April 16, 2010

A problem with the LDS solution to the Problem of Evil

There are a few problems with the Mormon solution to the problem of evil. I'm not saying I disbelieve possible LDS solutions, but only to say they don't come without downsides, however slight. If you're already familiar with the basics, skip down to "Possible Problem" below.

"Theodicy" Briefly Explained:
Before my mission I'd never heard of "theodicy," theological responses to the problem of evil. The problem being, evil exists and we don't like it. Theodicies are ways to justify God's goodness and power in the face of the evil around us. How could an all-powerful and loving God allow such suffering and sorrow in the world? Truman Madsen explained it quite nicely in his "Timeless Questions, Gospel Insights" lectures (pirated copies circulated throughout my mission). Truman described a triangle with three points, any one of which would call into question the other two. Here's my handy MS Paint attempt:

This triangle assumes that evil exists (some deny this premise from the get-go but I'm not addressing them here). What does the existence of evil say about God's qualities? He is thought to be omnipotent (all-powerful). He is thought to be omnibenevolent (all loving). Yet evil exists. So, either God cannot prevent evil, and is thus not omnipotent, or he doesn't want to, and is thus not all-loving. This problem is particularly acute for people who believe God created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing). Ostensibly, God could have created a world without evil but didn't.

LDS Theodicy:
Joseph Smith's revelations give Latter-day Saints a different perspective on God's relation to the world. Kathleen Flake described it this way:

[In LDS thought] evil is uncreated and co-eternal with good and God; so are we. Evil, like God and us, simply is, but evil pollutes, like a fly in the ointment, God’s order for the flourishing of human life in God’s image. Thus, in Mormonism, most of the bad experiences in this life are explained in terms of humans choosing the fly over the ointment. But, notwithstanding this interplay of independent agency and existence, evil’s uncreatedness does not place it beyond God’s power; neither is God blind to or unmoved by evil’s effect...[Evil's] limits are set, but God’s are not. Why God doesn’t prevent evil immediately is a function of a world comprised of competing agencies, pending final judgment...
For Latter-day Saints, God’s mightiness to save is defined not by his capacity to prevent evil, but to create good when only evil seems possible. He doesn’t turn evil into good, but he overcomes it with the good.1

Possible Problem: 
Longer and more complex responses to the problem of evil have been crafted by Latter-day Saints.2 Our solutions don't come without potential downsides, of course. One such downside was pointed out to me by a Catholic friend during a conversation about Verdi's "Requiem," which was performed last week by the Utah Symphony Orchestra. He commented on the lyrics of the piece:

To appreciate what is meant by Requiem aeternam dona eis [from the Catholic Mass], it requires a conception of a God who is able to satisfy the soul in a genuinely eternal way: so that by grasping him, we grasp the whole of our own happiness and need labor no further, just as God himself sanctifies creation by resting, and speaks of heaven and the temple as "my rest." (Ps 132:4; Heb 3:11, cf. Ps 95:11).3

Of course, I believe this description of God resting overlooks other scriptures, including LDS verses about God weeping.4 Mormons also have uniquely LDS scriptures discussing eternal rest (e.g. 2 Ne. 24: 3; Jacob 1:7; Enos 1:27; Alma 12:34; 13:6, 29; 40:12; 3 Nephi 27:19; 28:3, Moroni 7:3; 9:6; 10:34; D&C 15:659:2; 121:32, etc.).

At the same time, we believe in "eternal progression," which seems to imply action (D&C 101:31 has interesting implications, tying rest and glory together, considering D&C 76). One of Joseph's revelations explicitly ties rest to works:

"If they live here let them live unto me; and if they die let them die unto me; for they shall rest from all their labors here, and shall continue their works" (D&C 124:86). 

This goes to show how a Mormon view of the afterlife might not be entirely appealing to everyone, and perhaps especially to those who deal with great tragedy in life and look forward to eternal rest.

On the Mormon view, it is possible to say that evil itself may never entirely be overcome for everyone. A nice eternity of nothing but resting, where there are no more tears because God wipes them away forever (Rev. 21:4), doesn't seem to be in the game plan for Mormons. Or maybe it's an option in a particular degree of glory?

In short: many non-Mormon theodicies appeal to mystery--that our sorrow here is God's mysterious will but that all will be made up to us in a wonderful eternity of rest. This doesn't help confirm God's goodness and loving nature in the here and now. On the other hand, the Mormon view exonerates God here and now by explaining that he is not the creator or delighter in evil, but that through Him evil can be overcome. Eternity, though, may not be that easy and comfortable rest hoped for by my Catholic friend.5  

Looking for feedback here.

