A Critique of Terryl Givens’ Theodicy

March 19, 2011    By: Matt W. @ 12:27 am   Category: Theology

Recently, Dr. Terryl Givens has published a two part series via Meridian Magazine dealing with the problem of evil. Being a long time reader of Givens’ frankly excellent books on Mormonism, and being aware of his forthcoming volumes on theology, I was very excited to read these. Part 1 was excellent, with its reference to the Brothers Karamazov, and adeptly setting up an adequate description of what the problem portion of the problem of evil is. Givens doesn’t call it that, focusing instead on “the problem of God’s justice”, perhaps intent on limiting his focus, but he does promise “to reconcile the understanding of a God who weeps over pain but does not prevent the pain–how to reconcile that understanding with the reality of a world drenched in pain and suffering?” So, I’d say this puts forward the promise of a theodicy.

While I could say many nice things about Givens’ theodicy, for the sake of brevity, I am going to limit myself to two points where I feel it falls short:

1. Not all suffering is the result of agency. Over 10,000 are dead in Sendai, with thousands more mentally, physically, or economically damaged. Givens seems to completely ignore the greater piece of the problem of evil, which is that God allows natural disasters to occur. While I agree with Givens’ basic concept that choosing an action means choosing a consequence, there are events that are not the result of moral agency. A person can choose to do good and still not be protected by God from the sting of loss. While it may be a principle of belief that all will eventually be made right for said person, this does not alleviate the problem of suffering for the near term. I will put in the notes at the end some authors which I feel do more adequately cover this issue.

2. Givens’ conception of Justice and Atonement are extremely unclear to me in this article. First, the concept of Justice here requires that good always begets good, and evil begets evil, but practical experience shows this to not be the case (See issue #1). Further, the Book of Mormon itself denies this, even with its scriptural push for obedience equaling prosperity. The Prosperity therein does not preclude suffering, for Nephi starts out with his own statement that he has seen many afflictions, and yet has been blessed. Secondly, Givens draws a hard anti-Calvinist line in the sand, and [perhaps] rightfully so, noting that “salvation in …spite of one’s choices [is] a destruction of agency”. He makes a good argument here, except that he then explains the atonement as follows:

“Christ bears the consequences of all the wrong choices that have ever been made, to assure, to guarantee, the principle of moral agency, maintaining the law of restoration and the equilibrium of choice and consequence, thereby permitting an errant human kind to repent, or as the word signifies, to re-decide, to choose afresh. The law of agency requires that choices of moral moment eventuate in their decreed consequences. But so many of our choices, made in our frailty, entail catastrophic pain and suffering. Christ is willing to bear that pain and suffering in our stead, that we may re-employ our agency to better ends. The atonement, then, does not eliminate or override individual agency; it reaffirms its status as the precondition for all meaningful existence.”

This is confusing to me. Leaving aside for a moment that this sounds like basic penal-substitution theory, if the consequence of my choices is pain and suffering, and Christ bears that for us, isn’t that “salvation in spite of our choices”? To further complicate the issue, if the atonement allows us to “choose afresh”, then the consequence of sin is destruction of agency, but the consequence of salvation, as outlined above is also destruction of agency.

While I am somewhat disappointed in Givens’ Theodicy as presented at Meridian Magazine, I am optimistic that he will produce a much better and more in-depth analysis in his forthcoming Theology Books.

Givens’ Article Part 1
Givens’ Article Part 2

Authors I feel do a better job of covering the problem of natural suffering:
David L. Paulsen– This is perhaps the greatest devotional attempt at covering the issue.

Jim Faulconer- Sadly, “Another Look at the Problem of Theodicy” seems to no longer be available online, but here is a more recent taste of what Faulconer is about.

Blake Ostler- Aaron R puts Blake’s perspective very succinctly here.

To be fair:
Last, I can’t offer this much criticism toward another without exposing myself to the same, so here is where Geoff eviscerated my own attempt at an atonement centric theodicy.


  1. Sorry, having a single quote in the URL of the post was somehow disabling comments. Everything should be working now. Thanks to Eric Nielson for the help.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 19, 2011 @ 7:01 am

  2. I don’t think there is a successful theodicy within Mormonism yet. At best I think we have some general directions for one. (i.e. the idea of limits in the how of perfecting souls combined with the free choice to come here to this imperfect world)

    Comment by Clark — March 19, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  3. I’m with Clark on this one. I frame the problem as follows:

    Suppose we are on the jury for a case in which a parent saw a car coming toward their child and did absolutely nothing, ending in the child’s being hit. What defense could the parent’s defense possibly give that would get me to not convict them?

    Now we can transfer this to a case for God and the tsunami (for example). He knew it was coming, didn’t He? He could have done a lot more to warn us, couldn’t He? What can the defense possibly say in His defense?

