Thesis: Boyd on Natural Evil

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).

13 thoughts on “Thesis: Boyd on Natural Evil

  1. Several thoughts from my end:

    (1) The Hebrew of Gen. 3:17 does not indicate that “the earth” (the whole world) was cursed because of Adam, but that essentially the “earth” (land for producing) was cursed. It offers a play on the fact that food was freely bestowed in the Garden, and the only produce forbidden was taken…thus, from now on Adam would labor for food but not obtain it without great labor. IOW, I don’t see Gen. 3 technically answering the question of “natural evil” in its broad sense. That is not to suggest that it may not be implied, but it isn’t explicated in my reading.

    (2) I’m wondering how its helpful to simply bump back the answer to the origins of evil in the world? How does blaming “Satan” or other evil spiritual beings help with the question of the origins of evil? To me it just spiritualizes and displaces the question.

    (3) Can we find precedence for what Boyd argues about the cause of “natural evil” in the world by looking to the Gospels? Does Jesus simply silence the waters and wind or does he rebuke spirits? Also, is it not true that God himself causes/sends many “disasters” in the OT and the Apocalypse?

    It just seems to me that Boyd may be looking for some other explanation than human depravity and a world itself in rebellion (along WITH such spiritual powers of wickedness).

    • Rick, re: your second question, I seem to remember asking Jeff something similar a while back, because I really didn’t think it moved us any farther along in the difficulties the problem presents. I figured that the “the devil made them do it” response only begged the counter-question, “Then who made the devil do it?” However, since then I have read R. R. Reno’s commentary on Genesis, and he has an interesting discussion about the topic. I’m not sure I agree with his argument, but I think he does demonstrate that “blaming Satan” can potentially solve some theological difficulties inherent in the question.

      He argues that there is a difference between embodied freedom and spiritual freedom. Embodied freedom, such as human beings have, is responsive; it is always exercised in response to the surrounding world. Spiritual freedom, on the other hand, is originative; it is capable of pure self-determination. If a creature exercising its responsive, embodied freedom were to choose to rebel against God, it would imply that that choice was somehow built into creation itself, because such freedom cannot make, as it were, a “pure” choice. However, a spiritual creature, exercising originative freedom, can make such a choice. Their freedom and determination of being is not bound to the created world, so their choice of evil originates nowhere else but in themselves. Reno argues that the introduction of evil into the created world could only be possible if a spiritual being who had already determined themselves for evil somehow embodied that choice and thereby introduced the potential to respond in kind. Therefore, in Reno’s thinking, the human choice for evil cannot directly be traced back to God.

      Again, this is Reno’s argument, not mine. I only post it because I was surprised how pushing the origin of evil into the spiritual realm actually seemed to address one aspect of this issue’s difficulty.

      • Nailed it, Joel. Neither Boyd nor Wink, in spite of asserting that spiritual forces have incredible influence on human individuals and systems, affirm that we are in any way not responsible for our own evil choices. There are plenty of influences on moral agents, but they are not controlling influences. We are responsible for the way that we influence others, so in a sense we are all responsible for evil in the world (I think here of Bonhoeffer’s notion of vicarious confession, and think that perhaps it’s not so vicarious), and yet at the same time must take full responsibility for our own actions in spite of the myriad influences that acted upon us.

        The same is true of spiritual beings: Satan is responsible for his own evil, which originated in his own choices. The ability for evil is inherent in the ability to choose good, which is the risk that God took when he created free agents. This does not make God responsible for our evil, even though he made our evil possible. We can see this in our own laws: if a company produces a product that COULD be harmful, they are not held accountable for that harm unless certain harm is inherent in the product itself, at which point they issue a recall. God’s creatures all have the ability to cause harm, but harm is not inherent in our makeup, only the ability to choose to go against our intended purposes is. God does not issue recalls, as we are not defective in design; rather, as we are self-determining beings, we are responsible for the application of our influence.

        All that to say that evil is not some general force that is coeternal with God, even by being the opposite to God’s goodness; rather, it is an adjective used to describe the choices of free moral agents, for which those agents are ultimately responsible. So the source of evil is whichever moral agent enacted that particular evil.

      • Jeff,
        Really, what you are suggesting for the responsibility of humans for evil is essential to all strands of Calvinism and Arminianism. It is not as if Open Theism has discovered some actual way of introducing personal responsibility. It simply offers another version of the same thing the other systems already offered. It just chooses to prize notions of “free will” and “knowledge” that differs from the others, but in NONE of these systems is responsibility skirted. In fact, in each, responsibility (at some level) is emphatically asserted.

      • Hmmm. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that this is the only view that actually places responsibility for evil on the actors of that evil (though I struggle to see how non-free beings can be responsible in any way for what their controller has done through them – but that’s beside the point here). I’m merely saying that Boyd’s view does indeed place the origin of evil in the choice of a morally responsible agent. Therefore the problem of the origin of evil is solved, rather than simply being pushed back. Nobody “made” Satan evil except for himself, and he has the ability to corrupt others, particularly non-agents such as animals.

    • Thanks Rick!

