What are the differences between moral and natural evil?

What are the differences between moral and natural evil? Is God its author? What about Isaiah 45:7?

Definition of Moral and Natural Evil

Moral evil is what is caused both by human activity and certain inactivity. This is called sin. Active examples of moral evil are murder, rape, child abuse, hatred, jealously, theft, terrorism, genocide. Inactive sin includes not helping someone in need when it’s in your power to do so. Everyone since the Fall (apart from Jesus) is guilty of sin and comes short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) (Please see, "Could Jesus Sin?" below).

Natural evil refers to such things as natural disasters (hurricanes, volcanos, tornados, floods, drought, famine) and disease, etc. Its primary cause was the “original sin” of the first humans in the garden (Gen. 3). Through Adam's federal headship, the entire universe, including the human race, fell in him (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). (Please see, "What is Federal Headship?" below.)

How can God be good if there is evil?

Theodicy is the branch of philosophy that deals with the issue of evil in light of the sovereignty and goodness of God. (Please see, "What is theodicy?" below.) Consider what the Westminster Confession of Faith says regarding this:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Although God created the world and all that is in it, he is not the author of evil (Gen. 1:31; Jas. 1:13; 1 John 1:5; cf. 1 Cor 14:33). But at the same time, God ordained evil's existence from the beginning. Here's the flow of this thinking: 1) God not only made it a possibility that Adam could sin (Gen 3), and 2) he not only knew Adam would sin (Isa 40:13-14; cf. Job 21:22; Rom 11:33-34, etc.), but 3) he also ordained that Adam would sin. This analogy might be helpful:

Imagine someone creating a four-legged table that functions as they intended it to. Very good! It’s perfect! Wow, it's nice! But what if a leg is removed from it? Something good (a leg) is removed from something good (the table), and you have something other than what was originally created. The table is no longer complete. Part of the glory that table once had has vanished. It’s no longer perfect, not what it’s supposed to be, but corrupted

God, in his glory, created the universe. He created a Genesis 1:31 table, a four-legged universe, and it was very good, absolute perfection. He gave management of this perfectly good creation to Adam. But in time, Adam removed one of the legs through disobedience, and by his mismanagement, Adam allowed the glory of another to replace the glory of his Creator. So, now what we have is an imperfect, broken, fallen three-legged universe. It is still out of balance (natural evil) and Adam’s sin (moral evil) still exists.

But God, in the fullness of time, sent Jesus, the incarnate carpenter, to start reattaching the leg for his elect (inauguration). However, to accomplish this, he must create/re-create all things anew, ultimately coming together for God's glory alone (consummation). His people look forward to this — a new four-legged universe (the new heavens and the new earth) that is even better and incorruptible.

Thus, God can create something totally good, ordain that evil come into it, and still not be the author of the evil. (Please see, "Did Shakespeare kill King Duncan, or did Macbeth?" and "Does God Use Evil to Accomplish His Purposes?" below.)

Some Objections Answered

Some atheists argue that Isaiah 45:7 says that God created evil. They normally quote the KJV which says, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." However, the KJV fails to observe the chiastic pattern of the Hebrew style of poetry in Isaiah 45:6-7. The ESV translators capture the truths of this beautiful passage much better:

  • A. I am the Lord, and there is no other.
    • B. I form light and
    • B'. create darkness;

    • B1. I make well-being and
    • B1'. create calamity;
  • A'. I am the Lord, who does all these things

In other words, God ordained calamity as a judgment for the wicked. This, however, does not make him the author of evil. But look closely again at this poetic pattern. If we were to replace the word "calamity" with "evil," it would break the God-ordained symmetry. The Hebrew term "shalom" is used to clearly speak of a state of well-being in contrast to the Hebrew term "ra" meaning calamity. So, ra, which has numerous meanings other than evil (i.e. adversity, bad, disagreeable, malignant, unpleasant, giving pain, unhappiness, misery, etc.) must be translated as something other than evil (i.e. calamity) to keep the parallel contrast alive and uniform.

