Let’s consider further the attempt to attribute natural evils to the operation of malevolent spiritual agencies. Kerk takes issue with the way I described the role of malevolent agencies in the natural world. He writes:
I think you are distorting the way that the evil agency hypothesis purports to explain natural evil. One does not need to invoke legions of demons in natural disasters. All one needs is a single super powerful being, who was able to interfere with God’s creation on the most basic level, thus shaping the material world into what we have today. With the immediate follow up question “Why would God allow such a being to exist?” I think the good ol Plantinga’s free will defense works fine. Plus, I personally think, that it is possible…uh no, likely that Satan could train himself into becoming more and more powerful. Just like we can grow stronger physically and mentally by doing exercise and meditating. Yes, I know, this sounds awful lot like Manichaeism, but after studying the Problem of Evil for a few years I’ve concluded that this is the only possible way to deal with it. Or otherwise conclude that God just doesn’t really care about us. To top that off, remember that Jesus himself claimed that Satan is the prince of this world and such.
First, let me note that while I appreciate Kerk’s perspective, I didn’t actually “distort” anything. Rather, I presented a particular account of how demonic agencies relate to natural evil which Kerk doesn’t find persuasive. That’s fine. We can consider the independent merits of his account (as I will in a moment). But I was not distorting an account like his into something other than it is. Rather, I was engaging a different account.
So let’s consider Kerk’s account. I’ll begin by noting that Kerk is correct: a demon hypothesis that tries to reduce all natural evil to being a subset of moral evil does not need an entire cadre of demons. One malevolent agent is enough to do the trick. I’ll note as well that the very elevated view Kerk presents of Satan has an air of relative sophistication about it in contrast to the there’s-a-demon-under-every-rock variety that parallels the contrast between rank animism and more lofty forms of theism.
While there are advantages to Kerk’s view, there are also real problems, though Manichaeism is not one of them (despite his asseveration to the contrary). After all, even on the lofty view of Satan that Kerk provides God could still be understood as the creator ex nihilo of all things and the sustainer and primary cause of all things moment by moment. In other words, no matter how lofty Satan may seem, he’s still a finite creation that stands an infinite qualitative distance away from God.
Let me identify two problems with Kerk’s suggestion. The first problem is that it is not supported by the biblical texts. Instead, one finds abundant evidence that the New Testament writers believed there to be many different malevolent agencies just as there were many different angels. One can dispense with all demons but Satan in the name of explanatory economy, but insofar as one grants the biblical documents any metaphysical insight to the supernatural realm, that’s a significant concession indeed.
Now for the second problem. This problem identifies the practical implausibility with putting a demonic account to work (whether it be an individual demon like Satan or an entire motley crew of trouble makers from Abaddon to Zagan). You might say the devil is in the details.
Our story opens on a warm afternoon in late spring. A baby robin (we’ll call him “Troy”) is waiting for its mother to return with a tasty worm. The air is humid and the blue sky is beginning to cloud up. Suddenly a role of thunder catches Troy’s attention. He spins his head around in surprise when a sudden updraft catches his wing and flings him out of the tree and down onto a grassy depression on the ground below. Even as Troy sits there dazed, the first drops of rain begin to hit the ground around him. In minutes the rain grows steady and Troy finds himself struggling in the middle of a rapidly growing muddy pool. He looks around for his mother, chirping frantically, but his pitiful cries are lost in the crack of lightning and the pounding of the rain. Ten minutes later the rain subsides and the sun breaks through the clouds as a dazzling rainbow appears. And there is poor Troy, face down, drowned in the muddy puddle.
Now here’s the problem. There is nothing wrong per se with rain watering the earth. Indeed, scripture portrays God as tending to creation’s needs through the provision of rain (e.g. Psalm 68:8-9). (And don’t forget about the biggest rain of them all which was attributed to direct divine action.) But it doesn’t take much rain to result in some natural evil somewhere. Even a modest late spring cloudburst is sufficient for some natural evil, as the sad case of the drowning of Troy makes clear.
So how do we explain the origin of this natural evil? Should the presence of any natural evil mean that we should assign the entire weather event to Satan, either working alone or through one or more members of his motley crew? Or shall we say that Satan (or members of the crew) were only responsible for those specific drops that pooled to drown Troy? Or were they perhaps responsible for the depression in the ground? Or perhaps only for the gale of wind?
Note that the questions faced by this model are not made any easier if we assert that the malevolent actor behind the event was a single Super Satan rather than one or more of his suborinate cronies. However you look at it, the idea of invoking malevolent spirit agencies every time there’s a modicum of suffering resulting from processes in the natural world seems to create more problems than it’s worth.