Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Questions regarding the Pagan response to suffering and evil can best be understood as two separate issues, even if they are closely related. Suffering, or the experience of pain (whether physical or emotional/mental/spiritual), is an experiential reality, whereas evil is an abstract (metaphysical) concept. Because of this distinction, many in the modern Pagan community have distinct ways of approaching the problem of suffering versus the question of evil. Suffering is part of life. So areis loss, age, sickness, and death. Simply put, suffering is part of nature. We Humans cannot eradicate suffering any more than theywe can suspend gravity, and getting caught up in metaphysical explanations or arguments about suffering simply distract us from the real issue, which is finding ways to prevent unnecessary suffering and to alleviate or mitigate it when it does occur.

Evil, which can be defined as a metaphysical principle which that causes suffering or harm, is more problematic than suffering - for while suffering can be documented, evil, as a metaphysical principle, cannot. Evil, therefore, is a matter of faith, and among Pagans, no articles of faith are universally held. Therefore, while some Pagans might choose to believe in the existence of metaphysical principles like good and evil, others argue that such principles are useless or could even be harmful, for example if used to attack or malign others unfairly. Many Pagans prefer terminology like "positive" and "negative," or "order" and "chaos" as alternatives to the categories of "good" and "evil," regarding these categories as so heavily freightedsteeped inwith Judeo-Christian assumptions that their usefulness is limited.

Nevertheless, because of the high degree of tolerance within the Pagan community, adherents are free to form their own opinions about the existence and/or the problem of evil.

Whether or not evil exists as a metaphysical principle which that causes harm, and whether or not there may be one or more beings or entities who embody evil are therefore matters of personal opinion. World mythology does include many mythic figures that embody evil to a greater or lesser extent: In Irish mythology, Balor; in Jewish and Christian mythology, Satan; in Persian mythology, Ahriman; in Egyptian mythology, Set; in Norse mythology, Loki. It is important to recognize that not all of these mythic figures represent harm or evil in the same way; for example, while Satan is an embodiment of pure malice, a figure like Loki can be seen as morally ambiguous: chaotic as much as malicious.

Beyond the allusions of mythology and the philosophical controversies surrounding evil, the reality of suffering and harm remain. Since these phenomena occur within the natural world, any response to them likewise must be natural. This is not to preclude a spiritual or metaphysical response to suffering; but many Pagans would regard a purely spiritual response to a natural problem as faulty or inadequate. There's no point in casting a spell over someone bleeding without first dressing their wounds. Thus, while various Pagan paths may include a variety of spells, rituals, or prayers to help alleviate or eliminate suffering, such tools would be preceded by "mundane" or non-spiritual responses to the problem. While many contemporary Pagans are critical of mainstream medicine and advocate a variety of alternative healing practices, most recognize that a combination of traditional and alternative healing practices may be necessary, particularly in serious or life-threatening circumstances. (Ffor example, it would be inappropriate to treat severe chest pains only with a healing touch practice like Reiki; a person experiencing such pain needs to be checked by a qualified physician for a possible heart attack.).

How do those who reject the idea of evil explain the existence of pain and suffering? Many say it is simply part of nature, and that questions about why it exists are not nearly as helpful as strategies to help alleviate it when it does occur.

Regardless of whether suffering is met with natural or spiritual meansresponses, Pagans are free to respond to suffering in any way they deem appropriate. Seen on a purely naturalistic level, pain and suffering are markers of a condition that needs to change - whether the change comes about through healing the condition thatwhich causes the suffering (or, in extreme cases, through death). Even when a person voluntarily embraces suffering (for example, someone who delays their own personal ambitions in order to care for an elderly relative), the suffering in itself is meaningful only because it is undertaken in service of a clearly understood greater good (in this case, the good of caring for others). There is no dogma or belief that would suggest suffering is always bad (or, for that matter, always noble and virtuous). Any instance of suffering must be evaluated on its own merits, whether it is a problem that must be addressed immediately, or a sacrificial act freely undertaken in honor of a greater good. Few Pagans would subscribe to a belief that suffering is inherently virtuous, but rather would view pain as a condition that, whenever possible, should be remedied.

Study Questions:
     1.     Contrast suffering and evil. Do humans have control over either?
     2.     How is evil embodied in mythology?
     3.     How is suffering addressed?

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