    I don’t think this is any kind of knock down argument. Rather, I think it shows just how powerful the argument from evil really is and how strong any successful theodicy will have to be.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 19, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  4. Clark:

    Well, no other religion has a coherent theodicy either, notwithstanding millenia of attempts. I’d say Mormonism has a better chance, since it isn’t theologically wedded to the triple-O god.

    Comment by Nate W. — March 19, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  5. Clark, I like Paulsen’s theodicy, linked above, but I agree with Faulconer that perhaps there is no one size fits all answer for the problem of evil. Not one that would be emotionally satisfying anyway.

    Jeff G- In that formulation all the theodicy need show is that there was nothing the parent could do, and that the parent did do everything he/she could. That’s what I attempted to do in my theodicy, which as I mentioned above, Geoff shreaded. It is a tall order indeed.

    Nate W.- While I can agree that Mormonism has a better chance easily enough, I’d have to say it’s because we’re Mormon. If we were Catholic, or Evangelical, or Athiest, we’d probably be less optimistic.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 19, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

  6. Matt W.

    Don’t mistake my last post for optimism. While there are those in Mormonism who would argue for alternatives to the Triple-O God, I don’t think that they will win the day. I guess believing in definitionally impossible beings is more acceptable than suggesting that there are limits to God’s perfection.

    Comment by Nate W. — March 19, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

  7. Let me include a caveat on my number 4:

    Calvinists have a logically consistent theodicy. Of course, the Calvinist God is only omnibenevolent if you follow the Humpty-Dumpty school of semantics…

    Comment by Nate W. — March 19, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

  8. I agree with Nate… to a very small extent. After all, the ethical monotheists believe in the three O’s for a reason: If we compromise too much on any of them, God worthiness of worship comes into question. To frame it in terms of my example and Matt’s response:

    Are we going to say in the case of the Japanese tsunami that there was NOTHING more that God could have done to prevent suffering? That He did EVERYTHING He could have? That He couldn’t have warned people a little more clearly?

    If that’s what we actually argue, then it would seem that God isn’t even close to omnipotent, in which case we wonder whether He is worth worshipping.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 19, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

  9. As a bit of an unpleasant addendum, we might wonder how much credit we’d give somebody on trial if they gave the whole “you can’t prove that could’ve done more.” Silence by the defendant would not be taken as an adequate defense.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 19, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  10. Nate, I fully agree and think that our “beginnings” of a theodicy are the best one will find. What’s missing is the gap between our limits as co-eternal beings and the necessity of our coming to a world like this. Personally though I think the fact we chose to come here knowing what this place was like resolves a huge number of issues.

    Matt, I have to confess that I don’t see Paulsen as really giving a theodicy beyond the statement that in the big picture it’s not that significant. However that is not even much of a dodge since it doesn’t explain why even this small amount of evil is necessary when clearly God could resolve most of it if he so chose.

    Blake’s approach is a bit better in that he has suffering being to develop our interpersonal ethical response. But he doesn’t even begin to explain why these particular evils are necessary. It’s a bit of a move from beyond “we came to a fallen earth to progress” but not by much.

    Jeff, with respect to Japan all that a skeptic needs say is, “why did we have to come to a world so geologically active?” One needn’t even invoke the issue of an interventionist God. (I think some theory of divine hiddenness satisfies that critique)

    Comment by Clark — March 19, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  11. I think the standards for worship-worthiness are generally way overblown. I agree with Jeff that theodicy based solely on God’s impotence is not ultimately compelling, but at the same time I am willing to continue worshiping God even if his power is substantially limited compared to what we have traditionally understood. One of my favorite fantasy series is Riddle-Master because I find Deth’s situation to be so compelling.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

  12. Clark, I think divine hiddenness is one of the least tapped arguments in Mormon theodicy. The likelihood that I will ever finish my post on that dwindles day by day.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 19, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

  13. Clark- For the Logical Problem of Evil, Paulson puts it succinctly.

    . From Joseph Smith’s theological platform, it does not follow that God is the total or even the ultimate explanation of all else. Thus it is not an implication of Joseph’s worldview that God is an accessory before the fact to all the world’s evil. Nor does it follow that God is responsible for every moral and nonmoral defect that occurs in the world. Within a framework of eternal entities and structures that God did not create and that He cannot destroy, it seems to me that the logical problem of evil is dissolved. Evil is not logically inconsistent with the existence of God

    His Response to Jeff’s reposte is:

    we ought to reject the classical definition of omnipotence in favor of an understanding that fits better with the inspired text. Given that text, how ought we understand divine omnipotence? B. H. Roberts plausibly proposed that God’s omnipotence be understood as the power to bring about any state of affairs consistent with the natures of eternal existences. So understood, we can coherently adopt an “instrumentalist” view of evil wherein pain, suffering, and opposition become means of moral and spiritual development. God is omnipotent, but He cannot prevent evil without preventing greater goods or ends–the value of which more than offsets the dis-value of the evil: soul-making, joy, eternal (or godlike) life.

