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Religious Diversity, Evil, and a Variety of Theodicies

Abstract and Keywords

Suffering, injustice, tragedy, and death are basic to human experience. Peter Berger observes that each religion bears the burden of relating these negative phenomena—commonly called “evils”—to its understanding of ultimate reality. The problem, then, is the challenge of coherently accounting for evil while preserving and developing essential commitments about the divine, the cosmos, and the human venture. But this means that there is no single problem of evil across all religions; instead, the exact formulation of the problem is specific to the commitments of each particular tradition. Likewise, there is no one formula for response that is common to religions. Using Max Weber's broad definition of theodicy as a religious explanation for evil, this article examines religious diversity by focusing on four major religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—and explores key themes out of which their theodicies are typically constructed. It also examines theories of human suffering as a phenomenon that calls forth the most profound responses.

Keywords: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, evil, theodicy, religion, human suffering, reality

Suffering, injustice, tragedy, and death are basic to human experience. Peter Berger observes that each religion bears the burden of relating these negative phenomena—commonly called “evils”—to its understanding of ultimate reality (Berger 1967). The problem, then, is the challenge of coherently accounting for evil while preserving and developing essential commitments about the divine, the cosmos, and the human venture. But this means that there is no single problem of evil across all religions; instead, the exact formulation of the problem is specific to the commitments of each particular tradition. Likewise, there is no one formula for response that is common to religions. For present purposes, we employ Max Weber’s broad definition of theodicy as a religious explanation for evil.

Interestingly, most of the famous critiques of religion somehow revolve around evil and suffering while failing to appreciate the central importance that developed religions give to accounting for these phenomena. The Freudian critique—that the guarantee of protection and well-being for the faithful is falsified by the countless evils of life that do not differentiate between believers and unbelievers—merely identifies the point at which most religions start, not where they end. The Marxist critique—that supernatural compensations in an afterlife are offered for the alienation and injustice of a capitalist system in order to support the status quo—does not recognize the substantial efforts of religions both to explain evil and to admonish believers to work against it. The truth is that religions deal with great integrity with evil as the point at which their intellectual and spiritual resources are put to the (p. 155) hardest test. Thus, what a religion says about evil and suffering reveals, probably more than anything else, what it believes the nature and purpose of existence to be.

This survey focuses on four major religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—and explores key themes out of which their theodicies are typically constructed. Since it is simply not possible to inspect all religions here, this approach still allows the reader to get a measure of the depth and texture of how certain religions deal with evil. Predictably, the first three religions, all monotheistic, involve some similarities of theme in their theodicies but with differences in emphasis or proportion. Equally predictably, Hinduism, often classified as a version of panentheism, involves quite different concepts and provides instructive contrast to the other three. Of course, theodicy can address all evils generically or address some types of evils more specifically. While exploring various views of evil, this chapter particularly examines theories of human suffering as a phenomenon that calls forth the most profound responses. Since suffering is not simply an academic matter but is a pressing existential reality, I include here recommendations in each religion for how to face suffering in real life.

Judaism: Development of the Problem

The distinctive genius of ancient Israel was its realization that God might disclose himself in the events of history. This God, Yahweh, revealed himself also as creator of all of nature and as entering into covenant relationship with his people, the Hebrews. Belief in God so characterized actually creates the problems associated with evil and suffering. If God has participated in historical events, why does he not participate more often? As creator of the world, why does God not alter the course of nature to minimize or eliminate catastrophe, sickness, and death? As covenantal, why does God not vindicate the faithful in times of hardship or captivity? Such questions put the responsibility directly on God, since no second principle or creator is responsible for evil: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:11). To be sure, persons have been granted free choice, which they have abused, and nature is allowed to run its course. But the religion of Israel reflects unshakable confidence in God’s purposeful control behind everything that happens; the difficulty lies in working out why this control is not always apparent.

