As amazing and beautiful as this physical universe is, it is also filled with almost unimaginable cataclysmic violence—which commonly brings suffering, pain, and death to the living residents of our earth—plant, animal, and human.
Why did God create the universe that way? Couldn’t God have designed things to be a little more peaceful? Or is all that pain, suffering, and death just an unavoidable side effect of God’s greater goals in creating the universe?
These are some of the tough questions that a regular reader named Rami recently asked as part of an ongoing discussion following up on the article, “How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 2.” That installment of a four-part article dealt especially with the pervasive violence, pain, and suffering in the material universe in which we live, and how they can be reconciled with a loving God who wants us to be eternally happy.
You can read Rami’s comments here and here, and also just below in this article. My response contained in this article is a revised and greatly expanded version of my reply to Rami, originally posted as a comment here.
This article does not attempt to answer all of Rami’s questions. You might want to read the above-linked article to get the most out of this one. But I do want to say more about two of the issues Rami raised:
- Unavoidable side effects, and
- Deaths due to natural disasters
If these issues trouble you as well, this article may give you some food for thought.
Is God unable to avoid negative side effects?
Here are the two comments by Rami that sparked the response contained in this article:
Hi Lee, I hope you’ve been well.
I was hoping to briefly continue this discussion by taking the issue of ‘natural evil’ in a slightly different direction in asking something that has been on my mind lately: is creation ‘good,’ or more specifically ‘as good as can be?’
We human beings live in universe and on a world governed by natural forces, forces that are intended to sustain a place where human beings can flourish, but can also have the unfortunate consequence of hurting and often killing the very creatures they’re designed to support. I do not believe that God wants or wills the destruction of his creatures at the hands of these natural forces, but I think we can infer from the fact that He has chosen to actualize this world among all possible worlds, that this one—with all its natural laws—is both good and necessary for us (which might be two sides of the same coin).
So what I’m wondering: is there any contradiction with the idea that God could create something good that has undesirable and unavoidably negative side effects? Could God have created weather or geological systems that fulfill the same purposes without hurting anyone? Or can we say that God would prefer to create a world governed by natural forces that do not harm His creation, but could not because the idea is an impossible one?
Or maybe in other words: Is the world the way it is because this is the best one for us (‘side effects’ and all), or was it simply not possible to design the world any better than how it is?
I also wanted to add that the idea of God desiring something that is impossible is tying me up in knots. God does not wish that anyone die during an earthquake, so I wonder if we can say that God would prefer that earthquakes not kill anyone? But, from the fact that earthquakes do exist and inadvertently kill people, can we say that it was impossible to create earthquakes (or this and other natural processes) that do not kill people? I’m troubled because it almost sounds here that this limits the goodness of God’s creation. That while creation is good, there was no way to prevent bad byproducts.
Or do we go back to the idea of the ‘best possible world for us,’ in that God does not desire that earthquakes kill people, but knows that we need to be in a world where accidents happen and these things can negatively affect people?
I think most of my troubles revolve around what I have described as ‘side effects.’ Are disaster deaths just the unintended side effects of natural phenomenon that need to occur? Or does the fact that these phenomenon hurt people have more meaning and purpose than just the unavoidable consequences of the best possibly designed world?
Your questions are good—and difficult—ones.
They are also classic questions.
The French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) wrote one of his most searing satires, Candide, as an objection to the philosophical optimism of the German philosopher Leibniz (1646–1716), who held that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.”
I won’t pretend that this response answers all of your questions, or that it provides a full answer. But I’ll offer some thoughts on two specific issues that should throw some light on the rest.
For the big picture, see the previous article
First, I would recommend reading or re-reading the article “How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 2.” Of all the articles on this site, that one speaks most specifically in response to these particular questions about why God created the universe to be the way it is. In the interest of time and efficiency, I won’t repeat what I said in that article, except to encapsulate its two primary points:
- We humans tend to see things from a limited and time-bound perspective. Our goals and value judgments tend to be based on short-term events, pleasures, and pain. God, in contrast, sees everything from an eternal perspective. God’s goals and actions look primarily to our eternal state of being—and to our temporary experiences of pleasure and pain mainly as they affect our eternal state.
- There is no such thing as good and evil in the material universe as material universe. Everything in it simply is. However, God did create the material universe in such a way that it can reflect human good and evil, and provide an environment in which human spiritual growth—which involves battles between good and evil—can take place.
The second point is my own adaptation and development of principles found in Swedenborg’s writings in connection with developments in science, and in the philosophy of science, that have taken place since Swedenborg’s time. You will not find Point 2, and my explanation of it in the earlier article, expressed quite that way in Swedenborg’s writings. As far as I know, much of what I say there is plowing new ground in Swedenborgian thought.
This is another way of saying that these are complex issues. It requires time, and the growth and development of our scientific knowledge of the material world, to develop a real understanding of them. The science of Swedenborg’s day lacked some of the concepts and knowledge required to build a fully satisfying (to our present mind) understanding of the issues involved in your questions.
