Summary of argument: The problems of evil and suffering that have challenged theological thinking may have an answer in evolution. Evolution may be God’s way of creating sentient beings made in His image and capable of understanding and embracing Him freely. But if that is true, then evil and suffering are expected consequences because (1) evolution requires a world with death and destruction and (2) free-willed, sentient beings are free, not only to embrace God, but to do evil in this world.
First, consider biological support for evolution-associated evil and evolution-associated suffering coming from the actions of humans.
The ecology of the world depends ultimately on energy transfer from autotrophs (for example, green plants) to heterotrophs (for example, animals, including humans). Autotrophs use light or inorganic chemicals as their energy supply. Heterotrophs use energy from other organisms, both autotrophs and other heterotrophs, as their energy supply. That is, heterotrophs consume other organisms or the living or dead parts of other organisms. Even though autotrophs do not rely on other organisms for energy, they do rely on other organisms for needed elements, which they usually obtain after these other organisms die and are decomposed. Thus, exploitation and death are normal conditions for life and its evolution. This death and exploitation account for some of what we see as evil in the world.
Other evil results from bad choices made by humans. But the capacity to make bad choices comes from nervous systems sufficiently developed to allow us to freely choose in the first place. This development is postulated here to be accomplished by evolution. So, evolution, the very process that prepares humans to freely embrace God, also enables humans to freely commit evil deeds or other acts that cause suffering.
Second, consider biological support for evolution-associated suffering coming from the environment.
The environment creates much of the world’s suffering, apart from that caused by exploitation and free will, through natural forces like earthquakes, glaciation, erosion, winds, floods, droughts, and temperature fluctuations. But these natural forces are precisely those required for a key process of evolution to occur: speciation, the formation of a new species from an ancestral one.
Speciation occurs primarily when a population is split into two or more subpopulations by a physical barrier that prevents interbreeding between the subpopulations. These subpopulations then interbreed only with their own subpopulation members, without any genetic input from or output to the other subpopulation after splitting. This continued isolation permits the two subpopulations to diverge enough genetically such that they are reproductively distinct and thus incapable of interbreeding. Two species have developed where one existed before. This speciation process is postulated by evolutionary biologists to have led to the eventual evolution of humans from simpler predecessors.
The initial splitting of the original population into subpopulations is greatly facilitated, if not necessitated, by the natural forces mentioned above, particularly glaciation, floods, droughts, and hurricane-force winds. So, evolution, the very process postulated to prepare humans to freely embrace God, requires environmental conditions that also produce human suffering.