The faith of Israel does not seek an explanation for suffering so much as it wrestles with the puzzlement arising from its distribution. Why do the wicked prosper while the faithful suffer? The acuteness of this problem, as well as the need to find authentic response, is readily seen in reading through the psalter (e.g., Psalm 73). The most common response was also the simplest, and it is written deeply into the Hebrew scriptures: suffering is punishment for wrongdoing, a just retribution for sin. However, when covenant conditions were broken, Yahweh’s tendency was to (p. 156) show mercy instead of enact the strict justice that was deserved. Yet the Deuteronomic theory, which posits a moral cause-and-effect operating in the universe and applies it to corporate as well as individual cases, is worked out in the final editing of the documents of Israel’s history: “The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short” (Proverbs 10:27). Unfortunately, the theory is vulnerable to a decisive objection: it is demonstrably untrue. The more firmly Israel believed that God ensured a just universe, the stronger the problem of distribution of life’s benefits and burdens became. In anguished terms, the prophet Jeremiah raised the problem and reflected on it in apocalyptic hope for a new creation and a new covenant (Jeremiah 12:1). In short, Jeremiah’s answer was that proper retribution is delayed and will occur in the future. Although the writer of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 8:10–14) finds the problem of distribution insoluble, some Hebrew scriptures search for more a positive view of suffering that is not preoccupied with the prosperity of the wicked. For example, suffering as a test of faith emerges in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1–19). The Hebrew scriptures voice a variety of opinions on evil and suffering, allowing us to envision their representatives as seated at a round table and engaging in one of the most important discussions imaginable.

Judaism: The Case of Job

At the round table is the writer of the Book of Job, who provides the most sustained and subtle treatment of the problem of distribution in the Hebrew scriptures. Job, that dignified ancient patriarch who becomes the prototypical case of the innocent sufferer, provides the ultimate rebuttal of the Deuteronomic understanding and offers glimpses of new approaches. Job’s three friends represent ways of arguing for the Deuteronomic view, summed up in the rhetorical question “Whoever suffered being righteous?” The prologue of the book suggests the theme that Job’s suffering is to test his faithfulness, while the epilogue suggests that Job’s cooperation with God made his suffering redemptive. Yet it is in the cycle of speeches in the middle of the book that the great philosophical debate is waged.

The underlying logic of the dispute is critically important. The principle of just retribution (JR) states that God ensures that a person’s character and deeds have appropriate consequences. Righteous deeds bring prosperity, symbolized in the Jewish mind as health, wealth, and progeny; wickedness, on the other hand, brings suffering, epitomized in Job’s loss of his threefold prosperity. The logic of the friends—miserable comforters—is as follows: If God is just and Job is righteous, then Job should be prospering. But Job is not prospering. Since divine justice is stipulated, it follows that Job is not righteous. Although Job himself had always accepted this principle until suffering came his way, his new reasoning constitutes a significant religious breakthrough:

  1. (p. 157) 1. If God is just and a person is righteous, then the person prospers [assumption of JR for reductio].

  2. 2. I, Job, am not prospering [fact of experience].

  3. 3. It is not the case both that God is just and that I, Job, am righteous [implication of 1 and 2].

  4. 4. Either God is not just, or I, Job, am not righteous [equivalent of 3 for clarification].

  5. 5. God is just [truth of traditional theology].

  6. 6. I am righteous [truth of introspection].

  7. 7. God is just, and I, Job, am righteous [conjunction of 5 and 6, contradicts 3].

  8. 8. Therefore, JR is false [reductio ad absurdum of 1].

Unwavering trust in God’s justice, coupled with the testimony of a clean conscience, allowed Job to achieve an understanding that God’s justice is not adequately captured in the Deuteronomic view. Sometimes important progress is made by discovering what is false.

Job’s later protests, which arise after persistent emotional pressure from the comforters and lead to the denouement of the story, suggest that God might not be just. Then God in the whirlwind confronts Job with a cascade of overwhelming questions that put his suffering in the larger context of creation. Rather than a power play to force submission, this is a poetically compelling—albeit philosophically incomplete—way of lifting Job’s vision to the complexities of the divine ways. God even says to the comforters, “You have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:8). No interpretation of this literary masterpiece should miss the fact that God actually honored Job by coming to him and, in effect, validating the point that there is innocent suffering in the world that God superintends.