In particular, the science of Swedenborg’s day still saw nature as consisting of good and evil. Swedenborg’s writings reflect this view. For example, he speaks of good and evil animals. The “good” animals are those that we humans can domesticate or hunt for food, clothing, and so on. The “evil” animals are the predatory and dangerous ones that can harm or kill us. Ditto for the plant world, where edible plants were seen as “good,” while spiny and poisonous plants were seen as “evil.”
This, however, is an old-fashioned view of nature. It no longer rings true today, now that we have a far greater knowledge of environmental and biological systems than we did in the era in which Swedenborg lived early on in the dawning of modern science. We now see all plants and animals, including the “evil” predatory and poisonous ones, as vital and integral parts of the complex ecosystem of our planet.
Now for some more particular thoughts in response to your specific questions.
First, I would challenge the notion of “side effects.”
Objectively speaking, there is no such thing as a “side effect.” There are causes, and there are whole ranges of effects of those causes.
Calling some of those effects “side effects” is the result of value judgments on our part. We consider some effects to be good, and other effects to be bad. The “good” ones we call “effects.” The “bad” ones we call “side effects.”
But the reality is that every cause, every action, leads to a certain set of effects. The fact that we humans consider some of those effects to be undesirable and bad is an artifact of our human values and value judgments—many of which are based on our own immediate benefit or lack thereof.
Of course, in the world of human society “good,” “bad,” and even “side effects” do have meaning because we humans are not merely physical and biological beings, but also moral and spiritual beings. So in the world of human interactions, we can reasonably speak of actions and effects being good or bad, and of there being desired or undesired effects—the latter of which we can call “side effects” if we so choose.
However, even in the human world I would argue that our words and actions have a range of effects, and it’s a matter of judgment whether some of those effects are “bad” and “side effects.”
For example, if someone dies as a result of our action or inaction, is that good or bad?
Most likely it’s not good from a social, moral, and legal standpoint. Someone died, people are suffering as a result, and we could go to prison for it. Not good.
But from an eternal and spiritual perspective, the answer to this question may not be as obvious as it seems. More on that below.
There is no good or evil in nature, and no “side effects”
Meanwhile, when it comes to nature as nature, there is no such thing as good or evil.
In nature there is also no such thing as a “side effect.” That would imply that there is something bad about some of the effects of a particular action or force, whereas other effects of it are good.
As explained in the earlier article, the categories of good and evil don’t exist in the physical universe. This includes the world of nature on planet Earth.
Good and evil are moral and spiritual concepts. The physical universe, including its plant and animal realms, does not participate in the moral and spiritual dimensions of life in the way that we humans do. Plants and animals simply grow and act in accordance to their biological drives, design, function, and instincts. They have no concept of good and evil. They are not immoral, but amoral. Good, evil, and morality simply don’t apply to them.
It is only from a human perspective that anything in nature could be called “good” or “evil.” Within nature itself, these human moral and spiritual concepts have no meaning.
Within nature itself even mass extinctions are not “bad.” They just are. In fact, they might be required in order to lead to further developments that we humans see as good and necessary. For example, the dinosaurs died off in a major “ecological catastrophe” that was probably caused by a massive asteroid slamming into the earth. And yet, that mass extinction cleared the way for the rise of mammalian life to its current ascendancy in nature. And we humans, of course, are the beneficiaries of that rise of mammalian life.
Was the mass extinction brought about by that ancient asteroid strike “bad” or “evil”? Not if you like living as a human being on this earth. And not being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Personally, I prefer not living in the world of Godzilla!
So my first response to your questions beyond what I wrote in the earlier article is to suggest a rethinking of the idea that there are “side effects” in nature as God created it, and that those “side effects” are bad, and make nature less than ideal. This idea is based on human value judgments that may apply to the world of human society and interaction, but do not apply to the world of nature, or to the physical universe generally.
This brings us to my second response beyond what I wrote in the earlier article.
Death is not evil
We humans seem to be wired to think of death as bad.
Self-preservation—the avoidance of pain, injury, and death—is one of our most basic built-in biological and psychological drives. We want to continue to live. And we want to continue to live fully sound in mind and body. Anything that goes against our survival and our health we see as bad.
We therefore naturally see death as the ultimate evil.
But looked at both scientifically and spiritually, there is no real basis for the idea that physical death is evil.
Death is a necessary part of the cycle of physical life
Scientifically, death is an absolutely necessary part of the cycle of life. Without death, life as we know it could not exist.
For one thing, without death the earth would become so overpopulated that it could no longer support the plant and animal life on it. And even if that much plant and animal life could be supported, very soon there would literally be no room to move. Within a few generations the earth would be crammed full.
For another, the cycle of life and death, in which one generation gives way to the next, allows the evolution and development of life to take place. It makes possible the many and varied plant and animal species that populate our earth—including the human species, which depends upon the many forms of life that came before it.
Remove death, and nature simply doesn’t work.
If anything, from a scientific perspective death is a good and necessary thing.
Death is a necessary part of the cycle of spiritual life
Spiritually, the death of the human body is also an absolutely necessary part of the cycle of life.
Human beings are not designed by God to live forever on this physical earth. God designed us to live eternally in the spiritual world.