      1) Fair enough. Boyd isn’t arguing for this view either (unless I’m reading you very incorrectly); I included it because that’s what I was taught growing up, and I also don’t think it’s a particularly good explanation for natural evil.

      2) I’ll answer this in response to Joel. He pretty much nails it.

      3) Boyd analyzes Jesus’ response to demons, diseases, and natural forces, and finds them quite similar. For example, apparently Jesus “muzzled” the storm, the same word used to describe his treatment of demons in other passages. I don’t have time to check his Greek, but Jesus’ treatment of all of these things does seem quite similar to me – even interchangeable.

      3b) I think that Boyd would argue that just because God does something in some places does not make it a general rule about similar occurrences. God also sends an evil spirit to torment Saul, but we should not take it to be a general rule that all evil spirits are sent by God; rather, we tend to say that God sometimes allows certain evils in order to accomplish his purposes, turning what Satan intended for evil to good. I think that Boyd would reject even these speculations about God’s good purposes in evil events, and simply say that though a particular disaster is called God’s judgment in the OT, that does not imply that all disasters are judgment.

      4) I think that Boyd would reject the notion of the world itself being in rebellion, as he does not see the world itself (a vague term) or even specific creatures (outside of humans and spirits) as morally responsible agents capable of actual rebellion in any meaningful sense. Further, I know that I have trouble figuring out how Adam’s sin caused everything else to also rebel; Boyd’s solution actually gives a reason for the depravity of nature that finds its root in the choices of a morally responsible agent who has the power to corrupt nature. I think this makes better sense of Satan’s titles and description as being the ruler of this world (i.e. it implies that he actually has power over creation), as well as making better sense of the source of the corruption of the world (because otherwise we have to either say that disobedience to God by certain agents deeply corrupts even non-agents in a deeply physical way) without blaming it all on God.

      • In the language of Scripture, what does “ruler of this world” mean? It doesn’t appear to me to refer to geology, cosmology, meteorology, etc. It seems to point to the structures of the world system of humanity in rebellion. “World” does not typically refer to the Earth, but to the way things are experienced and lived by humans. At least that is my understanding.

      • Boyd gives a survey of Church Fathers at this point, saying that the dominant view of the ancient world was that spiritual beings such as Satan were made responsible for the world, and that this involved some level of direct influence or control. He uses this to counter the argument that demonology was made up to answer theodicy, saying that theodicy came much later than demonology (i.e. that people believed in demons and their ability to influence the world before they began to seriously address the problem of evil). I don’t know how much I can vouch for that particular point, but his point that many ancient interpreters understood Satan to have direct influence over the forces of nature still stands.

  2. Interesting post, Jeff. I look forward to reading your refined discussion of Boyd in your thesis! I’m personally a bit skeptical of Boyd’s solution to natural evil. Some of the theological issues have already been raised, but I’m not sure he’s particularly helpful with respect to scientific issues either (in fact, he seems oblivious to the best literature around this theme . . . at least in this particular book). For example, it seems that death is not only necessary for evolution to work on a broad scale, but for healthy life to thrive as well on a much smaller scale. For example, we can’t grow unless our cells constantly replicate and die. Death seems to be built into the very fabric of God’s GOOD creation. That’s hard for much of traditional theology to grasp (or certain trajectories of it). Especially if we think about creation as a past and static event without considering that God might have had eschatological purposes in mind. Bonhoeffer has shown us that we need to read creation in light of christology. Perhaps we need to read it in light of eschatology as well. Much more to talk about and digest here of course!

    • Thanks for this comment Patrick, and sorry I went so long without replying! I’ve neglected my blog a bit lately, something I mean to remedy.

      I find the concept of death being a necessary part of life everywhere in the world today, but I don’t find it in scripture as easily. Even eschatologically – death is the final enemy to be defeated by Christ in Revelation.

      Some NT interpreters suggest that Paul lists it as one of the Powers. If it is indeed one of the Powers, then so is life (from the same list of things that cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ), and the implication of this is that death is thus created as another way of ordering creation. This makes sense, considering God’s post-Eden musings on death in Genesis: he limits human access to the tree of life due to sin, making us mortal, and then (seemingly) limits human lifespans as a way to limit sin. If we follow this route, then we can still make sense of the passages in which death is an enemy by reading it as a fallen power: there are many ways in which death does not just limit human sin, but excites and incites it (e.g., eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die). In this way, Wink’s approach seems superior to Boyd’s.

      I like your critique of Boyd’s approach, and I suspect that you’re thinking ahead of him and asking questions that he doesn’t even consider (as you tend to do!). He comes from a tradition that privileges Scripture, treating it as a starting point, and his discussion of theodicy is framed by another tradition that largely privileges tradition itself. He brings in some surprisingly advanced scientific and philosophical viewpoints to his discussion (quantum physics, even!), but it’s not entirely surprising that his incorporation of scientific perspectives is limited: his opponents on this subject usually don’t even have such considerations on their radar, and his writings are very much conditioned by this conversation or debate (about theodicy). He’s interested in providing a moral reason for certain things that seem (from experience, Scripture, and tradition) to be evil; within the context of the debate over theodicy, suggesting from modern science that these things are not actually evil is seen (rightfully or not) as avoiding the debate and downplaying the sources (Scripture and tradition, if not human experience). This limits his capacity to consider the implications you raise here, but I think that they ought to be considered in a more thorough argument. Sadly, I think that it is issues such as this that make it difficult for modern intellectuals to take theology seriously; we’re not accustomed to letting science take second place in any discussion, especially when the alternative is to say that demons did it!

