The Two Problems with Mormon Finitist Theodicies

I have been listening to the papers that were presented at the recent conference of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. At the conference there was a presentation on that perennial favorite, finisitist Mormon theodicies, in this case a nicely nuanced comparison of Mormon thinking with the process theology of David Griffin. I was disappointed, however, that the authors didn’t more squarely face the two strongest objections to Mormon finitist theodicies. Indeed, I have yet to see what I think of as adequate responses to either of these issues.

In a nut shell, Mormon finitist theologies reconcile the existence of God with the existence of geunine evil in the world by positing that there are metaphysical constraints on God’s power that keep him from intervening in the universe so as to prevent evil. This move is available in Mormon theology because by affirming the eternity of matter and intelligences, we have already implicitly conceded that there are limits on God’s power beyond mere logical non-contradiction. All of this is well and good, and at some level I am persuaded by the finitist move in theodicy. But…

…But there are two big objections that must be squarely met. First, even if there are limits on God’s power, it does not follow that God is powerless in the face of evil. Indeed, the scriptures can be shown to reveal numerous cases in which God intervenes in human history to prevent particular evil. Hence, as an empirical matter — as it were — Mormon theodicies must not only explain how God is subject to metaphysical limits but also how he is able to intervene in history and, most importantly, why he often does not. Put in the starkest terms, why could God send an angel to save Daniel in the Lion’s den or part the Red Sea for the children of Israel, but couldn’t (or didn’t?) send angels to save people from Auschwitz. The second objection, is that a god whose power was sufficiently constrained to account for the widespread existence of evil is too constrained to warrant worship or faith unto salvation.

Without an answer to the first objection, it seems to me that we have show the consistency of the existence of a Mormon god and the existence of a world with genuine evil. What we have failed to do is show that the existence of a Mormon god is consistent with a world that is evil in the particular way in which our world is evil. Without an answer to the second question, it seems to me that we run the risk of sacrificing a satisfying spiritual life on the altar of logical chopping consistency. Mormon philosophers are fond of quoting Whitehead’s dictum that “The God of the philosophers is not available for religious purposes.” I worry whether one might be able to say, “The God of the Mormon finitist theodicies is not available for religious purposes either.”

74 comments for “The Two Problems with Mormon Finitist Theodicies

  1. I think the strongest defense of the finitist theodicy is Lehi’s claim of a necessary opposition in all things. One of the things God can’t do is give his children opportunities for growth — to progress and become strong — without them having to confront and experience evil and pain.

    Why Daniel and the Red Sea but not Auschwitz? God didn’t and doesn’t intervene to fight evil or relieve pain, he only intervenes to provide a sign. That’s why God may answer the prayers of people pleading for relief from severe trials (say, cancer) with something comparatively trivial (i.e., testimonies about “God of the lost car keys”). His purpose isn’t to relieve pain. His purpose is to say he is there and he knows them.

    People would be happier if they understood they can’t short-circuit growth. God cannot relieve your suffering or your challenges without also stunting your growth. It’s the same with our physical fitness; we can’t get strong and fit without straining our body and restraining our diet.

  2. Very legit questions, Nate. I have often wondered the first question (it seems open theology has a better handle on it than we do), but have not heard a satisfactory answer yet, either. As for the second question, I can give you was Dr Paulsen told me when I asked him the same question: “I believe God has the power to save us because he tells me so.” Whether a legit response or not, that was his answer.

  3. In this post you have nicely summarized why many find God to be, at best, an absentee father, or at worst, non-existent.

    Forget about ancient biblical stories of God’s intervention contrasted with recent events of evil, and let’s deal with the here and now. A real world scenario recently played out in the Congo. An airplane crashed upon take-off into a marketplace. Some news articles quote a woman on the ground, whose son died in the market, as asking God what she did to deserve this, while at the same time a family of Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries on the plane survived. The father of the family is quoted as saying, “We couldn’t believe that our family of four could all escape a plane that was crashed and on fire, but by God’s mercy, we did. I think the Lord has a plan for us, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived. He still has work for us to do.”

    Or was it just luck, general airplane safety, and quality engineering that saved this family? The family is certain that God intervened to save them. If we say He didn’t, then can we ever say that He intervenes in our lives? If we say that He did, then we have to explain, as Nate states, why He did nothing to save those who died. What sign did this family gain from God’s intervention? Was their spiritual growth stunted? I would bet that if you could ask them they would say that their faith grew from this experience.

    It’s a hard sell to try to explain why God would intervene to save one family while allowing others to die. It’s even harder to explain why God would allow this white, American family to survive, while allowing so many black Africans to die.

    Theologians and philosophers have been debating this question for ages, without, imho, an adequate resolution. Good luck in finding an answer in this thread. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking how and why God is available, but rather if He is available at all.

  4. Kari: Perhaps you are right. I have two resopnses. First, something like “Gee, there is evil in the world; therefore I am an atheist” strikes me as a respectable position to take. It also strikes me as borrrrrrring. There is no place to go other than self congratulation or castigation of the the benighted souls who continue to believe. Where is the fun in that?

    Second, I have had many experiences in my life of God’s power, presence, and goodness. Rejecting his existence would thus do violence to my own understanding of my own experiences. Now admittedly, I may be decieved about my own experiences. It would not be the first time. Still, I have a hard time being convinced that I am. Hence, I swill around from time to time with the problem of evil, which creates some real cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, rejection of a belief in God would also create some real cognitive dissonance for me. I’m damned if I do; damned if I don’t philosophically speaking. Hence, I stick with faith, in part because I find the existence of evil in the world less challenging to my own sense of the universe than the dismissal of my own religious experience as delusion and in part because I hope for a world with God rather than one without God.

  5. You use the term genuine evil, for good reasons. But I wonder if any of us are capable of defining what is genuine evil and what is not. Alma 14 provides another case where Alma felt they should not stop the killing. I think we are not very well equipped to decide what is the long term will of God in almost any situation. In most cases we can only know through personal revelation whether intervention happened or should happen.

  6. On the one hand, I don’t think we should interpret all scriptural accounts of God’s intervention literally. On the other hand, so far as I’m concerned, God is worthy of worship only as you and I may be worthy of the worship of our children, among whom we intervene imperfectly and inconsistently, according to our best knowledge and power within dynamic circumstances. As we grow, we begin to understand, and sometimes regard with disdain, the limitations of our parents. In time, however, we learn that we face similar limitations ourselves, and gain increased respect for the challenges the preceded us. As I observe the world, I see us, as a civilization, entering the late stages of adolescence in relation to our divine parents, whose limitations are becoming more apparent while our capacities expand quickly.

  7. Ben: Dr Paulsen told me when I asked him the same question: “I believe God has the power to save us because he tells me so.”

    Yeah, that is essentially the conclusion I have come to also on this. We discussed this very issue at length recently over at NCT.

    I don’t think we will find answers (in this life) to why a God who can intervene to stop evil chooses to intervene sometimes and not intervene at other times. I suspect this is why Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel. Specifically in this case it means we trust that God in not inept at his job; or, in other word, that he has good reasons for intervening or not that we just can’t see.

  8. As Nate points out while Mormon finitude solves the logical problem of evil it provides little for the evidentiary problem of evil. At best one could say that God, because of his finitude, can’t make us into anything he wants. He has to educate us in some way. Therefore the evils we experience are expedient.

    However on the face of it this seems pretty difficult to accept for many natural evils.

  9. There are numerous responses to these queries. In my personal perusal of the subject many of them come from Ostler, but I have no idea if everything I will offer is from Ostler.
    Believing in eternal intelligences, but knowing little about exactly what an eternal intelligence is, opens the possibility that this world of good and evil is the best possible world in which to develop the most/best/??? progressed eternal intelligences. This world is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” It seems to me that it is quite possible that given the characteristics of eternal intelligences, there simply is not a better way to create this universe than in the way it was created.
    Now with my finite knowledge, if I knew nothing of this world and was asked to make a perfect world it would be quite different than the one in which we live. But, suggesting that I cannot “add all the sums” that indicate that this is the most perfect world is very different than asserting that God created ex nihilo and yet could have created ex nihilo eternal life in heaven instead.

    LDS theology more so than others by my observation emphasizes agency. While I would argue strongly against the view that we save ourselves by the choices we make, I think the majority of LDS would recognize that our choices are part of our accepting Christ’s atonement and the remaking of our lives He wishes to perform. Evil is one of the unfortunate byproducts of choices. Our fallen nature (which I would suggest is almost totally the perception of separation/aloneness into which we are all born) results in poor choices. Evil occurs.