Kathleen Flake, "Making Good For, Not From Evil," The Washington Post, 7 September 2007.

For instance, see Blake T. Ostler, and David L. Paulsen, "Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil," in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks eds., Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, (Provo: FARMS, 2002).

My friend goes by the name "Soren" at the online forum MormonApologetics.org. See the discussion here.

See Daniel C. Peterson, "On the Motif of the Weeping God in Moses 7," in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks eds., Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, (Provo: FARMS, 2002).

See "Kristen's Dilemma: Eternity or Annihilation," a post I wrote a few weeks ago on LDS views of eternity and Alphaville's "Forever Young."


I am Chree-uz said...

Blair, genius post. Absolutely love this one.

In my view and understanding, evil is indeed as eternal as God and the good he professes. Its part of the eternal balance of things. The proof can be found in the very fact that some of God's very own followers revolted and angels fell, only to go about their own way. That very act can be debated too...because did those angels comprehend their choice at the time? Perhaps they honestly thought it was the better choice, or else why do it? That brings to mind the question, "What exactly IS evil?" Is it going against the will of God? Is it simply anything that causes suffering and unhappiness, whether we know it will or not? Does it have to be deliberate? Even those points are subjective, but I think it again points to the idea that "evil" is as eternal (and VITAL) as good is. I say vital, because evil is the OPPOSITION that balances things. The ying to the yang. Its what makes good GOOD. Its in that very nature that God's omnibenevolence can be found. Despite evil being EVIL...God is willing to subject us to it in order to receive a chance to fully grow and overcome it. Restraining the evil in the world would, in fact, be detrimental to our salvation would it not? I love Joseph's statement; "Why God doesn’t prevent evil immediately is a function of a world comprised of competing agencies, pending final judgment..." Competing agencies is what its all about, really. I also believe that God's good grace will give everyone a fair chance. Perhaps a person's ability to "overcome evil" in this life is unfairly hindered by his surroundings and environment. I still think that person will somewhere get a chance to prove him/herself.
Which brings me to your other point about the afterlife being a chill party, or a continuation similar to what we know now. I have a hard time believing in the chill party. In fact, wouldn't that get boring? An eternity of that? I dunno...maybe that's just me. It seems the idea of progression and happiness is eternally connected with some type of struggle and growth, like exercise. Sitting around gets you nowhere. Perhaps its not the same struggles we face in this life, but it seems there must be some type of continual building opportunity. In the end, perhaps we will surprised to realize just how much of our struggles are brought upon by OURSELVES, and not solely the "temptations" of a bitter, fallen angel. In that light, even with Satan bound, we'll always be striving to better ourselves in some way.

BHodges said...

Chris, your mention of yin and yang is especially interesting considering eastern religions like taoism, etc. While we see some differences in between our views and theirs, it's interesting to consider the similarities, the need for opposition, the existence of opposition, etc.

I have a hard time believing in the chill party. In fact, wouldn't that get boring? An eternity of that?
Haha, that's "Kristen's dilemma" I was referring to in footnote #5. The fear of eternal boredom.

Thanks for your thoughtful response. It's really interesting to consider what "sin" really is when we start asking these sorts of questions.

I am Chree-uz said...

Having lived in Asia (as you know) I found it fascinating to locate the ideals and philosophies that were so SIMILAR to western ideas, despite the many differences.

Fun example: Recently I was researching "genies" for my own interest. It led me first to the western idea of genies as given to us by the Arabian Nights in Aladdin's tale (which interestingly enough, was not written by Arabians, but based off of stories heard from an Arab storyteller. The story itself is actually based in China as understood by an Arab who had never been there, thus assuming typical Arab traditions and traits to the character and story.)
Anyway, the original word "djinni" (meaning "hidden or concealed") was what the Koran described as basically a separate creature granted free will by God, but after rebellion were banished to earth to live unseen among humans. They act about in a similar fashion as humans, doing what they want with similar organizations of government etc. Their leader it is said was "allowed respite to lead humans astray until the day of judgement" (got that from Wiki) and was named "Shaytan."
Anyway, this got me thinking of the traditional idea of the Japanese demons called "oni." I was especially intrigued because the word "oni" also means "hidden or concealed" and are also described as unseen spirits that cause trouble for humans. As traditions and culture progressed, the idea of these things became more elaborate and crazy, but I thought it was interesting to see where traditions and beliefs converge at a point back in history.
Its also interesting to see the many similarities to the Abrahamic religions that Hinduism has, despite not having its origins there. They have similar legends of things like the flood, God coming down to live among men, even a deity being born of a virgin. My Indian history teacher claims since that story came before Christ it means Christianity is just copying, to which I say that same "legend" (prophesy!) has persisted since men have recorded history, not since Christ. And what about the idea of Thor or Hercules and stuff? Son of God and Man (Earth) and here to save everyone?
Sorry, off the subject a tad...oh well.

