The images are heartbreaking.
- Side-by-side satellite photos showing sand dunes where beachfront homes and businesses once stood
- People in shock wading amidst debris floating in flooded streets
- People in their homes trying to clean up mud and sediment that covers their floors, walls, and belongings
- Confused pets displaced from their homes and separated from their owners
- Rescue workers helping people from their roofs
- Rescue workers recovering dead bodies
Sadly, these images have become much too common.
Hurricanes and the Problem of Natural Evil
In the wake of these types of natural disasters, it’s understandable for people to ask, “Why?”
- Why would God create a world with natural disasters that cause so much devastation and death?
- Why wouldn’t God intervene to prevent tragedies from happening?
For some skeptics, these questions count as sufficient reason to reject belief in God. If God, is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, surely, he would never create a world with natural phenomena that cause innocent people to suffer and die. They reason that God’s existence is logically incompatible with a world replete with natural disasters. Theologians and philosophers refer to this complaint as the problem of natural evil.
Other skeptics conclude that perhaps the problem of natural evil isn’t sufficient to reject belief in God but it is sufficient to question his goodness. These skeptics complain that they could never worship a God that would sit idly by and allow people to suffer through natural disasters such as hurricanes.
So, how should Christians respond to these serious challenges to God’s existence and goodness?
The Primacy of the Gospel
For Christians, the ultimate response to the problem of evil—whether it’s natural or moral evil—is the gospel.
Christians believe that we have a Savior, in the person of Christ, who identifies with our predicaments, fears, and failings (because he is fully human while being fully divine). Jesus Christ suffered and died for us, so we could be reconciled to the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He suffers with us when we experience pain and disappointment and invites us into a fellowship of suffering with him.
The Holy Spirit, too, brings us peace and comfort when we go through hardships. We are never left on our own when we suffer. We are never abandoned.
We also understand that our pain and suffering—and the pain and suffering of others—serves a purpose. It is rich in meaning. It is not senseless. We also have confidence that God will work all things to bring about good for us and for others. The deep, rich meaning of the gospel reminds us of the love and care God continually extends to us, even in our darkest, most hopeless moments.
But why would God create a world with hurricanes? Based on scientific insights, we now recognize that there are good reasons why God would create a world in which hurricanes play a part.
Five Benefits Provided by Hurricanes
Digital meteorologist Jonathan Belles has identified five good things that hurricanes do.1
- Bring rainfall. Hurricanes efficiently produce rainfall, often bringing rain to inland regions. These inland rain showers can help bring relief to areas suffering from drought.
- Replenish inland plant life. The high winds from hurricanes thin out vegetation, spurring new growth. Hurricanes also deposit nutrients and sediment in these places. These deposits contribute to new growth. The high winds associated with hurricanes also disperse seeds and spores inland, much farther than they would otherwise travel.
- Break up red tides. Red tides result from the unchecked growth of algae and bacteria. These microorganisms consume oxygen near the ocean surface and produce toxins that prevent other organisms from living in the red tides. Because hurricanes churn and mix the ocean waters, they break up the red tides and help oxygenate these dead zones.
- Replenish barrier islands. These islands located just offshore protect coastal regions and ecosystems from storm surges and flooding. Beach dunes and vegetation on barrier islands buffer the energy from waves before they collide with the mainland. Hurricanes pick up large amounts of sand and sediment (containing nutrients) and deposit them on the barrier islands, replenishing the beach dunes and making it possible for the vegetation on the barrier islands to flourish.
- Help balance global heat. One of the biggest benefits hurricanes provide is redistributing heat away from the equator toward the planet’s poles. Due to Earth’s axial tilt, the equator has higher temperatures than the poles. The equator receives more solar energy than any other latitude and the heat of the equator’s oceans rises into the atmosphere. Owing to their size and because they interact with the upper levels of the atmosphere, hurricanes efficiently move heat away from the equator. Hurricanes leave cooler waters in their wake.