Seen from a spiritual perspective, physical death is simply our transition from this temporary world to our permanent home. Without death, God’s entire purpose in creating the universe—to provide for an eternal heaven from the human race—would be destroyed. Every single one of us must at some point die physically so that we can make that transition to our eternal home in the spiritual world.
Yes, there are necessary biological drives that lead us to avoid death as long as possible. There are also good spiritual reasons to continue our life here on earth long enough to achieve the purpose for which we are put here—namely, our spiritual rebirth.
And yet, there is no scientific, rational, or spiritual reason to think of death as an evil thing. Physical death is a necessary part of our biological life as a species, and of our spiritual life as eternal beings created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26–27).
Death is not a “side effect.” It is an integral and absolutely necessary part of God’s creation of the earth, and of our temporary stay here on our way to eternal life.
I would therefore also challenge the idea that when people die in earthquakes and other natural disasters, it is some sort of flawed “side effect” of God’s creation.
When and how we die is not particularly important
Ultimately, what does it really matter whether we die from an earthquake, or cancer, or a gunshot wound, or from old age? Sure, some ways to die are a lot more unpleasant than others. But in the larger scheme of things, it’s over pretty quickly. Then we move on to our eternal life, the pain is gone, and the way we died quickly fades into the background.
And who’s to say that our eternal life would have been better if we had lived another decade or two, or even fifty years more? It’s quite possible that if we had lived longer, we would have gotten worse instead of better. Maybe, having become a fairly decent person by the time we died, in the next ten or twenty years we would have done an about-face and become a jerk again. Or maybe if we were sort of a jerk at the time we died, in another ten or twenty years we would have gone on to become a complete and utter asshole. We just don’t know. Only God knows.
Our view of such things is limited by our earthly, time-bound perspective. Only God can see when the ideal time of death is for the eternal good and happiness of any particular individual.
No matter what the cause of our physical death, that is simply the point at which we move on from this life in the material world to our eternal life in the spiritual world.
To us humans, an “early death” in childhood, in the teenage years, or in young adulthood looks like a bad thing. And certainly we should do our best to create conditions in which as many people as possible can live out their full lifespan. None of these reflections on death are meant to encourage a fatalistic acceptance of unnecessary deaths that could have been prevented if we cared more about the wellbeing of our fellow human beings than we do about our own temporary profit, power, pleasure, or pain.
But from a spiritual and eternal perspective, we cannot know whether a person who died in childhood, as a teen, or in young adulthood would have had a better eternal life if she or he had lived longer. Only God knows that. And my belief is that whatever our time of death, God makes sure that we have been given the opportunity to live eternally in heaven rather than in hell.
Only spiritual death is evil
The only death that can really be considered bad or evil is spiritual death.
Everyone dies physically.
But not everyone dies spiritually.
Spiritual death occurs when we humans, through our life and our choices here on earth, decide to live for the evil of selfishness and greed instead of for the good of loving and serving God and our fellow human beings. When we make a choice for evil through the overall pattern of our life here on earth, we are choosing an eternity in hell instead of in heaven.
And yet, the ability to make that eternal choice is what makes us human.
The ability to freely choose whether we will live for good or for evil is what makes it possible for us to be in a genuine, mutual relationship of love with God and with our fellow human beings, both here on earth and eternally in heaven. Without that choice, we would be mere robots, and none of our relationships would be real. For more on this, see the later part of my article, “The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation,” starting with the section titled, “What’s wrong with reincarnation?”
Further, in God’s spiritual economy, even people who choose eternal hell have their pleasures in life. And though their hellish pleasures look horribly disgusting and evil to people who have chosen a life of heaven, to the inhabitants of hell they are intensely pleasurable.
At least, that’s what an evil spirit told Swedenborg, as narrated in a story quoted in the above-linked article on reincarnation. He assured Swedenborg that he loved life in hell—even if there were some parts of it that he wasn’t so crazy about.
Untying the mental and emotional knots
Based on these thoughts, and on the points covered in the earlier article, I would suggest that the mental and emotional knots that we humans commonly get all tied up in are a result of limited thinking about the nature and purpose of our life here on earth. These conceptual and psychological tangles are caused in part by our limited, short-term thinking about “effects” and “side effects,” and especially about the nature of pain, suffering, and death.
Not only from a scientific perspective, but also from a spiritual perspective, death—even early death from accidents, diseases, and natural disasters—is not “evil.” Death is not an “undesirable side effect” of God’s creation.
Quite the contrary.
Death is a good and necessary part of the physical universe. And spiritually, the death of our physical body is a good and necessary part of God’s overall plan for our eternal happiness and joy.
Death is the greatest doorway of life.
Death is the gateway out of our temporary existence in the physical world. Stepping through that gateway sets us free from all of our earthy struggles and pain.
Far from being evil and a curse, death is the final and greatest blessing of our earthly life. When we pass through the portal of death, we move on to our true home in the spiritual world. There we can fully enjoy everything we have been preparing for through all of our experiences and choices here in this earthly realm.
For further reading:
- If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
- How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 2
- Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
- The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
- When Death is a Celebration
- Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?