BHodges said...

I didn't know about the oni, that's interesting.

the narrator said...

The two most popular responses to the [logical] problem of evil are Alvin Plantinga's free-will defense and Irenaeus's theodicy (which was developed further in John Hick's soul making theodicy. Most LDS responses build off of these adding in the uncreatedness of evil and the finitude of God.
The biggest theological problem with these defenses for Mormonism is that they ultimately require a rather sterile God that does not perform the types of miracles that Mormons tend to attribute to him. Logically they work, but
I'm not sure if Mormons are willing to accept what those responses actually say to those who are suffering.

The logical problem of evil is however only one of the formulations of the problem. The most important problem is the existential problem of evil, which asks why am /I/ suffering.

BHodges said...

Loyd, I agree that the existential approach can be the most acute, but I'm currently not suffering greatly enough for it to override the logical implications. I haven't had a chance to listen to your SMPT presentation but it's on my phone waiting to be listened to. In the mean time, the distinctions you introduce are important to consider, as are your questions about Mormons being willing to accept what a basic theodicy like the one described by Kathleen Flake above.

In this post I'm thinking more along the lines of the potential eternal existence of evil. how the LDS views of eternity square up against the popular or theological views of other Christians, etc. What are your thoughts on that if any? (Your view might completely overstep such a question, but still try to indulge me!)

the narrator said...

I think the discussion of "evil itself?" is nonsensical, as if it exists outside the context of actions and experience.

BHodges said...

I'm taking for granted that evil itself (including suffering) occurs within the context of actions and experiences. In other words, that our eternal existence will not be untouched by evil, suffering, etc., that these things (like broken relationships, people choosing darkness rather than light, to use the scriptural phrase) will continue.

BHodges said...

That is to say, if our existence is composed, at least partly, by actions and experience (acting, being acted upon) then escaping ALL of the possible negative side-effects is not going to happen.

the narrator said...

Perhaps I'm just not understanding your post. The eschatological over-coming of evil doesn't really work as a theodicy. The problem lies in the present suffering. One may, like Plantinga, propose that suffering in this life is 'made up' with eschatological reward, but that is saying something completely different.

BHodges said...

And if one was to go along with Plantinga and say that losses will be made up to people, etc., even still on a Mormon view, because relationships will continue, an eternal static bliss is not expected in Mormonism, which might bother traditional Christians like Soren.

BHodges said...

Keep in mind I am addressing the logical more than the existential problems.

My basic point is that Mormons often think of eternity as a further phase of growth and experience, whereas many traditional Christians expect a state of bliss without things like preaching the gospel to the dead, etc. Our scriptures also say that at times, God weeps. If God weeps in eternity I suspect there may be times that you and I will weep as well. That might be bothersome to some people, as it was to Soren, who thinks the idea of eternal progression runs counter to an expected eternal rest.

David Stewart said...

Blair, a false dichotomy based on problematic assumptions is posed the statement that "either God cannot prevent evil, and is thus not omnipotent, or he doesn't want to, and is thus not all-loving." It does not follow a total elimination of evil would be necessary to show love, or that total prevention of evil is necessary to show His power. It is necessary to step back further and first address the question of the nature of existence of matter, life, and intelligence, the fundamental principles upon which human existence is based, god's relationship to man, and the purposes of earth life.

Anonymous said...

I always like to have this particular discussion in person. IMO, It tends to de-emphasize pedantics while emphasizing spiritual understanding.

That's not to say I don't appreciate the online dialogue. I found the discussion satisfyingly unsettling.


BHodges said...

David: I agree, that's what the quote from Kathleen Flake was supposed to convey. :)

Quin said...


Whenever this issue comes up, I always end up back at 2 Nephi 2:11-there MUST NEEDS be opposition in ALL things. If there has to be an opposite for all things, then in order for there to be goodness and light there MUST also be badness and darkness. I'm not sure it is possible for God to bring about ultimate goodness WITHOUT ultimate evil.

The more I ponder this, the more I wonder if God had to wait to put His plan of happiness into action until one of His children (Lucifer) manifested an evil that was equally opposite to Christ's goodness. Perhaps not exactly in those terms...but along those lines.