    I’m not sure such a response is adequate, but it is a far cry from “in the big picture it’s not that significant.” I’m not sure where you got that from.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 19, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

  14. Jacob J: re: I think the standards for worship-worthiness are generally way overblown. I agree with this. Even more so, considering how understated worship is in Mormonism.

    And if you finished any post at all, I think I’d cry dimes. I miss the fresh air.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 19, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  15. After all, the ethical monotheists believe in the three O’s for a reason: If we compromise too much on any of them, God worthiness of worship comes into question

    I would say that is just shortsightedness on their part. Within the bounds of rationality, it is for all practical purposes impossible to worship a being that so qualifies. The only alternative is the Stockholm syndrome – people worship God because he is all powerful, whether he is good or not is secondary. Just as long as he has a magic wand to throw around.

    A more basic problem is that “goodness” for a being that is absolutely powerful is whatever he says it is whenever he says it. It is irrational in the extreme to claim that a temporal all powerful being is good. For any being to be considered “good”, he must not have the power to change the fundamental terms of that evaluation.

    That is why any being who is absolutely powerful is impossible to worship in any rational sense. It only makes sense in classical theism because divine temporality is largely suspended. A temporal all powerful God isn’t worthy of worship, but rather more like a living terror.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 19, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

  16. Matt, yes Mormonism’s finitism with respect to God resolves the logical problem of evil. But any robust theodicy has to resolve a lot more than that. Paulsen recognizes this thus he makes the move to mortality being a short blip on our experiential history. i.e. that the amount of evil we experience is short. But as I said that says nothing about the evil we do experience which a claim about God’s finitude seems unable to explain.

    Put succinctly there are a lot of evils in this world that it seems quite reasonable to think God could resolve (if only by putting us on a different kind of planet). The typical answer is that this life is necessary (as Paulsen notes) but this is only the starting point for a theodicy and not the ending point. (And indeed I noted this in my first comment)

    Comment by Clark — March 19, 2011 @ 9:37 pm

  17. Clark,

    I don’t think it’s that easy at all. If a parent say there and watched while an avalanche buried one of their children, we certainly wouldn’t let him off if he said “we simply live in a world where avalanches happen.”

    Did God know the tsunami was coming? (And I should point out that this is one of potentially countless lesser example one could plug into the argument) I think any form of divine foreknowledge would require this.

    Could God have warned people more clearly than He did? I think any form of divine power requires this.

    If we wouldn’t hold another person guilty, why would we let God off?

    Comment by Jeff G — March 20, 2011 @ 1:52 am

  18. Mark D- well said.

    Clark- I have no evidence that different types of planets are either less dangerous than this one or that they can sustain life. So I can get out of that one simply by claiming this is as good as it gets.

    I see Paulsen saying exactly what you see Blake saying, re allowing evil being a means to an end. Paulsen does end with the practical problem of evil, but the issue there, in my opinion, and I think I am agreeing with you, is that this is not a logical problem but an emotional one.

    Anyway, time to get ready for church and google divine hiddenness. :)

    Comment by Matt W. — March 20, 2011 @ 7:53 am

  19. Matt, that was Leibniz’s view as well. That this was the best of all possible worlds. I’m very skeptical as I can easily imagine stable worlds with life much less dangerous than this one.

    I think it’s neither a logical nor an emotional one but rather how we grapple with the particular evils here. I like to call it the empirical problem of evil.

    Jeff, I think you might be conflating someone else’s response with mine. At least I don’t see my words it what you’re criticizing. As for the latter part I think it’s justifiable if we willingly chose to come here and have limited exposure to God. That answers why God’s warnings are still and silent although it doesn’t answer why divine hiddenness is necessary. Although once again I think Mormon theology offers a stronger direction here than other faiths. But only the beginning of one.

    Comment by Clark — March 20, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  20. Jeff G, I don’t think most people are sensitive enough or pay enough attention for an earthquake warning to get through and be taken seriously. Suppose one out of a hundred people in an area received a strong premonition or dream that a severe earthquake was going to strike the area in the next few days. How many people would take them seriously enough to do anything about it?

    It is like Paul said, we see through a glass darkly, and even the very recipients of such impressions have a hard time telling whether they are legitimate and how to interpret them.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 20, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

  21. Clark, Infinity paradoxes aside, in my opinion divine hiddenness on a universal scale is necessary because the plan of salvation is being bootstrapped into existence. Or in other words the power of God is expanding, and he is deploying his spiritual resources in a manner and according to an economy that best expedites the salvation of mankind as a whole.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 20, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

  22. There was a very interesting exchange on the nature of evil over at Junior Ganymede. It was particularly interesting in the comments about how some of our trials and suffering are hard for us BECAUSE they make no sense, such as when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son.


