Thursday, March 25, 2010

SMPT 2010 Presentation

Here it is:


“Which Thing I Never Had Supposed”
The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man

Loyd Ericson
Claremont Graduate University
SMPT 2010

The problem of evil as a challenge to God's existence had led philosophers of religion to see the problem as a call to defend God and seek for arguments through which both God and evil could co-exist. This response, I will argue, is misplaced. The true challenge of evil is not in the question of God's existence in light of this evil but in the devaluation of the human individual who experiences and/or witnesses suffering. Attempts to defend evil's existence and analogize God as a chess-master maneuvering through evil only exacerbate the problem by turning individuals who suffer into valueless sacrificial pawns for God's ultimate win. A better response to the evil in the world is not a defense of God through the justification of evil but rather a justification of the individual through the confrontation of suffering. The Atonement, especially as understood by liberation theology, is the paradigm of God's own response to the problem of evil.

 Part I – The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil, in its various forms, is almost always viewed as a problem for God’s existence. The question posed is simply one of how it is possible for there to exist an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God in light of all of the evil and suffering we witness in the world. If God is all-powerful, then he would be capable of preventing evil; if all-knowing, then he would know of potential evil to be prevented; and if all-loving, then he would have the loving desire to prevent evil. Because evil is present in the suffering we witness around us, it is concluded that God (who is defined as being—among other things—all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving) does not then exist. While evil in this context is usually broken down into moral and natural evil, for the purpose of this paper I am simply going to define evil as the physical, emotional, and psychological suffering of human beings.
The traditional responses to the problem of evil typically come in two forms: the free-will defense and the soul-making theodicy. The former, the free-will defense, argues that free-will is such a high good that God restrains himself from interceding into the world to allow his creatures to be free. Human suffering is an unfortunate side effect of that free will. Thus God permits evils, even as horrendous as the Holocaust, in order to maintain free-will for his creatures. On the other-hand, a soul-making theodicy argues that God allows suffering and evil in order to either teach us something important, give us the opportunity to be (or learn to be) moral, bring us closer to God, and over-all improve the moral and spiritual quality of our souls. Such a theodicy is perhaps expressed in Doctrine & Covenants, section 122 when Jesus tells Joseph Smith, who was unjustly suffering in Liberty Jail:
And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. (D&C 122:7)

