‘Does human sin cause natural disasters to happen?’

This strand of the natural disaster argument centres on some people’s belief that suffering is the product of human activity which came about when people decided to rebel against God. The result of this being that the world of humans was changed forever. The thinking goes something like this. Firstly, human rebellion allowed moral evil to come into the world, affecting the way people related with one another (and  God). Secondly, the delicate balance of the physical world was somehow damaged and derailed in this process as the human environment was brought into turmoil.

For many christians who subscribe to this sort of thinking, the turmoil is in the Bible where the present world is likened to a woman labouring in the pains of childbirth, groaning until physical order can be restored (Mark 13v8, Romans 8v22) . Now if such a thing were true, it suggests that the extent of sin is more pervasive than humans presently understand because it affects all kinds of environments. However, in the light of scientific understanding, this also begs the question of whether such a position can be taken seriously or not?

Of course, we know from our experience of natural disasters that these can be caused by human activity within our world. A good example of this is the extended deforestation of Bangladesh which occurred during the 20th century. The extensive flooding of its plains came about because there were no forested valleys left to absorb excessive rainfall higher up in the mountains. A different example is the ‘dust bowl’ which occurred when incorrect farming techniques, combined with storms, turned vast areas of the American and Canadian prairie into desert overnight. Perhaps the most common example that people are aware of today is how industrial development has produced greenhouse gases, currently thought to contribute to the climate change that is melting ice caps and raising temperatures around the world.

Now, although all the disasters I have mentioned are the outcome of human activity, it is questionable whether every phenomenon can be attributed to people in this way. One reason that it is problematic is because scientists date the world’s existence as millions of years before human life began. Given that there is much evidence to support the claim that earthquakes and tsunamis were happening long before human activity, it is not unreasonable to conclude that natural disasters have their origin in something other than human sinfulness. This reasoning is reached by an understanding that if the early development of the world required the movement of tectonic plates to create mountains and valleys, then it is equally likely that occurrences of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis began long before humans were ever around to record these events. All of which means that natural disasters simply cannot be the consequence of human rebellion away from God, because these already occurred at a much earlier date in history.

More notably, English naturalist Charles Darwin, who in his attempts to explain how species adapt and develop in their environments, came across Sir Charles Lyell’s theory of ‘uniformitarianism’. This theory proposed that the world was far older than the date advanced by the Church which had calculated the age by adding together the cumulative years in the genealogy from Adam to Jesus and then an extra 17 centuries after that. Lyell’s theory suggested these biblical calculations were incorrect because the time needed for the weathering and erosion of the landscape to occur (in the rocks he had examined) meant the earth was much older – a planet with an age that should be calculated in millions of years rather than thousands. This theory helped Darwin to begin developing his idea of a much slower and gradual sequence of events in the evolution of species and allowed the sciences to advance independently of the Church. Prior to this, the prevalent view among scholars was that of ‘catastrophism’, which asserted that the earth had changed as a result of violent cataclysmic events which disrupted the regular order of things within it. What Darwin’s model suggested was that change was not sudden but established over lengthy periods of time and in ways that allowed species to adapt and develop in different ways – an idea totally at odds with the global catastrophe described in the Noah account.

So, given that the world and its natural disasters have been in existence far longer than human life and activity, it is not unreasonable to suggest that these phenomena originate from something other than human sinfulness – though clearly not everyone will agree with such a conclusion.