Such themes as suffering as a test of faith, as resulting from the operation of the world order without respect to desert, and as requiring larger perspective are identifiable in early Jewish sources. But even as the Book of Job closes, we can see an even more profound theme emerging in Jewish thought: that suffering purges and leads to life. According to Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai, “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through sufferings. These are: the Torah, the Land of Israel and the world to come”(Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth, 5a). One important theme in the Talmud and the Midrash is what the rabbis called yissurin, variously translated as “suffering,” “chastisement,” or “affliction” but probably better interpreted as “toil purposefully and redemptively accepted.” There is an earthy realism in discussing yissurin, with less emphasis on the theoretical problem of how to explain God’s justice and greater emphasis on how we respond in our freedom to actual suffering in order to learn the lesson that is offered and develop greater righteousness (Schwartz 1983). In the absence of a theologically complete theodicy, “practical theodicy” is still required to help us live usefully and meaningfully. Why Bad Things Happen to Good People is Rabbi Harold Kushner’s exploration of this line of thinking made available to popular culture ( (p. 158) Kushner 1981). Of course, the eschatological reference above to “the world to come” reflects still another theme—poignantly developed from the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE to the Holocaust in modern times—that one day God will act decisively to rectify all things and bring his people to full flourishing.

Christianity: Jesus and Suffering

As with Judaism, Christianity’s approach to evil and suffering has had two dimensions: theoretical explanation and practical response. Themes of practical response originate in the teachings and actions of Jesus, which were inevitably related to the ways in which suffering was understood by Jews in his time. Yet Jesus’s interpretation of what Judaism ought to be was distinctive and became the foundation of a new religion. His confidence in his relation to God as father gave him an all-important outlook on his life and ministry and eventual death. The focal point of the Christian understanding of suffering, of course, is the crucifixion, an event that epitomizes all of the fearful agonies that are distributed across the human race. The gospels report that Jesus met the realities of suffering in his own person and defeated them by his resurrection. The New Testament documents and subsequent theological writings speak of this ultimate victory over death being played out in the ways in which Jesus, actively and positively, dealt with the facts of suffering as he found them. In the company of Jesus, then, all suffering is potentially destroyed because of the all-embracing nature of his victory over death. So, the Christian’s practical response to suffering is to trust in God as father, living out the pattern of Christ.

The theme that the cause of suffering is traceable to the direct activity of the devil or devils is detectable in Christian as well as Jewish documents. But the relative frequency of such references in the New Testament has more to do with the influence of dualistic Persian Zoroastrianism in Palestine during the intertestamental period than it does with suggesting a practically appropriate response. Clearly, the authority of Jesus over everything, including death, dispels any dualistic interpretation of the cause of evil. Far more important is Jesus’s development of critical insights regarding the human relation to God. When eighteen people were killed by the falling of the tower at Siloam, Jesus asked if they were more guilty than other people living in Jerusalem (Luke 13:4). He was intent on helping his followers break through to the higher insight that there is no simple cause-and-effect understanding of suffering, that much of it is simply gratuitous, and yet that it can be an occasion for God to make his character known. Consider another telling instance in the ministry of Jesus: “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’” (John 9:1–3). As he heals the man’s (p. 159) sight, Jesus sides immediately with the minority report of the Old Testament: Job’s testimony that there is innocent suffering. Reference to purpose in the blindness is best interpreted not as God causing suffering but rather as God working redemptively in it. The practical Christian response to suffering, then, is to live on the basis of the risen life of Christ.

The apostle Paul eloquently reflected this theme:

For I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendour, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us. For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed…. If God is on our side, who is against us? He did not spare his own Son, but surrendered him up for us all; and with this gift how can he fail to lavish upon us all he has to give? … Then what can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or hardship? Can persecution, hunger, nakedness, peril, or the sword? “We are being done to death for thy sake all day long,” as Scripture says; “we have been treated like sheep for slaughter”—and yet, in spite of all, overwhelming victory is ours through him who loved us. For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depth—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18–25, 31–39)

Obviously, the work of Christ is somehow related to the justice of God, a connection Paul developed to the point of seeing it as combined with mercy.