    Comment by Zen — March 21, 2011 @ 12:27 am

  23. Mark D, but what isn’t clear is why divine hiddenness is necessary. What you say is more or less just rewording what I’d said in my original comment. Mormon theology requires a world like this one cut off from God with numerous evils for our progression. It doesn’t explain in the least why this is necessary for our progression.

    Comment by Clark — March 21, 2011 @ 9:27 am

  24. I haven’t really read all of Given’s essays here, but I do already take issue with how he frames the War in Heaven.

    Essentially, he states the “popular view” within Mormonism as being that Lucifer’s plan involved coercion – use of force to ensure everyone’s good behavior here on earth.

    He rejects this view. Givens considers Lucifer’s plan to have been not forcing good behavior, but rather the removal of consequences for sin. In other words, Lucifer would not force us to behave well, but would take away the consequences for sin.

    He has, of course, some favorable past General Authority quotes.

    His theory states that agency requires consequences for our actions – otherwise we have no real “agency.”

    This is an interesting idea, and I’m not sure it’s really exclusive of the “popular view.” But I do reject one aspect of Givens’ argument:

    He argues against the “popular view” by asserting that it creates a weak strawman of Lucifer, turning him into some sort of bully. I don’t think this is true. Admittedly, some adherents of the popular view engage in crude caricatures. But I don’t think the popular view of “Lucifer’s plan = coercion” does.

    Secondly, he baldly asserts that there is no way 1/3 of the host of heavens would ever have been convinced by a plan that said “let’s force everyone to be good.”

    I reject this assertion entirely. I think Givens is being naive as to just how attractive certainty and assurance are to people. People like assurance and certainty – even at the expense of liberty. This has been demonstrated amply throughout human history.

    Furthermore, we see a continuation of the appeal of “coercion models” in some popular theological positions today. Five Point Calvinism can be boiled down to an attempt to take the guesswork out of the equation, and ensure desired results. Even versions of Mormonism plagued with a desire to be “commanded in all things” or over simplify the scriptures into anemic platitudes are evidence of this ongoing impulse in humanity.

    People LIKE not having responsibility for things and turning it all over to some higher power. I simply cannot get on board with Givens’ blithe assertion that there’s no way such a plan would have any appeal. Especially considering he offers no other evidence for this assertion – other than forcefully asserting it.

    Comment by Seth R. — March 22, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

  25. Clark: I don’t think there is a successful theodicy within Mormonism yet

    I agree that there is no successful theodicy in Mormonism. I appreciate your optimistic “yet” at the end there but I suspect there never will be one without some sort of major overhaul to how we currently view the universe. In other words, I think something’s gotta give regarding how we view God, our spirits, and perhaps ever the entire purpose of this life before we will ever arrive at a coherent theodicy or even a coherent atonement theory for that matter.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 22, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

  26. Geoff:

    That’s funny, because I think their is such a wide range of views on the universe, God, our spirits, and the purpose of life within Mormonism, that we are always going to be battling one another when we try to address theodicy and atonement. That’s why any discussion of either topic I believe requires the author to also define all of the above, because we are extremely fluid on those topics.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 22, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

  27. Clark, I don’t think what I said resembles what you said at all. To be more blunt, I claim that the best explanation for theodicy is that God is expending all the power that he has now, in such a way that his power and ability to further the plan of salvation increases.

    That is a completely different question than that of what is necessary even if you have infinite resources to throw around. The answer to the latter is trivial – there are natural laws.

    What begs explanation is the answer to such questions as why God doesn’t stop tsunamis at the seashore boundary. No one can make a good case that unrestricted tsunamis are necessary for moral development.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 23, 2011 @ 7:12 am

  28. Right, but I don’t think you’re capturing what I’m saying. There are plenty of things commensurate with his power right now we expect he could do to reduce evil. The idea that this is the best of all possible worlds given God’s power simply seems extremely implausible to me if we simply ignore the functional role of say disasters like beset Haiti or Japan.

    It seems quite implausible to me that in the given universe there isn’t a place compatible with human life with less geological activity. That’s a simple incompatibility with the view that this is the best of all possible worlds.

    The only real counter-argument is that this level of geological activity is necessary for human life to exist. But I just can’t see that claim being justifiable.

    Comment by Clark — March 23, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  29. I agree with you Matt (#26). Because the foundational metaphysical assumptions aren’t clearly laid out for us we spend a lot of time whiffing in our theological exercises.

    In my experience though, when we choose a set of theological assumptions and reject competing assumptions, the coherent theology that can be built on those assumptions usually doesn’t seem all that Mormon anymore. See here as an example of one of my attempts.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 23, 2011 @ 10:08 am

  30. Geoff, I might be a tad optimistic, but I think the basic Mormon stance of a limited God who can’t progress beings independent of those beings natural development really does point the way. One way of taking this is to see the limit as a limit due to freedom. I think however for it to work there has to be a stronger limit on progression.