In other words, whether we recognize it or not, the evil and suffering we witness in the world is allowed by God for the good of our souls.
Before moving forward, let’s examine this with a quick example: Last week a young 13 year old girl—we’ll name her Jane—was kidnapped while walking home from school. She was brutally raped, tortured, murdered, and left in a shallow mountain-side grave by her kidnapper. If we applied this to the problem of evil, that this occurred either meant that God was unable to prevent this from happening, did not know of it happening, or did not care enough about the young girl to prevent it. Thus, one might say, that this evil occurred is evidence that God does not exist.
Those upholding the free-will defense might argue that, to the contrary, God was able, knowing, and emotionally wanting to stop Jane’s rape and murder. He, however, willed not to do so in order to maintain the greater good of the killer’s and the rest of his creation’s free-will. Adding to this, those opting for the soul-making theodicy might also argue that God may have allowed this horrendous evil in order to provide either Jane’s, the killer’s, and/or some or all of the rest of society an opportunity to improve their soul.
There are, however, some key challenges for Latter-day Saints who wish to appeal to the free-will defense. First, while the free-will defense may work in logically defending a certain view of God, the sterile God that does not interject himself to prevent suffering hardly seems to be the God of Mormonism. Rather than not interjecting himself into the world and not interceding into human affairs to prevent evil, the God of LDS scripture is one who is described as miraculously preventing evil, alleviating suffering, and changing the hearts of his creations. This God who worked miracles to free the Israelites from Egyptian oppression, raised the dead, healed the sick, stepped in to transform Alma the Younger, protected the pioneers, and stepped in to miraculously save Zion’s camp seems entirely different from the free-will defended God who chooses to stay his hand and not prevent evils in order to maintain human free-will. Furthermore, the prayers of Latter-day Saints and other theists throughout the world include petitions for healing, food, liberation, peace, and to change the hearts of prodigal children and friends. These prayers are made with the belief that God does in fact intercede to change the current state of things and prevent suffering.
Second, not only does the free-will defense seem incompatible with the God of Mormon scripture and history, this view of free-will and the prevention of suffering go against our own experience and common-sense understanding of the two. When my four year old nephew crashes on his bicycle and scuffs up his elbow, it would seem odd to argue that I was infringing upon his free-will by responding to his cries, picking him up, and helping him recover from his pain. When someone gives a warm bowl of soup to a homeless and hungry child, when a philanthropist engineers sustainable crops for a drought-ridden third-world country, or when a medic injects a dying bullet-ridden soldier with pain-relieving narcotics, it would again seem odd for someone to argue that the freedom to starve, die, or suffer was being taken away from these persons. If I witnessed Jane’s kidnapping, but refused to intervene in order to maintain the kidnapper’s free-will, others would look at me with a bewildered disgust. And yet those appealing to a free-will defense would argue that God does not do these very same things in order to not violate human free-will.
Similar challenges arise from the perspective of a soul-making theodicy. If God is allowing Jane’s rape, torture, and murder for the greater good of some soul-making objective, who am I to interrupt God’s will? If such suffering would, in fact, lead to a greater good, then by my interceding into the affair I am actually preventing a greater good from occurring. If taken to the logical extreme where all suffering is permitted by God to create a greater good, and thus no unnecessary suffering exists, by my permitting suffering to occur—or even committing these evils myself—I would be actually adding to the greater good of the world and assisting God with his soul-making process.
There are, however, some important responses that the philosophers and theodicists can (and do) make to these challenges. First, those appealing to the free-will defense may argue that there is a key difference between God’s interruption and my interruption of the kidnapper’s free-will. In my case, even though I would be interrupting the free-will of the killer, it would nevertheless be my free choice to do so. Thus, the world of free creatures would remain intact without outside intervention. On the other hand, if God were to intervene, it would be an instance of a person’s free-will being negated without any person’s free-will being affirmed, and would be a violation of the world of free-creatures.
Second, those arguing for a soul-making theodicy may point out that there is another important difference between God’s and my possible intervention. It may be the case that Jane’s kidnapping was allowed for my own soul-building process. Thus, because my intervention (or non-intervention) when witnessing the kidnapping may (or surely would) act as part of a soul-making process for myself, it cannot be compared to God’s non-intervention as he would not need such a process.
Finally, it may be argued that God does intercede occasionally or often; we, however, are just unaware of it happening. With this view, all suffering which does not (or is unlikely to) lead to a greater good is actually prevented by God. Thus, each instance of suffering which occurs does so because God knew that it would actually lead to some greater good—or at least that the probability and/or quality of the resulting good was worth the risk of allowing it. Because God leaves no trace of the potential unnecessary suffering which he prevented, we have no knowledge of God’s intervention. (There may be innumerable instances of young girls making it home safely each day, not knowing that God miraculously prevented their kidnapping behind the scenes.) In order to provide a sufficient logical response to the problem of evil, the theodicists require that all actualized suffering has been allowed by God in order to promote the greater good by maintaining free-will or supporting a soul-building process. Any suffering that did not meet this criteria would then act as evidence against God’s existence.
It should noted that these responses clearly approach the problem of evil from a believer’s perspective, where God’s existence is assumed a priori and left unquestioned. Because these responses to the problem seek to explain how both God and evil can exist, and because God’s existence is assumed without justification, their responses ultimately attempt to justify and explain the existence of suffering. From these attempts, it seems that we can draw out two important conclusions: First, the sufferings that we witness are necessary sources for, or unfortunate by-products of, a greater good. In other words, while they may be extremely unpleasant, any and all actual suffering is beneficial for God’s plan for himself and humanity. Second, because much of this suffering is experienced by victims who die from their trauma and thus do not directly benefit themselves, God allows for unwilling victims to suffer for the benefit of others.
With this in mind, let us return to our previous example of Jane. Imagine that while the kidnapped teen is being raped and tortured by her predator, she prays to God and asks: “Why me? Why is this happening to me?” In answer to her prayers, a philosopher of religion comes to her and tells her: “Jane, God is allowing your suffering because he doesn’t want to interfere with this man’s free-will. While your pain is great, it is much more important that this man is able to do as he chooses.” Or perhaps the philosopher of religion tells her: “Jane, you are suffering unbearable pain. God certainly has the power to help you, but there is a greater good or some soul-making value that your pain and suffering is going to make possible for someone else.” Or perhaps, he puts it simply: “Jane, you perhaps have not asked to be raped, tortured, and killed. However, if you saw the big picture—God’s eternal plan— you would realize that you are merely one of millions that God has allowed to suffer for his ultimate goal. It is all for good.”
In the theodicists attempts to defend God from the problem of evil, God is portrayed as both allowing and supporting evil. Rather than seeing suffering as that which ought to be confronted, suffering is that which is ultimately defended.

