Evil and Suffering

Keith Ward. Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Editor: J Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen. Volume 1. Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.

Evil is whatever frustrates or opposes goodness, and goodness is what is, or ought to be, desired by conscious rational agents. Suffering is thus one sort of evil, since no conscious rational agent would desire to suffer, just for its own sake. Other sorts of evil lie in the frustration of the aims and goals of rational agents (one might also include the aims of God, and some would include the aims and goals of any beings whatsoever, insofar as they could reasonably be said to have aims or goals), or in factors that restrict the normal activities and dispositions of rational or sentient agents.


The faith that most obviously takes the fact of evil as one of its basic starting points is Buddhism, whose first noble truth is that “all is suffering” (dukkha). This is not merely the view that there is much frustration and suffering in life. It is the view that material existence essentially involves suffering, so that no enduring happiness can be found in such existence. Not only is there the obvious suffering to be experienced in birth, disease, and death. There is the fact that pleasure is short-lived, misfortune is always possible, and the transitory nature of time itself means that the past is lost forever, the present cannot be held fast, and the future is always tinged with anxiety. The one who sees deeply into the nature of things will therefore see that only in the acceptance of total transience can any stability be found. All things are empty of enduring substantial existence, and there is not even an enduring substantial soul or self that remains the same throughout all change. All things are in perpetual flow, interdependent and perpetually perishing. Dukkha is the first noble truth of the Buddhist way, which sees suffering and evil as the basic human problem, which may, with some difficulty, be overcome.

Buddhists are not usually concerned with answering the question of how suffering arises. It is just there, a fact of existence. However, the cause of suffering is said to be the sort of desire that consists in attachment to finite things—wishing to possess them, or bemoaning the lack of them. So it might be said that suffering is intrinsic to a world in which attachment and desire are possible. In addition, specific sufferings are caused by karma, by the accumulated attachments of many past existences. So it might be held that souls “fall” into this world of the senses, of transience and time, because of desire, and they have to work out the consequences of their desires over many lives until they achieve liberation from the wheel of rebirth—samsara—and, all desire exhausted, never again experience rebirth.

Karma and Moral Causality

Insofar as rebirth is essential to Buddhist belief, there needs to be a spiritual or mental part of human nature that is capable of rebirth. There needs to be a form of moral causality in nature, which ensures that actions have appropriate consequences in future lives. And there needs to be some form of correlation between practices of morality and meditation and the achievement of those higher mental states of mindfulness, compassion, and bliss, in which the practitioner approaches liberation, or nirvana.

To devise precise and measurable tests of these claims is, however, extremely difficult, if not impossible. Neurophysiology may lead to the establishment of links between brain and mental functions, but it is highly disputable whether it can establish either that mental functions are nothing but brain functions, or that they can have separate existence. At present, evidence suggests a high degree of correlation, in a rather general sense, between brain states and mental states. But attempts to show, for example, that there can be “out of the body” experiences, are viewed skeptically by most scientists. While claims that complete physical accounts of mental activity are possible are viewed equally sceptically by most philosophers.

Similarly, attempts to establish or disprove rebirth are unsatisfactorily vague or uncontrolled. The alleged evidence for memories of past lives is highly contested, and the theoretical difficulty of aligning souls that have highly developed propensities and desires with appropriate genetic materials may suggest that a completely new individual is created with each random combination of genetic material at fertilization, but it is hardly conclusive.

Most physicists would probably think of laws of nature as operating in an impersonal, universal, and morally neutral way, thus throwing doubt on the existence of any general principles of a morally ordered causality, which could ensure that all persons get the just deserts that their past lives have accumulated. Scientific views have developed in contexts in which rebirth has not been a major issue, and the belief is at present beyond the competence of the physical sciences to determine. It may even be held that the study of discarnate mental states is beyond the competence of science altogether. Buddhist appeals to laws of karmic consequences, and to the causal connectedness of desire and suffering, to explain the existence of evil and suffering, must be regarded as coherent and possible, even though they are in some tension with the world-view, if not with the particular established findings, of the natural sciences.

There are far less metaphysically committed forms of Buddhism that might regard belief in rebirth itself as an irrelevant question. They may not seek theoretical explanation at all, but remain concerned only with the practical question of how to overcome suffering and attain mindfulness and equanimity. In that case, Buddhism would be almost entirely a matter of moral commitment and mental discipline aiming at enlightenment. Evil and suffering would be purely practical problems, and would not be subject to scientific evaluation, except possibly for psychological tests to determine whether Buddhist techniques of meditation produce the desired results.