    I know Blake as was mentioned sees one reason for evil to enable us to feel compassion. I think that’s insufficient for a variety of reasons. At minimum it seems pretty unpersuasive that this level of evils is necessary for that.

    I think the missing piece is the nature of divine hiddenness though – as others have noted.

    Comment by Clark — March 23, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  31. We talk of free agency as if it applies only to us mortals only.Free agency applies to GOD and his brothers and sisters.In the war in heaven was satin evil or disobedient?Evil is the premeditated desire to do bad.When we are disobedient we are choosing not to do good.The plan of salvation is a funny thing ,would any of us really devise such a plan.The thing is that this seems to be the standard plan and it has been used in many creations before ours.I and my wife worked hard in helping others for 35 years ,we served in many callings ,we took in teenagers who ran away from home,we looked forward to the years that we could retire and enjoy are grandchildren.Then cancer came and took my wife home,did God need her more then I did? I will not know why she had to leave me,but I do know this,no other religion offers any sensible answers.As a parent I have from time to time allow my kids to come to some small harm so they might learn an important lesson. God knows how long we need to be here .In the war in heaven not all of us were equally valiant,and not all of us are equally tested.Remember our time here is very short in Gods time.There is no answer to why some die and others are spared ,other then it is part of the plan.

    Comment by marv thompson — March 23, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

  32. Clark, I certainly don’t think that this world is the best possible of anything. There could be any number of other worlds some better some worse right now.

    You couldn’t begin to indict God for moral negligence with regard to the geological activity of this world without demonstrating that (1) he had the present power to make a better one and (2) considering all the relevant constraints in time, energy, and resources such an endeavor would be markedly superior to the alternative actions which were actually undertaken.

    I assume as a matter of course that God had the present power to construct at least one world geologically superior to our own. I do not assume that he could necessarily construct an arbitrary number of such worlds in a finite time, nor do I assume that the expenditure of resources to construct even one would be soteriologically superior to all the available alternatives.

    The scripture says “this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man”. Making it so that no one ever dies in a natural disaster, while important, is clearly secondary.

    Comment by Mark D. — March 24, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  33. Clark (#30),

    I largely agree with you. Plus I think we sometimes don’t appreciate enough the fact that Mormonism easily solves the Logical problem of evil sometimes and go straight to the Evidential problem of evil like we have in this thread.

    Nevertheless, something’s gotta give in Mormon thought to effectively and coherently deal with the Evidential problem of evil. But if something gives (as in some important tenet is ignored to solve the puzzle) what’s left over usually doesn’t look all that much like Mormonism anymore. Again, see my Radical Universalism post for a prime example of that.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 25, 2011 @ 9:09 am

  34. Mark, here’s an easy and obvious way God could make the world better without much of any effort. Reveal the germ theory of disease along with the ten commandments; teach anti-racism along with chastity; teach about proper sanitation; and so forth.

    The vast, vast number of improvements in the quality of human life (and corresponding decrease in the effect of natural evils) has come from a few basic pieces of science from the 19th century.

    Comment by Clark — March 27, 2011 @ 9:12 am

  35. Mark, here’s an easy and obvious way God could make the world better without much of any effort. God could reveal the germ theory of disease. He could teach anti-racism. He could have had a prophet teach about proper sanitation. He could have made sure doctors washed their hands. He could have inspired a prophet to use penicillin.

    The vast, vast number of improvements in the quality of human life (and corresponding decrease in the effect of natural evils) has come from a few basic pieces of science from the 19th century. And they were the sort of thing that could have been revealed at least as easy as the Word of Wisdom not to mention the 10 commandments.

    Geoff, I’m not at all convinced we end up with something that doesn’t look like Mormonism much. Key to Mormonism is the idea that this life is a test. I think we can adapt quite well. It’s just not clear what the answers actually are.

    Comment by Clark — March 27, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  36. My comments are getting caught by the spam filter. Can someone check on that?

    [Found and released, sorry about that Clark]

    Comment by Clark — March 27, 2011 @ 9:16 am

  37. Cool discussion so far, people.

    Clark: You mentioned God’s not including some info in the Word of Wisdom which could have spared people a lot of grief. The question I have for you is, given your faith in Mormonism, how do you reconcile the apparent lapse? Or, if you don’t reconcile it, how do you live with the ambiguity nevertheless?

    Comment by BHodges — April 1, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

  38. Well I think a mature faith is being able to see issues and yet see the evidence for the whole as entailing there is a solution. I might draw analogy to seeing a problem between QM and GR yet having faith both are correct. Admittedly I’m equivocating a little between uses of “faith” here.

