I remember talking to an atheist on the riverfront walk in Dubuque, Iowa one day while serving my mission. He told my companion and me that he couldn’t believe in God after some of the things he had seen, and went on to describe (in a fair amount of gruesome detail) visiting a Catholic church in South America in the aftermath of an attack by a militant group of some sort and seeing the mutilated bodies of the Christians laying scattered about. If God existed, he reasoned, God would have not allowed such horrific act to take place. I was taken aback and was uncertain how to respond to his expression of disbelief rooted in such deep trauma. We talked with the man for a little while longer and moved on in with the day. His comments got at one of the most difficult and complex philosophical issues of Christian religion—the theodicy, the question of why evil exists if God exists, is good, and is all-powerful. That evening, I remember talking about the incident with my companion and thinking (somewhat naïvely): “I should have just opened up the Book of Mormon to Alma 14, where Alma and Amulek watch their converts burn and discuss why they can’t do anything about it. That would have shown him how we have all the answers.” Looking back, however, I’m grateful we didn’t turn to that section of the Book of Mormon during our brief encounter.
The story of the martyrs in Ammonihah is one of the most disturbing stories in the entire Book of Mormon. Alma and Amulek preach in a stronghold of Alma’s political and religious enemies and tell the people of Ammonihah that they need to repent, with Alma even going on to threaten them with “a spiritual death” wherein “their torments shall be as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever” if they do not repent (Alma 12:17). They have some success, and “many of them did believe on his words, and began to repent,” but “the more part of them were desirous that they might destroy Alma and Amulek; for they were angry with Alma, because of the plainness of his words” (Alma 14:1-2). When some of those who had begun to believe resisted the efforts of the majority group to imprison Alma and Amulek, the hostile majority “brought [the believer’s] wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire,” along with their scriptures. Alma and Amulek are forced to watch the inferno and, as if to drive home the fact that it is Alma’s followers rather than his opponents suffering in a lake of fire at the moment, “the chief judge of the land came and stood before Alma and Amulek, as they were bound; and he smote them with his hand upon their cheeks, and said unto them: After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?” (Alma 14:14). Amulek, horrified at watching his neighbors, friends, and (most likely) his own family suffering death in such a horrific way, “was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames” (Alma 14:10).
Alma’s response is, perhaps, less than ideal for such a situation. “Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day” (Alma 14:11). Why I say this is less than ideal and that I am grateful I didn’t respond to that man in Dubuque with this quote is that it doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of God. At least on the surface, it seems to say that God wants to validate maximum punishment of the wicked by allowing them to inflict pain, suffering, and death upon the righteous. It brings to mind the image painted by American Reverend Jonathan Edwards when he said that: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.” All in all, it’s a lose-lose-lose situation for all involved, unless God is a vengeful deity who finds joy in saying “gotcha” to the wicked at the last day (and then still lose-lose for the humans involved).
There are, of course, alternative interpretations of the statement. A second way of looking at it that I’ve heard is that God allowed the people of the city to burn their neighbors in order to clear out the righteous from Ammonihah so that when the city fell to the Lamanite army that was pursuing the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, only the wicked were destroyed. Alma, however, seems more focused on judgement at “the last day” rather than a soon-to-come destruction for the wicked. It also still paints a less than ideal picture of God as being somewhat ineffective, killing the righteous at an earlier point through one version of human brutality rather than through a later, different version of human brutality. If removing the righteous from the scene was the goal, why not just save them through divine intervention as was the case with Alma’s father and his church community in the wilderness? Further, as Grant Hardy has pointed out, “there is a third group not mentioned at all in Mormon’s summary. These are the people ‘around the borders of Noah’ who were also killed in the Lamanite military excursion. What exactly had happened to them? Why did they die, in contrast to their neighbors?” The death of others, an innocent group in the conflict between Alma and his adversaries, also undermines this interpretation of clearing out the righteous so only the wicked would suffer.
Perhaps, in the light of a Latter-day revelation, we see a third explanation. In a revelation with commentary about the constitution of the United States of America, it is stated that God allowed the document and political system to be “established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:77-78). In other words, God approves of freedom to allow humans the chance to determine their own course so they can be held more fully accountable for their actions at the time of judgement, for good or for ill. Applying this to Alma’s words, perhaps Alma was stating that God allowed the people of Ammonihah the right to exercise their moral agency, even though they chose evil, and will hold them accountable for their sins in the day of judgment because they chose to perpetrate atrocities when given the choice. As C. S. Lewis put it, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God: ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without self-choice there could be no Hell,” leading to the paraphrase that Hell is the greatest monument to human freedom.
