Had our world been created by a moral designer, we might expect evil actions to carry natural consequences, in much the same way that other actions carry negative consequences.
For example, if we touch fire, we are burned; if we touch poison oak, we may break out in an itchy rash; or if we harass a rattlesnake, we may be injected with a toxic venom. All of these actions have natural consequences that could be construed as a message from the creator, one that says, “Hey! You ought not be doing that!”
Yet kill a man, or torture a helpless animal, or molest a child, and there are no naturally occurring consequences. There is no burning of the skin, no horrible rash, no risk of deadly toxins entering the bloodstream… nothing. Nature remains curiously silent in response to such serious offences, and this lack of natural condemnation seems incongruous with what we might expect from a moral designer (especially one so predisposed to judging evil).
If we are to know God through his creation (Romans 1:20), what does it say of a creator who passes up an opportunity to condemn evil? What does it say of a creator who designs nature to punish us for innocuous acts, whilst withholding punishments for even the most heinous atrocities?
Nature’s Ten Commandments
Imagine what the Ten Commandments might look like if they were based on what nature actually does condemn us for doing (or not doing). The list might look something like this:
- Thou shalt convert oxygen to carbon dioxide (breathe), or thou shall die.
- Thou shalt not trip, fall, or walk off high cliffs or ledges.
- Thou shalt drink water.
- Thou shalt consume plants and animals, but not plants and animals I have made poisonous to the body.
- Thou shalt not touch fire or things of extreme temperatures.
- Thou shalt not expose thy skin to the sun for extended periods of time.
- Thou shalt not expose thyself to extreme cold for extended periods of time.
- Thou shalt not reside in the presence of radioactive materials, select gasses, asbestos, smoke, poisonous plants or animals, or any other thing I have made harmful to the body.
- Thou shalt not consume saltwater, lead, mercury, or too much of any one element, or any other thing I have made poisonous to the body.
- Thou shalt not care for those with contagious illnesses, lest I cast their infirmities upon thee.
We might infer that these commands are of the utmost importance to the creator, seeing as how he has built natural consequences right into them. And yet, few of these offences would actually be considered immoral. There’s nothing morally wrong with drinking saltwater, or eating plants, or caring for the sick, so why attach stiff penalties to these deeds?
Now consider the Bible’s actual Ten Commandments. Few, if any, carry natural consequences. We can worship other gods, make idols, take the Lord’s name in vain, work on the Sabbath, disrespect our parents, kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, and even covet our neighbor’s stuff… all without God’s creation punishing us.
While God’s commandments may have been literally carved in stone, his creation does little to enforce them. God seems perfectly content to wait until the afterlife to punish us… which is odd… considering the number of things that nature punishes us immediately for doing.
Peanuts vs. child flesh
For example, for some, eating a peanut can have deadly consequences. Even an accidental taste can send them into anaphylactic shock. Their tongues swell, their throats close shut, and they can die as a result. All this… over peanuts.
Meanwhile, you could have a late-term abortion, fry up the remains, and consume them as a part of an elaborate Satanic ritual… all without any natural consequences. Your tongue will not swell, your throat will not close shut, and your body will even become nourished by its flesh! Why would God design a world that naturally protects peanuts, but not children?
Other Bizarre Consequences
And there are many other bizarre things we are punished for doing.
Refuse to breathe, and you will suffer immediate natural consequences; but blaspheme the Holy Spirit (the only unforgivable sin, according to Mark 3:29), and there are no noticeable side effects! Your face won’t turn blue, you won’t be struck by lightning, you won’t keel over and die, you won’t even get a case of incurable hiccups!
Or stare at the sun or an eclipse for too long, and you could permanently damage your eyes; but spend the day watching pornographic snuff films, and your eyes remain perfectly fine.
Or push too hard while defecating, and you may be punished with a nasty case of hemorrhoids; but push an elderly woman off a subway platform, and your hands won’t so much as blister.
And nature punishes us for many other irrelevant things, like letting mosquitoes or fleas bite us, or inhaling pollen, or drinking contaminated river water, or eating contaminated food, or straining to lift a heavy object, or staying underwater for more than a few minutes. Meanwhile, there is no natural condemnation for violating most of God’s commandments. Why not?
Assuming God exists, why would he design a world that did not punish us for sin, but does punish us for so many other irrelevant things?
One possible explanation is that all natural punishments are simply a consequence of the fall. But if God is going to initiate a system of natural penalties anyway, why not begin with sinful behavior?
Or we might reason that God is wanting to give us free will to do evil, but he will still punish sin in the afterlife. But if that were the case, why punish us for anything at all? We should have the freedom to do anything we want: rub poison oak in our faces, drink salt water, eat peanut butter, kill each other, dance the macarena, etc., and then be judged in the afterlife. Once God begins imposing natural punishments, he restricts our free will in those areas, and if God is going to restrict our free will anyway, he ought to begin by punishing those things he considers offensive, not those things that are irrelevant.