    Added to the above is the fact that we believe that we pre-existed. From the foundation of the world Jesus Christ agreed to not only possibly be killed for our sins, but to enter into the world at a time and place and perform His ministry such that He would in fact be killed. “Men killed their God!” It seems possible that numerous folks for reasons I cannot elucidate could have chosen to participate in mortality in a way that could have resulted in horrors similar to those experienced by Christ. Perhaps the pre-mortal Auschwitz victim covenanted with the one guard who choose compassion on the one day that saved his soul. Perhaps the covenant was with his fellow Jew who without Victor Frankl’s example would have become one of the monsters Frankl describes among the captive Jews. Perhaps Auschwitz was a pre-mortal agreement between numerous Jews with certain powerful German’s, and the test came but the powerful man made the wrong choice.

    Another component of the pre-existence is the fact that while God is no respecter of persons, He does respect what we have become prior to our mortality. It seems some were suitably progressed they were chosen as prophets. It seems some were chosen such that upon death before the age of eight they would in fact be exalted without the usual growth and trials. It also may be true that holocaust victims lacked only some recognitions of what it was like for Christ to suffer or ???

    Finally, this is “but for a small moment.” We do not live in this world for this world, but for the eternity that follows. Within this world, the suffering of the holocaust victim seems so pointless, but the joy they partake of today is also something that from this world we cannot appreciate. While I reject theories that suggest that God requires a “pound of flesh,” I think it possible that growth occurs even in Auschwitz (even in the abused and murdered child). Such horrors last for zero time compared to eternity.

    Now concerning the ability of God to save, Ostler develops his view of God with a large dose of the Lectures on Faith in that God must be sufficient for our salvation and our worship.
    God is “more intelligent than they all,” which may in fact mean “than they all put together.” God as the “self-surpassing surpasser of all” is eternally the greatest existing being. While numerous lesser beings may make choices that do not align perfectly with God’s plan, He is so far above those who consciously and unconsciously move to frustrate His plan, He has created contingency upon contingency such that ultimately His plans will be achieved.
    As a tiny chess player I think of these things in a somewhat crude chess analogy. God is the ultimate grand-master playing against the simplest of beginners (and probably a beginner who only knows how to move pawns, but not how to move the other pieces). God exhorts us to move about the board so that His purposes are realized in an elegant way, but we are free to do as we choose. What is impossible is that our movements will cause God to ultimately lose. With merely human grand-masters who do not offer any loving guidance to their “opponent,” it is easy to see how these humans will ALWAYS win. I would suggest that God will always win.

    And, I would also suggest that to have “faith” in God is to believe/trust that He will keep His half of the loving covenants we make. Anslem’s greatest conceivable being who is ontologically omnibenevolent and …, in many ways requires no faith. I do not believe it requires faith to trust a rock will not teach your child cuss words. When you leave a rock in the presence of your child you are not expressing your faith in that rock. God as Aquinas conceives of Him is incapable of not fulfilling His half of the loving covenant. It may be a price to pay to say I have faith God will win in the end even though Satan is smart, opposed to Him, and can make choices not caused by God; but I would suggest that “The Rock” of Aquinas is not an adequate object of faith, just as the rock in your child’s room is not either. The “Rock” of the Bible is an adequate object of faith because He has shown that He is worthy of our unconditional trust and love.

    Charity, TOm

  10. I have also thought about these questions and it seems to me that there is probably no single solution to this problem. What we call the problem of evil is probably a very complex issue, and is not subject to the single solution that you seem to be looking for. Here are some of the possible factors that could be involved:

    1) As you point out, finitism helps us to understand evil in some of its manifestations.
    2) In others, I imagine that “evil” is to some degree in the eye of the beholder. That is, evil is a matter of definition.
    3) Our activities in the pre-existence may sometimes account for God’s action or inaction in some circumstances.
    4) God’s reluctance to broach agency may be a factor in others.

    I’m sure there are other issues to consider. Finitism is not THE solution to the problem of evil, but a starting point to understanding it.

    Regarding your question about God’s power to save us, I look to the evidence of God’s victory in the past. There seem to have been setbacks, but God has appeared to be victorious overall. Moreover, even if the victory were in question, I like fighting for the team I am on.

  11. RAF: One could, but one would then be left to the problems faced by non-finitist conceptions of God. Also — to the extent that one is gauche enough to care about such things — the revelations of Joseph Smith seem to necessarily commit us to some metaphysical limits on God’s power so we are in that sense committed to finitism. Hence, finitism is not some sort of deus ex machina invoked gratuitiously to “solve” the problem of evil. Rather, it is the context in which Mormon thought must proceed. One may argue about what flavor of finitism works best, but it doesn’t seem to be something that one can reject outright while still maintaining some basic integrity with the tradition of the Restoration.

  12. Let’s not underestimate the value of having an answer to the logical problem of evil. In responding to the question of why God does and does not intervene, it helps tremendously to be able to say that God was not responsible for the entire set up (as would an omnipotent God creating everything ex nihilo). This then narrows the issue considerably to particular instances rather than the entire universe. The ‘default’ setting seems to be non-intervention, which LDS theology can explain as being necessary to the ‘soul-building’ experience we volunteered to submit ourselves to in coming to this earth. The minimal finitist limitation on God under this LDS theodicy is that God can not bring independent spirit/intelligences to progresson in any way other than exposing them to the vicissitudes of mortal life. As He told Moses, He weeps with us over this, but in general can not intervene without shortcircuiting the process. Then the only issue is that of miracles, why He does sometimes intervene. Possible explanations consistent with the LDS ‘finitist’ theodicy are:

    1) He intervenes when essential to the larger purpose of the earthly ‘soul-building’ project, to save people or persons who are critical to carrying out the larger work (e.g. bringing Israel out of Egypt),

    2) He intervenes when essential in the eternal perspective to the larger purpose of advancing the progression of a person or persons near them, instances which we usually can not identify with our limited knowledge,

    3) There is apparently some independent power in individual faith and/or priesthood which may look like a miracle but may not be an intnetional divine intervention, or

    4) Some things which look like miracles are not true divine interventions, e.g. some diseases just do go into spontaeous remission.

    As to natural evils, which can seem to inflict themselves randomly, could that not be a part of our maturing experience as well? If being God means dealing with independent elements, does not the recalcitrance of natural evils on this earth begin to help us appreciate the greater challenge of a God who must build a better universe rather than simply willing it?

  13. It seems to me that the answer to your first question is that God acts on contingency to relationships (what some might also call faith). I think that Joseph Smith’s views on power and Divine intervention support that perspective.

  14. One thing that I think makes the first objection difficult is, as #5 points out, the problem of defining good and evil from God’s eternal perspective (please overlook the phrase if it puts you off due to over-use). For example, we often think of the situation of a child dying of cancer or being kidnapped and killed as evil, and someone winning the lottery (or hitting it big on the stock market or futures, for latter-day saints) as being good. But from an eternal perspective, the child dying of cancer gets to go home and live in eternal bliss with an automatic bid, while the child’s family may be drawn closer to God. On the other hand, the person who just received a boat-load of money also received a boat-load of spiritual trials on pride, greed, etc. that may cost him in eternity. Of course, each of the scenarios I suggest could have the opposite results – parents curse God for their trial, while person blessed with riches uses them to bless the lives of others and uses gained free time to devote entirely to church service, philanthropy, etc.

    I think Elder Maxwell called this “wintry doctrine” – sometimes what we dislike most in this life (death, illness, trials, etc – things often labeled as “evil”) are actually part of God’s plan for our (eternal) good. Such a view obviously requires a lot of faith and trust. But it makes theological arguments on Mormon finitist theodicy, or any theodicy, difficult. Of course, Bruce Hafen mentions in Elder Maxwell’s biography that when asked what God’s reasons are for bringing trials such as leukemia to people, his answer was, to my recollection, “tell them we don’t know” – perhaps a different, but equally borrrrring, conclusion as #3 from a theological standpoint.

  15. As I understand it, the basic argument Mormons make is like this:

    1). The classic argument against theodicy is that the evils we see are actually the result of our own corrupt will, either because human choice has caused the evil (as in the case of robbery and rape), or because living in a world of natural evils helps to educate and reform our corrupt will.

    2). But if you believe God created the corrupt will, or that he could, if he chose, remake it without needing us to consent to it, then argument #1 doesn’t work. Mormon finitism doesn’t believe this, awesome, woot.

    Against this argument neither of your objections do it for me. The argument from variable intervention is essentially an argument that a world in which God always intervenes or in which He never intervenes would be better at reforming our will than one in which He sometimes intervenes. But I don’t see why this would be so. The argument that a God who doesn’t create our wills cannot be worthy of worship just plain falls flat with me. I don’t see the connection at all. It sounds like you do, so what we’re probably dealing with is a clash of intuitions that isn’t susceptible to argument.

