Natural Evil – Another clunky theological category ready for an update?

The Ruins of Lisbon. Survivors lived in tents ...
The Ruins of Lisbon. Survivors lived in tents on the outskirts of the city after the earthquake, as shown in this 1755 German engraving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Natural Evil refers to a theological distinction made between natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil includes so-called “acts of God” such as floods, earthquakes, and avalanches where there (apparently) is no human moral agent responsible for their occurrence.

By way of contrast, moral evil involves the ideas of human free will and choice and is more about ethics.

The ghost of a woman confronts her murderer on a stormy night – Wikipedia

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 –1778), however, argued that these two types of evil are not always mutually exclusive. Talking about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Rousseau suggested that human design had something to do with the suffering experienced there.

Jean Jacques Rousseau responded to Voltaire’s criticism of the optimists by pointing out that the value judgement required in order to declare the 1755 Lisbon earthquake a natural evil ignored the fact that the human endeavour of the construction and organization of the city of Lisbon was also to blame for the horrors recounted as they had contributed to the level of suffering. It was, after all, the collapsing buildings, the fires, and the close human confinement that led to much of the death.¹

More recently, the human factors influencing phenomena like global warming and forest fires have further thrown into question the distinction between natural and moral evil.²

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At this point Wikipedia mentions some atheistic views about evil, basically how some atheists claim that the presence of evil negates the existence of God. To my mind, this is worldly, circumscribed thinking. Wikipedia also notes the standard Catholic defense of God’s goodness given the reality of evil (natural or moral). I’ve outlined this in my entry about Theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness despite all the bad things that happen in our world).

Catholic theology probably falls short in capturing the fullness of why God would permit evil in our world. But I think it’s a step ahead of the atheist view, which again, seems to be even more limited and limiting.


² See my highlights at LINER for more.

Related » Evil, Theodicy (A defense of God’s goodness with the reality of evil)

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 True Freedom(

 Theodicy and popularity – plus questions over moral vs natural Evil(

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