Gregory Boyd’s aim in God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil is to solve the problem of evil by appeal to the evil free wills of spiritual beings, i.e. Satan. In this fashion he also explains “natural evil,” something that Wink only alludes to in his theology of the Powers. I’ll give you a brief rundown of Boyd’s thought on the subject, which is taken mostly from Satan and the Problem of Evil.
Nature exhibits many “evil” traits: tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters cause incredible destruction; animals kill each other, often not even for food, frequently with a type of sadistic playfulness; disease kills and cripples millions; and, of course, the very fact of death itself. These things do not square well with our notion of an all-loving Creator who raises the dead and heals the sick. In the New Testament, death is called “an enemy” and Jesus rebukes illnesses and violent winds in the same way that he rebukes demons. Indeed, for Jesus, healings, exorcisms, and the forgiveness of sins are all used interchangeably: all are expressions of rebuking the kingdom of this world and asserting the presence of the Kingdom of God. Paul tells us that all creation groans, longing to be set free from its bondage. Clearly there is something wrong with the world.
Traditionally we’ve affirmed that God cursed the ground because of Adam and Eve’s sin as a type of punishment, making it harder for them to work the land and survive outside Eden. Boyd doesn’t mention it, but it says “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen. 3:17), which seems to imply that Adam caused this curse, and need not imply that God enacted it at all (i.e. maybe it’s the natural result of sin in the world?). I’m sure Rick will correct my implication with a better reading of the Hebrew 😉 In any case, the traditional view is that God cursed the earth because of Adam’s sin, and that’s why animals are carnivorous (Genesis says that they were herbivorous before the Fall) and we deal with natural disasters.
But why would God curse the earth he had just created, making it do all of these evil things? We’re left with either the notion that “natural” evil is not evil at all (tell that to the victims of natural disasters), or that God brings this evil on us as a punishment for sin, or as I implied above, that this is the result of human sin. In an era of climate change, it’s easy to see how human sinfulness can result in killer weather – but I doubt Adam had difficulty farming the land because eating apples increased his carbon footprint, causing climate change! Boyd doesn’t even refer to the notion of human sin causing natural evil, for the very reason (I’m sure) that it makes no sense in an ancient context. And he’s spent the rest of the book arguing that God doesn’t do evil things, so that one’s off the table. Boyd addresses the notion that natural evil isn’t evil at all, along with several other attempts to explain it, but ultimately ends up with a solution that nobody else tends to see: rather than saying that “natural evil” is not actually evil, he points out that it’s not actually “natural” – i.e. that there is a cause behind natural evil, and it’s the same cause as all other evil: Satan.
I mentioned a little while back that Boyd tentatively affirms a “Gap Theory” of creation – that is, that between Genesis 1:1, in which God creates everything out of nothing, and Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit of God hovers over the deep, there are aeons of time during which God created angelic beings, Satan rebelled against God and took a whole bunch of angels with him, and a cosmic battle was fought that ended with the decimation of all the earth, and Satan subdued. This explains why the creation of angels is not mentioned in Genesis, but is instead assumed; why the world is “formless and void”, a phrase used elsewhere (e.g. Jeremiah 4:23) to describe a place after God has judged (i.e. destroyed) it; why there are already “waters,” which are almost always symbolic of the forces of chaos; why God told the first humans to “subdue” the earth and “guard” the garden; and why an evil serpent appeared out of nowhere in the midst of God’s good creation. It also makes better use of the many other creation accounts in the OT, most of which are just as violent as the other Ancient Near East creation accounts, in which God triumphs over the forces of chaos personified in “the sea” or “rahab” – a serpent. He suggests that perhaps “the Genesis narrative begins where other ancient Near Eastern and other biblical accounts end, namely, when the battle between God and his foe had just come to an end” (Satan and the Problem of Evil, 316, n.41). He suggests that perhaps the Spirit of God hovers over the waters in order to keep them in check.
Using this take on the creation of the world, Boyd is not only able to affirm the amount of time required for evolution, but he can also affirm the aeons of death required for evolution to take effect. He quotes one philosopher to the effect of saying that Satan has perverted God’s plan for evolution itself (though I fail to see how evolution could occur without death). The point is that though God created everything to be good, Satan and his cohorts poison and ruin everything. The overall goodness of the world can still be affirmed while acknowledging that it is far from perfect, that it is fallen. Boyd says that this is why everything is fallen.
He’s careful to point out that this is not a solution to how evil spiritual forces cause natural evil. In the same way that we do not know how our “self” controls our brain, or how God (who is spirit) interacts with the world (which is matter), science cannot explain how evil spiritual forces cause “natural” evil to occur, nor can this theory. What it does affirm is that there is a cause for evil in the world, that it is a rational extension of the existence of moral evil, and that God (and even humans) are not ultimately to blame for it. Whether it implies that Satan somehow corrupted plate tectonics and weather patterns to create natural disasters billions of years ago and we’re still feeling the effects, or whether it implies that he’s personally at the helm of tornadoes is beside the point.
I don’t think that this reading depends at all on the Gap Theory (or “restoration reading”, and Boyd calls it) of creation. Boyd thinks that it fits best, and I’m still quite intrigued by it, but we don’t need it to affirm a pre-Genesis fall of Satan, particularly in mythological readings of Genesis. So say what you will about his gap theory, I see no major problems with the general notion that demonic influence is behind so-called natural evil.
We can draw a few important lessons from this. First of all, claims that victims of natural disasters are being punished for particularly heinous sins (a la Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) are thrown out the window. We don’t need to affirm that God indiscriminately wipes out large groups of people in order to talk about sin and judgment, and we certainly don’t need to judge people who are already the victims of “natural” evil as being sinful. Secondly, we don’t need to get caught up in debate over how God created the world (because the evidence of millions of years of death seem to contradict the notion that God created the world without death); if Satan had his dirty hands in it from early enough, it’s easy to affirm that creation is tainted while still affirming God’s declaration that it is good. And third, this is yet another example of how we need to stop separating the physical from the spiritual: spirit and matter are intertwined, whether good or evil, and we should not shy away from the notion that some spiritual beings (e.g. Satan) have some of the same abilities to affect the world as others (e.g. angels, and even God). Conversely, we should not be surprised at the notion that we physical beings also have the ability to affect spiritual realities (e.g. through prayer and ethical action and sacramental praxis), and that we as spiritual beings can affect physical realities (e.g. miracles through prayers and faith).
So the next time you see someone with cancer, or the victim of a freak accident, or a natural disaster on the news, don’t be angry at God. Be angry along with God, and get on your knees to join in the fight (see my previous post about prayer).