Hindu Traditions

Belief in karma and rebirth is common to most Indian religions, and so in general an explanation of the occurrence of suffering is given in terms of the consequences of wrong acts or attachments in past lives. However, most Indian traditions are theistic, with devotion to one or more gods as central to their practice. Sometimes the gods are regarded as caught up in the cycle of samsara just like human beings. They have finite existences, which are much happier and longer-lasting than those of humans. But they will come to an end, and even the gods may fall down through the chain of beings into greater suffering, if they do not attain final liberation.

Those Indian traditions that are fully monotheistic (such as the two major traditions of Saivism, worship of Siva, and Vaisnavism, worship of Vishnu) usually identify the highest god with Brahman, the absolute reality, and assert that in some sense all things are one with, parts of, or expressions of Brahman. Since Brahman, appearing as the Supreme Lord, Isvara, is perfect in wisdom, intelligence, and bliss, and is the cause of the universe, there is a “problem of evil” in those traditions. The problem is how a perfect being can originate, or even be identical with, a universe so full of evil and suffering.

This is not usually felt to be a severe problem, however, since Brahman, though perfect in intelligence and bliss, contains the potentialities of all finite things in its own infinite reality, and those potentialities necessarily manifest themselves in the origination of an infinite number of worlds. The combination of a necessary manifestation of all possible realities, and a karmic law by which all finite souls receive the consequences of their own choices through a huge succession of embodied lives, effectively draws the sting out of the problem of evil. The imperfect manifests by necessity from the perfect, which remains changeless and unaffected by all imperfection. And in the realm of the imperfect, it is the acts and desires of finite souls themselves that cause both their suffering and happiness. The Supreme Lord is not responsible, and can in no way be blamed, as though he had chosen to inflict suffering on helpless and innocent creatures.

Very traditional or literalist readings of the Hindu scriptures may lead to tensions with evolutionary biology, since they depict a degeneration from an earlier golden age, when the gods were more intimately known, to the present. There may also be difficulties with belief in rebirth, since the number of human souls now in existence exceeds that of past history, and according to most scientific accounts there were millions of years when no souls existed at all. However, Hindus say that rebirth can take place in many different worlds or planes of existence. This cosmos is only one of an infinite number of worlds in which souls might be reborn in various forms. Moreover, Hinduism is not committed to literalism any more than Christianity is. In general the Hindu view is that evil and suffering arise from ignorance (avidya) of the truly spiritual nature of reality, and the mistaken belief that souls are essentially material. This view entails no particular account of the past history of this cosmos, since souls may have existed in other planes of being. To the extent that the natural sciences allow for such a belief in the ultimate primacy of spirit, and for belief in rebirth, and to the extent that Hindus interpret the classical myths as legendary, the Hindu account of evil and suffering as due to karmic fruits of action raises no particular problems for the relation of religious and scientific beliefs.

Semitic Religions

The Semitic religious faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their offshoots) have a different account of the human soul. They do not think, as most Indian religious traditions do, that souls exist without beginning or end, and are reborn in countless forms. They believe that human persons are formed of dust—they are material, and begin to exist with, or some short time after, the conception of a genetically unique individual. This means that the theory of karma is not available to the Semitic faiths to explain evil and suffering. Furthermore, since Semitic religions interpret creation as the freely chosen act of an omnipotent God, there is a serious problem about why there is evil and suffering in the world at all.

It could be held, and often Jews and Muslims do hold, that the creator is beyond assessment in moral terms. The divine nature is inaccessible to human understanding, and it is impious to question God or to judge whatever reasons for creating God might have. That, however, clearly raises the question of whether God can be called good. According to such a view, there are three main senses in which an omnipotent and incomprehensible creator could be called good. First, God can be good because God is the supremely desirable object of rational choice. God is desirable above all things. The divine being is unsurpassed in beauty, wisdom, knowledge, and power, and is supremely good in the sense that a beautiful picture might be called good.

Second, God is merciful and compassionate, showing mercy to thousands of those who love him, and God can forgive sins and help and support whomsoever he wills. God is also rigorously just, and will visit the sins of the fathers on the third and fourth generation of their descendents. The divine will is simply unquestionable. But God will be merciful to those who sincerely seek to obey his will.

Third, God offers incomparable rewards to the just. At the day of resurrection, he will condemn the unjust (perhaps not for ever), but grant to the just unending life in paradise, a share in the world to come, which will make all the suffering of this life as nothing by comparison.

