Types of Evil: Natural and Moral

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The Christian tradition divides evil into two groups—natural and moral. However, this raises more questions: Is any kind of evil justifiable? And, how do the different types of evil affect humans? Let’s find out the answers to these.

Image showing a grim reaper.
According to Saint Irenaeus, the acts of moral evils hurt humans as much as those people that they hurt. (Image: rangizzz/Shutterstock)

What Are Natural and Moral Evils?

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon was the first thinker, at least in the Christian tradition, to offer an account of evil that divides it into two groups. There is natural evil—those evils that are caused by nature, by accidents of nature such as mudslides, earthquakes, plagues, and other natural disasters. Then there is distinctly moral evil—evils caused by humans intentionally.

The experience of moral evil is, in some ways, the centerpiece of what is considered to be human malice. It is what humans cause one another through their free-willed actions, whether directly through their free-willed actions or indirectly through habituation in certain ways. Malice, jealousy, hatred, partiality, and pride are some of the dispositions and the behaviors that spring from them and are moral evils.

Irenaeus’s View of Moral Evils

According to Irenaeus, the acts of moral evils hurt humans as much as those people that they hurt. In doing that, these evils slowly cause people to realize the suffering of the world, and eventually, people will freely choose to turn to God and find their end in the Divine. God will not compel them in this; God will simply continue to offer them salvation.

And, the deeper they get into despair, the more attractive the offer of redemption will come to seem to them. Despite the fact that humans do their hardest to condemn themselves to Hell, Irenaeus strongly insinuates they will nonetheless find God’s mercy so powerfully attractive that it will be impossible to resist.

Image of a sculpture of Adam and Eve with the snake in a façade.
Adam and Eve’s sin was a sin of impatience. (Image: Stefania Valvola/Shutterstock)

Adam and Eve’s sin lay in their attempt to grasp more than they were ready for in Eden; it was a sin of impatience.

However, one can argue that it was foreseeable because, after all, youth is impatient; age and wisdom are patient. It is only after a person has hurt himself or herself by being impatient that he or she learns the wisdom of patience. By experiencing life outside of God’s plan, humanity then comes to grow and appreciate what God has in store for it.

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Death as a Part of Natural Evil

The world is a veil of soul-making. Natural evil has a purpose in this picture; it trains people to feel compassion and help one another. Death that is part of natural evil, the death that is part of humans’ mortality in this fallen world, is a good thing because it ends the suffering and puts one to sleep so they can be resurrected by God.

This is a powerful thought. However, there are two things about it that need more reflection. The first thing to be considered is the deepest insight this account has. To be blessed, one must know what it is to be damned. It is difficult to determine whether this is true.

Suffering is, in some important way, the core experience that teaches people the kind of wisdom that enables them to be in the right position to be redeemed by God in the Christian tradition. Unfortunately, it can sound like a bad consolation to some people, especially in certain situations where suffering may be just too great for them.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

Does Death Trivialize the Reality of Evil and Suffering?

When one sees death as a part of natural evil, it makes one wonder whether death trivializes the reality of evil and suffering or force all evil and suffering to seem like it is ultimately for humans’ own good. Does it apply to everyone’s experience of evil? What about those who suffer horrendous evil without seeming to have a chance to learn from it?

Some kinds of natural evil may, in fact, teach people not to care about the world in problematic ways. There are many people who, in the midst of life-ending illnesses, have become more gentle, more loving, more susceptible to receiving kindness.

Firstly, it is a very fortunate experience for those who are dying in that way and for those who are there around them, and there is no way one can say that they ought to be that way, or that they need to be that way. That is a gratuitous and gracious response by people in situations of extreme evil; but one cannot say that it is, in some sense, the standard response of people in extreme evil.

Several people suffer horribly and die without becoming intrinsically better people from that suffering. Also, many people suffer horribly and die without being able to develop into the kind of people who are like that. Irenaeus, it seems, never went into a child’s cancer ward; never thought much of the difficulties of infant suffering in this situation.

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Some Evil Seems Out of Proportion

Image of Auschwitz I - Nazi concentration camp.
The Holocaust was an evil of epic proportions. (Image: edgar ortiz/Shutterstock)

Alongside the natural evils, there are some kinds of evil that seem wholly out of proportion to any kind of lesson they could communicate to humans, or any kind of moral upbuilding that they could enable for them.

The classic example of this in the 20th century has been the Holocaust. How does the death of 12 million people, including young children and elderly people, improve their lives in a fundamental way? One cannot tell dead people that it could be a good thing for them. Thus, humans can learn from their mistakes and take tutelage from their suffering and be grateful for the wounds they have suffered.

Common Questions about Natural and Moral Evils

Q: What is the difference between natural evil and moral evil?

Those evils that are caused by nature, accidents of nature such as mudslides, earthquakes, plagues, and other natural disasters are known as natural evils. Moral evils, on the other hand, are evils caused by humans intentionally.

Q: Where, according to Irenaeus, did Adam and Eve’s sin lay?

According to Irenaeus, Adam and Eve’s sin lay in their attempt to grasp more than they were ready for in Eden; it was a sin of impatience.

Q: What role does death play in natural evil?

As a part of natural evil, death can be a good thing because it ends a person’s suffering and puts one to sleep so they can be resurrected by God.

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