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Most of the attempts to understand theodicy–explaining why God allows the existence of suffering—arise out of particular understandings of life and the purpose of our existence.
So I’ll try to make my assumptions clear first, before we search for some answers on the question of suffering. Let’s start with the terms “suffering” and “evil” themselves. Human suffering can have two causes: natural and human.
As we know, natural events—storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, drought, disease–can and do cause great suffering. Science has shown that these individual or mass disasters usually result from the natural laws that govern our universe. They cannot be considered evil acts, because no moral choices led to these events. We can’t, therefore, describe an earthquake or an epidemic as evil, regardless of the scale of suffering they may cause. In these series of articles I’ll call this “natural suffering.”
On the other hand, human actions committed with the deliberate purpose of inflicting grief or pain or death require a moral choice. We consider war or an assault evil acts, because the perpetrators know in advance that they will cause suffering. In this series of articles we’ll call these actions evil.
We know the world we live in is no paradise. We know that we humans aren’t perfect—that we have flawed and sometimes violent natures. We also know we are rational creatures capable of moral choices and judgments. We now know, too, that we are the result of a slow, ongoing process of evolution. We have free will, and if we believe in God we became aware of the Creator through a free act of interpreting reality–we have faith, and understand that something exists beyond the material world.
With these assumptions and concepts, we can formulate some questions and search for answers.
The Baha’i writings tell us that remoteness from God is a fundamental characteristic of our human condition—not a moral flaw or the result of an imperfect inner nature. Baha’is understand the current human situation, with all its ambiguities, not as the result of an evil act in the distant past that attempted to subvert the will of God, but as a stage in our spiritual evolution as a species.
According to the Baha’i teachings, our earthly life does not encompass the totality of human existence—our souls progress to another, more spiritual form of existence after the death of the physical body. But Baha’is believe, during this physical stage of life, that we all begin a process of spiritual development, and this spiritual development continues after death. Suffering, from a Baha’i perspective, is the key to that spiritual development.