Theodicy and Science

Such a view does not seek to offer any reason why evil and suffering exist, rooting them in the unfathomable will of God. For many people it is difficult, however, to think of God as truly just when so many innocent beings suffer so much. And to some, appeal to rewards after death cannot compensate for immense suffering in life, when an omnipotent God could presumably have abolished such suffering. So attempts have often been made to justify the ways of God to men, with varying degrees of success.

At this point the natural sciences, perhaps surprisingly, offer a certain amount of help. It would be almost impossible to understand the universe if events in it did not occur in accordance with general and predictable laws. So a condition of scientific understanding, and of the growth of the ability to adapt and control our environment, is the existence of general laws of nature, which will be both mathematically precise and virtually universal in scope.

Such laws are “nested” in an extremely complex way, so that the elementary and highly unstable forces of the subatomic world form stable atoms and molecules at a higher level. These in turn form the solid bodies and organic unities that are found at the level of human perception. And they make possible the formation of central nervous systems and brains, which are the conditions of consciousness and eventually of rational agency. Thus the natural world seems to be a developing system of levels of emergence, whereby on the basis of a few elementary laws and particles complex communities of rational agents can come into being. These agents are not alien intrusions into the material world. They are its highest emergent forms, and manifest the amazing capacity of matter to come to understand and shape itself.

The development of quantum mechanics strongly suggests that there is a deep interconnectedness in nature, whereby each part is connected with every other, and it is not possible simply to remove even a few electrons, and leave the rest of the universe unchanged. In other words, one cannot just change a few parts of the universe for the better, and otherwise leave everything as it is. Either you have the system as an interconnected whole, or you have something completely different. To put it bluntly, as a rational agent, a human soul, who is an integral part of this material universe, either you exist in this universe, with all its faults, or you, as the precise and unique individual you are, do not exist at all.

At the level of biological existence, as it is presently understood, humans have come to exist largely by the operation of the principles of random mutation and natural selection. It is as if living things shuffle through the possibilities of existence, creatively seeking new forms of adaptive life. Consciousness and creativity are perhaps, as bio-chemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke (b. 1924) suggested, inherent potentialities or propensities of matter, which will be realized in time through the shuffling and adaptive processes of natural selection. Human nature is essentially the product of these processes, and the lust and aggression of humans, as well as their interdependence and altruism, has been built up through the adaptive process over many generations of evolution. Being parts and products of this natural process, humans cannot be basically different from what they are, creatures that are partly competitive and violent, and partly cooperative and loving.

If the universe disclosed by the sciences is roughly like this, its basic nature will include the operation of general laws of nature, the emergence according to such laws of consciousness and agency, the existence of humans as an integral part of a general system that cannot be different from what it is, and the gradual evolution of humans through processes of mutation and competition. Evil and suffering will be ineliminable from such an evolutionary world-system. Destruction and violence are built into the system from the decay of nuclear particles to the explosion of supernovae and the elimination of life-threatening organic competitors.

The moral of the story is that God cannot create human beings without creating a universe like this, with all its evil and suffering, of which such beings are an integral part. In this sense the natural sciences offer a sort of theodicy, the giving of reasons why a good Creator might create a universe with suffering in it. It might be wrong to think that God can create absolutely anything we can imagine—human beings in a universe without suffering, for example. There could be beings in a universe without suffering, but they would not be human. They would not be us. So if human existence is worthwhile, maybe the suffering in this universe has to exist.

For some contemporary scientists, like Steven Weinberg, human existence is not worth-while enough to justify so much suffering. Or maybe evolution is seen as too random or accidental to be purposive. To these scientists, chance and necessity are enough and rule out any idea of a good God who chooses to create the universe. But this may not be a strictly scientific judgment. A good God could create this universe, if the suffering in it is a necessary condition or consequence of an over-whelmingly great good—and such a good might be the creation of rational agents who could enjoy eternal fellowship with one another and with God.

This conclusion would be strengthened if the creation of a universe like this was somehow necessary to God, as flowing from the changeless divine nature. At this point most theists insist that the act of creation must be free, not compelled, and must be intended, not accepted reluctantly by God. But when speaking of the divine nature, the distinction between freedom and necessity may not apply—some theologians suggest that God is necessarily what God freely chooses to be. As long as God is not compelled by some external or undesired force, the act of creation may be both free and necessary—as the being of God itself may be. As Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224-1275) put it in his Summa Theologiae, God’s willing is identical with God’s essence, which is necessarily what it is. Yes, as Aquinas notes, this is compatible with God’s freely creating the universe.

Thus evil and suffering may be in some way necessary to the creation of humans. In traditional terms, evil and suffering are privations of goodness, not positively intended states. This is a viewpoint to which scientific investigation of nature makes a positive contribution.

