During World War II, 11 million people, including 1 million children, were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.How do such things happen? Is it human nature to do evil? Or is it an external being that forces the human hand?
Religion has been grappling with questions about the origins and existence of evil for centuries. "Mainstream Judaism doesn't see evil as having an independent existence," said Rabbi John Spitzer of Temple Israel in Canton, Ohio.Spitzer said there's a belief in Judaism that humans are made of two tendencies, the aggressive and animalistic "Yetzer Harah," which means literally "evil inclination," and the "Yetzer Hatov," the good or spiritual inclination.
"That would suggest that human life is balance," he said. "When the balance tips toward the animal or aggressive side, humans choose wrongly.
"Judaism says when a tornado comes through a city, destroys things and hurts people, it is consequence of the way the world is put together. When someone goes out and hurts a child, that's evil; that's a choice.
"Our glory is, we have the power to know the difference between right and wrong. You and I are capable of being Mother Teresa. We're also capable of being Adolf Hitler."
Spitzer said it's far too easy to blame evil on an external force.
"Judaism believes strongly in responsibility," he said.
IS IT SATAN?
The Rev. Kermit Green, pastor of Apostolic Faith Assembly in Canton, said evil is personified, though its source is "anything that is against God." "There is ... one who carries the momentum of evil," Green said. "We call him Satan."
Green said man's nature inclines toward evil because of the fall of Adam and Eve, but "the spirit of man, regardless of what religion he practices, recognizes good."
The book of Ezekiel in the Bible details the fall of the angel Lucifer and the origin of evil, he said. "The problem came when Satan wanted to overcome God; he wanted to be equal to God," he said.
Green stressed that humans have free will and can choose to embrace good or evil.
"(Apostle) Paul says something is working against us constantly," he said. "God's light, the Word, is the ultimate good. For us to become like Christ, we have to follow the light and truth. Christians believe God brought us out of the kingdom of darkness."
Like Green, the Rev. Robert Dye, pastor of St. Paul AME Church in Canton, believes evil exists. But Christianity holds varied views about who perpetuates evil, Dye noted.
"One theory is, God is not the originator of evil; that evil comes as a result of our own choices, which causes us to do evil things because of our desires," he said. "The other view is that Satan is the one who causes us to do evil."
Does religion "need" evil to be relevant?
Dye says no.
"I think evil is part of the process of resistance. ... It's there because, in my opinion... we were created in perfection, but God gave us choice. We made the choice to do wrong, we make the choice to do evil."
Spitzer said he doesn't buy the idea of a "devil" being responsible for evil in the world.
"For Jews, there comes a point in time in some situations where we can't fathom a reason for what happens to us," he said. "The Jewish response to the concept of evil is the concept of trying to find control over extremes in our lives, to make right, godly choices. When it comes down to 'it doesn't make any sense to me,' we fall back on faith."
The Rev. William Pawson of Westminster Community Presbyterian Church in Canton said the idea of evil and suffering has long been studied by philosophers and theologians.
"That evil exists is almost too obvious to be questioned," he said. "What may not be so obvious is that there is evil because we human beings are able to experience pain, suffering and despair. If this were not possible, there would be no evil."
Pawson noted that St. Augustine didn't believe that evil exists independently, but is a "privation of the good," a defect in creation as a result of mankind's fall from grace.
"In humans, mortal evil - or sin - comes from having the choice to do good and choosing not to," Pawson said, "or choosing to do wrong rather than the good."
"The Buddhist tradition does not see things in terms of 'good' and 'evil,' although you do see those words used frequently," said the Venerable Shih Ying Fa, abbot of the CloudWater Zendo Zen Center in Cleveland. "The reason for this is that 'good' and 'evil' tend to be very relative terms, depending on one's point of view.
"I'm sure the people who flew the airliners into the World Trade Center on 9/11 thought they were doing a 'good' thing, while many others see it as being 'evil.' "
But suffering is woven, by man, into the fabric of existence, Shih said.
"This is the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths," he said. "To a Buddhist, there is also no doubt that we create the conditions for our own suffering, as well as the conditions for our own liberation from that suffering. Generally, we refer to this as the teaching of karma, meaning 'cause and effect.'"
The task for a Buddhist, Shih said, is to stop creating karma and to purify whatever karma remains, "Then we may stop recycling through the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and attain Nirvana. The end of suffering, the realm of perfect oneness," he said. The litmus test for a Buddhist regarding "good" and "evil" is simple, he said: Does this cause suffering or does this action prevent suffering?
NONE BUT OURSELVES
"Each person is responsible for her or his own liberation. ... Our task is to ease suffering wherever we can and to promote liberation wherever we can, so that all living beings may benefit."
Pawson said though God is capable of vanquishing evil, he is more concerned with creating creatures who will love him freely.
"God uses the world as it is - even in its fallenness and its consequent natural evil and suffering - to bring about his long-term purpose," he said. "While evil is still present in the world, this does not mean that it shall always be so."