  3. “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.”

    I know I’m late to the party here by a few years…. but “why does it have to be “or”? Why can’t it be “and” making it multifaceted? Not so much a punishment for sin for everyone.. but rather a consequence for sin…

    I’m glad that Christian philosophers and systematic theologians are finally discovering that natural evil is NOT really evil at all. It is clearly something God allows and sustains without human free will being “directly” involved. (clearly they can be the result of God’s “response” to what decision Adam would make). From our perspective tsunami’s look bad… they kill us… but God allows it, just like God allows a shark to attack us. It’s not really evil if it’s not moral evil. It’s not really evil if it is clearly God’s natural order that He sustains…and He perfectly curses parts of in response to human moral evil. It’s temporary anyway and this should make us realize the scope of God’s logical plan.

    As a child I never believed that a storm, hurricane or earthquake was evil because I knew God was not obligated to stop His natural order. Everyday that “we live” is part of God’s grace… in that we should all be judged and eternally separated (from heaven and God’s affectionate fellowship; not from an omnipresent Creator) for our sin apart from grace given to us in Christ Jesus.

    As far as victims of disasters go… there is no equality. Everyone is affected differently at different points in their (unequal) lives. Some are injured, some die. Some die at young ages, some die at old ages, etc. Some go to eternal justice/righteousness (not an optimal thing for a sinner who is tainted in the eyes of a Perfectly Holy Creator) which is an unfathomable reality for the sinner….some go to eternal grace/mercy. Everyone is affected differently by the disaster at different points in their lives…there is no “fairness” with respect to equality… it is clearly either God’s judgement for some… or the “taking home of a believer” for others. If it is part of God’s Plan and it’s not the result of moral evil of an individual then it is actually Perfect in some sense. The temporary creation (God’s natural order) with all of its danger is also perfectly what it is meant to be. You can’t say the earth is evil because it contains danger… anymore than you can say that vacuum outside the atmosphere is evil because God’s natural order will kill you.

    It is all perfect in some sense because it is perfectly what it is meant to be for this time period (a temporary creation…. to set up for eternity).

    Natural evil is a poor nomenclature…and it always has been. It is the result of those who do not know any better… mankind looks at the things God has created and sustains and allows to work in nature and we call it “evil?”

    No way.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      I think that Greg Boyd would disagree with you on several key points. In no particular order:

      1. I think he would disagree that this earth is temporary. He would surely say that this world order is temporary, but not the earth itself.

      2. I don’t think he believes that everything that happens is part of some plan of God’s. Boyd is an Open theist, who believes that all creatures have free will to the level for which they have the capacity to exercise it. He would argue strongly against the perspective that says that everything that happens is God’s plan, at least in part because that would make God directly responsible for even moral evil.

      3. I think he would argue that God, in order to be just, must also be fair. He certainly acknowledges that God has the ability to be unfair, and even to overwhelm someone’s free will (e.g., Pharaoh), but insists that, in general, God does not do so because he is fair and good.

      With those disagreements, I don’t think that Boyd could support your proposition. I think what you’re saying is that natural evil is not evil at all, but is both the punishment for sin and the result of human sin, and that its broad scope isn’t problematic because we are all sinners deserving of death. I don’t think I can get on board with that last part: it remains problematic, even if it’s true (and I’m not sure it is).

  4. Just in case these still post…

    I really do NOT believe that the “real problem of evil” is explaining it within the context of theodicy.. (free will theodicy = incomplete; so that love can exist = incomplete; so that worship can exist = incomplete; so that rewards can be logical = incomplete; soli Deo gloria = incomplete (inclusive of the Glory of Christ obviously); the truth will not be hidden = incomplete; the greater good theodicy = incomplete; knowledge of contrasts = incomplete; quality of relationship that comes from restoration and forgiveness = incomplete; inevitability of moral evil = true but incomplete; knowledge of consequences that need to be learned = incomplete; etc etc)

    The REAL problem of evil (and it is really moral evil that is the problem because God’s response to moral evil not NOT evil) is how moral evil is a “danger” to God’s angels and children because of His absolute Holiness and because of the reality of free will which creates the potential byproduct of ability for moral evil.

    I’d be happy to go through how I would answer the (false) dilemma related to Epicurus, William Rowe and alike.

    I don’t believe Open Theism contains a comprehensive theodicy… the only comprehensive theodicy that I can conclude without cognitive dissonance is one that is inclusive of eternal symmetrical states of heaven and hell (LOF), one where God is omnisapient and perhaps even omnitemporal, and one which would include a rewording and clarification(s) of the doctrines of grace. Pray for wisdom, always.

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