The Evidential Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is a long standing issue in philosophy and theology. More or less it’s the recognition that there is something wrong if God is all loving and all powerful yet we experience all the evils of mortality. Why doesn’t God do something? I think that Mormons are ultimately in a better position here than our non-LDS Christian friends. Yet I think many assume the problem is solved for Mormons whereas I think it is a bit more complicated.

To begin with we should distinguish between two problems of evil. The traditional problem of evil is whether there’s a logical inconsistency with an omnipotent God who is good with there being any evil at all.[1] The traditional solution to this is to note that if God could create free will then there would have to be evil since to be free is to be able to be evil.  Usually in this view suffering isn’t taken as intrinsically evil. The Mormon solution is just to deny God full logical omnipotence by rejecting creation ex nihilo. That is God is limited because he exists in a pre-existing world of other entities he can’t fully control. The implication of this is that evil exists independent of God. As such there’s no logical problem. The solution to the problem of evil, like this one, is called by philosophers and theologians a theodicy.

A second, arguably more pertinent, problem of evil is the question of why there is suffering and why we experience the level of evil we do. It seems obvious that if God eliminated pestilence or removed the biological basis for mental illness that there would be less evil and suffering. So why doesn’t he? This problem, frequently called the evidential problem of evil is much harder to answer.[2]

Within a Mormon context the usual answer to evil is wrapped up in our conception of the plan of salvation. We were limited in our progression in our life in heaven with God where there weren’t evils.[3] To overcome this each of us freely chose to come to a world of great suffering and evil in order to progress. This is usually called, following David Paulsen, a soul-making theodicy.[4]

I’m convinced this solution is quite powerful – particularly in the idea that we freely chose to suffer the evils. The question is whether it is fully satisfying. I don’t think it is. My favorite discussion of this is in an old post by Nate Oman here at Times and Seasons on the problems of finitist theodicies. As Nate points out the real issue is that sometimes God intervenes to stop suffering yet in other cases he doesn’t. The problem is why God does that. That is why did God part the Red Sea for Moses but didn’t prevent Auschwitz? It seems apparent that God could significantly reduce the level of suffering in the world without necessarily reducing its soul-making effectiveness. Even ignoring Auschwitz which one could defend with free will, why not make the world geologically less active so fewer people suffer due to volcanoes or earthquakes? Why not make our biology so there are fewer psychopaths or other types of mental illness?

In making that criticism I’m not saying there aren’t answers. A common one that David Paulsen puts forward is that if God answers my prayers saying all is well then I’m justified in believing there is an answer. That is the solution to the problem of evil for people is in having confidence there is a solution. The philosophical attempts at answers miss the point because they don’t fundamentally address the real problem. That is people lose faith in God in the face of suffering. The solution to that is an encounter with God.

While I certainly agree with Paulsen that ultimately we can have faith that this isn’t a problem, I think it’s worth thinking through the issue. From a purely apologetic perspective, I suspect the reason most people lose faith in God is because of suffering. Personal suffering in particular can either draw people closer to God or push them away from God. It’s that person encounter that’s key. Yet I think providing answers, even if they aren’t fully complete, might provide a enough of a space that people can pray to God and get answers.

1. A great overview of the problem of evil is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on The Problem of Evil.

2. The main approaches to the evidential problem of evil can also be found at that SEP entry on The Problem of Evil. However since it is mainly dealing with a more absolutist conception of God it doesn’t really deal with Mormon approaches. Mormons simply reject the traditional philosophical conception of God as an apostate idea that arose out of Greek philosophy corrupting the original Jewish conception of God.

3. While it’s common to talk about our pre-mortal life in such idyllic terms there are problems with that conception. First we appeared to have some degree of free will such that Lucifer and 1/3 of our brothers and sisters were able to rebel – surely an evil. However we know little of this rebellion nor the type of suffering it inflicted. In any case such problems seem caught up in the philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s solution to the logical problem of evil with free will. The types of evil and sufferings we worry about now we can assume weren’t present there.

4. David Paulsen originally coined this in a famous BYU speech. However the best presentation of the idea is in the paper he co-wrote with Blake Ostler expanding on that speech “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil.”

19 comments for “The Evidential Problem of Evil

  1. Hans
    August 18, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    I have wondered this postulation myself. One solution is found in the power of definition. Religious people let God define good and evil. If God deems it to be evil, then so it is; and if He claims that it is not then it is not. Those who do not believe in God, therefore, have to define his own terms of evil. This is what philosphers and ethicists have attempted for centuries. No more than an interesting exercise, so it seems. We would love to ook into God’s dictionary and find the definition. But apparently he does not. All we seem to know is that God has an opinion.
    Another way of looking at it is that we, ourselves, define evil and good by blaming it either to the devil, or the natural man (then it is evil) or by trusting it to God in humble submission, upon which we label it as good. The word faith, in Greek (pistis), after all, means “trust”, or “to be persuaded”, or “having confidence in”. Neither system is perfect.