    As for speculation on how to reconcile the two I think the best solution is that there is some functional role for our ignorance and some functional role for our rise out of ignorance in the 19th century. Not just technologically but why did God pick that moment to reveal the gospel to Joseph Smith? It’s not like there weren’t other seekers before Joseph. (The standard answer is the world was too wicked until Joseph, but that’s rather unpersuasive in my mind)

    The problem is that we really have no idea about the functional role of this world except in very broad ambiguous sweeps. That’s why I constantly say that Mormonism offers the best idea for where we’d find a solution to the problem of evil but doesn’t offer a solution to the problem of evil.

    Comment by Clark — April 2, 2011 @ 9:56 am

  39. Thptpt.

    Theodicy is in and of itself a lie.

    For one it leads people to confuse evil with temporal injustices (as has been done to gross effect here in this forum). More importantly it neglects the obvious fact that we see eternity through a glass darkly (if at all, most people just believe without seeing, which faith has it’s merits but is not the end goal).

    In short, it provides a framework of scorn for the very plausible question: What if natural disasters are all blessings in disguise?

    Although certainly here on earth, sharing such a perspective with someone torn by such suffering can be a futile effort. That however by no means renders it an invalid argument.

    As a matter of fact, Mormon cannon is very clear on the matter: all things from God are blessings … and despite deist theories LDS cannon is pretty clear: God is over all. I myself find deist theories creeping into my own philosophy far too often. As I understand it they are *not* in sync with LDS doctrine and I would love to have someone prove me wrong in that matter.

    Too theodicy frequently becomes one of the adversaries more powerful tools toward culturing a narrow-minded perspective of the eternal realities of our existence. It really has no place in LDS doctrine, not because LDS doctrine is “inadequate” as someone suggested but because theodicy is inadequate.

    This is something I discovered a few years ago watching the great PBS series “Closer to Truth”, mainly that LDS doctrine is different than the big 4 religions and their variants that theologians don’t even want to go there … it’s too foreign. I guess that’s why God chose a 14 yr old boy rather than a seminary student. What else do you expect from theology when it’s evolved from man made contrivances over the last 200 years?

    Comment by davea0511 — April 11, 2011 @ 8:39 am

  40. oops typed too fast. Let’s try that last paragraph again:

    This is something I discovered a few years ago watching the great PBS series “Closer to Truth”, mainly that LDS doctrine is so different than the big 4 religions (and their variants) that theologians don’t even want to go there … the fundamentals of LDS theology are just too foreign. I guess that’s why God chose a 14 yr old boy rather than a seminary student. What else do you expect from mainstream theology when it’s evolved from man-made contrivances over the last 2000 years?

    Comment by davea0511 — April 11, 2011 @ 8:42 am

  41. Davea0511, if I understand you, you are arguing that God is the cause of all the natural disasters and since everything from God is a blessing it follows that natural disasters are ultimately blessings. Is that right?

    Comment by Jacob J — April 11, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

  42. davea0511: From your statements, I think you are conflating theodicy with something else. Theodicy is merely an attempt (any attempt really) to answer the question “Why does God allow bad things to happen to people?” Which is sometimes called “the problem of evil”, other times called “the problem of pain”, and other times called “the problem of suffering”. Natural Disasters being blessings is a theodicy, for example.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 12, 2011 @ 7:23 am

  43. davea0511,

    I was watching this video just yesterday of Japanese people being washed away through a town and couldn’t help but feel warm inside to witness God “pouring” out so many wonderful blessings on these people…
    [holding sarcasm sign]

    Comment by Riley — April 12, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

  44. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ThsY9aMSa40

    Comment by Riley — April 12, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

  45. I find Dave’s view pretty implausible but it is more or less just the restating of Leibniz’ view that this is the best of all possible worlds. The problem that theodicy is attempting to answer is how to reconcile this view with the pretty clear indication that there are lots of evils that aren’t blessings and that God could resolve them. Merely saying that in the big picture they end up being goods isn’t much of an answer unless there’s some plausible way to see them as such.

    Comment by Clark — April 14, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

  46. Clark- I thought Leibniz (who admittedly I am only exposed to via you on this thread) was on the side of this terrible world full of evil is the best God could do with the limited resources available to him. Dave seems to be suggesting more of what I’d term the evangelical view, where evil does not actually exist, because in the end we’ll see it was all for our good.

    While I do find such a view incompatible, I feel bad for Dave, in that I hate when we quickly drive away new participants here.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 14, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

  47. Drive away? I thought we were nice.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 15, 2011 @ 12:15 am

  48. Jacob: You are, and have long been, a great example to me of civility on the web. It was more the dog piling, as I think Dave isn’t coming back. I hope I’m wrong.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 15, 2011 @ 7:27 am

  49. I was a jerk…

    Comment by Riley — April 15, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  50. “You were more of an a**.”
    -Riley’s wife

    Comment by Riley — April 15, 2011 @ 10:50 am

  51. Riley, that’s funny! Still glad you keep coming back and comment. I definitely don’t want to stifle your contributions either. And your wife called it just right. (smiley emoticon here)

    Comment by Matt W. — April 15, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  52. Nobody drove dave0511 off. My guess is he was only interested in asserting his opinions as if they were facts, not in debating them. Most often those types of drive-by commentors are neither equipped nor interested in actually defending their assertions.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 18, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

  53. That’s fair Geoff, especially seeing dave0511 hasn’t come back.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 19, 2011 @ 6:49 am

  54. I know we hardly share any assumptions, but Terryl Givens’ explanation of the Atonement doesn’t seem inadequate to me. It sounds like the one I advanced here:


    Or, rather, while any mortal theory of the Atonement is likely inadequate, Givens’ theory doesn’t seem flawed in the way you describe.