Other Explanations in Theistic Traditions

In the Abrahamic traditions, and especially in the Christian tradition, there has always existed another explanation for suffering—it may be the result of the maleficent or egoistic actions of rational beings. Satan is an angelic being whose evil is perhaps the cause of natural evils like earthquakes, and he successfully tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God. From a primal Paradisal state, Adam and Eve were ejected into the harsh world of an already fallen nature. In the Western Christian view, all their descendents were born in original sin, guilty before God even at birth because of the sin of their ancestors. Suffering and death entered the world mainly as a result of Adam’s sin, and are now punishments for moral evil.

This literalist interpretation of Genesis (not accepted in this form either by Jews or by Eastern Orthodox Christians) is obviously at odds with any evolutionary account, for which suffering and death were intrinsic parts of the biological world long before humans even existed, and for which there is no paradisal world at the beginning of human history. Most Christian theologians now regard the Genesis accounts as legendary, and reinterpret the fall in terms of a general human condition of moral weakness and ignorance of God, which was caused or intensified by the moral and spiritual failures of the first humans.

Some theologians, like Paul Tillich, regard the fall as a necessary part of human evolution, which requires an epistemic distance between humans and God to enable moral autonomy to exist. Others think of the primal human estrangement from God as originally due to voluntary moral failure, though now all humans are born into an estranged society, and so not onto an equal moral playing-field. In contrast to Jews and Muslims, most Christians insist that reconciliation with God cannot be achieved by good works, but requires divine grace, or some act of divine self-sacrificial love, which was manifest supremely in the life and death of Jesus.

It is generally held in all Abrahamic traditions that much evil and suffering is caused by the free immoral acts of past and present human beings. Such an account can easily be held together with a commitment to the necessary possibility of such evil, and its actual existence to some degree. Human moral evil would be seen as intensifying the amount and degree of actual evil and suffering.

Evolutionary biology requires some revision of traditional views, especially of original sin. However, it offers a helpful account of how moral failure follows naturally, if not inevitably, from the dispositions to lust and aggression that are part of the human biological inheritance and have been necessary conditions of human dominance in the processes of natural selection. On a literalist biblical account, it is hard to see why the first humans should have sinned against God at all, except by a sheer irrational act. But in an evolutionary context, sin becomes the natural expression of biologically inbred tendencies. Such expression becomes “sin” only when expressed in opposition to divine commands to love and reconciliation. One still cannot explain why humans sin—that is a free and therefore inexplicable choice. But one can give good reasons why they might sin—it is an inherent possibility of their nature, and offers temptations of sensual desire that might well, though they should not, counteract the impulse to love God, which also, according to this hypothesis, lies present, though perhaps only implicitly, in their biologically evolved nature.

A third explanation for evil and suffering in theistic traditions is that they are not the natural consequences of egoistic acts, but punishments inflicted by God for moral evil. This explanation has played a part in much religious thought, and biblical narratives often connect natural and human disasters with lack of obedience to God’s law, while happiness and long life are seen as rewards for obedience. The scientific perception of laws of nature that are not morally ordered, of the chance elements involved in natural selection, and of the biological basis and the possibility of medical treatment for most diseases has largely led to the collapse of such views. In the Bible it was also perceived that God causes rain to fall on the just and on the unjust, and that the innocent suffer. Any easy equation of immorality and suffering is undermined by the Book of Job. While it is not absurd to posit a general tendency toward altruistic acts to produce happiness, and toward egoistic acts to produce suffering, the attribution of diseases to demonic influence, and of natural disasters to direct decisions of God to punish sin, has largely disappeared from informed theological debate.


Perhaps the greatest influence of modern science on these matters has been the supercession of belief in the direct causal acts of good and bad spirits by belief in the general operation of impersonal laws of nature. God’s action in the world is largely seen in the setting up of a general system in which good is effectively selected and evil becomes finally self-destructive, rather than in continual divine interventions in nature. Particular divine actions (miracles) need not be denied, but they will be, almost by definition, very occasional transcendences of the usual processes of nature for a spiritual purpose, not the normal causes of happenings in the universe.

All these traditions accept that evil and suffering are either necessary or the result of freely chosen acts, and that in either case one should seek either to abolish evil and suffering or to overcome them by altruistic action, non-attachment to selfish desires, and perhaps by devotion to God. Science does require a reconstruction of traditional ways of formulating these positions, but it is reasonable to see the scientific view of nature as helpful in developing a deeper religious understanding of the place of suffering in the world, and offering more effective practical ways of overcoming it.