Moral agency and human freedom are key principles in Latter-day Saint doctrine, and they hold that position for good reason. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that: “You have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, … until you arrive at the station of a god, and ascend the throne of eternal power, the same as those who have gone before.” This process of apotheosis requires a steep learning curve, including learning to stand on our own two feet, as it were, though making our own choices. Hence, President David O. McKay taught that “free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.” In exercising that freedom, it is only by choosing good that we learn to appreciate that which is good, and it is only by choosing or seeing evil that we experience what evil is and understand why it should be rejected. As President Brigham Young taught: “Darkness and sin were permitted to come on this earth. Man partook of the forbidden fruit in accordance with a plan devised from eternity, that mankind might be brought in contact with the principles and powers of darkness, that they might know the bitter and the sweet, the good and the evil, and be able to discern between light and darkness, to enable them to receive light continually.” Freedom of choice allows growth, even though it also allows evil.
Hence, in this third perspective on Alma’s explanation of why God did not interfere with the burning of the converts in Ammonihah, God did not or could not intervene because it would disrupt the system of moral agency and human freedom that He operates within. I acknowledge that Alma does seem to be focused on vengeance and the wrath of God, and so the initial surface reading that I gave may reflect what he actually felt and meant. Perhaps, if that’s the case, it reflects Alma’s trauma and anger from living through the experience more than it does his theology. Regardless, I think the third explanation makes more sense within the framework of Latter-day Saint theology today and that there is some room to understand Alma’s words in this way.
This discussion can be broadened out to the idea of the theodicy in general (if in a very brief and very simplistic way). Latter-day Saint theologian Sterling M. McMurrin wrote that: “The problem of theodicy in theism is how to reconcile the absolute power and absolute goodness of God with the facts of moral evil and the suffering caused by such natural events as floods, earthquakes, and disease. One of the angles of this triangle has to go.” Of the three angles—God’s absolute power, God’s absolute goodness, and the existence of evil—this last explanation I’ve been discussing seems to rely on stepping away from believing in the absolute power (or at least absolute control) of God. It is, perhaps, unclear in current Latter-day Saint beliefs whether God gives up absolute control willingly as part of a plan to help His children learn through exercising freedom or whether God (who may be a being who learned to be a god in an already existing universe, who used pre-existing matter within that universe to create the world we live in, and who is working with pre-existing entities or intelligences with wills that existed outside of Him and weren’t created according to His pleasure) is limited by laws that are a natural part of the universe He operates within.
Of the two options, McMurren felt that embracing the latter option made for a better explanation of the existence of evil. As he explained:
In Mormon thought evil is seen as a positive factor in the natural world and in human experience, and the primary meaning of human existence is found in the struggle to overcome it. It is a struggle in which the moral decision of men make a difference, and a very genuine difference, not only in their own destinies, but for the outcome of human history and of the world. The demonic factors, whether moral or natural, are given elements of the world. Moral evil, the evil that men do, is the inevitable consequence of genuine moral freedom. Natural evil, the evil that the world does, results from the moral neutrality of the material universe. God is not ultimately responsible for either that freedom or that neutrality. They are among the elemental uncreated facts of existence. But by entering creatively into human and natural history, God struggles endlessly to extend his dominion over the blind process of the material world and to cultivate the uses of freedom for the achievement of moral ends.
Such an idea—that God is not an all-powerful Deity who created the universe ex nihilo to His own liking, but is working to reduce evil and chaos in the universe—may seem radical at first (given that we have many currents from mainstream Christian theology about God’s omnipotence in our common beliefs), yet it does follow the ramifications of the teachings of Latter-day Saint prophets like Joseph Smith (particularly in the King Follett Discourse). It also does give more meaning to the choices and experiences of women and men in the world—that we can have a real impact in reducing the amount of evil and chaos in the universe as we labor alongside God. Looking back, I wish I could have discussed this idea with the man in Dubuque who bore the trauma of seeing an example of humankind at its worst and to discuss why that was allowed to happen and how we can work with God to help engender humankind at its best. It’s not anywhere near a complete resolution to the theodicy, but it’s at least a step towards understanding possibilities that make sense of the existence of both God and evil at work in the same world.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/edwards_jonathan/Sermons/Sinners.cfm.
 Hardy, Grant. Understanding the Book of Mormon (p. 116). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 506.
 Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 221-222, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-joseph-smith/chapter-18?lang=eng.
 Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 206-207.
 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 39.
 Sterling M. McMurrin, “The Mormon Theology of B. H. Roberts,” in The Truth, the Way, the Life, an Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts, edited and annotated by Stan Larson (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), xix.
 Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 96-97. See also Blake Ostler and David Paulsen, “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil” for a longer explanation than I have offered here.