Everyone, sooner or later, asks the age-old question: does an omnipotent, all-knowing God cause—or at least fail to stop—the suffering of the innocent?
Several major principles in the Baha’i writings urge us toward a solution to this substantial dilemma. For example, God is not restricted to this physical life in rectifying injustices we have suffered in our individual lives, nor is God limited to a certain span of time for working out justice in history, as we have noted earlier in this series of essays.
This observation may seem obvious, but it is the single most critical factor in coming to terms with theodicy—the important question of why a good Creator permits evil to exist. It means that we cannot possibly evaluate or judge what befalls us or anyone else in terms of what they endure in their earthly experience. Whether suffering ultimately results in justice or injustice, something beneficial or harmful, would be similar to our attempting to assess how someone will fare in their occupation while they are still in a formative stage within the mother’s womb.
Since our fruition is destined for another plane of existence, we can hardly assess what does and does not benefit that process, any more than a fruit tree could evaluate the beneficial results of its own pruning. From our limited point of view, the death of an infant seems pointless and unjust, as does the suffering of the innocent. Yet it is clear in the Baha’i writings that these infants are cared for, as are all who suffer innocently:
These children abide under the shadow of the Divine Providence, and, as they have committed no sin and are unsullied by the defilements of the world of nature, they will become the manifestations of divine bounty and the glances of the eye of divine mercy will be directed towards them. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 277-278.
As to the subject of babes and infants and weak ones who are afflicted by the hands of oppressors: This contains great wisdom and this subject is of paramount importance. In brief, for those souls there is a recompense in another world and many details are connected with this matter. For those souls that suffering is the greatest mercy of God. Verily that mercy of the Lord is far better and preferable to all the comfort of this world and the growth and development of this place of mortality. – Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, Volume 2, pp. 336-337.
In other words, while those of us who have the opportunity to make use of our physical existence are encouraged, even obliged to do so, those who for whatever reason are deprived of this opportunity are provided with other means of being prepared for their continued existence in the realm of the spirit.
Properly comprehended, then, true suffering in relation to what we consider to be the “premature death” or “unjust suffering” of other souls is experienced on the part of those of us who remain behind, deprived of their companionship. From their own perspective, justice has been accomplished because they progress without hindrance. They are in no way impaired because they were prevented from participating fully in this life. Likewise we are assured that those who, because of mental or physical illness, no longer seem to us to be progressing spiritually are actually not negatively affected by such experience:
… man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 153-154.
To fail to grasp the essential realization of the Baha’i paradigm that life is a continuum and not limited to the physical world is to see as ludicrous the sufferings and all the indignities that the prophets themselves willingly endure:
How could such Souls have consented to surrender themselves unto their enemies if they believed all the worlds of God to have been reduced to this earthly life? Would they have willingly suffered such afflictions and torments as no man hath ever experienced or witnessed? – Ibid., p. 158.
But we are still left with a dilemma regarding God’s intervention. If God foreknows our suffering, is He not somehow responsible? Why does He not intervene to prevent our suffering so that we can reap the benefits of the metaphorical classroom He has so creatively devised for our education?
We have already noted that God’s foreknowledge of a thing is not the cause of its occurrence, any more than our knowledge of the operation of a physical law causes that law to be enforced. But once foreknowing our suffering, why does God not prevent it?
The most important response to this essential question of theodicy is that God does intervene!
He intervenes repeatedly, consistently, progressively, even daily on a personal basis if we choose to be aware of that intervention and take full advantage of the opportunities it affords us. For example, in the larger context of human history on this planet, God precisely directs the course of history, sending successive manifestations according to the ancient Covenant between God and humankind, not because we deserve such bestowals, but because God is loving, forgiving, and intent on assisting us to develop as individuals and as a global community.
The Baha’i teachings also assure us that the same assistance is available in our personal lives if we ask for it:
The Baha’i writings confirm this perspective by asserting that human history is a spiritual dynamic, and that without God’s intervention through the intermediaries who are God’s messengers, there would be no human history:
… the holy Manifestations of God are the focal Centres of the light of truth, the Wellsprings of the hidden mysteries, and the Source of the effusions of divine love. They cast Their effulgence upon the realm of hearts and minds and bestow grace everlasting upon the world of the spirits. They confer spiritual life and shine with the splendour of inner truths and meanings. The enlightenment of the realm of thought proceeds from those Centres of light and Exponents of mysteries. Were it not for the grace of the revelation and instruction of those sanctified Beings, the world of souls and the realm of thought would become darkness upon darkness. Were it not for the sound and true teachings of those Exponents of mysteries, the world would become the arena of animal characteristics and qualities, all existence would become a vanishing illusion, and true life would be lost. That is why it is said in the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” that is, it was the source of all life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 184-185.