Christianity: Philosophical Discussions

While practical response to suffering is important in the lives of the faithful, Christian thinkers have offered explanatory responses as well, since the conceptual coherence and plausibility of Christian ideas about God are at stake. Early Christian thinkers made substantial contributions to the question of why God allows suffering. In Augustine’s theodicy, several themes are woven together in a total approach to the problem. From the doctrine of creation, he drew the implications that God brought about an originally good creation, that he endowed rational creatures with free choice, and that they fell into sin. Since God alone bestows being, and he is supremely good, his creation is good; this means that evil, metaphysically speaking, is the privation of good, the warping or damaging of what God originally intended. The great mystery of free will is the conundrum over why creatures would reject God’s ways, but there is nothing else to blame but wrong free choice, from which, according to Augustine, all evils and sufferings flow. There is also an aesthetic theme in Augustine that the evils we experience are parts of a greater whole that must still be seen as good, even as beautiful, under God’s sovereignty. Of course, God foreknew that the creature would fall into sin, but “God judged it better to bring good (p. 160) out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist” (Augustine 1887). The clear message of this theodicy, which has echoed down through the centuries in many Western Christian explanations of evil and suffering, is that the creature is completely culpable and that God is innocent.

In the early Eastern Church, Bishop Irenaeus developed a different theodicy. Rather than focusing on the causal genesis of evil, he emphasized the ways in which God is dealing with it and moving the world toward eschatological fulfillment. In the later half of the twentieth century, John Hick became a champion of this approach, which became known as “soul-making” theodicy and exhibited its own distinctive themes (Hick 1978). God’s unswerving purpose is to bring creatures from self-centeredness into moral and spiritual maturity, a process that requires that persons face opportunities for displaying virtue or vice, grappling with temptation, and even participating in evil. Of course, it is impossible to create by fiat creatures who are perfectly morally mature, since moral maturity entails having made many choices over time. A soul-making environment, then, must be a community of moral agents interacting in a variety of special ways, deciding on the kinds of relationships they will have, what projects they will pursue, and how they will live together. The possibility of moral evil is inherent in such a world. This environment will also be a physical order that includes impersonal objects that operate independently of the desires of personal agents, providing an arena of their choice and action but also making possible natural evils. Hick further argues that there must be “epistemic distance” between creator and creature—the presence of God cannot be impressed too forcefully upon human consciousness so that genuine faith in God is possible. Rather than blame humanity for the fall, Irenaean theodicy considers it virtually inevitable that the spiritually immature creature would organize its life apart from God. God’s infinite resourcefulness entails that he will continue to work with all persons to draw them to himself—a theme that Hick follows to the point of universalism.

Since the 1970s, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been extremely influential in discussions of the problem of evil. In his early career, Plantinga constructed the “free will defense” to show that atheistic critics (most notably, J. L. Mackie and Antony Flew) could not prove that God and evil are logically incompatible, but his more recent contribution to the discussion revolves around what he calls “felix culpa theodicy,” which aims to express a positive reason for a good God to allow evil (Plantinga 2004, 1–25). The Exultet of the Antiochian Western Easter Vigil contains the line: “O truly necessary fault of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out! O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!” Plantinga focuses on the idea that sin is necessary to achieving God’s intended greater purposes and is therefore a “happy fault” or a “fortunate flaw”—felix culpa. He compares the values of possible worlds, building on familiar lines of argument: first, that the finite goods of free will and all of the moral goods it makes possible outweigh finite evils (as in his free will defense); second, that God’s necessary existence (i.e., existence in all possible worlds vis-à-vis a modal ontological argument) means that in all possible worlds, God’s infinite value outweighs all finite evils, making those worlds good on (p. 161) the whole. But Plantinga argues further that there is a contingent good-making feature that makes all worlds that include it far better than any worlds that do not: the incomparable good of incarnation and atonement. The beauty and love displayed in God’s condescension to us, culminating in the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, is, according to Plantinga, a towering good with no equal. So, worlds containing incarnation and atonement are unsurpassably good worlds. But then all unsurpassably good worlds also contain sin and evil. For Plantinga, then, sin and evil are “fortunate” because they are necessary conditions for incarnation and atonement. It should be observed that other Christian thinkers maintain that it is a mistake to hold that if humanity had not fallen, then we would not have the greatest good of supremely valuable intimacy with God himself. Reflecting a traditional Anglo-Catholic perspective, C. S. Lewis argues that the classical Christian vision of the human telos as meant for intimate participation in the divine life entails that God would bring our telos to fulfillment even without the fall. Indeed, without the contingent fact of human sin, incarnation would still be possible, and indeed likely, to reveal the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of God to humanity.1

