Why does God allow bad things to happen? How can He if He is good and all-powerful? These questions identify the “problem of evil” that for many people represents a significant challenge to God’s existence—and to personal faith.
Philosophers and theologians recognize two kinds of evil: moral and natural.2 Moral evil stems from human action (or inaction in some cases). Natural evil occurs as a consequence of nature—earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, diseases, and the like.
Natural evil seems to present a greater theological challenge than moral evil does. A skeptic might admit that God can be excused for the free-will actions of human beings who violate His standard of goodness. But natural disasters and disease don’t result from human activity, they reason. Therefore, this type of “evil” must be attributed solely to God. Recent work, however, aimed at reducing cholera in rural Bangladeshi villages suggests how precarious this reasoning can be.3
Cholera, a disease characterized by diarrhea, extensive dehydration, and rapid death if not immediately treated, is caused by ingestion of the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae. This microbe naturally associates with a microscopic crustacean (copepod) that floats as part of the surface water zooplankton in Bangladesh. During the late spring and summer, phytoplankton blooms with rising water temperatures. This, in turn, leads to blooms of zooplankton and toxic levels of V. cholerae in rivers, lakes, and ponds.
Rural villages of Bangladesh rely heavily on surface water as a source of drinking water. As a (sometimes deadly) result, cholera outbreaks routinely occur in the fall after the zooplankton levels explode.4 Bangladeshi villagers cannot turn to wells for drinking water since over half are contaminated with arsenic. Boiling surface water is rarely an option because wood fuel, used to sterilize the water, is scarce and expensive. In light of this seemingly hopeless situation, skeptics and Christians alike are justified to ask, “Why would an all-powerful and good God create a world in which V. cholerae is inevitably a part?”
In response to the cholera crisis, an international research team developed a simple filtration procedure to remove zooplankton (and accompanying V. cholerae) from surface water and deployed it in sixty-five rural Bangladeshi villages. The research team instructed the villagers to use an inexpensive cloth commonly found in households to filter drinking water. Laboratory studies demonstrated that the folded cloth retained zooplankton and removed about 99 percent of V. cholerae from the drinking water. In the field, the cases of cholera plummeted by 50 percent over a two year span. Moreover, the cholera cases reported were less severe, since the disease’s impact depends on the amount of V. cholerae ingested.
The suffering caused by cholera—and other water-borne diseases—is rooted in man’s failure to act, not in God’s design. V. cholerae, a natural symbiont of zooplankton, comes into contact with human beings largely due to poverty and questionable resource and land management, not as an inevitable consequence of the natural order. Even then, a simple filtration process offers protection from this microbe’s devastating effects, allowing people to coexist with a natural realm that God pronounces good.