One of the most prominent and difficult issues in philosophy of religion addresses the dilemma that arises when one asserts the existence of an all-powerful God who is also perfectly loving, while also asserting the presence of genuine evil in the world. As David Hume puts the case: “Either God would remove evil out of this world, and cannot; or He can, and will not; or, He has not the power nor will; or, lastly He has both the power and will. If He has the will, and not the power, this shows weakness, which is contrary to the nature of God. If He has the power, and not the will it is malignity, and this is no less contrary to His nature. If He is neither able nor willing, He is both impotent and malignant, and consequently cannot be God. If he is both willing and able (which alone is consonant to the nature of God), whence comes evil, or why does he not prevent it?”
There have been many attempts through the centuries to address this dilemma, ranging from denial of the logical problem that seems apparent when trying to hold to all three assertions, to giving reasons for God allowing evil for some larger goods: because love requires free will, which opens the door to the possibility of us choosing evil, or because the presence of evil creates ideal conditions for “soul making,” our proving ourselves through how we respond to it. Outside of classical theism and the three assertions, one finds other approaches to evil, including its denial–the claim that it only appears to be evil because we have a limited perspective (e.g., St. Augustine, Buddhism)–a denial of God’s goodness (e.g., protest theology, theistic dualism), or the denial of God’s omnipotence (e.g., process theology, LDS metaphysical positions suggested in some of Joseph Smith’s writings).
Evil is far more than a philosophical problem, however. Most people care more about the suffering associated with evils, and their concern is to find meaning in what they or others are experiencing. A nice, clean “defense” (theodicy) of the God of classical theism is of little interest to them, as such answers are of no help to a torture victim or a teenager sold into sexual slavery. The matter then becomes finding the best response to evil and its attendant suffering. How do I best serve others who are in pain? How do I act powerfully in the face of my own afflictions? What role, if any, has God played in bringing this trial to me, or is God a fellow sufferer with me, ready to offer comfort and guide me to important lessons and eventual peace? And many more.
In this three-part episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, Jim McLachlan, and Loyd Ericson address these and many other issues related to the problem of evil and suffering. Part 1 focuses on the classical philosophical problem and defenses. Part 2 move more directly into LDS approaches to the subject, including a distinction between LDS “discourse” about evil (which follows closely what one finds in most other theistic traditions) and LDS “theology” about evil and suffering derived from Joseph Smith’s rejection of classical theism, as well as fascinating scriptural passages. Part 2 and Part 3 also directly address suffering, including powerful tire-meets-the-road stories of people in intense pain and which ideas and approaches to thinking about evil often exacerbate their suffering versus the ones that are more helpful.
Questions of evil and suffering are very important topics, and this episode provides a great deal of food for thought, exploration of scripture and theology, and insights for any who are in need of comfort or who are called upon to be present with suffering others. We look forward to your listening and then sharing your comments and own wrestles with evil below.
Quotation and Link:
Mark Twain (final page of The Mysterious Stranger):
Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago–centuries, ages, eons, ago!–for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane–like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell–mouths mercy and invented hell–mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!
Loyd Ericson, “‘Which Thing I Had Never Supposed’: The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man” (Sunstone, June 2010)