Marilyn Adams criticizes theodicies such as Plantinga’s that are “global and generic,” resulting in cost/benefit analyses that fail to explain how God is good to individual persons who experience evil and suffering. In fact, she poses the toughest challenge as the task of accounting for “horrendous evils,” defined as “evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole” (Adams 1999, 26). Such evils—the rape and brutal murder of a woman, psychological torture that destroys personalities, extreme child abuse and murder, the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas—have the power to degrade the individual by devouring the possibility of positive personal meaning. But Adams believes that God must guarantee to each person a life he or she sees as having positive meaning and value. Since finite and temporal goods cannot defeat horrendous evil, Adams employs intimate relationship with the infinitely good God—a beatific vision in classical terms—as the element that defeats horrendous evils, even if this relationship must be fully realized in the life to come.

Islam: Scriptural Roots of the Problem

Although the Qur’an claims repeatedly to be the same revelation that God, or Allah, entrusted to such servants as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, the messages differ—something Muslims take as evidence that Jews and Christians have corrupted the original revelation. Certainly, the problem of evil is dealt with differently. The primary problem for Judaism is distribution, while for Christianity, it is vindication, with answers in both religions largely concerned to square suffering with the moral (p. 162) attributes of God (goodness, love, mercy, justice). However, in Islam, suffering seems most poignantly to be in conflict with God’s power: the problem is the apparent absence of God’s control over events in the world. The Qur’an puts the problem straightforwardly: “Did you suppose that you would go to Paradise untouched by the suffering which was endured by those before you? Affliction and adversity befell them; and so battered were they that each apostle, and those who shared his faith, cried out: ‘When will the help of Allah come?’ His help is ever near” (Qur’an 2.214). The strong emphasis throughout the Qur’an on God’s omnipotence is the basis for various interpretations. Extreme renditions of this idea almost lead to an antitheodicy position: “The Almighty God is in total control and is not to be questioned.” However, another strand of interpretation factors in God’s compassion and thereby opens up avenues for creative analysis in relation to omnipotence.

On the theoretical level, then, the general direction for an answer must run along the lines of explicating what it means for God to have complete power. A fair interpretation of the Qur’an is that the concept of omnipotence must be taken seriously: if our imagination of God is not too small, then suffering cannot be a problem, because the facts of suffering must necessarily be contained within the omnipotence of God (see Qur’an 35.1). And the Qur’an contains abundant material substantiating the assertion that God is in control. Coupled with the assertion that God is also compassionate, the scripture, including its interpretation by teachers and commentators, explores ways in which suffering must in some sense be purposeful, intended, and used by God. Even the misuse of free will by creatures, human or angelic, is understood as within God’s control.

Classical explorations of this theme include al-Ghazālī, Ibn Taymiyya, and Ibn ‘Arabī. Al-Ghazālī is known for the dictum “There is nothing in possibility more wonderful than what is” (Hoover 2006, 75). This optimistic theodicy provides a rough analogue to the Leibnizian (and purportedly Christian) explanation of why the world contains the evil it does.2 Of course, these historic explorations inevitably lead to discussions of whether a divine-command approach makes whatever God wills de facto good or whether the divine power must be viewed as guided by divine wisdom regarding the choice of what to create. In any event, a further challenge arises in giving evil real existence, since what God creates is good from God’s perspective.