    Comment by Adam G. — April 22, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  55. Adam, I actually like your version better than Givens, though I have some quibbles with it.

    1. What does it mean to pay consequences? If I do something wrong, say irritate you by asking this question, How does Christ pay the consequences of that?

    2. How do we transfer consequences back to ourselves? How do we not transfer consequences back to ourselves? I like this idea, as it sounds like, when we take responsibility and repent, we allow the atonement to work, but we were victims of the sin prior to our taking responsibility because we were not taking responsibility.

    Finally, to be clear, I am not critiquing Given’s atonement theory here, but his conception of the problem of evil.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 22, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

  56. 2. At its mundane minimum, ‘transferring consequences’ would mean that to the extent I can, I repair or make up the damage I’ve caused. I break your window, I ‘transfer the consequences’ to myself by paying for the repair of the window. It could have a more mystical meaning too, but it doesn’t have to.

    1. An excellent question. When people talk about the consequences of sin, there are two different types of consequences they have in mind. First, there are natural consequences, such as, say, irritating me by deliberately asking a snarky question (not that you did). I don’t know how Christ could relieve me of that irritation or even if he can. Its attractive to think that in some way Christ can draw the sting from every bite and undo every wound, but whether that is possible and, if so, how it would be done, I don’t know. My theory doesn’t address that. What it does address is if, assuming that it can be done, why Christ would then bear the sting and wound himself.
    Second, there are artificial consequences. Punishments, in other words. Its not fashionable these days to believe in divine punishments (I am inclined to believe in them), but people who are willing to accept in principle that divine justice requires a punishment for a sin still don’t see why the punishment can’t be waived on repentance without the necessity of Christ suffering the punishment in our stead. What my theory does is offer an explanation why, if there is punishment decreed, the punishment would be transferred to Christ instead of just being waived. In other words, my theory plugs in one hole in substitutionary sacrifice and ransom theories of the Atonement.

    Comment by Adam G. — April 23, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  57. I have read the comments with interest. I agree with Geoff that to date we don’t have a fully explanatory theodicy in Mormonism — and until God let’s us in on what he’s actually up to with each instance of evil, we can’t. Nevertheless, I must admit that I don’t see what I have written accurately reflected in the comments made in this post. That is likely due to my failure to explain with sufficient clarity that others got what I thought I said. I have given a general global theodicy in my Dialogue article “The Mormon Concept of God” which presents something like a Process theodicy. It doesn’t address particular horrendous evils, but does address why there is evil at all. Paulsen and I have also written an article “Joseph Smith’s Way Out” which explains why Joseph Smith doesn’t step into the classical problem of evil. But I admit that neither of these is an attempt at a theodicy of complete adequacy. Both can be found on my website.

    In my Fourth volume I present a Plan of Atonement Theodicy which is a global theodicy and is an attempt to address the very specific kinds of horrendous evil events that give rise to the problem of evil in its most excruciating challenge to belief. It is a theodicy not easily available to any view but Mormonism and I believe that it has the greatest explanatory prowess among theistic/panentheistic views. I don’t find the theodicies/defenses offered in the tradition to be remotely persuasive — and I explain why in the next volume of Exploring Mormon Thought.

    The Plan of Atonement Theodicy deals with the view that God’s primary purpose is to provide us an opportunity to freely choose to love and be reconciled to Him and each other, overcome our freely chosen alienation and to learn to love each other with the kind of love that the divine persons in the Godhead have for one another. In the process we become everything that God is and become heirs to all that God has — everything that exists. To achieve that kind of Atonement, God must work with our inherent freedom and our inherent eternal capacities by leaving us free to choose in a world with real moral consequences. God is limited somewhat in the kinds of stable law-like environments he can bring about that would be fit for the achievement of this purpose. A world without challenges and no evils would not work to achieve Atonement with God. Whether the amount of evils God allows that are within his power to prevent will be just the right amount is impossible for us to determine. If God allowed fewer evils, we would still say that that amount of evils is unacceptable — as we should.

