Here are a couple of the “reasonable Christian responses” (as he calls them) that apologist John M. DePoe offers for the existence of natural evils (True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism, ed. Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, pp. 218-219):
(1) There cannot be free will in any meaningful sense unless the world is governed by laws that make it behave in a sufficiently regular manner. These laws, however, “are also the cause of various phenomena, like hurricanes, tornadoes, and diseases.” It follows that one cannot avoid the existence of such natural disasters without eliminating our ability to exercise free will.
(2) Natural evils aren’t intrinsically evil; they are only bad when they harm moral agents. It follows that “if people had not chosen to settle in an area prone to tornado activity or on a fault line, there would be no associated evil event.”
To the second, he adds that God may “permit natural evils in order to preserve the responsibility that comes with free agency.” If he were to put a stop to earthquakes, after all, then those who chose to live on a fault line would no longer be held accountable for their poor choice!
These excuses for evil are, like the majority of those put forward by Christians, so obviously inadequate that they are laughable. A rebuttal shouldn’t even be necessary. But for those who need one, here it is, briefly:
(1) Free will may necessitate the existence of natural regularities, but the existence of natural regularities doesn’t necessitate hurricanes, earthquakes or diseases — or anything else that causes death and suffering.
(2) There is nowhere that people can choose to live that does not carry with it some risk. Sure, some areas are riskier than others. But what about all those people who carefully avoid fault lines, tornado-prone locations, and so on, but get killed by, say, a highly infectious virus? And what about all the people who have settled in dangerous locations which they did not know were dangerous? The inhabitants of Lisbon in 1755 did not even know about fault lines. (In addition, the harms done by disease and natural disasters aren’t limited to moral agents. There are other sentient beings to consider.)
The main question Christians should be asking, however, is why most of these explanations are so bad. That they are is evidence that apologists are defending the indefensible.
Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.