For those of you not familiar with “the problem of evil” it is basically the problem of reconciling the existence of evils and sufferings of all kinds in the world with the claim that there is an all powerful and all loving God watching over the world. Here are some examples of the problem:
Mike and Joe are walking through the jungle. Joe falls in some quicksand and slowly starts to sink. Mike sees all this happening, has power to save Joe, and even hears Joe plead for assistance. But Mike chooses to ignore Joe and lets him die.
- We would say Mike is wicked/immoral for refusing to lift a finger to help Joe.
Joe is walking through the jungle. Joe falls in some quicksand and slowly starts to sink. God sees all this happening, has power to save Joe, and even hears Joe plead for assistance. But God chooses to ignore Joe and lets him die.
- Why shouldn’t we also say God is wicked/immoral for refusing to lift a finger to help Joe (as we don’t hesitate to do with Mike)?
Some standard responses
Now responses to this from Mormons normally take a few forms. Here are some attempts at excuses/explanations for God’s non-intervention that I have seen in recent threads:
1. God can’t intervene to save Joe because doing so would interfere with or even destroy Joe’s agency and God can’t do that.
2. Blame the victim and say it was his fault.
3. Reason that Joe is going to a better place so it is okey dokey.
4. Assume God possibly did warn Joe to avoid the quicksand through the whisperings of the still small voice but Joe was not paying close enough attention so it is his fault.
Of course the problem with all of these defenses is that none of them would work for Mike in the least. So if they don’t work for Mike why should they work for God? Would Mike saving Joe interfere with Joe’s agency? No. (Also, we teach that God intervenes at times so why not in Joe’s case?) If Mike couldn’t use the “he chose to step there so it’s his problem”, or “he’s in a better place”, or “I quietly whispered a warning to him but he wasn’t listening closely enough” defense in a court of law for his non-intervention why would we feel those are adequate defenses for God for his non-intervention? These types of issues lead many people to say things like ECS recently said over at the FMH post:
Iâ€™ve also been told that awful things happen (i.e., the Holocaust) because God cannot take away peopleâ€™s agency, and people do horrible things to each other. Nice, but not convincing. I donâ€™t think any answer is. Either God is impotent or he is a sadist.
Another approach that sometimes is used is
5. The “Eternal Perspective” approach. The general idea with this approach is to say that this life is just a blink of an eye and so any pain or accident we might experience here is not a big deal in the big picture.
One problem with this approach is that if one believes (as many Mormons do) that this life the fulcrum of our eternal existence then it doesn’t make a lot of sense for God to ignore Joe and let him leave this life in the middle of his test/probation. If this life is so important why not do more to intervene to save lives when things tsunamis are hitting?
So what are we to do? Ignore it all and merrily pretend there really is no “problem of evil”? (Don’t feel bad if this is your approach — I think it is what most people do. The fact is not everyone likes trying to figure our theological/philosophical puzzles and that is ok.)
One man’s Mormon theodicy
If you are not yet familiar with the term theodicy, here is the definition from the theodicy wiki:
Theodicy is a specific branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, i.e., the problem of evil. Theodiceans are those who seek to reconcile the co-existence of evil and God
Here is my personal Mormon theodicy:
I do indeed think a variation on the “Eternal Perspective” approach is the best bet when coming up with a Mormon theodicy. The thing is I believe that the eternal perspective approach loses much of its effectiveness if we place too much importance or emphasis on this particular life. Here’s the problem: Joseph Smith taught very clearly that we are co-eternal with God. That means we have already lived forever and that we will continue to live forever more. So if that is true then this life is in a very real sense comparable to a blink of an eye. But if we buy into the notion that this life is by far the MOST IMPORTANT blink of an eye in our eternal existence then the eternal perspective approach to a theodicy simply doesn’t work very well. Here’s what I mean: If we can downplay the importance of this particular life a theodicy becomes a lot easier to pull off. The more we elevate the importance of this brief life the less the “blink of and eye” excuse works regarding God’s non-interventions.
So what does downplaying the importance of this life in the eternal scheme of things look like? Here’s an example: I was born in 1970. For the eternal perspective approach to be truly effective I would assume that the 37 years between 1933 and 1970 (before I arrived on earth) were as important to me in term of my probation and eternal progression as the 37 years I have lived on this planet have been. Further, I would assume that the time after my exiting this planet is no less important to my eternal progression than my life here is. If that is an accurate view of reality then the length of one’s life here is actually not that important at all in the grand scheme of things.
Of course such a view ultimately requires accepting that there is progression between kingdoms if it is going to work. One need not buy into the MMP variation of eternal progression for this idea to work but some variation on never ending free will and the never ending possibility of spirit progression is an important ingredient/assumption in the theodicy I am discussing. (This is the uniquely Mormon “secret sauce” to this theodicy recipe in my opinion. Sterling Mcmurrin was convinced that one of Mormonism’s greatest theological strengths when compared to other religions was our ability to come up with much more robust and coherent theodicies than anyone else.)
So if we start with the premise that one can progress toward exaltation elsewhere just as well as one can on earth then one only need to see God’s intervention or lack thereof in the lives of people here on earth through a largely consequentialist point of view to come up with an effective and coherent Mormon theodicy.
That is, we simply can go on faith that God intervenes regarding our comfort or survival here on earth only when God deems such intervention to be in harmony with his real goal for us — our exaltation (and thus our long term and maximum joy).
So getting back to Joe dying in the quicksand while God watched him sink — The defense for God’s non-intervention would be that God concluded in his wisdom that saving Joe’s mortal life in that instance was not in the best long term interests of Joe’s soul so he let Joe leave this life and enter the next. Mike of course could not use that defense in court because Mike does not have that elusive “eternal perspective” we believe God to have.
Now, granted, this doesn’t do much to explain exactly why some children are born into situations where they will be sold to pedophiles or other horrible situations people experience in this life. I don’t claim to understand how something like that could help the eternal progression of their souls. But any theodicy must eventually rely on some level of faith in God’s decisions to intervene or not (and in his decisions about which families spirits get sent to) and some level of faith that God does love us and knows what he is doing. The first principle of the gospel in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ after all.
But I do think having a theodicy that is logically coherent and internally consistent is better than… not. So this is how I deal with the problem of evil for myself these days. What do you think? Do you employ a different type of personal theodicy that you like better than the one I have described?