Over the centuries, two important ideas about suffering arise from the Qur’an and commentaries on it. First, much suffering is seen a punishment for sin, whether it comes in the form of natural disasters or defeat in battle. The Qur’an cites many examples, such as Moses and the killing of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. But there is also the ancient battle in which Meccans defeated the Muslims at Uhud, while surely not all of the Muslims who were killed and defeated were equally culpable. Implicitly, this raises the question of distribution of indiscriminate suffering and therefore questions the justice of the punishment. The Qur’an warns believers not to make the mistake of Job’s friends and assume that suffering is a clear sign of sin, thus opening up logical space for a second idea about the meaning of suffering: that suffering is a trial or test. Again, since omnipotence is above question, suffering as (p. 163) test becomes a necessary part of the purposes of God, a way to create faithfulness and to distinguish the sincere from the insincere. Indeed, patience, servitude, and gratitude just begin the list of valuable traits that can be linked to suffering. So, suffering not only forms character, but it also exposes it, as indicated in the frequent and quite familiar statement of the scholars: “O my son! Gold and silver are to be examined by fire and the believer is to be examined by affliction.”

Islam: Practical Applications

Clearly, then, at the theoretical level, Islam holds an instrumental view of suffering. We might therefore expect that the natural and recommended practical response to suffering—based on the strong view of omnipotence, as well as the explorations of how God uses it—would be that the faithful should exhibit passive acceptance of what must be the will of God, almost a kind of fatalism. However, the Qur’an repeatedly demands that suffering should be contested and alleviated to the fullest possible extent. This is the foundation for the detailed requirements in scripture for a truly Muslim society that removes particular instances of injustice and suffering and thus displays the justice and compassion of God. Mohammed Ghaly provides a rich, comprehensive study of the literature in Islam dealing with theological interpretations of disability broadly conceived, as well as relevant jurisprudential considerations, ranging over such matters as the dignity, social treatment, medical treatment, employability, and charitable treatment of those with disabilities (Ghaly 2009).

The eschatological dimension of Islamic thought completes the main shape of its approach to evil and suffering. Since God is in control, the ultimate victory is his. There is no opposing principle, although there are conflicts and inequalities within his creation. Even the different schools of thought on the question of omnipotence in relation to free will agree that God is in some sense in control. The hadith, which are the traditions of Muhammad’s life and teaching, are more deterministic, seeing omnipotence as directly creating the actions of human persons, as well the events of their lives, including suffering. The dissenting school—known as Qadariyya—maintains that God remains in control but delegates to persons responsibility for their actions and thus allows them to determine their own destinies.

Hinduism: New Categories for the Problem

For Hinduism, there are many ways of looking at a single object, none of which provides the whole view but each of which represents a perspective. Diversity within Hinduism is even evident in the various efforts, often contradictory, in wrestling (p. 164) with the problem of evil and suffering. Yet in spite of the perspectives on evil that are detectable across a variety of scriptural sources and commentaries, many thinkers maintain that at the theoretical level, the doctrines of karma and rebirth are the heart of the Hindu explanation of evil. On the practical level, Hinduism advocates right perception and right action as the key to living in a world that contains suffering. This comprehensive approach, when explicated more fully, represents the striking differences between Western religious thought generally and the great Indian religious traditions.

The underlying metaphysical vision of Hinduism, often characterized as panentheism or a particular kind of monism, holds the conviction that ultimate reality is the Divine Ground of Being (Brahman) of which the individual self (atman) is an expression. The basic Hindu approach to suffering and evil, then, rests on other doctrines that are interwoven with this view. Karma is the universal law of moral cause-and-effect. Whereas Western religions involve a retributive element in some approaches to suffering, Indian thought makes the retribution perfect and exact, so that all suffering in each person’s life can be explained by that individual’s wrongdoing, whether in this or a prior life. Samsara is the cycle of rebirth into other forms of existence, the level of which depends, by the working of karma, on the quality of the individual’s previous existence. Thus, it is possible to rise or fall in subsequent existences according to the integrity with which one has previously lived. Traditionally, the caste system was interpreted as an expression of this law.

