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Evil and Suffering in the World

Project Theme 3

Many world religions address evil and suffering manifested in wars, crimes and natural disasters and teach followers how to understand, cope with or overcome them. Thus, we will address philosophical issues concerning evil and suffering by considering whether they create an ontological challenge for each religious tradition, whether there is a coherent religious view of the source of evil and suffering and whether we can develop a compelling religious response to evil and suffering.


The specific research questions related to this theme that we ask include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • According to most traditional African religions, while God does not “do evil,” he allows malevolent imperceptible agents with free will (“evil spirits”) to cause harm to human beings. Many of the African religions also however posit that God imbues each human being with a destiny, with many of them further contending that some destinies are bad. The existence of undesirable destinies having come directly from God poses a problem of evil, one that cannot be resolved by appealing to evil spirits. How, exactly, are we to understand the idea of destiny, and its connection to topics such as personal identity and meaning in life? What is the strongest reply to the obvious concern about fatalism? Is it plausible to maintain that God is all good but gives some human beings unfortunate destinies, say, because fulfilling a bad destiny can be a source of meaning if it is required to advance a larger, benevolent plan?

  • The Quran and Hadith describe God as omniscient and omnipotent but not (at least explicitly) omnibenevolent. How can we understand the absence of omnibenevolence? According to the Islamic schools of Salafiya and Asharite, for example, everything in the world, including both good and evil, comes from God. Other schools say that even if God may not be the cause of evil, he is still capable of doing unjust deeds because being able to perform an unjust action represents perfection. Are these views comparable to African and Hindu views of evil, according to which evil can originate with God or other supernatural deities? Do these views successfully avoid the problem of evil for Judeo-Christian theism, which assumes that God is omnibenevolent?

  • Should the concept of particular divine providence (hashgacha pratit) in Judaism be understood to guide every single detail of nature and history? Or should it be understood as God’s exercise of particular providence only over humanity, or only over the righteous, or only in the land of Israel? What implications does each interpretation have on evil and suffering in the world? Do any of them undermine our free will?

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