Humans Contribute to the Damage Caused by Hurricanes
In light of the benefits hurricanes afford, it becomes reasonable to accept why God would create a world with hurricanes. It’s also important to recognize that in many instances, the pain and suffering and destruction of property caused by natural disasters is better understood as moral evil, not natural evil. To put it differently, human moral failings and lack of wisdom often cause pain and suffering, masquerading as natural evil.
This is certainly the case when it comes to the destruction caused by hurricanes.
For example, in the United States, an increasing number of people have been relocating to coastal areas that, in turn, make them vulnerable to hurricanes, tropical storms, and tidal flooding. As a case in point, from 1970 to 2020 the population of Fort Meyers, FL (which was devastated by Hurricane Ian), grew by over 600 percent to a population of over 760,000 people. The people who took up residence in the Fort Meyers area (Southwest Florida) knowingly and willingly developed residential and commercial properties over the past five decades that were directly in harm’s way. Living and working in this region is attractive for several obvious reasons. But the consequence of settling in greater Southwest Florida is the inevitable property damage and loss of life from hurricanes.
This same trend observed for Fort Meyers applies to other cities and towns along the coastal southeastern US. Despite the benefits of living in these areas, the risks are real and increasing as our planet experiences climate change, along with increased hurricane strength.
About a century ago, relatively few people lived in hurricane-susceptible parts of the US. Once again, take Florida as an example. Estimates indicate that at the turn of the last century, 200,000 people lived in coastal counties. In 2005, that number swelled to 13 million people. More people live in Dade and Broward counties today than lived in all the southeastern US in 1930.2 This trend means that more people and property are in harm’s way from hurricanes than at any other time in human history. And, as a consequence, property damage and loss of life from hurricanes have become increasingly pronounced.
Ironically, both affluence and poverty exacerbate the damage and devastation caused by hurricanes.3 As a rule of thumb, poverty makes people highly vulnerable to natural disasters of any kind. Developing countries experience about 75% of the economic damage and 90% of the human toll caused by natural disasters. Poor people can’t afford the preparations necessary to withstand the damage caused by hurricanes and tropical storms, nor can they evacuate to get out of harm’s way. And they rarely have the resources to cope with the aftermath.
On the other hand, people of affluence have the resources to build their homes and to develop businesses near coastal areas, making these regions among the most valuable real estate in the US. But in doing so they put themselves and their property directly in the paths of hurricanes and tropical storms.
In other words, much of the death, damage, and destruction caused by hurricanes isn’t God’s fault, but reflects a lack of wisdom on our part. In some instances, it reflects our moral failings because of our unwillingness to ensure that the poor among us are safe from the dangers associated with natural disasters.
Why Doesn’t God Just Step in and Prevent the Damage Caused by Hurricanes?
Assume that God routinely intervened to prevent the damage and devastation caused by hurricanes (and other natural disasters). By necessity, in each instance, he would have to violate the very laws of nature he put in place. According to Christian theology, God established these laws to govern the universe. Through them, he sustains and provides for his creation. It wouldn’t make sense for God to violate these laws.
Disastrous events arise from the laws of nature. They are a by-product of these laws. The benefits that result from hurricanes, for example, also cause destruction. In this sense, we could think of natural disasters as the result of trade-offs. And trade-offs are inescapable in any universe governed by constant natural laws.
God could have created a universe with different laws, but if those laws were constant, then trade-offs would still result. The trade-offs would simply be different from the trade-offs in our universe. And, although the laws of the hypothetical universe may be different, there would still be harsh consequences to these natural laws under some set of circumstances. In those scenarios, we would refer to those disasters as natural evil.
So, why would God stand idly by and allow these consequences to unfurl? Why wouldn’t he violate the laws he put in place if it means that fewer people would suffer?
This violation would have several consequences. For example, cause-and-effect relationships would break down. Nature would be unpredictable. And if nature is unpredictable, science would be impossible.