An atheist's follow-up argument might be, “If God is sovereign and good, then why didn't he just create a perfect world without the possibility of sin and evil in the first place?” Two reasons come immediately to mind. First, it's God's desire to utterly destroy evil. In the already-but-not-yet reality, Christ has already conquered evil on the cross (Col. 2:15). As John says, "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). Although this is presently an already-but-not-yet reality, in the consummation of all things we shall see this in even a fuller richness. (Please see the, "Kingdom of God: Already, not Yet?" below.)

The second reason is related to the first, but it involves God's righteous method of how he would, with eternal destruction, destroy the Devil, his seed, and all his works (Gen. 3:15; John 8:44; Col. 2:15). The Lord, who is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works (Psa. 145:17; cf. Psa. 18:30; 119:137), ordained that his only begotten Son would die (John 3:16) for his chosen (Eph. 1:4-5). In doing so he defeated sin, evil and death itself.

Though Adam and Eve had close fellowship with God and understood to some extent how much God loved them, they didn't understand the full extent of that love for them from the very beginning. God ordained that evil would come upon even his own Son (Acts 2:23-24; 4:27-28) who was willing to die for them. Is there any greater love than this? (John 15:13; cf. Gen. 3:21). God not only desires that his people have this knowledge, but that they experience it as well. He knows his people couldn't understand mercy without misery, grace without sin, forgiveness without transgression, or well-being without calamity. It’s on this dark picture that the light of the Lord's glory is often contrasted (Rom. 9:17-18).

The highest good is not our happiness or even man's holiness. It is the manifestation of God's perfect attributes, which is simply God’s magnificent glory. He is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12). His thoughts are not like ours thoughts, nor are his ways like ours (Isa. 55:8). Rather, his thoughts and ways are absolute and perfect (Psa. 33:11; 40:5; Isa. 14:24). Will not the Lord of the universe always do right? (Gen. 18:25; Job 34:10; cf. Deut. 32:4). Paul understood this when he wrote:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Rom. 11:33-36).

Here is another piece of great wisdom. This is from Charles Hodge:

[Rest is] satisfied with the simple statements of the Bible. The Scriptures teach, (1) That the glory of God is the end to which the promotion of holiness, and the production of happiness, and all other ends are subordinate. (2) That, therefore, the self-manifestation of God, the revelation of his infinite perfection, being the highest conceivable, or possible good, is the ultimate end of all his works in creation, providence, and redemption. (3) As sentient creatures are necessary for the manifestation of God's benevolence, so there could be no manifestation of his mercy without misery, or of his grace and justice, if there were no sin. . . . Sin, therefore, according to the Scriptures, is permitted, that the justice of God may be known in its punishment, and his grace in its forgiveness. And the universe, without the knowledge of these attributes, would be like the earth without the light of the sun...

The glory of God being the great end of all things, we are not obliged to assume that this is the best possible world for the production of happiness, or even for securing the greatest degree of holiness among rational creatures. It is wisely adapted for the end for which it was designed, namely, the manifestation of the manifold perfections of God... It may, in conclusion, be safely asserted that a universe constructed for the purpose of making God known, is a far better universe than one designed for the production of happiness (Systematic Theology, 1:435-436).

One Living Hope Against Evil (1 Pet. 1:3)

There is only one hope against evil and his name is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:24; Col. 2:15; cf. John 12:31; Col. 2:10). He has promised peace to all that are in him (John 16:33). In the new heavens and new earth, “the first heaven and the first earth [will pass] away, and the sea [will be] no more… He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away” (Rev. 21:1,4). Only then will the saints see the promised elimination of all evil. However, at Calvary, this has already been accomplished but exists in the “now but not yet.”

Related Topics

Could Jesus Sin?
What is Federal Headship?
What is theodicy?
Does God Use Evil to Accomplish His Purposes?
Did Shakespeare kill King Duncan, or did Macbeth?
What are Biblical Chiasms?
Kingdom of God: Already, not Yet?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).