Since what is normally taken to be the individual self is actually a manifestation of the one true reality, Brahman, individual personhood is an illusion (maya). Indeed, objects of all kinds in human experience that are taken to be distinct and separate only amount to “appearance” but are not “reality.” Broadly speaking, then, suffering belongs to the world of maya and samsara. The foundational scriptures of Hinduism—the Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads—progressively reveal a further insight: that suffering is the essence of the universe. The universe is the unending process of killing and being killed, devouring and being devoured, such that sacrifice developed in Hinduism as a form of identification with the process and a way of trying to bring it into some sort of control. “Cosmic process,” as S. Radhakrishnan describes it, “is one of universal and unceasing change and is patterned on a duality which is perpetually in conflict” (Radhakrishnan 1953, 59). The duality (not dualism) is in reality aspects of a single entity seen from different sides of what is essentially a unity. So, ultimately, gaining the right perspective and right attitude toward suffering rests on seeing it in relation to the whole, as only relative. To designate the unpleasant experience of suffering as evil still would be to see it as particular and out of context. Furthermore, suffering can even be beneficial if it serves to cut us off from unworthy objects of our affection. So, true perception is to see the unity behind the variety of manifest forms. While the experience of suffering is real enough, seen in relation to the whole, it cannot be an ultimate reality.

(p. 165) Hinduism: Life in Relation to Ultimate Reality

This is the point at which the theoretical understanding of evil and suffering provides guidance to practical response. Moksha, which is liberation from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, is only possible when parts are seen to be parts, and Brahman is realized as the sole truth—and this realization might take a long time and many existences to attain. Suffering is only a problem as long as it appears to be a final and inescapable truth, a mistaken perception that causes the individual self to spend itself seeking a solid and secure home in objects that are ephemeral and transitory, still in the realm of maya. But when one realizes the famous goal of the Upanishads—“Atman is Brahman”—one sees that the self is not bound forever to the transient world of suffering, and suffering can no longer occur. Consider how Indra comes to understand that the body might suffer while the self that pervades it is not affected: “[T]his Self … will be blind when the body is blind, lame when the body is lame, deformed when the body is deformed. When the body dies, this same Self will also die! In such knowledge I can see no good” (Chandogya Upanishad 8.7–15). Prajapati, who is instructing Indra, explains that the realization of the true self is like being in a state of dreamless sleep, but it is surely possible that many “as it were” experiences will occur before that state is reached. To be born is to come into contact with evil and suffering, since the material body is full of corruption and potential conflict, a potentiality that is realized if the self gives way to its desires and passions that attach it to the world process.

Achieving moksha involves more than achieving right perception; it requires a certain way of living. “The acts done in former births never leave any creature. In determining the working out of karma the Lord of Creation saw them all. Man, since he is under the control of karma, must always have in mind how he can restore the balance and rescue himself from evil consequences” (Mahabharata Vanaparva 207.19). Dharma is doing whatever is appropriate in the circumstances in which one finds oneself, including one’s station in society, without attachment to the results. It is easy to understand why classical Hinduism places considerable emphasis on asceticism (self-denial, privation) as a practical route to getting suffering in its right perspective and moving one toward final release. Of course, not just undergoing but also inflicting suffering is addressed in the Bhagavad-Gita, where as long as causing suffering is part of one’s legitimate role or duty, it is in accord with dharma, although generally, Hinduism recommends ahimsa, nonviolence.

Interpreters of Hinduism argue that it is not an escapist attempt to avoid the miseries of the present world. The realization that “Atman is Brahman” cannot be attained by pretending that the world does not exist but only by seeing the world for what it is, in the right perspective, and by acting appropriately in the world. The foundational concept is that suffering is a direct result of karma, such that an (p. 166) individual self reaps the fruits of its own deeds and thoughts, in future existences if not in this life. This means that morality is strongly connected with suffering, but it is a quite different connection. The problem of Job as the paradigmatic case of the genuinely innocent sufferer cannot arise, because it is always the case that occurrences of suffering are a consequence of activities, not simply in this existence but also in previous ones. Thus, the question posed to Jesus—“Who sinned, this man or his parents?”—is readily answered, “This man.”