  2. Mark
    August 18, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    I am not sure if your comment here is yours or Nate’s, but the logical problem as I see it is as follows:
    “As Nate points out the real issue is that sometimes God intervenes to stop suffering yet in other cases he doesn’t. The problem is why God does that. That is why did God part the Red Sea for Moses but didn’t prevent Auschwitz? ….why not make the world geologically less active so fewer people suffer due to volcanoes or earthquakes? Why not make our biology so there are fewer psychopaths or other types of mental illness?”
    As usual, I think this kind of logic is based on an essential misunderstanding of…. wait for it….. language games. ;-)
    To accept the logic of the argument here, one must accept that God really “did” part the Red Sea for Moses (if such a person existed) and not as an allegory for the belief that “God will help us if we exercise faith and trust in him”. THAT is my personal interpretation. And then he confuses speaking about science with speaking about religion. This confusion then creates “THE Problem of Evil” which to me is no problem at all, but a confusion of language games. Stuff happens and we make choices. We see some as “good” and others as “evil”. Done.

  3. Nontrovert
    August 18, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    It’s complicated by the notion that God allows bad people to do bad things to his children to prove them or to chasten them or humble them.

    The Holocaust, while perhaps unique in its industrial scale, was no worse individually than so many tragedies the have befallen so many throughout history. I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of it, but the sacking of various cities, burning of people in fires, torture, rapes and pillaging, etc that seemed to accompany most if not all historical seiges would still be there even if God stayed Hitler’s hand.

    The Jews have certainly suffered this over the millennia, even while the Bible was still being written.

    In a small way their on going faith is a testament that the love of God can help a people endure and overcome such tragedy. To say otherwise it’s to deny the thousands of years of faith that persevered through it all. If that’s not a proving, what is?

  4. Roger Terry
    August 18, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    FYI, here at BYU Studies, we are preparing to publish three ebooks containing the collected writings of David Paulsen. Look for them in a month or two at Deseret Bookshelf.

  5. Mark
    August 18, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Gimme, gimme, gimme…. ;-)

    Great news!

  6. Clark Goble
    August 18, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    Roger that’s very good news. And I love publishers who do ebooks as I’ve decided only to buy ebooks going future due to space issues.

    Mark, while one might put the example Nate gave as a language issue, one should be able to easily formulate the question so it’s not just a language problem. I’m not sure evil becomes defined by whom we blame for one. Certainly if one is to adopt the language game approach one could argue some do that. But do all? I’m very skeptical. To put it in more Rorty terms, could Rorty raise the question of whether someone was acting justly or not? If so, can’t the same approach be used with God? And if not, then isn’t that a language problem of how we treat God? i.e. we may be falling prey to the type of game Anselm plays with negative theology rather than the game Mormons play with God as a divine human.

    Nontrovert, I agree the holocaust was only worse in the sense it was (at that time) the country considered the most enlightened in terms of science and philosophy and was done in a particularly technological manner. Yet in kind rather the disturbing efficiency were other genocides not as bad? Probably. However that doesn’t avoid the central question of why God doesn’t act in those cases. So to me you make the problem worse rather than better.

  7. Jerry Schmidt
    August 19, 2017 at 9:58 am

    For myself, I have come to appreciate the narrative of Job, whose narrative reportedly even the Lord invokes in his response to Joseph Smith, “Thou art not yet as Job.” And to imvoke a modern philosophy, I qote a song from a favorite Canadian band, Rush, “Why does it happen? Because it happens. Roll the bones, roll the bones.” (“Bones” here refers to an older word for dice, ostensibly.)

    Between at least two narratives, and also “The Black Swan” by Tallib, I have come to view this universe not as deterministic, but probabilistic. Things happen seemingly at random, but only because this universe is vast, with so many parts/participants, collisions are not jusr possible, but highly probable.

    What better environment to allow your children to “grow up” in than this, where the tests of character aren’t just in your choices/actions, but how you react and bounce back. i personally don’t see God as a helicopter parent, hovering around protectively, but rather the parent who allows you to experience the universe, then reaches out to help you get back up, provides comfort, and helps you learn from your experience.

    I realize this view may also be seen as too simplistic, but my own experience has reaffirmed this view to me, and worked to inctease and mature my faith. God bless y’all.

  8. August 19, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Given that this life is patterned after the next, does this mean that there must be some evil in the next life? I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps mortality is like this to help us learn to not be helicopter parents to our spirit children, to let them grow and mature; while we watch and morn over their incorrect choices and not intervene.

  9. August 19, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    I don’t believe we know, or are to know, what is evil. God is full of paradox. What we consider first He considers last. So perhaps what we see as evil, He may see as good.