Finally, we could reason that there are some sins that do carry natural consequences, such as homosexuality, or eating shellfish. But there are several difficulties with this kind of explanation.
In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
— Romans 1:27
Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you.
— Leviticus 11:12
First, there are so many consequences for various actions, we’re bound to find one or two that we can link back to something God considers sinful.
Second, it’s possible that the reason these things were considered sinful in the first place was because of the reactions they caused (e.g. “Shellfish has caused an allergic reaction, therefore God must not want us eating shellfish!”).
Third, if God is punishing people in direct response to sin, should we also assume there is a correlation between God and all other natural consequences? (E.g. does God really not want us touching poison oak?)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, why would God choose to punish these particular sins, but not others? Why ignore violations of the Ten Commandments, and blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, but then go out of his way to punish homosexuality… and shellfish eaters? (And why punish only some homosexuals and some shellfish eaters?)
Natural Explanations for Natural Consequences
Assuming there is no God, can we explain all natural consequences from a purely natural perspective?
Humans can determine what is morally right or wrong using the tools of empathy and reason. We reason that it is wrong to kill, rape, steel, lie, cheat, etc., because we see how these behaviors impact others, and we understand how we might feel if someone did these things to us.
Comprehending morality requires the ability to feel, think, and reason, something that humans and gods should both be capable of doing. But nature completely lacks the ability to ponder moral issues, and only reacts to things that impact survival and reproduction. In other words, nature is reactive, responding only to success or failure, but an intelligent God can be proactive, and design a world where natural consequences are tied to moral offences. If the world were designed by God, this is what we should expect to see, but for the most part, we observe that nature is blind to matters of morality, acting solely in the best interest of each individual creature. And in most cases, the “punishments” we receive from nature can be directly linked to simple physics (i.e. burning, falling, etc.) or they can be linked to things that impact the survival and/or reproduction of a plant, animal, or organism.
For example, our bodies react negatively to things like the cutting off of oxygen, food, or water, because these things are vital to the survival of every cell in our body.
Plants and animals have also evolved many natural methods of ensuring their own survival and reproduction. Plants with poisons or thorns are less likely to get eaten, and animals with venom are less likely to be harassed or eaten (and it may also make it easier for them to capture prey). Even the bacteria and viruses that are harmful to humans are engaged in their own struggle to survive and reproduce. These plants and animals do not punish us for moral reasons, the pain they inflict is a side-effect of their struggle to survive.
When it comes to things like food allergies, our immune system is attempting to ward off hostile invaders. Most of the time this is a good thing, as it protects us (and our collective cells) from these invaders. But occasionally, the immune system overreacts, unknowingly killing its host. While this may seem counter-productive, nature is learning through trial and error. When these individuals die, these “errors” are effectively selected out of the population, improving the fitness of the next generation. (But what does this say of a designer, who designs some bodies to self-destruct over peanuts?)
But not every threat results in an adaptation. When something is harmful but never deadly, nature has little reason to force an adaptation. Likewise, if we did not evolve in an environment where we were constantly exposed to certain threats, there is little reason to evolve defenses against them.
The flip side of this coin is what our bodies naturally reward us for doing. For example, the brain rewards sex with more feel-good chemicals than just about any other activity, motivating us through pleasure rather than pain. In this way, nature rewards us for engaging in activities that result in reproduction. But nature doesn’t care if you have sex with your spouse, your neighbor’s spouse, your neighbor, or your neighbor’s livestock — your body rewards you with the same release of chemicals. (Again, what does this say of a designer who forbids adultery, homosexuality, and beastiality, but builds you a body that rewards you for doing these things just the same?)
In short, nature doesn’t care about what is moral, only what gets results. We are punished and rewarded for doing things that result in survival and reproduction. Meanwhile, a moral God should build nature to react to what matters to him most: morality.
If God exists, and he is a moral God, we might expect his creation to naturally punish evil; yet few of the things that harm us in nature could be considered immoral, and few things that the Bible insists are immoral carry natural consequences.
The bizarre, nonsensical, and haphazardous way in which natural “penalties” have been distributed in our world suggest there wasn’t much intelligent thought put behind how nature ought to punish us for our behavior.
God could (and should) have constructed a world where sin was naturally punished, and irrelevant actions were ignored. Such natural consequences would’ve made policing our world much easier, if every man were to receive “in themselves the due penalty for their error.” This kind of natural karma would also ensure that every punishment fit the crime, and would even suggest that this world was designed by an intelligent creator who was concerned about justice and morality. But this is not what we observe.
If God is truly the creator, and the commands in the Bible are his (and not man’s), then we might expect to see the creator enforcing his rules through his creation, but we don’t (suggesting the laws laid out in the Bible were reasoned by men, and not God).
So go ahead, and feast upon the flesh of your children as you blaspheme the Holy Spirit. God won’t punish you. Not yet. Just don’t serve your children with peanuts or shellfish if you or your guests are allergic… because, apparently, God has set some limits.