    My real objection to the Mormon finitist theodicy is that as far as I can tell its objections to infinist theodicies only work if you assume some kind of compatibilist free will. Libertarian free will people will say that God could, if He chose, create people who freely (in the libertarian meaning) always chose the good but I don’t see how that makes any sense.

  16. I think basing a theodicy on finitism alone is hopeless, and frankly, I think it is pretty rare. Most theodicies rest on the notion that allowing evil is in some way necessary for God to accomplish his purposes for us. Such a notion is hard to maintain if God has no limits, which is why we are constantly pointing out that our finite God makes more sense in theodicies than the traditional absolute God. Thus, our finite God is not the sole basis for theodicy (which would lead to your second objection), it is the framework in which we think we can make the traditional explanation of evil conherent.

    That said, I agree that we spend a lot of time talking about finitism and not enough talking about all the holes that are left once such limits on God are accepted.

  17. You know who really could benefit from a dose of Mormon finitism? Calvinists, that’s who. As I understand it, the doctrine of double predestination is that God elects and saves some of us because He chooses to, end of story. What we want or will or choose has nothing to do with and *can’t* have anything to do with it. The usual Calvinist justification for this is to say that damnation is what we all deserve and if God gives some of us more than we deserve, well, the rest of us are still getting what we deserve so who are we to complain? See Christ’s story of the eleventh hour laborers, etc. But its hard to see how this gets God off the hook if he made us that way. On the other hand, if we have always been nasty little devils from eternity . . .

  18. JWL and JT— I think one of the problems with the “sometimes he does intervene, sometimes he doesn’t” approach—whatever your particular slicing and dicing: “mostly he doesn’t, occasionally he does,” etc—is that, from a philosophical or historical standpoint, one must cherrypick one’s evidence.You can always dream up some reason why God “needed” to intervene in particular cases. In other words, the hypothesis is not falsifiable on its own terms (again, speaking here from a philosophical rather than existential standpoint. Existentially, of course, one need not rely on falsifiability to achieve certainty about one’s own experience.) I think the same problem occurs with the “evil is sometimes good in God’s perspective” approach. If we stipulate, as scripture teaches, that genuine evil actually does exist, but then argue that sometimes apparent evil is actually disguised good, we have no test by which to distinguish the two or indeed prove out own hypothesis—no falsifiability, again.

  19. Why is falsifiability important in this context, RW? Theodicy isn’t used to prove anything, its used to reconcile evil with God for people who already have reason to believe in God and in evil. So I’m not sure why falsifiability is important.

    Although theoretically, if you’re a believer, all of these hypotheses *are* falsifiable in the long run.

  20. Vaguely apropos of this discussion, I encountered a genuinely new (to me) approach to theodicy the other day. A couple of nice JW ladies rang the bell, and I invited them in for a brief discussion about the Bible. They brought up the problem of evil, and I asked them for their solution. If I understood them correctly, they believe that God has essentially vacated the human world, leaving Satan as god. God withdrew after Adam and Eve partook of the fruit, because their disobedience was a challenge to his sovereignty: in other words, by eating the fruit in order to “become as gods,” Adam and Eve essentially proclaimed that they didn’t need God. God could have simply destroyed Adam and Eve at that point, but because angels witnessed the challenge, God had to prove his sovereignty. So he vacated the world, knowing that evil and chaos would reign, and that his triumphant eschatological cleaning and ordering of the world would then prove his sovereignty to all the universe. Thus evil is essentially a teaching tool—a familiar move in many theodicies—but a tool that works by God’s radical absence, rather than by his absolute presence.

  21. Adam, I mean falsifiability of any particular theological hypothesis about God’s nature—not the question of God’s existence generally. In other words, if we take up for a moment the hypothesis that God is able to overcome evil, but only does so occasionally according to some unknowable principle—then is there any kind of evidence that could disprove this hypothesis? In other words, if we were wrong in espousing this view of God, is there any way we could know it? (Again, I’m talking about theological arguments here. One could have a personal revelation that said hypothesis is correct, and thus the existential question would be moot.)

  22. RW: It seems to me that the JW theodicy is much like Augustine’s namely that evil exists because of an absence of God. Augustine’s isn’t couched in the same narrative terms as the JW, but it seems to me that it amounts metaphysically to the same thing.

  23. RW: I think that you present something of a staw man. If one says “God can prevent some evil, but not all evil and we don’t know why,” then you are correct that this is “non-falsifiable.” I think that your argument is mistaken here for two reasons. First, folks have claimed to be able to offer various criteria as to why sometimes God intervenes and sometimes he does not, e.g. he only intervenes when necessary for the unfolding of the plan of salvation, etc.. One could “falsify” such a claim by arguing that it fails to account for this or that intervention of God in history. Admittedly, one’s interpretation of these events — e.g. was the parting of the Red Sea really necessary, etc. etc. — will always be contestable, but the mere fact of contestability seems a slender reed on which to rest one’s rejection of any particular theory. Virtually any non-obvious claim is likely to be contestable, particularlly when the claim rests on the interpretatiion of an event in terms of its relationship to some end. This leads to what I think is the second mistake in your argument, namely your appeal to falsification. This is the criteria that Popper set forth for scientific knowledge, and even he never — as far as I know — claimed that it was the sole criteria for knowledge. Furthermore, even in the realm of science it has been questioned by the work of Kuhn. Hence, I find it odd that you appeal to it as a criteria for theological arguments. It seems to me that you are getting at something like the claim that it is a disability of any argument if nothing can be offered as evidence against its truth. This, however, is a different criteria than falsifiability. There are lots of arguments that one might be able to marshall against a position without that position thereby being falsifiable in any simple sense. It seems to me that in theological arguments what we are aiming at is not falsifiability, but rather a kind of reflective equilibrium where my theories of events seem to match my intuitions, experiences, and authoritative sources. Reaching such an equilibrium will invovle a process of occilating back and forth between my theories and my pre-theoretical understandings, modifying each as needed until the two converge. To conceptualize this process as one of “falsification” however seems to me to inject more confusion than clarity.

  24. Nate (#4), You only find it boring because you like to discuss things like finitist theodicies. :)

    Lincoln (#6) – A tenuous comparison, my parenting to God’s. I am in no way worthy of my childrens worship, nor do I desire it. That’s the beauty of their unconditional love for me, and mine for them. I hope that as they grow they continue to love me, and that the will respect me, imperfections and all, and understand why I took particular actions. I am able to explain directly to them why I did or didn’t do a certain thing. I can reason with them. I can express my love directly to them. But there are real physical limitations to my abilities. I am not omnipotent. I am not omniscient. My limitations can be understood by my children.

    But yet, we use terms such as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent to describe God, which leads us to question certain actions or inactions. And to question why. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any clear communication from God to explain. We have statements from prophets, recorded in scripture, that only muddy the waters. And hence we are left to discussing it here in an attempt to understand and reconcile our belief/disbelief.

  25. What if all the suffering that has gone on for the entire history of the earth is so small as to be meaningless? Just starting from a limited knowledge of universe’s hugeness, we can conclude that anything that happens on earth is … very, very, very small. We could do the same thing with time. What could possibly happen in 80, 25, 2 years of life that has any significance in the eternity of time?

    I imagine something of the following occuring after I die:

    Josh: God, what about x,y,z sufferings? Why didn’t you intervene? Could you intervene?
    God: I could intervene and I didn’t.
    Josh: Why?
    [God manifests the entirety of creation and Josh’s place in time and space]
    Josh: Wow, surely I am nothing, which thing I never supposed.
    [Josh forgets the question that previously seemed so pressing]

    Of course, this answer does almost nothing to assuage my own current sufferings; it gives me nothing to say at a funeral; and if I believed it 100%, I would be a heartless thug at many of the world’s memorials. But it might be true anyway.

  26. One could, but one would then be left to the problems faced by non-finitist conceptions of God.

    True, and there are a lot of them. I wouldn’t claim that there is some obvious answer to this problem that the Christian tradition has worked which we Mormons are somehow missing.

    Also…the revelations of Joseph Smith seem to necessarily commit us to some metaphysical limits on God’s power so we are in that sense committed to finitism.

    True, some of Joseph Smith’s revelations, under some interpretive frameworks, do in fact move Mormon thought in this direction. But others–like, for example, the Book of Mormon–do not.

  27. Nate,

    Your first objection is precisely why I’ve always found Mormon finitistic theodicy inadequate. As I pointed out to a certain philosopher with whom I debated the question of whether God is a moral being, The Bible says that it’s a sin to know the good you should do but not do it. According to this tenet, God’s inaction implicates him in all the terrible things that result from both human action and natural phenomena. The latter are especially problematic, because God’s interference in natural phenomena would not impinge upon human agency.

