Teachers carry children away from Briarwood Elementary School after a tornado destroyed the school in Oklahoma. (Paul Hellstern / Oklahoman via AP)
In moments of severe disasters like the tornado in Oklahoma, people of faith will often speak of “praying for the city” or “praying for the victims.” As the massive tornado outside of Oklahoma City annihilated buildings including a school with students and teachers, some people of faith used social media to speak messages of prayer and hope in God. However, some atheists also posted in social media, referred to this natural disaster as a “gratuitous evil” or evidence against God’s existence. One atheist tweeted:
“NEWSFLASH—If god cared about Oklahoma he wouldn’t have allowed the tornado in the first place. #PrayForOklahoma #Atheism
So, are natural disasters evidence against God’s existence or his care for mankind? Some eastern religions, like Hinduism and types of Buddhism, will suggest that evil is ultimately an illusion. On the other hand, some atheists do believe that evil really does exist, and it isn’t something invented by cultures or individuals. On the other hand, a theist (Jew, Muslim, Christian) may respond to the atheist saying, “If atheistic naturalism is true, what makes a natural disaster, evil?
You may not personally prefer such an invent like a tornado to occur, but to call such a natural event like a tornado, “evil” seems to be delving into a metaphysical area of reality which is beyond the physical.”
When atheists use natural disasters as a time to rebuke individuals of faith, there may be some indication that their argument against God is more of an emotional objection, rather an intellectual problem. However, with some atheists, it seems to be a genuine intellectual objection that dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and later, David Hume.
Some atheists, following Hume, who are watching natural disasters or experiencing true evil, will often hold that the two statements: “An all-powerful and all-good God exists” and “Evil exists” are logically inconsistent. But other logicians will note that there is not an explicit contradiction in these statements. The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.
The reality is that natural disasters and so-called problems of evils, are not just something for the Christian to try to answer, but a reality that every worldview, whether atheist, Buddhist, Muslim or agnostic, should consider.
Christian Philosopher Norman Geisler points out that, “The infinite power and perfection of God guarantee the eventual defeat of evil. The fact that it is not yet accomplished in no way diminishes the certainty that it will be defeated. Even though evil cannot be destroyed without destroying free choice, nonetheless, it can be overcome.”
Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence. Religious individuals who have rationale for affirming non-physical realities like “evil” also affirm non-physical realities of “hope” and “love.” Ethicists acknowledge that many of the virtues such as “helping” and “courage” would not exist unless there was evil and privation.
Christians, who claim a relationship with God, wager that God’s goodness does exist. They have hope that the God, who experienced both suffering and resurrection through Jesus, will one day return to heal and wipe tears.
In moments of natural devastation like the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma, multitudes of people of faith will be praying, but they will also be grieving with the hurting, rolling up their sleeves, and joining together with other compassionate people to provide humanitarian help for those who are in need.
Dave Sterrett is the author or co-author of six books, including the Christian best-seller, “I Am Second” (Thomas Nelson, 2012), and “Why Trust Jesus?” (Moody, 2010). He teaches philosophy and theology at San Diego Christian College’s liberal arts program, Rivendell Sanctuary in Minnesota.