Supernatural Evil

By Dan Barker | 5 July 2023
Letters to a Free Country

The Earthquake of 1755 in Portugal. (Credit: João Glama Ströberle / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Dan Barker is a friend of many years standing, a key international freethought leader (FFRF), debater dozens of times over world-wide (winner at the Oxford Union!), an author of many good books (I’m the proud owner of six different titles, all signed), a damned good chess player, a musician, a songwriter, and one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. It’s a pleasure and a great honor to have his words once again grace Letters to a Free Country. He’ll be speaking to AFS via Zoom this coming Sunday—9 July at 1 pm EDT (free and open to the public) for any who want to hear him—e-mail me to get the Zoom ID and join us from anywhere in the world. This essay is Chapter 17 in a book edited by John Loftus—also a great leader, writer, and thinker—though I don’t know him as well as I do Dan. More on the book below.

Supernatural Evil
by Dan Barker

It was a bright and cloudless morning in Lisbon, Portugal, on Saturday November 1, 1755. The fall air was crisp and clear, and the sea was calm. The bustling metropolis was brimming with visitors and residents who packed dozens of churches for the Feast of All Saints. Around 9:45 a.m., while worshippers were praying, the city was rocked by a massive earthquake, ten times as strong as the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906. Most of the churches were demolished, immediately killing thousands who were trapped inside.

Some tried to escape the horror by rushing to the sea. Around 10:20 a.m., the first tsunami arrived, drowning many and destroying more property. More earthquakes and tsunamis followed, mercilessly battering the wounded city, causing widespread ruination, panic, and great human tragedy.

But that wasn’t the worst. The fires that broke out grew into a roaring inferno that blazed for days through the rubble, incinerating trapped survivors, impeding rescue efforts, and destroying many structures that had withstood the quakes.

The devastation was no respecter of persons. Convents and hospitals were razed. So were prisons. Many of the criminals who were suddenly free began rampaging through the ruins, looting and raping. Some of them broke into homes that had survived the quakes, killing the lucky inhabitants. In the days that followed, vermin and disease plagued the homeless and destitute survivors.

Mark Molesky, in his engrossing history This Gulf of Fire, describes the catastrophe as a nightmare of unimaginable terror.[1]

When word of the disaster reached the rest of Europe, it sparked a huge debate about the problem of evil. The Age of Reason was beginning to flex its muscles against the Age of Faith, and philosophers and theologians argued strenuously about the cause and meaning of the calamity. The church, of course, blamed it on sin—the city was being punished for debauchery. One priest saw the leveling of dozens of churches as god’s punishment for spiritual and moral laxity: “So profane had these houses of God become in God’s eyes that he felt obliged to destroy them and, by so doing, purify them.”[2] Rather than question God’s recklessness, clerics urged people to cling more closely to faith: “All those who escaped the ruins of the city should thank God for the great mercy that he has shown us.”[3] One of the survivors agreed: “The fire was an act of mercy sent by the Almighty because it consumed the exposed dead bodies that could have, with time, infected the air and led to much harm.”[4] Since the disaster happened on a Saturday, a cardinal ordered public prayer and fasting on most Saturdays thereafter, which must include “special orations against earthquakes.”[5] Pope Benedict XIV instructed all Italian monasteries, convents and churches to pray daily “so that the Almighty would not extend the terrible earthquake that had desolated Spain and Portugal.”[6] When England learned of the disaster, they immediately banned masquerade balls, presumably because they led to great sinning.[7]

Voltaire would have none of this. He mocked those callous explanations: “And can you then impute a sinful deed to babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” Was Portugal more evil than other countries? “Lisbon is shattered,” he wrote, “and Paris dances.” He opened his famous “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” with these words:

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well,”
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate
The iron laws that chain the will of God”?
Say ye, ‘er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
“God is avenged: the wage of sin is death”?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?[8]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was six years old when the tragedy occurred. Remembering hearing news of the event, Goethe later wrote: “God, said to be omniscient and merciful, had shown himself to be a very poor sort of father, for he had struck down equally the just and the unjust. In vain, the young mind sought to combat this idea; but it was clear that even learned theologians could not agree about the way to account for such a disaster.”[9]

Evil or Disaster?

To many religious thinkers, when it comes to human suffering, the two sides of the problem of evil—moral evil and natural evil—are conflated. One way or another, evil is our fault. We commit it or we deserve it. But when it comes to God, they are strictly separated. God might cause natural evil, but never moral evil.

But if suffering is suffering, what is the difference?

This theological dilemma can be starkly seen in the different ways translators have wrestled with problematic passages of the Bible dealing with suffering. For example, Isa 45:7 states very clearly that God creates evil: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (KJV).

The Douay-Rheims, Wycliffe Bible, Jubilee Bible, and Young’s Literal Translation also use the word “evil” here, as they should. That is the word ra`, which is normally understood as moral evil throughout the Hebrew Bible. Ra` makes its first appearance in Genesis 2:9 describing “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In probably the most morally significant scripture of the entire Judeo-Christian faith, dealing with the fall of the human race, we are told that the reason Adam and Eve were not to eat from the tree in the garden was because “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). That is the word ra`. Since ra` is contrasted with good in this verse, it can only mean moral evil. Eve’s disobedience condemned our entire species.