    I lost my son at age 14 to a brain tumor. From my perspective, at the time, this was evil. From the perspective of heaven, perhaps it was good. My son never knew death, no friend or relative of his ever died in his lifetime. He walked into heaven absolutely fearless, because he knew that God is very, very good. He knew there were two possibilities in his life, that God would miraculously heal him or that God would take him to heaven, sooner rather than later. He gave the choice to God, and lived, for three years, much longer than expected, with that testimony, by the Holy Spirit.

    So was his death good or evil? He certainly accomplished a lot during his short life, arguably achieving his unique eternal purpose, bringing many, many, other people much closer to God, especially his father.

    All things work for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.

  10. Nontrovert
    August 20, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for sharing that Trey.

  11. James Olsen
    August 21, 2017 at 6:04 am

    Jader3rd and Trey are getting at philosophically important variables for Mormonism. It’s not just the plan of salvation’s adding in our own agency, but it’s greater cosmological understanding. That is, one Mormon response is to further reduce the “logical omnipotence” of God while elevating the nobility of God’s existential response–to transform suffering into good. If the overall point of mortality is to help us to become like God, and if tragedy is part of the structure of the cosmos, then it’s not clear how helpful it is to mitigate our suffering.

    At that point, I’m sometimes tempted to give up on the universe in the same way that others are tempted to give up on God. The response to this is of course that I can’t.

  12. August 21, 2017 at 8:19 am

    I barely know the words, much less the writings and thoughts, so take this all as question rather than assertion . . .

    It is said that the typical Mormon answer to the logical problem of evil is a finitist theodicy with a lean toward an intimate weeping interventionist parent-figure God.

    But then to answer the soteriologocal problem (how can there be so many without the presence of God, without the gospel, without saving ordinances) it seems that the tendency is to expand our image of God to one acting out of time and place, or rather in a frame that includes but is not encompassed by the time and place concerns of mortality (where we typically focus all the evils in question). Not so intimate, not so interventionist, more universal. A bigger God in a sense, but one not so satisfying as the answer to the logical problem?

    And then to address the existential problem (how do we trust in God) it seems that we make a greater move, changing definitions, stepping up to a meta question, appealing to experience over logic, all of which feels like further abstracting “God” to the point that it is almost like talking Brahman instead of Vishnu. A different class or category. And then I wonder whether that God is satisfying as the answer to the logical problem?

  13. Kangaroo
    August 21, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for addressing this extremely difficult theological problem.
    My wife and I returned from our Mission both with cancer and my wife has terminal ovarian cancer. So why? Or should the question be …why not? This was the beginning of some major family disasters, divorce, and a family leaving the church…..of which the church leadership played a significant roll but in this mess has God helped?..the answer is yes but often in tangental ways……but still a lot of missing answers.
    Theodicy has always fascinate me perhaps driven by a work colleague always attacked me as a Mormon saying “if God loves us why not save the children in……..?”
    You raise the notion of a God intervenes sometimes and not others, however often it appears when HE has intervened it is a result warning people many times and they have ignored HIM…this of course do not explain the complexities of this issue.
    As I stood in Auschwitz ( visited in 6 or times) I certainly wondered why the Lord of our earth didn’t intervene especially when you see the cabinets of baby clothes and the huge collection of women’s braided hair….and young mothers taken straight to ‘the showers’…..
    The only way I seem to cope with these complexities of God allowing such misery to thrive on our earth and in our lives is really it cannot be addressed intellectually, I fluctuate from trying to ‘understand ‘ God and making progress then other times as I experience things so difficult that l leave it to my faith and I am happy with that.

    It also seems that one of the Central themes in this is death…..non believers see it as finality,we see it as a ‘graduation ‘ but there is a problem between life and the journey to death…..

  14. August 21, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Perhaps there are many, many more “More mans” than present members of our true Church. I myself experienced the baptism of fire about 7 months ago, that removed my sin nature, and left behind HIs love nature, permanently, sealed in me.The particulars of my testimony in this is similar to testimonies I have since read from LDS people, including leaders.

    But similar testimony is also born by those outside the Church. One particularly popular testimony on Youtube, by a woman named Crystal Clay, is also similar in the details, but she testifies of never even being water baptized first.

    There is also a similar testimony by Todd White, who is increasingly popular as a speaker in the evangelical world, and clearly not an LDS member.

  15. August 21, 2017 at 9:26 am

    My water baptism into our true Church came just 5 weeks ago, after the Spirit prompted me about 4 months ago, that, now in Christ, it was time to join His true Church.

    Given that God lives, and lives outside of time and space, the order of entry into His presence may be non-linear. Perhaps I, and others receive the baptism of fire in His time, as He knows, in the fullness of time, that we are members of His Church.