 Part II – The Problem of Man

While suffering is defended and justified as being necessary for God’s plan, it is unclear whether each of us individually shares that necessity. As D.Z. Phillips points out,
When a sense of the limits of human existence has led to bewilderment and to the natural cry, “Why is this happening to me?”, “Why are things like this?”, it is essential to note that these questions are asked, not for want of explanations, but after explanations have provided all they can offer. The questions seem to seek for something that explanations cannot give. This is what theodicies . . . fail to realize.[1]

For the believer, the problem of evil is not about the existence of God. Just as with the philosophers’ response to the problem, God’s existence is already believed and assumed. Rather, the problem of evil reveals the problem of man which questions the individuals valued existence. The problem of man asks: while God may have a plan for humanity, does he have a plan for each individual? Or are they like the ant whose individual existence is negligible in comparison to the colony? A theodicy or defense which values and defends the suffering over that of the sufferer only serves to magnify the problem.
Perhaps this is what Moses experienced following his revelation recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Moses. After being shown “the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created,” Moses wakes up and says to himself: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:8, 10). After witnessing the seemingly endless numbers of children which God had placed on the earth, is it at all surprising that Moses would announce that his own life is nothing in comparison. Like the Monty Python Sketch, “Live Organ Transplants,” where a woman is told in song about the almost unimaginable size of the universe, how can we not respond with her and Moses and say, “Makes you feel so, sort of, insignificant, doesn't it?”
God tells Moses that his creations are endless and that he is going to show Moses just one part of it. Moses then sees the world and every person on it. Like the woman, suddenly he is insignificant, he is nothing. He is merely a single grain in an eternal beach of sand. To make things even worse, the scriptures say that after having this vision, “the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself.” Moses was suddenly small, insignificant, and alone. Like Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club, this realization can be telling him and us: “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
A quick response by believers might be an appeal to God’s knowledge of each of us individually. Like Jesus, they might respond, “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not. . . .  If God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?” But what does this say to the Cambodian sex slave, the child suffering of bone-cancer, or even the lonely and forgotten widow?—those who, unlike the adorned lilies, feel like trampled weeds unrecognizable in an open field. If God’s love for the lilies is expressed by their adornment, what does the allowed—or even promoted—rape and torture of Jane say of her?
In an effort to defend God’s existence against evil, has the individual’s own identity and valued existence been denied? Has the dependency on free-will for the greater good or a theodicy of soul-making for the whole rendered our own individual existence meaningless and irrelevant?
If God is, as William James and Peter Geach (among many others) have put it, “like some grand master of chess” who maneuvers through free-will and suffering to achieve his win, then are some of us his sacrificial pawns, who are discarded and thrown to the rook?
If we believe that God is all-powerful and all-loving, is the intense and meaningless suffering of an individual indicative of the insignificance of the individual in God’s eyes—especially in a tradition where the miraculous interventions of God are affirmed? Or in other words, while God may love his children as a whole, can not the sufferer ask, “But does God love me?”
To emphasize this sense of loss and insignificance felt by Moses, it seems then to be no coincidence that it is at this very moment that Satan appears to him—to attack him at his weakest. The scripture continues: “And it came to pass that when Moses had said these words, behold, Satan came tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me.”
In response to Satan’s temptations, Moses scoffed at Satan saying, “Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?” (Moses 1:13). Moses’ claim and defense that he is a son of God seems at first to be declaration that he is a spiritual child of God—as we usually understand that phrase today. However, within the context of the Book of Moses, a son of God is not something that one is by virtue of being human, but is rather is what one becomes through conversion to Christ.[2] As Enoch says a few chapters later: “Behold, our father Adam taught these things [of Christ], and many have believed and become the sons of God” (Moses 7:1).