    I do rather like Orson Scott Card’s perspective in The Worthing Saga to the effect that suffering and evil are necessary in order to have heroic and meaningful human action. A similar idea is expressed in Jason Mraz’s song Life Is Beautiful and in Kino’s Travels (“the world is not beautiful. But that, in a way, lends it a sort of beauty.”). But of course, this kind of “opposition” theodicy is warranted by Mormon thought but not exclusive to it. So if Mormons are looking for evidence that the Church is true here, they won’t find it.


  28. Kari (#6), I don’t see any reason (logically or desireably) to believe in a God that is omnipotent or omniscient in any way approaching the classical sense of the terms. While I do imagine God’s knowledge and power to be extraordinary in comparison with my own (beyond even my anatomical capacity for imagination), I don’t expect anything different in kind than that manifest in the relation between a creator and its intimate creation. I understand that this may not be satisfying for persons that expect much “more” (in some limited idealistic ways) from their God, but that is one of the points of my original post: we should anticipate that our expectations are naive in a manner analogous to that exhibited by teenagers when they consider the world of adults. By the way, please note that I’m not comparing individual humans as adolescents relative to God, but rather our human civilization as an adolescent relative to something like a terrestrial manifestation of heaven.

  29. Re: 28 — “But of course, this kind of “opposition” theodicy is warranted by Mormon thought but not exclusive to it. So if Mormons are looking for evidence that the Church is true here, they won’t find it.”

    1) I don’t think Nate or anyone else here was advancing this Mormon theodicy as “evidence that the Church is true.” There is a larger issue at stake in addressing the problem of evil, and that is whether God is true. I haven’t seen any formal polls, but in my own experience and study a large majority of those who doubt the existence of God present the problem of evil as the primary reason for doing so.

    2) However, as long as you bring it up, while others have put forward various elements of the Mormon theodicy discussed here, they usually have to reject some fundamental principles of normative or creedal Christianity to do so. In contrast, only in Mormonism can this theodicy be comfortable and completely founded in scriptural and orthodox sources.

  30. Nathan’s issues may just be going over my head, so please forgive my ignorance.

    The standard Problem of Evil has for a long time seemed to me to be more properly titled The Problem of God, because the goal of the whole exercise by the atheists who bring it up is not to either understand evil or overcome it, but to eliminate the existence of God as a reality in the universe we inhabit. But this seems a singularly unhelpful conclusion, since we end up with a universe with undeniable evil but no God to ameliorate it.

    I think the most powerful response to the Problem of Evil by God is the suffering of Christ. Surely if God could prevent any one evil thing, it would be the suffering of his Son.

    The whole notion of Christ as the suffering God apparently does not appeal to many Jews or Muslims, who seem to see it as God making his Son suffer as compensation for letting human beings, who actually deserve to suffer, off the hook. They ask why God can’t just decide to be merciful, since he makes the rules anyway.

    But for Latter-day Saints, the suffering of Christ is a direct message to us, and to Joseph Smith, threatened with death, and suffering both physically and emotionally in Liberty Jail. If God, the greatest of all, must suffer, we can hardly claim to be exempt. And as Christ demonstrated, his greatest suffering was for and on behalf of others–us (Alma 7:11). As we are told in D&C 19, the suffering we can expect after our death, if we are not repentant, is far more than anything we have experienced in life. The answer to us when we stand before Christ at the resurrection and complain that we suffered so much is that He suffered everything we did, not just in kind, but specifically the precise quality and flavor of suffering we experienced. If it was unfair for us to suffer, it was infinitiely unjust for HIm to suffer with and for us. His infinite love for us and his infinite knowledge brings to him an infinite compassion.

    As he told Joseph Smith, suffering, especially suffering because we have been doing good, is something we experience because it perfects us, it knocks off our rough corners, and if we endure it well, in a positive way, it can help to perfect us. That is what Brigham Young said about Joseph: that he was more perfected in his 38 years due to his suffering than any other man could be in a thousand years. When we have God’s perspective on our mortal lives, putting up with excruciating (i.e. “on the cross”) pain and loss and anguish is an opportunity for us to join Christ in his compassion, to empathize with his suffering, and look for ways to ameliorate the suffering of others out of self-sacrificing love.

    I really don’t think that these are questions we can adequately resolve through mental exercise alone. We suffer in our hearts, and to be consoled in our hearts, we need a Savior who brings us to a refuge, a safe harbor, who bears the marks on his body that he has suffered for us, and with us, who has not exempted himself from our pain, but has engaged it fully, and in doing so demonstrates that he is the faithful friend we can trust when he promises us that there is a finite end to our suffering; and that the joy we can possess, both here and in eternity, will so swallow up our pain that we will feel fully compensated for all of it, for losing babies soon after their birth, for our being dragged from our house and beaten, for being betrayed by some of our most trusted friends, for our being imprisoned while our family is forced to walk hundreds of miles in the winter, for feeling our own helplessness as the people in our care, by the thousands, are beaten, robbed, threatened, victimized, and homeless.

    When we ask why God does not intervene with miracles to save us from suffering, we first have to ask why he did not do it for Jesus, and why he did not do it for Joseph Smith. It seems that the path of the gospel is not the one of least resistance, of easy grade, of no uphill climbs.

    But the joy in the Restored Gospel is that we know specific ways that our losses will be made up to us. We will be resurrected with perfected bodies. We can begin to see as God sees. We can be reunited with our spouses and families. We can attain to the compassion and love exemplified by the suffering Savior. We can attain the eternal fellowship of the one who went through hell to bring us to heaven.

  31. A danger of any theodicy is that it may seem to make evil not all that bad afer all. If, as a parent, I lost a child and then was given a theodicy for comfort, you would rightly suspect something to be wrong if I proclaimed that now everything was OK. The real theodicy, it seems to me is the cross, not as an intellectual answer but as a source of love in the face of evil.

    Since I haven’t blogged here for a while I should probably, in the name of full disclosure, point out that I’m a Presbyterian. I’ve always been warmly and patiently received here and don’t want to create confusion by appearing to be LDS.

  32. Nate, you may be right that “falsification” is not quite the right term, or that it is the right term but is unhelpful because it carries so many associations to scientific knowledge. When I said “not falsifiable on its own terms” I was trying to indicate that I’m not getting at strict scientific falsification, but rather some process or criterion by which a particular account of God’s nature vis-a-vis evil could be shown to be wrong. In other words, we can’t know that we’re right unless there would be some way to know if we were wrong. I lost the thread of your second objection (which is the strong one) near the end. At some point I’d be interested in a fuller explanation of your idea of reflective equilibrium as a means to reaching theological truth. (By the way, I always take it as a compliment when your takedown of my comment is your longest contribution to a thread!)

  33. (Sorry – haven’t read all the comments yet. But one caught my eye.)

    it helps tremendously to be able to say that God was not responsible for the entire set up (as would an omnipotent God creating everything ex nihilo).

    That resolves the logical problem but solves nothing about natural evils since in that he did create the whole setup or at least allowed it to remain in the form it was in. It seems very hard to argue, for instance, that God couldn’t have reduced the level of disease or made our bodies a tad more robust, or made the earth less geologically active. The implication is thus that all these diseases, plagues, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. were necessary. But why were they necessary for some but not others?

    What is probably disturbing to those Mormons who’ve adopted Open Theism (which judging from the SMPT conference appeared to be the majority) is that if God doesn’t know the future he can’t know who will experience what natural evils. Therefore it seems that he’s created a system with sufficient evil to allow growth but which correspondingly allows too much evil for many. (And which may even let some off with too little opposition) This is a big problem.

    Now the Open Theists will point to this kind of finitude (no foreknowledge) as why Mormon finitism explains natural evils. God, not knowing the particulars of the future has to create for a general case. Yet, it seems in this that the Open Theists create a system with far too much evil. (IMO)

    The solution one finds in folk doctrine, especially as mission theological urban legend, is that God knows all particulars and has crafted a situation where we get the exact evils we need as opposition for our growth. In effect they’ve adopted a variation of Molinism where God knew all counterfactuals and actualized the one that maximized growth. Open Theists, of course will oppose this. And there are good arguments against it. Yet, I must admit, this solution is the only one that makes much sense to me as a satisfactory solution to the evidentiary problem of evil. I just dislike it since it moves in too Calvinist a direction for my tastes.

  34. A danger of any theodicy is that it may seem to make evil not all that bad afer all. If, as a parent, I lost a child and then was given a theodicy for comfort, you would rightly suspect something to be wrong if I proclaimed that now everything was OK. The real theodicy, it seems to me is the cross, not as an intellectual answer but as a source of love in the face of evil.

