of two words in particular – “world” and “nature”, which both developed their current meanings in a pretty logical way from entirely new ways of thinking about the world conceived by Greek thinkers in the last few centuries BC.

The book was recommmended to me off the back of another book recommendation, and having now read that book I can tell you that it confirms Lewis’s picture: that the ancient Babylonians, although they did (in Rochberg’s expert assessment) good science, did so without any concept of Nature, and correspondingly without even a concept of “world” in the later Greek sense of “cosmos”, that is to say Nature or the world as a discrete and interlocked system with boundaries, a shape and so on.

I must stress that this “nature-free” universe was not a Babylonian peculiarity: since the concept of a universal called “Nature” only arose with the later Greeks, the concept was simply not available either to the Babylonians, nor to the ancient Egyptians, nor to the Canaanites – nor to any of the Old Testament writers, at least before the hellenisation of Jewish culture after the collapse of the Persian empire to Alexander the Great in the second half of the fourth century BC.

So what did the ancients believe instead? Quite simply, they assumed that every event was, ultimately, the result of some conscious agent, directly or indirectly. The Babylonians, for example, as Rochberg describes at book-length, regarded certain events in the world as reflecting (in an intelligible way) the “verdicts” of the gods regarding how they would bring events to pass. By matching the omen in a scientific way to recorded outcomes, events might be affected by prayer to the gods controlling events, or perhaps worked around in some way.

I saw an example of this worldview involving Hebrew thinking just the other day on Biblical Archaeology Daily, in a piece discussing whether infertility was regarded as a sin in Israel (conclusion: no). But:

Baden and Moss further explain that in those times, every birth was seen as a miracle:

[I]n the ancient Near East, there was a broader understanding that every successful procreation was the result of divine intervention: The deity had to “open the womb” in order for conception to occur. … [T]he opening of the womb was miraculous, despite its frequency. The absence of this miracle could hardly be a reflection of some human sin—and, in the case of the barren matriarchs, it is never described as such.

Now the one quibble I’d have with that way of putting it is that it follows the modern materialist assumption that the default cause of things is “Nature”, and that in this special case God intervenes through a “miracle”. But the biblical concept of “miracle” is specifically about things that are exceptional, noteworthy and spiritually significant: something that happens with regular frequency is not a miracle. But it’s not “natural” either – how could it be, in a world where there was not even a concept of “Nature”?

No, in fact the ancient world view was, as I’ve said, that every “natural” event was caused by intelligent agency, whether divine, angelic or demonic. In a polytheistic system, much could be explained by positing competition or disagreement between the various powers. But in a strict monotheistic system – that is to say, of course, in biblical Yahwism – all causality had to be traced back to God, directly or indirectly, by commission or permission.

Reading the Bible with that realisation in place is a true eye-opener. One rapidly sees that, indeed, there is no “default Nature” in the Old Testment in which God occasionally intervenes. Rather, “Nature” is what God does, for his own distinct purposes and, often, given the purpose of the Bible, in order to govern the world of mankind.

In the first chapter of my e-book God’s Good Earth I look in detail at a prime example of this: the way that the Covenant blessings and curses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy – the means by which Yahweh undertakes to police his Covenant with Israel – employ for the most part the “natural” events of weather, crops, health and even wild beasts in order either to bless, or punish, the nation, according to their faithfulness to the Covenant. All their natural circumstances, good, bad or indifferent, and not just the “miraculous” opening of wombs, were the work of God.

This was not what I call a “flannelgraph” biblical world in which Israel alone was full of miracles and revelation to instruct us: God governed all the nations of the world in the same way, albeit apart from a covenant relationship (other than that of Noah, to be strictly accurate).

Neither were the Covenant stipulations merely a rhetorical ploy. Without exception, the prophets who sought to draw Israel back from idolatry and sin to the Covenant attributed present material woes, and future judgements, to the activity of God in accordance with these Covenant blessings and curses. I came across perhaps the most direct denial of a “Nature” that operates in any way loose to God’s governing will the other day, in Jeremiah 14. Here, commenting on a drought, the prophet speaks to the Lord:

Remember your covenant with us and do not break it.
Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain?
Do the skies themselves send down showers?
No, it is you, O Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.

Even if we allow for some Hebrew antithetical rhetoric here (such as the tendency to speak of mere preference in terms of loving one thing and hating the other), Jeremiah is teaching us about God and his relationship to “Nature” quite clearly: the pagan gods don’t do rain (so you Babylonians and Egyptians have your attribution of agency wrong), and clearly the sky isn’t even a fictional agent like the worthless idols and so does not produce rain itself (negative assertion) – but rather it is (positive assertion) only Yahweh who sends rain.

In that context “natural evil”, as we would call it, has a very specific and entirely different connotation from our view of things. As that other major prophet, Isaiah, says in ch45:

…from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.
“You heavens above, rain down my righteousness;
let the clouds shower it down.
Let the earth open wide,
let salvation spring up,
let righteousness flourish with it;
I, the Lord, have created it.”

The word “disaster” is actually the Hebrew word for “evil”, toned down for the NIV, and the word, in this passage and all similar ones, has no moral connotation whatsoever – or rather, the connotation is the opposite of what we assume in the idea of “natural evil” – God brings evil (in the sense of unpleasant events) from his good and just government of the creation, just as he does beneficial ones.

I must just add that, although the later Old Testament and, of course, the New Testament, had access to and were even influenced by the landmark invention of the useful concepts of “cosmos” and “nature” by the Greeks, nevertheless there is no change whatsoever in the theology of divine involvement. Nature may have come to be seen as an interacting unity in a harmoniously organised cosmos, but the organising and disposing power was still the Lord – and in the later New Testament, the risen Lord Jesus whose victory gave him “all authority in heaven and on earth.”

The Old Testament, then, because of the time and place it was written could have had no modern concept of Nature, and therefore of “natural evil” as it is worried over in theodicies today. And the New Testament writers chose to have no such concept. In fact nobody had that idea at all until the Deists of the eighteenth century, partly in rationalist reaction to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, invented the concept of a Nature whose secondary causes operated in a clockwork way independently of God, the clockmaker.

Such thinking led directly to the theodicy of Leibniz, the root of most current theodicies, in which deleterious natural events pose a seemingly impossible contradiction between God’s goodness (seen then in moral terms as “gentle benevolence”) which, contra the entire biblical witness, would never will anything harmful; and his power, which ought to be able to prevent it. Then, as ever since, solutions have usually ended up by removing God from nature, either by making it a system of clockwork laws he cannot change, and/or by his benignly allowing it a degree of autonomy (aka chance) even though, to his great regret, that might mean sub-optimal outcomes.

Now, BioLogos strenuously denies the charge of deism (or semi-deism). Nevertheless, since “natural evil”, as I have shown, cannot possibly have been taught in the Old Testament because the concept of Nature was simply not available in those days, then the only reason for inventing it now is because the Scripture is thought to be insufficient in such a central matter of God’s “own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life”. And what makes it insufficient is that a Greek philosophical concept of Nature, de-divinised by European rationalists of the eighteenth century and adopted into its science, has been accorded more authority than the word of the prophets revealed from God.

That’s a problem, because it was those same prophets who told us about that God in the first place, and it was the same kind of Greeks and Enlightenment rationalists who denied his existence.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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