    One thing is sure, the good of such ultimate fulfillment in developing a divine capacity for love as fully divine beings in the Godhead is a towering good of the most superlative kind and the greatest good that we can conceive — and it is so good that it is clearly beyond what we can really envision. Well, I have written over 300 pages on it, so I shouldn’t try to summarize it here. That is bare bones of just one facet of the theodicy. I also discuss the preexistence and consent to evil and consent to be the means for others to learn from the evils that occurs to us. I discuss the context of an eternal existence where all things are for our experience and every experience is for our good in this eternal scheme of things.

    I have avoided blogging because I found that I just can’t write like I choose to if I spend my time blogging. That shouldn’t be taken to mean that I don’t love you guys. I’ve missed our very valuable conversations. Maybe there is a balance to that somewhere. Clark, where do you find the time to blog like you do?

    Comment by Blake — May 21, 2011 @ 8:46 am

  58. Clark: “Mark, here’s an easy and obvious way God could make the world better without much of any effort. Reveal the germ theory of disease….”

    What makes you think that he didn’t reveal germ theory when we jumans discovered it? Why must it be earlier rather than later that it is revealed? If he must reveal germ theory and the vaccinations as soon as possible, then there would never be any diseases. Would you suggest that world without any natural challenges would better fulfill God’s purposes?

    Comment by Blake — May 21, 2011 @ 9:03 am

  59. Now I’ve got to get in gear on book three so I can be ready for book 4. Dangit.

    I look forward to seeing how you use atonement in connection with freedom to choose in your theodicy. Sounds interesting.

    Blogging can be pretty exhausting. Don’t be ashamed of taking a break. I imagine it would be impossible to write with enthusiasm about theology while at the same time arguing with us about whether the very things you are writing about are valid at all.

    That said, I miss you, (and Geoff and Jacob) and the actual discussions we’ve had (as opposed to arguments).

    Comment by Matt W. — May 21, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  60. I should have put some sort of emoticon on that last bit

    Comment by Matt W. — May 21, 2011 @ 9:48 am

  61. Blake’s back and announcing a new book? Al-hamdulillah! I cannot wait!

    Comment by Riley — May 24, 2011 @ 7:06 am

  62. Matt,

    I was very interested in your review of Terryl Givens Meridian article on Theodicy. I’m wondering if you would take the time to review the short essay I wrote on a blog and see if you can provide some feedback/criticisms regarding the problem of pain/suffering.

    I’m not looking to be put on your blog. I don’t want to be published. I’m just a convert who is struggling immensely with this issue.


    S.E. Pauni-

    Comment by Sione — June 20, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  63. Most natural evils are really the result of agency, if you assume that God would have revealed the germ theory of disease earlier but for a whole collection of choices people made about what to believe and how to structure their society and what to focus their efforts on. In other words, if God wants a world where persons of heroic endeavor can have huge positive consequences from their acts, it entails that a world where some people do not heroically endeavor will have natural evils, because those evils were ‘meant’ to be prevented by the heroic endeavor of those who did not so endeavor.

    Comment by Adam G. — June 12, 2012 @ 9:02 am

  64. Interesting perspective Adam. Does this entail a belief that all natural evils are soluable, if only we had heroic endeavor? ie- Everything from hunger to hurricanes to heat rash?

    Makes me feel lazy.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 14, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  65. Adam, that assumes God revealed the germ theory of diseases. Of course one could always argue, as some atheists do, that it is an evil due to agency: God’s agency.

    Comment by Clark — June 20, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  66. Matt W.,
    maybe. I can imagine two different views. The first is that yes, all natural evils are in principle soluble (except death, I guess, and perhaps aging). Which sounds a little ridiculous though it appeals to me. And if you think historically, its a lot ridiculous. You either have to assume that if ab initio man had been perfectly righteous and fully striving, man would have been able to instantly prevent or remedy all natural evils (perhaps by application of priesthood power and inspiration). Or you have to assume that God had a timetable for ‘releasing’ natural evils according to how far advanced man could have theoretically become, which (1) means that God is periodically changing the whole order of creation and (2) involves you with a paradox anyway, because how could man be working towards solving a natural evil that hadn’t come into existence yet? The other is simply that God created a world where natural evils exist so that man could have an additional sphere for meaningful and even heroic action in trying to prevent, remedy, or mitigate them. Its a little more tragic than the other one, because it accepts that some natural evils are or were unfixable, but its more realistic.

    Comment by Adam G. — July 3, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  67. Clark,
    for my argument its really irrelevant whether one inserts ‘God would have revealed the germ theory of disease’ or ‘doctors would have discovered the germ theory of disease.’

    Comment by Adam G. — July 3, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

  68. Matt W.,
    I should add that even in the second view, I believe that today the great majority of natural evils are the result of human agency/

    Comment by Adam G. — July 3, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  69. In connection with comment #22, here’s one of the best things I’ve ever written (relative to my other writings, anyway):

    Comment by Adam G. — July 3, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

  70. You deserve a proper response Adam. Let me think on it and get back to you.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 6, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

  71. Of interest:

    Comment by Adam G. — August 20, 2013 @ 10:51 am