    I think that’s a very perceptive comment Craig. I’ll have to think about it.

    I think you’re largely right. What we’re looking for is a solution where everything is good in the long term but only appears bad in the short term.

    Yet if the opposition we must encounter is evil qua evil then almost by definition it must be unjust and impossible to justify. At best we can say that the atonement can bring us from this evil but not that the atonement can make it good.

    The alternative view of course is that what makes something good or evil is its consequences. I think many LDS theodicies whether consciously or not assume some sort of consequentialism. In that case what counts are the free acts of God and individuals towards encountering evil. We can re-create it into something good or let it be a canker and destroy us. Thus the test is to see if we will become a creator like God. This then ties into the oldest myths of creation in Hebrew thought where God is holding at bay the waters of chaos by organizing. (See Levinson’s excellent discussion of evil in this context in Creation and the Persistence of Evil which I think gives a fairly LDS styled view) It echos Joseph’s comments that were the saints to be sent to hell they’d turn it into a heaven.

    I’ll admit I favor the consequentialist view but I think what you outline has to be seriously considered as well.

  35. >>I don’t think Nate or anyone else here was advancing this Mormon theodicy as “evidence that the Church is true.”

    I have seen finitistic theodicy advanced on several occasions as a way of demonstrating that Mormon theology makes better sense of the great existential questions than does anything else (and, therefore, the Church is true). (Obviously that’s not what Nate was doing.) My point is that, no, it doesn’t.

  36. >>Therefore it seems that he’s created a system with sufficient evil to allow growth but which correspondingly allows too much evil for many. (And which may even let some off with too little opposition) This is a big problem.

    Interesting point. When opposition is imaged simply as an element in the narrative that is history, the uneven distribution of opposition at different points in the narrative does not seem especially problematic. But in the view that the purpose of life is the trial of individual souls, the consequence of unevenly-distributed evil is that it’s not a fair test.

  37. Chris, while I know the point you are making in #36 I do think that resolving the logical problem of evil is a big step even if it doesn’t resolve the evidentiary problem of evil.

  38. Clark,

    I can see where consequentialism, as you describe it, would be attractive. It seems to me, though that it falls a little short of grasping the significance of what happened at the cross. Jesus didn’t just create good in the midst of or out of evil. He defeated the evil.

  39. Nate, you could just remove those pesky divine intervention stories from the mix and call the whole thing “Jewish folklore”…

    My own take on this is that the cosmos can be well-explained by positing a God who is seeking free loving relationships with other truly independent beings.

    This turns the question around. It is no longer a question of why God doesn’t intervene more, but is now a question of how much God can intervene before He seriously starts jeopardizing that free and independent choice. How much can He reveal of Himself, His will, and His power before the game ends up rigged?

    I think if you systematically approach it from that angle, the picture ends up much clearer. Mortality is a harsh separation from our loving Father. However, mortality also shields us from Him. In a sense, we need to be protected from Him. Our agency could not withstand a full and constant manifestation of the omnipotent God. Our choices would be destroyed in an instant.

    I once heard an atheist remark that as soon as God decides to show up and… say… relocate the San Francisco Bay Bridge, he’d be all ready to sign up for this faith business.

    My reaction was to wonder why God would find such cheaply bought allegiance even worth having.

  40. Raymond stated:

    “The standard Problem of Evil has for a long time seemed to me to be more properly titled The Problem of God, because the goal of the whole exercise by the atheists who bring it up is not to either understand evil or overcome it, but to eliminate the existence of God as a reality in the universe we inhabit. But this seems a singularly unhelpful conclusion, since we end up with a universe with undeniable evil but no God to ameliorate it.”

    I think you misstate the position of most who are agnostic or atheist. “The Problem of Evil” often becomes an argument used because they have previously grappled with it and find religious explanations lacking, and therefore find it to be a reasonable argument against the existence of a deity. Nor do they find a conviction and belief in the story of Christ to be an adequate explanation either. In fact, just the opposite, it just adds more contradiction and confusion to the discussion.

    The fact that we are discussing this 2000 years after Christ, and 3500 years or so after Moses, would indicate that many who profess belief in God also still grapple with the concept. Once one decides against the existence of God, the need for theodicy goes out the window. In fact, many find this much more palpable; good and evil become purely dependent upon the actions of individual humans, and not upon the intervention or lack thereof of God. Accidents are really accidents, and luck is just luck, and coincidences are just that; they are not some sort of action by God to punish some and reward others.

  41. And really, the Auschwitz example is just a bid for emotional reaction. Why is what the Jewish woman went through at a concentration camp worse than some other woman who is raped and abused by her husband each night?

    Why is the kidnap and murder of a six year old girl worse than 20 years of a broken man putting up with emotional abuse from his wife?

    Because the six year old girl is cuter?

    OK, so let’s call on God to personally end all of the “most heinous crimes and evils” but only the worst of the lot. The one’s we really can’t put up with.

    Where do you draw the line? Murder only of innocent children? Or murder in general? What is your reasoning?

    Mass killings in general? Or only when it’s Jews? Or only when its minorities? Or only when it’s women and children? So now tell me why God should have stopped Auschwitz, but not the Russian vs. German cataclysmic tank battle at Prohorovka. Why is Jews being incinerated in ovens after being gassed more horrifying than Russian tank drivers being burned alive in their tanks?

    I’m not saying it’s impossible to rank evils in terms of dislike. But I am saying you are talking about a very difficult task.

    What about the collection agency one of my past clients was dealing with where they sent over a couple of tough looking guys who flashed gang signs at my client, threatened his kid, threatened to kill his dog if he didn’t hand over his car for a debt he didn’t owe?

    Should God stop that?

    And don’t you think we’d all notice if God regularly prevented the worst categories of evil? Do you really think we’re so stupid that we wouldn’t notice entire en trees from the evil menu had “gone missing?” So much for a free and un-rigged result.

    Back when I was a kid, I always used to think it would be cool to lead an army into battle. Heroic cavalry charges, daring sword play, brilliant strategy…

    Then, as I moved into adolescence and really thought about it, I realized that the army would have to be fed. Their shoes were likely to wear out. Where do they get the food? Rob the local farmhouses? Well, that’s not so heroic and exciting… What about dysentery? What’s glorious and fun about that? But big problem, no? And what about the true nature of sword wounds. What about the guy whose guts are spilled all over the place. What about those accounts of battlefields smelling of raw meat, blood, urine and feces?

    But I just wanted to have a chance for some glorious cavalry charges, swordplay and strategy…

    Why does it have to be… messy? Why can’t they just die bloodlessly like in those PG fantasy movies? Better yet, why can’t the bodies just disappear like in my video games? Much cleaner. I get the full fun, excitement, and experience of being a soldier – just without the stuff that makes the whole thing truly repulsive.

    That’s what the people who demand the worst evils be “not allowed” are asking.

    They want to play soldier without having to dig sanitation pits or deal with the blood that goes with fighting. I’d posit these people aren’t so much interested in having real agency as they are hoping for pretend agency.

    You want agency, you got it. And all the problems that go with it.

    Now you see why Lucifer’s Plan was such a big hit?

  42. I can see where consequentialism, as you describe it, would be attractive. It seems to me, though that it falls a little short of grasping the significance of what happened at the cross. Jesus didn’t just create good in the midst of or out of evil. He defeated the evil.

    I think one can accept consequentialism and see in it a kind of relational model of atonement like Blake Ostler promotes in his second volume. I guess I don’t see the problem.

    Remember consequentialism is much vaguer and broader than say utilitiarianism.

  43. As I started reading this post, I had lots of brilliant points to make. As I’ve read the comments, I find most of my points have been made (and made better than I would have), and new problems have been raised I hadn’t been thinking about. I’ll still try a stab at summarizing my thoughts, including some that came as I read the comments.

    1. As stated abstractly, the “problem of evil” and possible solutions to it are no match for the actual complexity and mystery of existence.

    2. When we say “evil,” we mean lots of different things, and some of our logical difficulties come from confusion about what we mean by the word.

    3. I think some of the commentators have underestimated the power of LDS theology in addressing the problem of evil. (But I’m not sure “finitist” is the best word for LDS theology–I’d like to radically reinterpret the concepts “finite” and “infinite”–and I’m not sure I want to reduce the restored gospel to a “theology.” I’d rather think of it as a set of revealed doctrines and glimpses of ultimate realities that we are in process of beginning to understand.)

