As the Rev. Brian Jordan walked back to his friary after comforting the wounded and blessing the dead at the World Trade Center disaster site Tuesday, he was confronted on Sixth Avenue by a frantic man.

"Why did God permit this catastrophe to happen?" the man screamed at the brown-robed Franciscan priest.

Jordan tried to calm him. "God did not do this," he said. "It was evil acts done by men."

The man, uncomforted, turned and walked away, cursing God.

Similar scenes played out across the country last week, as ministers and rabbis, philosophers and theologians, and people in the pews grasped for an explanation to provide comfort or offer meaning to the tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington.

The horrors of terrorism and mass death, people leaping from burning buildings, victims buried under rubble, the suffering of the wounded and anguish of loved ones are all the result of what was repeatedly described as unmitigated evil.

"Americans tend to downplay the forces of evil, but now, we've stared at evil in its rawest form," said the Rev. Constantine M. Monios, dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore. "The devil is a very powerful force."

In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in American history, both clergy and their congregants are wrestling with perhaps the oldest theological quandary. It was articulated by the Rev. Billy Graham at Friday's national prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington: "Why does God allow evil like this to take place?"

Easy answers are elusive.

"I'm stumbling here because this kind of thing makes me question in my own mind what evil is and how I personally understand evil," said the Rev. Teresa Jo Martin-Minnich, consultant on children's ministry for the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore.

"To me, evil comes from the choice to do what is opposite of God. If our understanding of God is a God of love and compassion and selflessness, evil is the opposite of that," she said. "Killing innocent people to get the world's attention or to get revenge, it boggles my mind."

Varied understandings

The problem of evil is a stumbling block even for a veteran evangelist like Graham.

"I have been asked hundreds of times in my life why God allows tragedy and suffering," he said in his sermon Friday. "I have to confess that I really do not know the answer totally, even to my own satisfaction. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and he is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering."

For many, the answer lies in the concept of free will - in which God gives humans the freedom to act, rather than acting as a puppet master. Under this explanation, humans must bear responsibility for their actions.

"What happened here was an exercise of God-given freedom, but an exercise that was insane and irrational," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, Roman Catholic archbishop of Baltimore.

"It's tragic; it is beyond ordinary logical comprehension. But our faith tells us it's not something God directly willed," Keeler said. "In this case, it's human freedom being used in a bad fashion - which is sin."

Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman, spiritual leader of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Stevenson, called freely committed evil acts the "shadow side of religion."

"It's not the absence of God, but the abrogation of God's power and wisdom and omniscience, and assuming that human beings have it," he said. "It's the idolatry of thinking you know for sure what God wants. This is an exercise of human free will, man exercising his own free will and the evil to which man is capable of descending in order to have one's way."