Two recent events that have dominated the news -- the death of Osama bin Laden and the tornadoes that ravaged the southeast -- have brought to light one of the fundamental questions humanity has struggled with since the beginning of civilization: Why do we have evil, suffering, pain, illness and death in the world?
A classic question in theology asks how can a loving, yet omnipotent God permit evil and suffering in the world? The argument goes as follows: A God that allows suffering to continue is either a) not all-powerful (not omnipotent) and is thus unable to prevent the suffering; b) not loving because this God has the power to prevent suffering but is unwilling to do so; and/or c) not all-knowing (not omniscient) because God only is aware of the suffering after it has already occurred and it's too late to prevent it. This problem of evil and God's inability or unwillingness to do anything about it is known in theology as "theodicy."
Two of the most common (and I think unsatisfactory) answers to this question are that God's ways are "mysterious" or that God has an overarching plan that we cannot know.
I find it fascinating that you never hear the question of why suffering exists from a physicist or a biologist. Why? To the evolutionary biologist or the cosmologist (that is, the study of the origins of the universe, not the science of makeup aka cosmetology!), pain, suffering and even evil are absolute requirements for life as we know it to exist. Evolution only works because of a freedom implied 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 and natural catastrophes.
Too often in history the human predicament (which includes our anxiety over our mortality, the suffering we experience in life and the problem of evil) has been seen as a result of our disobeying certain divine rules or as punishment for not believing in a particular religious doctrine. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, certain evangelical ministers claimed that the destruction of New Orleans was God's punishment for the wickedness that took place in the city. Where are those ministers now that the heart of the Bible Belt has been struck by tornados? The reality is that God was not punishing New Orleans then, just as God did not just punish Tuscaloosa: predictable meteorological patterns did.
The problem of evil and suffering is only a problem when we view God as a supernatural Zeus-like being. If we instead understand God as the power of being itself (as I wrote in an earlier post here), then this problem disappears.
The question then is not how can God permit evil? God does not permit anything other than the creative state of being, which by its very nature includes freedom. Freedom is what leads to sin and consequently evil. Freedom also leads to growth and life itself. We can thus read the story of the forbidden fruit in Genesis as a metaphorical explanation of the inherent freedom within the world and our knowledge and experience of this freedom as the ultimate cause of suffering.
God, when understood as Paul Tillich's "ground of being," rather than a supernatural being who intervenes occasionally in the universe, allows for a power that supports all existence as its creative ground but does not make a choice as to which unfortunate events to intervene to change. The nature of existence (as grounded in God) is such that humankind is free. To be free, we must have the ability to do evil, to turn away from God, the true ground of who we are. Thus, the possibility (and reality) of sin is built into the very fabric of life.
To argue whether God could not have found a better mechanism for life and existence fails because it falls into the fallacy of seeing God as a supernatural being designing the universe as a watchmaker might (opening God up to the criticism of being an incompetent watchmaker) or playing with the universe in an ongoing chess game according to some divine plan (opening God up to the criticism of being a cruel chess master) rather than understanding God as the creative structure of existence itself. Thus, the problem of evil is ultimately one of perspective: from a micro view we may see the sufferings that happen in the world, but from a macro view we can understand that this suffering is part of the very fabric of the nature of existence itself -- an existence that on balance is good.
This view of God is also one in which we can experience the divine directly as the center of our very selves. We can take comfort in that when we do suffer, God is present with us.