Another thing-all suffering is unpleasant, but not all suffering is evil. Some suffering teaches, expands us, humbles us, sanctifies.

BHodges said...

Quin, if that is the case, it raises important questions about the nature or quality of eternity, in that the potential for opposition will always be there.

Loyd: I listened to the mp3 of your SMPT paper. While I have some reservations about it generally I think we are closer than you might think in positions. My imprecision for simplicity's sake may be getting in the way. You were sticking on my line about evil itself, which you say is not a meaningful thing. If, as I noted above, my definition of evil is relational, that it exists within, not outside of contexts, not a platonic ideal of evil but a real thing in relation, then on the Mormon view it can be assumed that such evil has the potential to continue after death and going forward. The atonement on this view is an invitation to prevent, overcome, step in against evil in the world in real situations, and this may continue as part of an ongoing post-mortal work and glory.

Quin said...


I'm not saying that it makes things regarding eternity any easier, I'm just saying that we can't rule it out. It would mean that God did not "create" evil, but that evil and darkness is the co-eternal opposite of light and truth...and that as a God of truth and light, our Father God has the power and right to set limits to the degree that evil can influence us.

2 Nephi 2:11-13 says-

"For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility."

"Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God."

"And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away."

I don't have much time right now, but what do you read those verses as saying to us? I read them as saying that if it was possible to choose righteousness and happiness in the premortal world, then it must have also been possible to choose wickedness and misery. If opposites existed there, and here now, then why wouldn't they exist in eternity?

I have some research somewhere, I'll dig it up. But the incomplete conclusion I drew from it was not that evil ceases to exist after the final judgement-but that either we become immune to it through our own righteousness or that God removes us from it's influence somehow. More later...Quin

BHodges said...

If opposites existed there, and here now, then why wouldn't they exist in eternity?

Right, I think you are giving a somewhat typical LDS explanation of the situation. The "problem" I'm addressing is that such an explanation could bother a person who does not want such opposition, or who believes that God has promised to wipe all our tears away and grant the saved eternal rest rather than continuing a struggle with opposition, etc.

Quin said...

I know, but most humans are rational enough to accept that it will be what it will be whether we like what it is or not. The fact that so many of God's children will choose NOT to dwell with Him is a HUGE indicator that there must be something about it that they don't like, or won't embrace or agree to. If it was all peace and ease and effortless-ALL would agree to it.

The "rest" spoken of in the verses where God is speaking of "His" rest doesn't literally mean ceasing in activity forever. It signifies a pause, a moment to rest and refresh, to gather one's strength again. It connotes an "intermission" or space of peace after one thing and before another, rather than a permanent state of lounging around. He promises that we will cease from OUR labors-our mortal work and concerns, but He doesn't promise us that we won't then engage in HIS work.

I'm assuming that they quote this scripture:
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away."

I believe this can be true without meaning what they think it means. There will be no more MORTAL death or the sorrow-crying-pain associated with mortality. But according to scripture we know that "heaven" both weeps and shouts for joy-so clearly there is a range of emotions experienced there. I believe that if Godly joy and happiness is beyond human comprehension in it's ultimate grandness, then Godly sorrow and anger must also be beyond our comprehension in it's ultimate agony.

BHodges said...

Quin, you tie the dislike of prospects of eternal opposition to the potential motives of the premortal fallen. That's an interesting point.

Quin said...

LOL...I did? Unintentionally I suppose I did. :-)

I was more focused on the "fact" that after we all die, there will be a need for more than one kingdom. If God's offer to live in heaven WITH Him had no strings attached to it-it was all peace and rest and harps and no-opposition-why wouldn't we all just say "Heck YEAH!"?

How I view the premortal fallen is a little different. I think THEY thought that everyone SHOULD get the same reward-inheritance-degree of exaltation. Since "agency" allows us all to choose between sin/death/darkness and repentance/life/light-they reasoned that getting rid of it (agency)would make us all "equal"...one great eternal redistribution of blessings if you will.

I think they were all about their perception of "fairness" and "equality" and knew that they and others of us would NOT choose obedience (or repentance)over sin, and would then not receive the same glory and eternal blessings as others. They didn't like that and fought to destroy all hope for any of us to excel. Kind of an "If I can't have it (or if we ALL can't have it) then no one should" mentality.

I view those who do not become exalted AFTER death as those who believe that God's system/plan IS fair and just, but who simply do not want to accept the obligations and responsibility that are required by a higher degree of glory than what they receive. These people would have fought as pre-mortal spirits for their agency, and so they will understand God's plan to be fair and just as post-mortal beings. They might experience regret for not achieving greater blessings, but they will know that to be the result of their own choosing.