    Even now, as I received a limited temple recommend from my Bishop yesterday, I prepare to go to the Temple to baptize my son, of whom I posted a few days ago here, by proxy. But I am as certain as I can be that my son does not now languish in the spirit world, for he lived and died as a saint, and I have even seen a dream/vision, on the verge of wakefulness, of him as he appears now, in heaven.

    For what appears as evil now, cannot be evil eternally as there is no evil eternally?

  16. August 21, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Kangaroo, I just read your heartbreaking post, after posting my own, which I had to put in two parts due to I’m guessing a browser issue.

    i made a recent Facebook post that perhaps Heaven is “reversiland”. Perhaps some of the things we see as good here on Earth are actually, in God’s eyes, evil and many things we see as evil are, in God’s eyes, good.

    For was the start of mortal existence not this whole knowledge of good and evil as sin? God clearly is about paradox, first shall be last and all that. Perhaps even the Holocaust here on Earth is the restoration of Israel in Heaven?

  17. Clark
    August 21, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Jerry, one problem I have with the Job account is basically Job is told God is incomprehensible. That is that he shouldn’t even try to understand. While that’s perhaps satisfying to some, I think it’s somewhat problematic for a religion that sees God as comprehensible and who in theory could explain his actions. For someone experiencing evil and struggling with it, saying don’t try to understand will be like a slap in the face. That’s why I think trying to understand evil is so important.

    jader3rd, if God is truly our father and will be doing this forever, then yes, there must be evil he experiences and deals with constantly. That’s why I like the early Hebrew accounts with God battling the waters of chaos. Creation is not a one time event, such as in traditional orthodox Christianity. Rather it is an ongoing process that must continually be repeated. Further creation intrinsically is battling against evil.

    James, I think that fundamentally the issue isn’t why there is suffering. I think that problem can easily be dealt with. I think the issue is why there is this level of suffering so unevenly distributed. Especially when it seems clear God can act.

    Christian, I think the problem of salvation isn’t much of a problem for Mormons. There’s the spirit world before the resurrection/judgment when everyone will be given a chance to accept or reject with vicarious ordinances. So you just don’t have the issue that afflicts so much of traditional Christianity where accepting Christ is necessary for salvation but so few seem to have a real chance before death.

    Trey, from a Mormon perspective the burning confirmation of the Holy Ghost is only the first step. So I think it is often the same as what others experience. While it can burn away our sinful nature, in many ways that needs to be repeated. We all sin and need to repent. That process of repenting by accepting God’s grace to change ourselves is an ongoing process through our life. I think that’s the big divide between many Evangelicals and Mormons is that we see it as a process while they see it as an event. My problem with the Event idea is that of course we all at times return to our fallen natures. The Holy Ghost will sanctify us, but we have to open ourselves up to receive what’s already outpouring.

  18. Val Larsen
    September 4, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Adam’s participation in the creation of the world is emblematic. We humans join God as co-creators of the world in which we live. That co-creation is an inescapable implication of God’s respect for our agency and of our living among other agents whose actions affect us. Living among other fallen beings, we inevitably suffer moral evil at their hands, and being a fallen being ourselves, we inevitably inflict moral evil on others.

    Agency explains moral evil, and moral evil may explain the more vexing problem of natural evil. Were there no earthquakes or illnesses to threaten even the most powerful and wealthy and seemingly secure of us, burgeoning moral evil might exceed in its effects all the natural evil we encounter. It is possible that the balance of evil in the world (taking into account both moral and natural evil) is minimized because God permits natural evil to be part of the full equation of our mortal life and, thus, compels all of us to keep one eye on Heaven.

    Preservation of agency requires that natural evils be, in some measure, randomly distributed. Were they a perfect reflection of our moral choices, we would probably live our lives more like Skinner’s trained pigeons than like moral agents. Good rain (and evil hail) must fall on both the righteous and the wicked to yield an optimal mix of effects that humble all wise human beings, no matter what their current state of well being and apparent carnal security may be.

    Finally, great wealth (which most people view as being good) seems to curse a family more than it blesses them. I believe it is harder to raise a family of devoted Mormon Christians in the United States on a $1,000,000 a year income than on $30,000 a year. In other places, it is easier to raise a family of devoted Church members on $2,000 a year than it is on $1,000,000 here. So who is blessed and who is cursed by their birth circumstances, given that knowing Christ and receiving the atonement is the purpose of this life?

    At a minimum, our judgments of “good” and “evil” are often misplaced. As Isaiah observed, we frequently judge good to be evil and evil to be good. That complicates our efforts to develop an adequate theodicy. Our first error may be that we often misjudge what needs to be explained. Why are some poor spirits subjected to the almost morally insurmountable temptations of great wealth while others are blessed by poverty that humbles them and brings them to God?

  19. Clark
    September 4, 2017 at 9:47 pm

    While our judgments of good and evil can be off, there’s lots of extreme evils that seem unable to be potentially explained away in that fashion.

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