But can ra` sometimes be understood as natural evil? Some translators think so. In an apparent attempt to sidestep the plain meaning of ra`, look at how other versions of Isa 45:7 are stated:

I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. (ESV)
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (NIV)
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things. (NRSV)
I form light and create darkness, make prosperity and create doom; I am the Lord, who does all these things. (CEB)
I create light and darkness, happiness and sorrow. I, the Lord, do all of this. (CEV)

In place of evil, eighteen versions of this verse interpret ra` as disaster (5), calamity (4), trouble (3), woe (2), bad (2), doom (1) and sorrow (1). Since translation is an imprecise science, we can charitably allow for variations in interpretation. But notice something curious. While “peace and evil” show wide variation across the versions, the parallel “light and darkness” do not. There are certainly many synonyms available for “light” and “darkness,” yet the translators all stick with the plain meaning. Why such ambiguity with “peace and evil” but not with “light and darkness”? It is possible that some translators are more motivated by theology than linguistics. Can God really be responsible for evil?

Other languages display similar variety. In Spanish translations, some have the appropriate word mal (evil) for the Hebrew ra in Isa 45:7, but others have adversidad, calamidad, desgracia, and desastre. In Spanish, there is no distinction between “evil” and “bad”; they are both mal. The word maldad (bad-ness) is usually translated “wickedness.” In philosophy, The Problem of Evil is El Problema del Mal. The Portuguese Bible that was being read in Lisbon in 1755 has the word mal, but newer versions have maldições (curses), calamidade, desgraça, and maus tempos (bad times). The same is true in the Latin Vulgate (in the mother of the Romance languages), which has malumin Isaiah 45:7. The Greek Septuagint has kakos in this verse, which means bad, or really bad. The meaning of the English word “evil,” in the moral sense, does not always map perfectly to other languages, which can have sundry options on their vocabulary palette, and translations must be allowed to display variety in synonyms.

Fine. But what difference does this make? If evil is acting with the intention of inflicting great harm, how can the destructive actions of an irate deity (whatever synonym is used) not be considered as evil as those of a malicious human being? Does a difference in scale create a difference in quality? Why should we find it intolerable to think that God commits or creates evil, but not object when he creates calamity, disaster, woe or adversity? The consequences are the same: suffering, sorrow and misery. Suppose the priests had told the victims of the Lisbon earthquake, “Don’t worry. God is not malicious. He is just angry with you.” Would that have assuaged their agony?

Isaiah 45:7 is just one of many biblical passages that attribute ra` to God. The Lisbon victims would have identified with this godly warning relayed by the prophet Ezekiel:

And I will scatter your bones around your altars. Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be waste and the high places ruined, so that your altars will be waste and ruined, your idols broken and destroyed, your incense altars cut down, and your works wiped out. And the slain shall fall in your midst, and you shall know that I am the Lord. Yet I will leave some of you alive….And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations. And they shall know that I am the Lord. I have not said in vain that I would do this evil [ra`] to them. (Ezek. 6:5–10)

Regardless of the translation (the ESV seems to prefer “disaster”), the indignant deity is depicted committing and commanding ra`all through the Hebrew scriptures:

Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? (Amos 3:6)
Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. (Jer. 11:11)

The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you. (Jer. 11:17)

Why has the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? (Jer. 16:10)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. (Jer. 19:3)

They shall have no remnant or survivor from the disaster that I will bring upon them. (Jer. 42:17)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: You have seen all the disaster that I brought upon Jerusalem. (Jer. 44:2)

I will bring disaster upon them, my fierce anger, declares the Lord. I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them. (Jer. 49:37)

Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. (2 Sam. 12:11)

You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations all around you, when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury, and with furious rebukes—I am the Lord; I have spoken—when I send against you the deadly [ra`] arrows of famine, arrows for destruction. (Ezek. 5:15–16)

For thus says the Lord of hosts: “As I purposed to bring disaster to you when your fathers provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent.” (Zech. 8:14)

Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ (Deut 31:17)

And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem. (Judg 9:23)

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lam 3:38)

And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I am bringing disaster upon all flesh, declares the Lord. (Jer 45:5)

Job, who was tortured by God “for no reason” (Job 2:3), acknowledged that the terrors he suffered were evil acts of God: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Job’s family and friends agreed: “They showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).

Do We Deserve It?

In spite of the Bible’s clear teaching . . . .

We (OK, “I”—the royal “we”—Ed—) interrupt this fascinating essay to tell you that the rest of it is also really good stuff. And that you can read it—and much more really gripping analysis from a variety of good writers—in John Loftus’s book—

And you can hear Dan Barker discuss all this on Sunday, 9 July, at 1 pm EDT, via Zoom—at an Atlanta Freethought Society meeting. As always, free and open to the public.


[1] Molesky, This Gulf of Fire.

[2] Archivo Histórico da Cámara Municipal, Lisbon. Quoted in Molesky, This Gulf of Fire, 167.

[3] Archivo Histórico da Cámara Municipal, Lisbon. Quoted in Molesky, This Gulf of Fire, 129.

[4] Archivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon. Manuscrito 1229. Quoted in Molesky, This Gulf of Fire, 214.

[5] Biblioteca da Arte, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon. Quoted in Molesky, This Gulf of Fire, 221.

[6] Gazette de Cologne. Quoted in Molesky, This Gulf of Fire, 254.

[7] Molesky, This Gulf of Fire, 243.

[8] Quoted in Miller, A Natural History of Revolution.

[9] Quoted in Kendrick, The Lisbon Earthquake.

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

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