I hope that makes sense....

BHodges said...

I'm still undecided on whether there are set Kingdoms where people are stuck for eternity or whether there is movement between the degrees. I lean to the latter.

Quin said...


But the law of agency requires opposing forces to choose between. If agency still functions post-mortally-and/or everything has an opposite, then progression cannot exist in the absence of regression. This means that in order for people to be able to choose to move up, they also must be able to choose to move down. It's a nice thought to think that all could ONLY move up but in order to make UP a matter of choice, one must also allow DOWN as a choice. Then you must accept horrifying ideas such as LOSING blessings.

If no agency is involved (because there is no opposition)then movement up or down cannot be based on the choices/actions of the individual so then movement would have to be based upon the whims of God. Who would then be violating the law of justice...and would cease to be God...

And one more thought...in order to be "fair" then the ability to progress must be offered equally to all, including those in the Celestial kingdom. They can't be held "static" in position or glory, they must be able to progress as well. So if they have the ability to progress in direct proportion to every other kingdom's ability, then when someone from the Telestial Kingdom arrives in the CK, they would find that some from the Celestial will have moved on to something higher, more progressed. And doesn't that mean that eternity will be a constant state of divisions of some sort anyway?

Quin said...


Not to be obnoxious but I looked up some more references and points from my prior digging on this topic and wanted to post them.

“After reading Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, it seems that hell is to find ourselves in an inferior position and conditions, and to know that we might have been, by our efforts, in a higher and more glorious place, had we exercised our free agency more vigorously for better things. Moreover our punishment stands, at least measurably, throughout the endless ages, because as we go onward, those above us go onward also, and the relative positions remain the same. This is the just but fearful punishment of evil doing.” John A Widstoe

Melvin J. Ballard: "So far as the telestial group is concerned . . . 'Where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end' [D&C 76:112]. I take it upon the same basis, the same argument likewise applies to the terrestrial world."

Spencer W. Kimball: "After a person has been assigned to his place in the kingdom, . . . he will never advance from his assigned glory to another glory. . . . That is why we must make our decisions early in life and why it is imperative that such decisions be right."

Another factor is the principle is that we are resurrected with a specific kind of body-one fit for either Telestial, Terrestrial, or Celestial glory, and that the body of a lower kingdom cannot endure/survive the glory of a higher one. I don’t know of any doctrine that teaches that it is possible to trade one type of body for another type…but it would be necessary in order to move up.

Another thought-we supposedly lived for “eons” of pre-mortal time in which we grew to become adult spirits prior to coming to earth. In all that time, our true spiritual natures were manifested and we were observed by God as to what kind of beings we desired to become. Our memories were withheld when we came to earth, but that doesn’t change who we were or what we became in our first estate. I highly doubt that when we are able to compare our pre-mortal spirits to our mortal spirits that we will find huge differences in our natures or desires.

I believe we are here to prove to ourselves how we are prone to behave without the constant influence of God’s holiness as compared to how we behaved with it pre-mortally.

If a pre-mortal first estate, and a mortal estate, and a thousand years of millennial influence are not enough time for us to come to love and worship God enough to be willing to obey Him and submit to His will forever,then how could any amount of eternal time afterward make a difference?

If ALL proxy marriages and baptisms MUST be performed by mortal/human beings (and not resurrected beings), AND after the final resurrection there will be no more humans left on this earth to perform those labors, then there is no way that anyone living in a Terrestrial or Telestial kingdom after the last resurrection COULD ever qualify to enter the Celestial Kingdom.

BHodges said...

I'm familiar with the various GA quotes on advancing between kingdoms, etc. I don't feel obligated to accept them all, however, and other GA's have speculated about advancing between kingdoms. But that's a discussion for another time!

Quin said...

I understand. I'm just trying to point out that according to other teachings, it doesn't seem very possible. As it relates to this post, if advancing IS possible, it seems (to me) that it would require opposition.

Just sayin....:-)

BHodges said...


Clean Cut said...

Minor threadjack: I read Loyd's paper: “Which Thing I Never Had Supposed”, but where can I find the mp3 to "listen" to it?

BHodges said...

Members of SMPT can download conference mp3s from the SMPT website here: http://www.smpt.org/member_resource/audio.html.

The 2010 ones aren't up yet. The only reason I heard it is because I helped to splice the recordings together, I'm not sure when they'll be posted.

Clean Cut said...

One more reason I really need to join SMPT. Thanks.

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