    4. As some have already noted, LDS theology (or any view that claims that God did not create “the whole set up” out of nothing) is helpful in understanding the existence of evil in several ways. One is that the possibility of evil may simply be built into the nature of things. But as some have pointed out, that doesn’t explain why God doesn’t prevent that possibility from being realized. Our growth and ultimate happiness (which God desires) must require our exposure to, our intimate involvement in, just this sort of universe. That this is necessary must also be inherent in the nature of things. A God with absolutely no limits, who makes reality in any way he wants, could achieve his ideal ends in any arbitrary way he might choose. And so our ultimate good could, in that case, be achieved without evil, without suffering, in fact, without the loss of a single soul. Either God is working with a reality that has certain built in features, or he has for some reason created it the way it is despite the fact that he could have made it differently.

    5. What struck me especially, as I read the comments–and what I had not been thinking about before–is this: Even if we grant that evil and suffering are in general necessary for our ultimate growth, it does in fact appear that some people have far more than their share of trials and some have far less. I don’t think our premortal progress can explain all the discrepancies. (I could give my reasons at length, but I’ll forbear for now.) Of course, we don’t know the deepest needs of others or even of ourselves, and so theoretically this very uneven distribution of trials could be suited exactly to each of our conditions. But again, that doesn’t seem to me an adequate explanation of what I actually see. (For one thing, do all the hundreds or thousands who suffer and die as the result of a particular natural disaster have exactly the same need for that experience?)

    Though a good deal of what we experience may be customized to our needs, I’m inclined to think that much of what we experience–especially the suffering and losses and limitations that result from natural causes–is not deliberately and exactly designed to meet our individual needs. In fact, some people probably do suffer far beyond what they need to for their eternal good, and some may suffer far less than might be required to give them needed tutoring. In fact, I don’t think suffering and evil and loss make complete sense if we look ONLY at this life. But I believe that there is a larger framework of experiences beyond this life–including tutoring, healing, and whatever else is required for our good–that will compensate for all the imbalances of our mortal experience.

    When I shared this thought with my wife (Margaret the good and wise), she added another compelling thought: that this experience of evil and suffering necessary, it appears, for our eternal growth is NOT simply individual but communal. We may eventually experience vicariously the horrors and the triumphs that others have experienced in mortality. We are all intimately connected and, unless perhaps we resist our connectedness and retreat into isolation, we will share the experience of mortality as members of one another, members of God’s family. That may be part of what Dostoevsky was getting at when he had Father Zosima say, “All are responsible for all and before all.”

    This vicariousness–of empathy, compassion, charity, and responsibility–certainly connects with the atonement, which, as several have noted, must be at the core of our understanding of “the problem of evil.”

  44. The cosmology underlying this Mormon theodicy holds that there is stuff in the universe which is independent of God, and which He can only control by organizing in accordance with its independent nature, like a shipbuilder organizing preexisting material to use Joseph Smith’s analogy from the KFD. One of these was intelligence/intelligences which He determined to give the opportunity to advance to be like He was (a concept again most explicitly articulated in the KFD). One of the attributes of God is His knoweldge and ability to deal with the independent stuff of the universe. Another is His decision to devote himself to this project of offering advancement to His fellow but less developed intelligence/intelligences. The soteriology underlying this theodicy is that we grow in two ways only on our own volition: (1) experience the travails of a universe which is in some measure independent of God’s will and (2) make the moral choice to join in or reject God’s project of devoting Himself wholly to the growth of others.

    To use a simplistic and crude analogy, the child must fall off the bicycle in order to learn to ride it. She will never learn to ride the bicycle if the parent is always holding on to it. If natural evils seem to fall on us randomly, that may just be a reflection of a randomness which is a fundamental part of the real universe. The evidentiary problem in this view is not an issue of logic, why the randomness of evil, but a relational one. Do we choose to grow toward God and understand that our experience is a microcosm of His, or do we turn inward and collapse in our own personal miseries? It strikes me that the evidentiary problem of evil is at heart an emotional one. Why so much, and ultimately, why me? I believe the effective response must be emotional as well, which is that our suffering is the same as God’s suffering, and that He weeps for us, as he told Enoch (Moses 7:29-40). The logic of the LDS theodicy answers the logical problem of evil. The response to the evidentiary problem of evil is not logic, it is love.

    Of course, this is all expressed far more eloquently by Gene England:

  45. On the link in #45, you have to go to page 63, “The Weeping God of Mormonism.” Or you could just read what my old roommate Bruce just wrote in #44 — that’s what I was trying to say.

    Hi Bruce, say hello to for me Margaret also.


  46. It seems to me that if we look to limitations of God as a partial basis for a theodicy we end up with a God who himself must wonder why there is so much evil in the world. Perhaps, Bruce, that is related to your desire to radically redefine ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’. I’d like to learn more from you in terms of the glimpses of ultimate realities. I have no doubt that I don’t fully understand the LDS perspective (or perspectives) here.

    I agree that Margaret’s pointing to the community is very profound. Perhaps we should expand this to include how we overcome evil as a people.

  47. 2nd Nephi Chapter 2 seems to me sufficient to provide a Mormon answer to the existence of Evil.

    Add in Eve’s argument in the Temple Endowment and I think you have a definitive answer.

    I don’t understand the need for more.

  48. Nate,

    Your first objection is not really an objection to the finitist view at all, because it is a worse problem for any infinitist view. Unless you have a third option that is neither finitist nor infinist, it must be considered a side issue.

    As to your second objection, Given the evidence available, I don’t see why the faith required to believe that God is capable of fulfilling his promises is different in either case. Adopting a infinitist view on that basis alone seems to be little more than intellectual laziness.

    It is like saying our benefactor promised to provide enough fuel so that we can complete our journey in safety, then, as a consequence of doubt in his ability to do this, one decides to assume that he has provided us with a vehicle that uses no fuel at all.

  49. Mark-

    As Nate points out, that\’s true, but rejecting the existence of a God solves all of these problems. So we\’re fine if comparing clarity and making sense with other omni- Christians, but still need to refine our thinking more if we are to compete with atheists.

  50. rejecting the existence of a God solves all of these problems

    Perhaps the “logical” problem of evil and the “evidentiary” problem of evil, but when I put my faith solely in me and other men the problem of evil is much worse. Its the difference between falling off a horse and falling off the Grand Canyon.

    In this post we’re treating the problem of evil as an intellectual problem, but it fundamentally isn’t. Intellectual questions about evil are epiphenomena. Saying ‘God doesn’t exist’ will never unmurder the millions at Auschwitz or heal the wrong done to them in the slightest. Saying ‘ultimately, no reason’ is no answer to the grieving mother who cries out why in her anguish.

  51. >>Your first objection is not really an objection to the finitist view at all, because it is a worse problem for any infinitist view.

    Not really. In Reformed-style infinitist views, God’s “goodness” is not defined in moral terms: he is sufficiently transcendent that he seems concern himself more with the big picture than with the particular. This may not seem very satisfying, but it at least accounts for both the existence of evil and God’s tolerance of it. When you start making God moral/personal/finite, you only account for the former. The latter remains unresolved.

  52. Sure you can deny the problem of evil by denying that God is good in our terms. But most infinitists do not wish to deny that and shouldn’t. Nate O.’s second point is really about throwing the baby out with the bathwater and it seems to me that resolving the problem of evil by denying, in effect, that God cares about us and about good is throwing out the baby and the bathwater and the bath too.

  53. In this post we’re treating the problem of evil as an intellectual problem, but it fundamentally isn’t. Intellectual questions about evil are epiphenomena. Saying ‘God doesn’t exist’ will never unmurder the millions at Auschwitz or heal the wrong done to them in the slightest. Saying ‘ultimately, no reason’ is no answer to the grieving mother who cries out why in her anguish.

    Say God exists will never unmurder the millions at Auschwitz either. Nor does the existence of God give adequate answers to the grieving mother. If it was an adequate answer would she be crying “Why”? If the existence of God in and of itself were an adequate answer, this whole discussion would be moot. But yet the discussion goes on, as it has for centuries, because no one, as yet, has found an satisfactory explanation or understanding of God with regards to the problem of evil. Many put their faith in Christ and his atonement, and that works for them. Many find it an inadequate explanation.

    Because you believe that the problem of evil is worse with God out of the picture, doesn’t make it so. It’s your belief, and I commend the fact that you find comfort in that belief. But your statement strikes me as simply an unsatisfactorya priori response.

  54. First of all, hello to Jim. I hadn’t made the connection (JWL=my friend Jim).

    Second, in response to some recent comments, I agree that dealing with evil as a purely logical problem is interesting but ultimately not anywhere near as important as dealing with it as a reality. As C. S. Lewis put it, in dealing with suffering, “a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”

    Craig V mentioned my desire to redefine “finite” and “infinite.” I’ll leave that project for another day except to say that my understanding of the words is influenced by the thought of Emmanuel Levinas.

