In a previous post I summarized biblical explanations for the problem of evil or the existence of suffering in the world as presented in Bart Ehrman’s latest book, God’s Problem. In this post I’ll continue with additional explanations from modern and LDS sources.
A short statement of “the problem of evil” is that God cannot be both omnipotent and good if there is evil or suffering in the world. [For a fuller statement and discussion, see the IEP article "Logical Problem of Evil."] One of the primary modern responses to the problem is the free will defense. From the linked IEP article, here’s a brief summary of Alvin Plantinga’s version of it:
God’s creation of persons with morally significant free will is something of tremendous value. God could not eliminate much of the evil and suffering in this world without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom he could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds.
This likely sounds rather familiar to Mormon ears. Here’s the Book of Mormon formulation of the free will defense:
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.
I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. (2 Ne. 2:11, 14, 16)
Ehrman does discuss the free will explanation in his book, noting that it “plays only a very minor role in the biblical tradition.” The free will argument
was more or less the answer given by some of the great intellectuals of the Enlightenment, including Leibniz, who argued that human beings have to be free in order for this world to be the best possible world that could come into existence. For Leibniz, God is all powerful and so was able to create any kind of world he wanted; and since he was all loving he obviously wanted to create the best of all possible worlds. This world–with freedom of choice given to its creatures–is therefore the best of all possible worlds.
A variation on the “best of all possible worlds” approach makes a distinction between moral evil and what is termed “natural evil,” which is evil or suffering that occurs due to the operation of natural laws or natural disasters (which are often given the odd label “acts of God”). One objection to the free will defense is that while God might have need of granting moral autonomy to us human creatures to bring to pass our eventual salvation in the best of all possible worlds, that doesn’t explain why an omnipotent God couldn’t have tweaked Creation to eliminate cancer or tornadoes or appendicitis. The “need for natural laws” response seeks to counter that objection. Here’s a summary of that response from the SEP article “The Problem of Evil.”
[First,] it is important that events in the world take place in a regular way, since otherwise effective action would be impossible; secondly, events will exhibit regular patters only if they are governed by natural laws; thirdly, if events are governed by natural laws, the operation of those laws will give rise to events that harm individuals; so, fourthly, God’s allowing natural evils is justified because the existence of natural evils is entailed by natural laws, and a world without natural laws would be a much worse world.
Voltaire’s Candide, of course, famously ridiculed the whole “best of all possible worlds” line of thinking initiated by Leibniz. It’s not clear to me that Voltaire, a Deist, took the logical problem of evil seriously. His response to evil in the world might be termed the pragmatic and humane one of minimizing suffering whenever possible and, in the meantime, enjoying the good things in life, such as tending one’s garden.
A second modern explanation is atheism, which denies God, thus denying God’s omnipotence and benevolence and avoiding the logical problem. Atheism as a way of framing moral and existential questions emerged during the Enlightenment, then gained ground over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Surprisingly, the Book of Mormon presents atheistic arguments of one Korihor who describes religious doctrines as “foolish traditions of your fathers” and attributes belief in them to “the effect of a frenzied mind” (Alma 30:14, 16).
And many more such things did [Korihor] say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.
And thus he did preach unto them, … telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof. (Alma 30:17-18)
For those who find little consolation in this whole discussion and who remain troubled by evil in the world, I recommend the following articles outlining possible LDS responses to the problem of evil. Any of these links provide more detailed coverage of the problem and the LDS response than my short comments above.
- “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil,” by BYU philosophy prof David L. Paulsen.
- “Evil: A Real Problem for Evangelicals,” Blake Ostler’s response to an Evangelical critique of the LDS view of the problem of evil.
- “A Mormon Writer Looks at the Problem of Evil in Fiction,” by Orson Scott Card.
- “Evolution and the Problem of Evil,” interesting thoughts from Clark at the rejuvenated Mormon Metaphysics.
- Mormonism and the Problem of Evil, from Geoff at New Cool Thang.
- “On False Premises: An LDS Critique of the Problem of Evil,” at Jacob Hawken’s Philosophy Blog.