Why Do Evil and Suffering Exist?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Each time the media reports on a tragic tale of suffering -- a school shooting taking the lives of innocent children, a hurricane decimating the homes of thousands -- a fundamental question that has perplexed philosophers, psychologists, and theologians for generations arises: Why do evil and suffering exist in the world?

While these incidents tear at our hearts, we realize that each of us, along with our friends and families, will also die one day; we just hope and pray that the time of our demise will be in the distant future. Over 150,000 people around the world die every day. In the time it takes to read this post, hundreds will have passed away, many of old age, but some of tragic causes. Likewise, we also suffer. Our suffering may come as sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, hurt, pain, boredom, or dissatisfaction or in more extreme forms like torture and starvation that still occur in many areas of the globe. Suffering and death are so integrated into our lives that they seem to be inherently part of existence itself.

The world's religions have proposed various explanations for the existence of death and suffering, often in the form of mythological tales of good versus evil. But theologians continue to struggle with a fundamental question: How can a purported loving, yet all-powerful, God permit evil and suffering, especially when they strike saint and sinner alike? Witnessing the reality of the human condition leads many to ask whether God is truly omnipotent, omniscient, or loving, or to conclude that maybe God simply does not exist at all. Why wouldn't God prevent a young child from being struck by cancer, killed by a deranged shooter, or drowned in a tsunami? The common retorts that God's ways are "mysterious" or that God has an overarching plan that we cannot know are unsatisfying both emotionally and logically.

As difficult as this problem of evil and suffering is for religion to tackle, science gives us a different perspective. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in his Stanford Prison Experiment (which he discusses in his fascinating TEDTalk) that the potential for cruel behavior lies within the ordinary person and that the environment in which the person is placed can bring forth this potential.

Physicists and biologists offer an even more definitive conclusion: for life to exist, pain, suffering, and death are not just inevitable but necessary requirements. Every carbon atom that makes up the human body originated billions of years ago in a star whose violent explosion in a supernova created the heavier elements that are the building blocks of life. Evolution only works because of freedom in the natural world: a freedom of genetic mutation, a freedom of natural selection, and a freedom of randomness. This freedom led to the existence of conscious humans, but by necessity the same freedom also causes cancer, disease, natural catastrophes, and even extinctions. The paradox of existence is that death and destruction bring forth new life. Spring follows winter.

As unpleasant as the physical and emotional sensations of pain and suffering may be, they are neurological adaptive responses necessary to protect us from harm. Similarly, human freewill, in conjunction with a biological self-interest for preservation, are programmed into our natures to ensure our survival. But these same qualities when unchecked can also lead people to commit atrocities.

Behind our everyday realities lies an Ultimate Reality, what we might call God, Allah, Elohim, Nirvana, Brahman.-- Jeffrey Small

While science can explain the cold-hearted mechanics of the human condition, it leaves us wanting something more: meaning. Can we combine the insights from religion and science in making sense of death and suffering? What if instead of viewing God as a cosmic judge punishing us for our misdeeds or as a capricious chess master toying with our lives according to some mysterious plan, we think of God as the power of being itself -- a power that supports all existence as its creative ground but does not make a choice as to which unfortunate events to change? Thus, the problem of evil is ultimately one of perspective: from a micro view we lament the sufferings of humanity, but from a macro view we can understand that this suffering is part of the very fabric of existence itself -- an existence that on balance is good. The nature of existence is such that humankind must be free. To be free, we have the ability to do evil, to turn away from God, the true ground of who we are. Thus, the reality of evil and suffering is built into the very fabric of life as a requirement for life to be.

Our individual lives are short, inconsequential in a universe that is 13.7 billion years old. We are finite. We suffer. Yet the faiths of the world also teach us that we can transcend suffering and death because we are part of something bigger than us. Behind our everyday realities lies an Ultimate Reality, what we might call God, Allah, Elohim, Nirvana, Brahman. By transcending our individual egos, our wants and desires, and connecting on a deeper and broader level with this Ultimate Reality, we can find true peace.

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