Floods, Famines, and Fires: Origen on “Natural Evil”

Prior to the third century, the church was united around a few core principles regarding the presence of natural evil in the world: God was not the author of any form of evil, while specifically “natural” evils such as storms and diseases were products of demonic activity or the result of individual or institutional human sinfulness. In third-century Alexandria, Origen brings further nuance to these foundational principles. After establishing continuity between Origen and the previous tradition as well as detailing Origen’s conviction that the locus of evil resides in the will, this paper will detail Origen’s contribution to the developing tradition around natural evil. Specifically, this paper will argue that Origen’s contribution to the “natural evil” discussion marks out a space to understand painful experiences as a result of God’s good work to deal with the realities of evil in the fallen world. To accomplish this task, the paper will detail three distinct nuances that he contributes. First, Origen argues that while evil does not originate with God, some evil flows out from God’s work of creation, such as those things that “follow from the chief works of the carpenter such things as spiral shavings and sawdust, or as architects might appear to be the cause of the rubbish which lies around their buildings in the form of the filth which drops from the stones and the plaster” (Against Celsus 6.55). Second, Origen highlights what he calls corporeal or external evils, pains that humans experience from the likes of fathers and doctors but that, because these acts are oriented toward healing, are not themselves evil. Third, Origen creates a space to relate judgment to natural evils, suggesting that God’s providence either preserves or purges the earth from wickedness through floods and fires. In each of these three cases, Origen believes God to be good, and God’s actions are oriented toward the good even as evil results from his work (e.g. creation) or as God providentially makes use of certain painful experiences to bring life and/or healing to this world (e.g. healing and/or judgment).