Part III – The Atonement as Liberation

The problem of man brought on by the problem of evil presents each of us with two related challenges. First, despite the theodicies and defenses, a vast amount of suffering exists in the word—suffering that not only affects the individuals it directly inflicts, but also all those who witness its evil. Such suffering—especially in light of these theodicies—can leave sufferer questioning the value of their own existence. Second, we as living individuals are in many ways nothing in comparison to the eternal scheme of things. The world was not constructed around us—As much as I want to believe it, the world does not revolve around me. At any moment I could become the victim of pain, suffering, and/or death. Nobody is free from this. And in the history books of future generations I will most likely not even appear as a footnote.
What then is the appropriate response? I believe that a answer that should help us toward understanding God’s own response to the problem of evil can be found in the writings of liberation theologians, particularly those of Latin America. Far from the philosophers of religion who argued that the correct response to the problem of evil was to defend God through the justification of evil, according to these theologians God’s response—in as what we would call the Atonement of Christ—is to defend the individual through the confrontation of suffering.
A key to understanding the liberation theologian’s conception of the Atonement is perhaps best illustrated by Ignacio Ellacuria when he writes that the question “‘why did Jesus die[?]’ is inseparable from the [question] ‘why did they kill him[?]’”[3] His friend Jon Sobrino touches on this more when he says:
Persons who preach an exclusively transcendent [Kingdom] of God do not get themselves murdered. People who preach a [Kingdom] that is only a new relationship with God, or only “love,” or only “reconciliation,” or only “trust in God,” are not murdered. All these things may be legitimately regarded as elements accompanying the message of the [Kingdom] of God, but they alone do not explain Jesus’ death, and therefore they alone cannot be the central element of the [Kingdom]. The [Kingdom] of God must have had some bearing on the historico-social, not only the transcendent.[4]

According to the thought of Ellacuria and Sobrino, God as Jesus did not come to earth simply to be hung on the cross to absolve persons of some sort of transcendent or metaphysical sin with a transcendent or metaphysical grace. Rather than coming to earth to die, God came to earth to live a life that both confronted sin and taught his followers to do the same. By this, the cross is not a symbol of violent sacrificial death for the sake of sacrifice. Instead, to them the cross signifies the question “why did they kill him.” It is when we ask this question that we come to realize that Jesus was not capitally punished for simply teaching of love and transcendence, but he was rather murdered for confronting oppressive systems and trying to liberate the oppressed from their suffering. The value of the cross is that it symbolizes, points to, and embodies the life that Jesus of Nazareth lived. [Mention Braveheart]
But, some may argue (as some of you surely feel), the scriptures are clear that Jesus died for our sins and the sins of the world. To this, those who argue for a liberation theology would answer, yes, Jesus died for the sins of the world. However Ellacuria adds,
We must ask in all seriousness what the sin of the world is today, or in what forms the sin of the world appears today. . . . If we look at the reality of the world as a whole from the perspective of faith, we see that the sin of the world is sharply expressed today in what must be called unjust poverty. Poverty and injustice appear today as the great negation of God’s will and as the annihilation of the desired presence of God among human beings.[5]

While these liberation theologians focused on what they referred to as “the option for the poor,” the essence of their message could be easily expanded to suffering in general. God’s response, then, to the problem of evil was the Atonement. This was not just a soteriological atonement, but was an atonement that confronted the historical and material sins of the world: poverty and suffering.
Furthermore, by understanding the Atonement as not just transcendent, but rather emphasizing the very real and material suffering of humans, God shows that his response to suffering is not to justify or understand it, but to confront and end suffering at its roots. When this is understood, our own indentify and purpose as Christians should also be understood. According to Sobrino:
Christian spirituality is no more and no less than a living of the fundamental spirituality that we have described, precisely in the concrete manner of Jesus and according to the spirit of Jesus. This is the following of Jesus. . . . Jesus was not merely vere homo, truly a human being; he was precisely homo verus—the true, authentic, genuine human being. . . . [T]o be truly a human being is to be what Jesus is. To live with the spirit, to react correctly to concrete reality, is to re-create, throughout history, the fundamental structure of the life of Jesus.[6]

It is through this process that we encounter God: Sobrino continues, “The believer who follows Jesus, who lives in history, who makes history and suffers it, finds himself or herself confronted with truth, life, cross, and hope. All of this is placed by the individual in reference to the mystery of God.” Crossing out the believer’s nothingness, “this mystery comes forth to meet the individual, as well, giving him or her a concrete, nonstransferable name. . . . In giving us names, God enters into a personal relationship with us.”[7]
Just as Moses was able to find value and pride in his existence by his conversion to Christ and confronting Satan with: “I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten,” for the liberation theologian, it is also by living the life of Christ by confronting evil, just as Jesus did, that we come to realize our own value in the world. To intervene and prevent Jane from being abducted by her kidnapper is to be a follow of Christ. To confront systems that oppress other is to be a follower of Christ. To push for—dare I say—social and economic justice in a world that teaches that suffering from poverty is a good moral lesson is to be a follower of Christ.

