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. 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.
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. 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.
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.”