God and Natural Disasters

Let us consider an instance of antithesis. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) once wrote a book-length treatise entitled Theodicy (1709) which contains his treatment of the problem of evil. The gist of Leibniz’ argument is as follows: God in his infinite wisdom, before the creation of the world, surveyed all the possibilities before Him and chose the “best possible world” – our world. Because of God’s omnipotence and goodness, he made this world. The assumption doesn’t seem all that erroneous: God is good, and hence (though difficult to argue otherwise), among the alternatives God chooses or creates the best possible one.

In contrast, the great 1755 earthquake in Lisbon which claimed tens of thousand of lives, left a great impact on notable French philosopher Voltaire* (1694-1778). Though there may be other motives for Voltaire writing his famous work of satire (or “tragicomedy”)Candide, it is all the while clear that the work was intended as a satirical response to Leibniz’s theological/philosophical optimism. One of the main characters in the story, Dr. Pangloss – a philosopher, perhaps resembling Leibniz himself or at least his disciples – when asked after all the misery and trouble he has endured, if he still resorts to his belief that this is the best possible world, remarked:

I have always abided by my first opinion. . . for after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments, especially since Leibniz could not be wrong, and besides pre-established harmony is the finest thing in the world. . . (Voltaire 2003, 123)

I have both books on my shelf and they are both vital areas of study for the philosophy of religion in general and on the problem of evil in particular. However, what is more significant is how these two giants of philosophy – Leibniz’ Theodicy and Voltaire’sCandide – might show us something deeper for a significant discussion or debate.

On Evil

Characteristic of our time – perhaps due to a modern scientific-technological society – is our lacking in sense of the mysterious otherness of the Good, or even God. We have traded this in for the mysterious otherness of evil. For, unlike God, something about evil seems to keep it off the radars of analysis, conceptualization or rationalization.

Let us suppose an analogy: on the one hand we are lovers and on the other we are theorizers.* That is, in such an age as ours we may love; it is a world where our beloved marks the sign of our affection. On the other hand we may or theorize or “rationalize”; this is a world where we may inhabit one of neutrality, an “It” instead of a “Thou.” In such a world as the latter, an “It,” there is a tendency to succumb natural disasters to a scientific inquiry or even a technological stomping ground. It’s interesting because we may even call earthquakes or tidal waves “an act of God,” but we must employ such a phrase with careful religious indifference – that is, we are merely making a verbal calculation. In a world where Mother Nature could unleash such terrors, we mustn’t fall to the error that such terrors carry with them any kind of mystery; or, perhaps better put, a religious reverence to them.

However, suppose that we did live in a world of “Thou.” Suppose perhaps that there is some religious significance to the events that take place. David Hume (1711-1776) in hisDialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776) argues that perhaps evil in creation might have something to say about the Creator. After all, don’t defects in a created thing say something about their creators? Bad house, bad builder. Bad pot, bad potter. Bad creation, bad God. Who could go wrong with that logic?

In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men? Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? (Hume/Rowe 2001, 43)

If this argument holds weight, then why not perhaps consider Descartes’ evil demon? That, unlike an omnibenevolent God who created us, there is a deceitful demon, fooling us into believing that say, triangles have three sides or that sum of two and three is five.

God’s power and goodness are essential to such a conversation as this. For, philosophers have tended to separate the two – or, at least speak of God’s goodness apart from his omnipotence.


Works Cited

Quoted from Rowe, William. God and the Problem of Evil. 2001. Wiley-Blackwell.

Voltaire, Candide. trans. Henry Morley. 2003. Barnes & Nobles Classic. New York.



*This is of course not Voltaire’s birth name. His full name is really François-Marie Arouet. It wasn’t until much later in life that François-Marie adopted the pen name “Voltaire,” perhaps (though I am speculating here) out of spite of his past/family.

**I am indebted to William Desmond’s essay in The Philosopher’s Handbook (Random House: 2000) for this distinction.

***I’m borrowing this distinction from Martin Buber’s I and Thou.


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