While the problem of evil is perhaps a genuine philosophical problem, for the believer evil does not present itself as a problem for God, but as a problem for her own individual value and existence. Attempts to defend God from the philosophical problem fails to recognize this problem of man, and ultimately results in the justification and defense of suffering—which then serves to amplify the real problem. God’s response—according to a theology of liberation—is to defend the individual through confronting evil. God, as Jesus, came to earth to set the example of how each of us must become like him by confronting the suffering we witness in the world. This addresses the problem of man by both confronting suffering and giving the individual a valued purpose in a world that might otherwise leave her feeling insignificant. While I imagine that many Mormon theologians would be uncomfortable with the idea due to a long tradition tied to a gospel of transcendent atonement, I believe that a gospel of liberating atonement is a perspective that has been far too ignored.

[1] PEPG, 134.
[2] Thanks to Charles Harrell for pointing this out to me.
[3] COFP, 547.
[4] CPOTRog, 366.
[5] HOCS, 278.
[6] SATFOJ, 694.
[7] Ibid., 699


  1. Liked parts 1 and 2. Not as fond of part 3 about the liberating atonement. Not sure it was explained well enough to someone like me who is not familiar with the philosophers you were using as a foundation. I don't know their work and you didn't give me anything to base their words on. Meaning, I had to work extra hard to figure out what you were transitioning to and what exactly you were trying to argue. Probably more understandable to an audience familiar with their work.

    I agree that God does not need man's defense. So tired of your first two arguments (not your argument, but the philosophy of the arguments) so glad you kind of treated them as almost historical rather than relevant to people who have already spent their quota of time thinking about them.

    Arguable that our response to evil is the key. I can't do anything about what is happening in the Congo or Sierra Leon. I also feel helpless in many areas where evil is present. I've often thought about the difference between doing good and doing something against evil. I think the latter is grossly underrepresented in church teachings. Perhaps because many are at a loss as to what to do. Avoid evil is the usual instruction.

    Not sure I understand about the liberating part of what you were talking about. I think we are more responsible than the first two arguments present. They seem to be more "take a seat and worship God". Kind of a sanitary approach.

    You do such a great job giving examples in the first two parts. I needed similar illustration in the third.

    What a cushy job you have. haha

  2. Amen, Loyd. The atonement is NOT about metaphysics. It IS about practice. Although not academic and directed toward less dramatic social issues, here's something I wrote on the subject for delivery in a sacrament meeting:

  3. Great paper/presentation.

    I guess I feel like I missed out on something. My issue with suffering/evil has not been things like rape/murder/etc., So, the free will defense doesn't quite work for me. Instead, my problem is with all the suffering caused by things like natural disasters, disease, etc., Now, I guess some people will argue (like with Haiti or AIDS or whatever) that these things are God's punishment for a sinful world, but I'd like to think that most people don't believe these things are a result of free will.

    Yet, no one ever even addresses that. I'm wondering if the answer is obvious and I just missed it.

    ANYWAY, now, on to the post.

    You mention that the atonement is "God's response" to the problem of evil. I think this (and the liberation theology view as you've summed it up) is pretty interesting...but the critical part is something you also say -- God's existence is assumed. The puzzling part to me is...why should God have to 'respond'. Again, where and why did the problem arise? Do you think, then, that the traditional philosophical responses are good enough, in conjunction with the liberation response?

  4. I'm glad you put this is. This was one of the sessions I was sad to miss. I'm really glad you brought up the fact that the ultimate issue isn't the logical problem of evil but reconciling God with the particular evils we encounter (not just evils like you outlined, but experiences like being buried alive in mudslides due to earthquakes or volcanoes etc.) The "you are insignificant" argument (best found in the poem of Job where YHWH answers Job in this manner towards the end) also is deeply problematic. (I don't think the account in Moses pretends to be an answer to the problem of evil though)

    The most interesting approach ironically comes from that infamous anti-Christian Hegel. Hegel has this really interesting argument where, against Leibniz, Hegel wants this to be the worst of all possible worlds so that development can happen properly. It's a very Mormonesque argument but one that probably won't quite survive without some serious adaptation.

    I should add that while the Atonement answers the problem a bit, there are some real temporal issues that keep it from working sufficiently. That is why should God allow that period of suffering for the rape victim even if he promises to fix things eventually. The problem of evil is ultimately not about whether good will eventually triumph but why God allows the degree of evil he does when it appears he could easily reduce it.

  5. Clark, I didn't mean to say that the atonement solves the problem of evil. It is rather a response and not an answer. I think any theodicy ultimate fails and that the only answer that we can give to the problem of evil is that it there and it sucks and that we need to do something about it.

    I was hoping someone would bring up eschatological resolution in the Q&A (which Plantinga and others do), but either no one thought to bring it up or we just ran out of time. I think doing so is just as problematic and solves nothing. An eschatological resolution to the problem of evil either leaves it unnecessary or leaves all those who have not been tortured and raped left out of something great.


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