Were we to travel to the Arctic wastes without proper clothing, we might admit intellectually that the absence of heat was causing us to freeze to death.
But the effect of being remote from the direct rays of the sun produces the subjective experience of an active force, the force of ice and snow and bone-chilling wind. Clearly we would find it unsatisfying and ludicrous to announce to our companions as we freeze to death, “Say, fellows, this absence of energy from the sun’s rays is certainly causing my feet to become black from frostbite!”
So how can an essentially nonexistent force destroy our very lives? If evil, as the Baha’i teachings clearly say, has no positive existence, then how can we view it?
… in existence and creation there is no evil at all, but … when man’s innate qualities are used in an unlawful way, they become blameworthy. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 249.
Therefore we need words and metaphors, powerful and vivid images to portray the operation of these laws in our lives.
Thus we might say that Hitler and the destruction he wrought resulted from his rampant violation and rejection of the laws of God, obedience to which is the source of all positive forces—and yet we desperately need to adequately recognize the wretched and heartrending results that this active rejection of moral truth caused.
These effects have the appearance and feel of a negative energy, as if they were emanating from some evil source. Consequently, we resort to inventive metaphorical expressions to describe this appearance in history of such an obvious source of iniquity, injustice, and human suffering. Of course, history also teaches us that these immoral responses to the source of energy, these sorts of blatant injustice, are all ultimately doomed to failure, but we still need to describe and understand these events and the ravages they have wrought.
The prophets of the past, wishing to convey spiritual states of being, have thus resorted to metaphors for evil, not because they wished to portray a distorted image of reality, but because such devices were the best means by which humankind could at the time understand these abstract concepts of cause and effect and appreciate the peril resulting from ignoring or actively rejecting moral law.
The prophets thus frequently describe pride in terms of an iniquitous tempter, a Satan. Likewise, they portray spiritual existence in the afterlife where one is freed from the injustice of tyranny or physical ills in terms of an idyllic pastoral abode, a paradise or heaven. Similarly, spiritual degeneration and the resulting effects on a soul once it has come to realize how it has willfully perverted its opportunities to develop are portrayed in vivid sensual terms, a place of physical torment, a hell:
Even the materialists have testified in their writings to the wisdom of these divinely-appointed Messengers, and have regarded the references made by the Prophets to Paradise, to hell fire, to future reward and punishment, to have been actuated by a desire to educate and uplift the souls of men. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 158.
In one sense, then, evil is the result of man’s willful acts; Baha’u’llah writes, “were men to abide by and observe the divine teachings, every trace of evil would be banished from the face of the earth.” – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 176.
But obviously, not all the negative events we term “evil” can be defined as the logical, direct consequences of our turning away from goodness. How do we account for the suffering of the innocent in disasters, or for the spiritual and physical tests that befall us all, which seem to have no relationship to anything we have done? While not “evil” according to our precise definition, these events are still negative, unfortunate, unjust, or at least unmerited.
So what do the Baha’i teachings have to say about those kinds of occurrences?
Abdu’l-Baha, who sailed to North America at about the same time as the Titanic disaster occurred, said that such disasters can reveal several layers of deeper wisdom:
Within the last few days a terrible event has happened in the world, an event saddening to every heart and grieving every spirit. I refer to the Titanic disaster, in which many of our fellow human beings were drowned, a number of beautiful souls passed beyond this earthly life. Although such an event is indeed regrettable, we must realize that everything which happens is due to some wisdom and that nothing happens without a reason. Therein is a mystery; but whatever the reason and mystery, it was a very sad occurrence, one which brought tears to many eyes and distress to many souls. I was greatly affected by this disaster. Some of those who were lost voyaged on the Cedric [the ship Abdu’l-Baha crossed the Atlantic on] with us as far as Naples and afterward sailed upon the other ship. When I think of them, I am very sad indeed. But when I consider this calamity in another aspect, I am consoled by the realization that the worlds of God are infinite; that though they were deprived of this existence, they have other opportunities in the life beyond, even as Christ has said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” They were called away from the temporary and transferred to the eternal; they abandoned this material existence and entered the portals of the spiritual world. Foregoing the pleasures and comforts of the earthly, they now partake of a joy and happiness far more abiding and real, for they have hastened to the Kingdom of God. The mercy of God is infinite, and it is our duty to remember these departed souls in our prayers and supplications that they may draw nearer and nearer to the Source itself. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 46-47.