The same would be true for moral laws. In a universe where God frequently intervenes, morality is impossible. In his classic work Faith and Reason, philosopher Ron Nash writes:
“The existence of a lawlike and orderly creation is a necessary condition for a number of divine objectives. . . . it is also reasonable to believe that God placed these free moral agents in a universe exhibiting order. One can hardly act intentionally and responsibly in an unpredictable environment.”4
Nash goes on to say:
“If the world were totally unpredictable, if we could never know from one moment to the next, what to expect from nature, both science and meaningful moral conduct would be impossible. While we often take the natural order for granted, this order and the predictability that accompanies it function as a necessary condition for free human action. . . . One reason people can be held accountable when they pull the trigger of a loaded gun is the predictability of what will follow such an action.”5
As Nash points out, unchanging natural laws make the universe (and its phenomena) intelligible. If the laws of nature changed from day to day—or at the Creator’s whim—it would be impossible to know anything about the world with any real confidence. The universe’s orderliness leads to predictability—the most important condition for a rational investigation of the world.
The universe’s intelligibility makes it possible for human beings to take advantage of God’s provision for us, made available within the creation. As we come to understand the laws of physics and chemistry, the composition of matter, and the nature of living systems, we can deploy that knowledge to benefit humanity and all life on Earth—through technology, agriculture, medicine, and conservation efforts. To put it in theological terms, the intelligibility of the universe allows us to unleash God’s providence as we discover and learn about the creation.
The universe’s intelligibility also makes it possible for us to understand phenomena that cause natural disasters and develop plans and technology to prevent—or, at least minimize—pain, suffering, and devastation.
Taking Human Responsibility
God created a world with hurricanes for good reasons. These powerful natural events benefit all life on Earth. And through God’s providence, we have the wherewithal to systematically study and characterize the world. These efforts give us the capacity to understand the causes of natural phenomena that can be disastrous and the knowledge and insight to avoid and minimize the pain and suffering caused by hurricanes and other natural occurrences.
Yet, so often, we don’t act on this knowledge. In fact, sometimes we do the opposite of what knowledge—and common sense—would dictate.
People with affluence try to sidestep the consequences of living in areas prone to natural disasters by developing and implementing the technology to build structures that can withstand, at least in part, hurricanes and other natural disasters. But these technologies aren’t perfect, and they often fail.
Sadly, those with wealth rarely do enough to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are shielded from the harmful effects of hurricanes and other natural disasters. In many instances, they seem to be satisfied to let them fend for themselves.
As human beings, we bear much of the responsibility for the harsh consequences we experience when natural disasters hit. Nevertheless, we become upset and question God’s existence and goodness when he doesn’t violate the laws of nature that he has put in place. Laws he designed to govern, sustain, and provide for the creation.
Still, God is merciful. And he expects the same from people who’ve been created in his image. Even though there’s much blame to go around, when a natural disaster hits, we have an obligation to care for those who suffer, to help them recover, and to do what we can to prevent the loss of life and property when future natural disasters hit. In this way, we serve as his agents to help bring peace and comfort to the hurting.
Benefits of Hurricanes
“What If There Were No Hurricanes?” by David Rogstad (article)
“Hurricanes and the Climate, Part 1” by Kevin Birdwell (article)
“Hurricanes and the Climate, Part 2” by Kevin Birdwell (article)
Is Natural Evil Really Moral Evil in Disguise?
“Natural Evil or Moral Evil?” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Are Tsunamis Natural or Moral Evil?” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Why Do People Die in Earthquakes? Blame Corrupt Governments, Not God” by Fazale Rana (article)
“What’s in a Name? Hurricane Monikers and the Problem of Evil” by Fazale Rana (article)
“The Human Hand in Creating Super Bugs” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Why Did God Create the Thai Liver Fluke?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- Jonathan Belles, “5 Things Hurricanes Can Do That Are Actually Good,” The Weather Channel, Hurricane Central, August 29, 2017.
- PRB, “In Harm’s Way: Hurricanes, Population Trends, and Environmental Change,” (October 20, 2004).
- PRB, “In Harm’s Way.”
- Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 200.
- Nash, Faith and Reason, 201.