    What’s relevant here is perhaps this: Is our faith in God based on an ontological definition of God or on our personal relationship with him and our sense of his moral character? In the first case, certain outcomes are guaranteed because they are built into the definition. In the second case, we have confidence in God’s promises because we know he is good and loving and keeps his word.

    The problem some have with the second approach seems to be this: Yes, we know God loves us and wants to save us (bless us, exalt us, etc.), but how do we know he has the power to do so, if that power is not built into an ontological definition of his nature? My answer is similar to David Paulsen’s: I know God is good and trustworthy. He tells me he has the power. I believe him.

  55. Adam, you will never understand anyone with views different than yours if you continue to insist that your answers are the correct answers, with simple statements such as “atheism is simpler intellectually and hopeless.” You may find it so, but many do not. Many folks find religion hopeless, for many reasons, among which is the inability to explain the problem of evil in a satisfactory manner. And many find that religion doesn’t do much for *dealing* with the fact of evil, particularly when, throughout the history of mankind, much evil has been perpetrated in the name of religion, by those who claim to be religious.

    In fact for many atheists and agnostics, the *dealing* with evil becomes much more exigent, because they can’t answer with the simple platitude, “God will sort it out after this life.” Morality becomes a much more interesting and important concept when it has to be explained in a way other than “God said so.”

    I brought the whole idea up, because Nate’s post, imo, was a perfect example of why so many find the problem of evil to be significant enough to lead them believe that God is absent. If you can’t explain the problem satisfactorily, how can you even begin to *deal* with the problem? That’s where I’m coming from.

  56. Just because you say deism is equally unsatisfactory doesn’t make it so. In fact, its not even in the same ballpark.

    In God there is hope for resurrection, healing, grace, and remaking if you can get around the intellectual problems (which I think you can). Atheism is simpler intellectually, and its literally hopeless.

    Atheism is better if you think the problem of evil is primarily an intellectual problem. Once you acknowledge that the primary problem of evil is not *explaining* the fact of evil but *dealing* with the fact of evil, atheism has way less to offer. I’m not even sure where you are coming from if you think otherwise.

  57. Kari, it does not follow, because I disagree with you, that I am being dogmatic and blinkered. There is a hilarious self-contradiction in your approach here.

  58. I’m not totally comfortable with placing what we’ve called the logical problem in the “interesting but unimportant” category. As I tried to state above, a theodicy on this level may be more dangerous than innocent. For example, let’s look at reincarnation as a theodicy. It seems to me that we’d have to acknowledge that, at some level, it does quite well. All of the evil that happens is karma for evil that has been committed. The books are constantly being balanced. Where’s the danger? Given such a view it’s altogether too easy to justify my lack of compassion towards and responsibility in the face of the suffering of others. It gets worse when this theodicy is used to justify racism or a caste system. The atrocities of the religious that Kari alludes to are often supported by (among other things) a theodicy. We need to be highly self critical and humble when trying to explain evil. We need to consider not only the explanations themselves but the motives and how we want the explanations to be used. Our explanations must not blunt the cry “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  59. The thing that is missing in this discussion is any mention of chance or randomness. Yes, JWL does mention something about that, but the elephant in the room is the belief that God knows what is going to happen to each of us before it happens. Since he is both all powerful and all knowing he is derelict in not preventing it in general and unjust in not being even handed in the way he chooses to intervene.

    I submit that chance and randomness are important factors to be considered and that while this life is for growing and learning it is also an experiment designed to see what exactly we will do with our time and the choices we will make. So, God doesn’t intervene partly because if he did our agency would be voided and partly because “time and chance happen to all men.” It feels almost profane to say this, but it is also because he doesn’t control every thing that happens because he doesn’t know exactly what we are going to do in any given situation. Now I understand that he knows us very well and he has a good idea of what the probabilities are in any given situation. I am not saying he doesn’t foresee anything and doesn’t have plans. I am saying if he is to leave us free to make choices and to suffer the consequences of our own actions, the actions of other people and the effects of chance and randomness he cannot not intervene indiscriminately or he has defeated his own plan of happiness.

    Just because the Seventh Day Adventist missionary gives God the credit for saving him and his family does not mean they were not spared by luck, chance or some other randomness. Or maybe it means they were spared because of where they were seated. Perhaps their seats were assigned not randomly but on the some other basis by the airline.

    I do not believe that my six year old became a an insulin dependent diabetic because God wanted this. I believe he could cure it. But rather than blaming God I say to myself the miracle of insulin should be enough. Of course the choice to take it remains out of my hands or God’s else’s hands. I refuse to believe that God would make anyone bipolar or schizophrenic. I think randomness and chance explains a lot of evil and I am comfortable with that,

  60. Adam,

    I brought up the subject of atheism for discussion, particularly to make the point that the problem of evil leads many to decide that God does not exist. (And then to correct what I felt were some misconceptions by Raymond) Your comments, in response to mine, have certainly had the appearance of dogmatism. You made simplistic statements without any attempt to support them (“Atheism is simpler intellectually and hopeless.” “…atheism has way less to offer”).

    You may not feel that you are being dogmatic. You may have previously fully examined these points and come to your decisions after such an examination. It’s just that your comments don’t give me that impression. Maybe you have discussed these things previously in other posts, and feel that my comments are redundant because I haven’t read the bloggernacle since the beginning. Maybe it’s just carpal tunnel syndrome and you’re keeping you typing to a minimum. I don’t know.

    I guess that what I am saying is that I wish you would flesh out your comments and explain your conclusions, rather than just the simple dismissals you make. I try to do so in my posts, and recognized that I may not always succeed. But to be honest, your comments do strike me as dogmatic. Sorry.

  61. I seduced Bruce into writing on this topic, because I knew he would have something profound to say–and obviously I was right.

    I would say something profound if I had time. I will only say that inasmuch as Bruce and I stood together beside his sister’s coffin two weeks ago (Craig V–you knew about her and included her in your prayers a couple of years ago; Jim, this sister is Lynda, the baby of the family), the questions raised in this blog have held me daily. I sent Bruce a link to this Conference talk:,5232,23-1-439-25,00.html titled “But if not.” It records the following Biblical event:

    “Years ago, Daniel and his young associates were suddenly thrust from security into the world—a world foreign and intimidating. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to bow down and worship a golden image set up by the king, a furious Nebuchadnezzar told them that if they would not worship as commanded, they would immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. “And who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?”
    The three young men quickly and confidently responded, “If it be so [if you cast us into the furnace], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand.” That sounds like my eighth-grade kind of faith. But then they demonstrated that they fully understood what faith is. They continued, “BUT IF NOT, . . . we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

    I have not been able to get beyond the words “BUT IF NOT” as I’ve pondered the little time Bruce and I spent with Lynda the night before she died, and then as we endured and even celebrated the rituals of death. I noted to Bruce that his brother’s talk at the funeral was the most moving because it was so full of love and so full of Lynda. There was another talk about resurrection, etc., that was doctrinally sound but somehow not moving. I’ve pondered why that was, and concluded that with the talk so targeted on the doctrine and not on the relationship we all have with Lynda and with each other, it somehow didn”t LIVE.

    If Christ is on the cross but I am not intimately involved in His sacrifice, graven on his hands, the sacrifice does not live for me. If His resurrection means only something extraordinary and not something which has given me personal, soul-stretching comfort in my most heartbroken moments, it is beautiful but unconnected to my experience. I find God in relation to everything else I love, and ultimately learn that He has authored it all.

  62. Oops. We’ve done this before. Bruce and I were using the same computer and he forgot to change the name EVEN THOUGH I ASKED HIM TO.

    That last comment is mine.

  63. #61 Ellis wrote:

    “Yes, JWL does mention something about that, but the elephant in the room is the belief that God knows what is going to happen to each of us before it happens. Since he is both all powerful and all knowing he is derelict in not preventing it in general and unjust in not being even handed in the way he chooses to intervene.”

    I disagree. I don’t think God does know what we are going to choose at the most fundamental level.

    In fact, I’d submit that it is logically impossible for even a perfect and omnipotent being to know the outcome of a truly free choice.

    Do we have agency or not?

    If we do, I’d submit that God does not know the result of that agency.

    He is waiting to be surprised by us.

  64. Nate: I think that the assumptions of your post are a bit misleading. I don’t know anyone who claims that finitism does all of the work necessary to provide a complete theodicy. While the notion does some heavy lifting in the entire context of a theodicy, both David Paulsen and I have emphasized that a theodicy requires a more complete explanation set within the context of the entire plan of salvation — which operates as a theodicy.