Retrospective on Evil in World Religions

The theodicies above, in both their theoretical and practical aspects, provide case studies, so to speak, that help us see how evil becomes problematical in somewhat different ways in various religions and how their responses differ accordingly. Over time, each tradition must reassert its relevance as new circumstances and fresh reflections stimulate new explorations of both the questions and the answers regarding evil and suffering. Yet amid the flavorful differences in theological formulations of the problem and responses to it, there is the undeniable common human experience of evil as a concrete reality. There is also the universal human question, expressed variously as: Why do the innocent suffer and the wicked flourish? Why is the world not better ordered and more just? Why is there suffering and death at all in the universe? It is important that studying the problems of evil and a variety of theodicies across cultures and around the globe puts us in touch with our shared humanity. Appreciation for this shared humanity is a strong basis for appreciating the serious and sustained attempts of the world’s great religions to grapple with the deepest of human perplexities.


Adams, Marilyn. 1999. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

    Augustine, Saint. 1887. Enchridion 22. J. F. Shaw, trans. In Philip Schaff, ed., From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 3. Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature.Find this resource:

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          Hick, John. 1978. Evil and the God of Love, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row.Find this resource:

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                  Peterson, Michael L. 2008. “C. S. Lewis on the Necessity of Gratuitous Evil.” In David Baggett et al., eds., C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 175–192.Find this resource:

                    Plantinga, Alvin. 1974. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon.Find this resource:

                      Plantinga, Alvin. 2004. “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa.’” In Peter van Inwagen, ed., Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1-25.Find this resource:

                        Radhakrishnan, S. 1953. The Principal Upanishad. London: George Allen and Unwin.Find this resource:

                          Schwartz, Matthew B. 1983. “The Meaning of Suffering: A Talmudic Response to Theodicy.” Judaism 32 (Fall): 444–451.Find this resource:

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                              For Further Reading

                              Glatzer, Nahum. 2002. Dimensions of Job. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock.Find this resource:

                                Herman, A. L. 2000. The Problem of Evil and Indian Thought, 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.Find this resource:

                                  Hick, John. 1978. Evil and the God of Love, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row.Find this resource:

                                    (p. 168) Kushner, Harold. 1981. Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon.Find this resource:

                                      Neusner, Jacob. 2006. “Theodicy in Classical Judaism.” In Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green, eds., Encyclopaedia of Judaism. New York: Brill, Leiden & Continuum.Find this resource:

                                        O’Flaherty, Wendy Donager. 1976. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                          Ormsby, Eric. 1984. Theodicy in Islamic Thought: The Dispute over al-Ghazālī’sBest of All Possible Worlds.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

                                            Peterson, Michael L. 1998. God and Evil: An Introduction to the Issues. Boulder, Co.: Westview.Find this resource:

                                              Peterson, Michael L., ed. 1992. The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.Find this resource:

                                                Reichenbach, Bruce. 1991. Karma: A Philosophical Assessment. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.Find this resource:

                                                  Shams, C. Inati. 2000. The Problem of Evil: Ibn Sînâ’s Theodicy. Newport Pagnell, U.K.: Global.Find this resource:


                                                    (1.) The created end or purpose of humanity for classical Christianity is participation in the divine trinitarian life. The prologue of The Catechism of the Catholic Church articulates this theme: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (2002, 1.1). I develop the point that the essential nature of God would be revealed to humanity regardless of the fall in Peterson 2008.

                                                    (2.) Of course, a best-of-all-possible-worlds approach raises a number of subordinate questions. For example, does this mean that the actual world contains less evil than any other possible world or that this world contains the least amount of evil that is commensurate with this world being the best overall? And if God in his wisdom knows which world is the best, is it within his power to create that world? Alvin Plantinga, of course, contends that if free will is included in a possible world, then it is not within God’s power to strongly actualize it, a point that turns on the kind of free will (incompatibilist or compatibilist) that a world contains. See Plantinga 1974, chap 9.