    I also suggest that while the logical problem is dissolved by finitism, it is important to state the evidential problem in such a way that its essential premises can be disclosed. Once that it done, we can focus on the what the real issue is — viz., whether we have good reason to believe that there are in fact evils that are inconsistent with the kind of world we believe God might create given constraints necessary to accomplish the kinds of purposes we believe God may have for us. The problem then boils down to what God’s purposes in allowing the kinds of evil that we experience could be given what God must allow to achieve his overall purposes. However, it quickly becomes clear that we are not in an epistemic position to make such judgments with much confidence. Thus, in the end we end up with faith acknowledging our puny epistemic ability to make all-things-considered judgments about why God might allow what he has sheer power to eliminate, but perhaps not ability to eliminate without defeating his overall purposes for us in this sphere of existence.

    Thus, the evidential problem is simply seen from a different perspective by a finitist (hate that term) who believes that God faces constraints in what he must allow to achieve purposes such as our exaltation and immortality and eternal life. I also believe that the pre-mortal life where we could have had vastly different experiences and had all kinds of time to consent and make covenants with one another, changes the landscape drastically. For example, it seems to me to be morally impermissible for God to use another person’s suffering to benefit me; but if that other person consented to be a means by which I would be given an opportunity to learn certain lessons, then it seems to me to be permissible. What kind of evils must God allow to leave room for us to freely choose loving relationships or remain free to reject love?

    I also believe that limiting God’s foreknowledge is important in theodicy. I of course disagree with Clark. The fact that God doesn’t know the complete future or have middle knowledge means that God must wait to see what we actually choose before he formulates his next step to fulfill his plan. That entails that what will work to challenge me to grow must be left to my decision at times.

  65. But to be honest, your comments do strike me as dogmatic. Sorry.

    I see your comments the same way, so probably we’re talking past each other. Maybe some other time.

  66. I of course disagree with Clark.

    Just to be clear, the position I outlined wasn’t my own. It’s one I actually disagree with quite strongly on both philosophical and social grounds.

  67. To add, with regards to foreknowledge proper I’m agnostic although I’m also skeptical of the reasoning Blake gives.

  68. #41–Kari: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that those who have chosen atheism have a more satisfying philosophical condition because they feel no tension between the existence of evil and the proposed existence of God. While that may relieve some people of a worrisome thought, how does it relieve anyone of the effects of evil or suffering? How exactly is that a desirable condition?

    At the very least, if we are agreed that there are evil people who commit evil acts, as well as random events in nature that cause human suffering, we don’t need to blame God for these facts. The God that we feel must logically take responsibility for these facts is a construct of human thought, one whose axiomatic perfection is actually its greatest flaw, since that absoluteness is a simplified case that makes it easier for human beings to reach logical conclusions about what such a God can or must do.

    The real God who has revealed himself to prophets, and through Christ, is not such a simplified entity whose actions we can venture to predict in every case by logical deduction. He is not an automaton who is not affected by emotions or our own suffering, and he is not in position to alter us, who are the most significant source of evil, because the evil we commit on each other is not random but purposeful and therefore far more thorough.

    Henry Eyring, a chemist and not a philosopher, argued that the existence of evil and injustice in this life is all the more reason to believe that there is more to reality than just this miserable earth. The same yearning for balance, completeness, beauty and symmetries that guided him and other scientists in seeking to understand the universe led Eyring to believe that the reality of existence needs to include places and times in which balance and justice can be restored.

    Thus, the spirit world, where we live between death and resurrection, ensures justice by giving every human being a full opportunity to hear and consider accepting the gospel of Christ and salvation through him. The assurance that every person who commits evil will have “a bright recollection of all our guilt” and have at least a thousand years of contemplating that guilt is an assurance of justice. The resurrection of all, especially of children whose lives were cut short by evil acts or disasters, rectifies the injustice of death and suffering. The availability of eternal family bonds with those we love best balances the scales against separation and loss.

    Now the response of most people, not only atheists but many traditional Christians, to these teachings is “It is too good to be true.” They would rather see suffering unmitigated than believe that God has addressed it through a “prophet in the age of railroads”. So they reject these teachings and live without them. They have their reward. They can be proud of their rugged individualism, or of their desire to have unresolvable mysteries.

    But there are plenty of us who think that the beauty, symmetry and justice in these teachings makes them more likely to be true. And it opens us to accept what we believe is confirming intelligence from the real God, that the goodness that overwhelms evil is in fact true, and that with God’s help, we can be part of that goodness.

  69. I think that God is worthy of our worship because he can save us eternally.

    In mortaility we must endure trials, even evil, sometimes. God knows when it is better to intervene than not to intervene based on factors we could not easiliy discern. For example, how an individual will respond to divine intervention. I\’ve been told that God only intervenes just enough so that our reaction is still our choice. In the case of Laman and Lemuel, even sending an angel didn\’t \”make\” them choose good in the long run. But that level of intervention has more to do with who is involved than the actual actions taking place.

  70. The Great Parsimony:

    Jesus alluded to it when he observed that there were many Jewish lepers but God chose to heal a Syrian, Naaman. Having healed Naaman, it is inconceivable that any Jew who died of leprosy would not have prayed his or her heart out to God for a cure. Or died with God\’s name on his or her lips.

    This is an example of the Great Parsimony. Heal one man and get everyone\’s attention. God is a monopolist who controls the market on spiritual experience on this planet. He is maximizing his return by controlling this market. His return is appropriately not just the saved but those who are going to become like him.

    Monopolists operate at the point of maximum pain. In economic terms, they are extracting the maximum profit from the society in which they operate. In spiritual matters, God gives just enough spiritual experience to maximize his return, which is, to keep everyone focused on spiritual matters to the maximum degree. More or less would diminish the focus and lessen spiritual investment.

    This is the point of maximum pain. Ask the agonized Jews dying of leprosy or modern day Mormons dying of cancer pleading for a cure.

    It has nothing to do with what God can or can not do. The value of one more individual raised to spiritual enlightenment and community with God is so important that it is worth the pain apparent powerlessness of God to prevent evil. Apparently God needs us to learn the lessons that only this earth can provide, which are unteachable in the eternities.

    God does not need to be very powerful to appear infinitely powerful to us. (His main powerlessness is due to his inability to force individual behavior.) His \”finiteness\” is merely due to the operation of the Great Parsimony, his need to maximize his return.

    If you do not like this comparison of God to a monopolist, just consider all of Jesus\’ economic parables. He saw God as the unjust judge, also. Hmmm.

    Finally, we might consider that the experience of this life is not individual. In the final summation we will become the sum of all of the experiences of this life. We will experience all of the pain and joy of existence in the last analysis. Just as Jesus was able to take upon himself the sins of the world, we will be asked to do the same. Likewise the joys. So, there is not one life full of joy and pleasure and another pain, in the end we will all share equally, this is our life. It can not really be otherwise in the celestial kingdom.

  71. I like Ellis #61 arguement of how bad things happen by chance. Why does there always have to be an explanation for everything? And why is it God’s fault that your child or my child got hurt?

    Several of the above discussions seem to revolve around what is “good” and who is “more worthy” to receive God’s help.

    It is like trying to define “hell.” My hell could be sitting through a long, boring testimony meeting listening to Sister So and So talk about what her kids are up to and how she is suffering. To another attendee, it might have been the most enlightening meeting he has ever experienced.

    By most of your standards, I am not the worthiest of persons, but when I pray and have faith God helps me.

    Is that fair that he should help a sinner like myself and not cure my mother-in-law’s cancer??

    My mother-in-law has been fighting a terrible cancer for about 8 years. She grew up on healthy food and never smoked, but now the cancer moved into her lungs. She has had chemo several times and 4 surgeries.

    Maybe she secretly blamed God? She told me that she has “too much to live for and will keep having treatments and surgeries until I have no organs left to take out and/or die.” She has suffered.

    My husband and I have NOT sat around analyzing whether or not she is worthy of God’s help or “what she possibly could have done in this life and the pre-existence to ‘deserve’ this test?” We are just grateful for the days that she feels better.

    Then, by God’s grace, by chance or who knows for sure, she was selected to receive an experimental drug, and it is prolonging her life and shrinking her tumors. Did the doctors at the Huntsman Cancer Institute pray about who was the worthiest to receive the drug?

    Or was it by chance that she received the actual drug and not the placebo?

    I think you are struggling with understanding because your are humanizing God and “judging” him on when it is proper and just to use his power of intervention to fight evil. Using “human” definitions to understand God may not be the answer. He is not Spiderman.

    Going with the natural flow of things makes life much easier. The Tao Te Ching (one of the most influential books in history) describes “opposition’ best (no offense to the Book of Mormon intended). There are English translations at the library — just my opinion.

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