“What’s Ragged Should Be Left Ragged”:
God’s Problem of Evil
In his book The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, D.Z. Phillips argues that the problem of evil, as traditionally conceived by philosophers, critics, and apologists of religion, is dependent upon conceptually and grammatically incoherent notions of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence; and that Christian apologists such as Alvin Plantinga, Stephen Davis, and others, while attempting to answer the problem, fail to recognize these conceptual mistakes and ultimately attempt to devise theodicies and defenses that strip away the complexities and puzzles of life that are an inherent part of what it means to be human.
In this paper, I will briefly highlight a few of the key points in Phillips’s argument and then compare those to theodicies put forth by Latter-day Saint thinkers such as David Paulsen, Blake Ostler, Truman Madsen, and Eugene England. Utilizing Phillips’s analysis of the problem of evil, I argue that from a Mormon theological perspective, the logical problem of evil is also a result of confused attributes being forced onto our conceptions of God, and that at the heart of the problem is not a question of the logical compatibility of the existence of God as defined by the traditional attributes, but is instead one of the primal existential questions of human life: “why this suffering?”—a question that afflicts both theist and atheist alike. However, because both Christian and LDS theodicists maintain the traditional attributes of God (or variations of them) premised in the problem of evil, the theodicies they propose do further damage by proposing a foreign world and life where all suffering and evils are ultimately explainable .
According to Phillips, the traditional absolute attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence that are juxtaposed against the existence of evil are themselves conceptually confused. This is because it is non-sense to speak of God being all powerful, all knowing, or all good because power, knowledge, and goodness lack grammatical sense when abstracted away into metaphysical concepts independent of their application. In other words, one does not simply possess power, but rather has the ability to perform specific actions. One does not simply possess knowledge, but knows particular things. And one does not possess goodness, but makes certain decisions that are deemed morally correct.
Furthermore, even if these absolute concepts were understood as mere shorthand to say that God is able to perform all specific acts, know all particular things, and always act in a morally upright manner, Phillips’s response to this is that there are some powers that it makes no sense for God to have, some things that it makes no sense for God to know, and that it makes no sense to assert that God is an absolutely good decision maker. As Phillips points out concerning God’s power: “The problem is in the conceptually unspecifiable notion of ‘all power’, as though ‘power’ referred to one thing. We have some of it but God has all of it. Problems for the view that God can do whatever is not logically contradictory [runs] into trouble as soon as we begin specifying activities, such as riding a bicycle or licking ice-cream.” Similarly, there is the power to use brute force and do horrendously evil acts. Is this a power that we wish to subscribe to God? What of the powers of the devil?
The criticism against the premise that God is all knowing is similar. While the philosopher may contend that God does not possess an abstracted absolute knowledge, but instead that God knows all individual things that it is possible to know, Phillips again responds that there are many things that simply do not make sense--or that are nonsense--to say that God knows. For example, what does it mean to say that God knows how to ride a bicycle, knows what it means to have a late-term miscarriage, or what it is like to be blinded by a camera flash? These are all things that are knowable by you and me, but cannot be known by God (as traditionally understood) because they are things that can only be known by beings with physical legs, uteri, and retinal pigment.
According to Phillips these conceptual flaws exist because the philosophers and theologians’ attempts to ascribe these attributes to God are ultimately attempts to anthropomorphize God--that is, they are attempts to ascribe human concepts of power and knowledge onto a non-human being. Thus, when Homer Simpson asks Ned Flanders if God can “microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it?” we should find wisdom in Ned’s answer: “Well sir, of course, he could, but then again... wow, as melon-scratchers go that’s a honey-doodle.” While the honey-doodle for the philosophers may lie in the logical contradictions in the question, Phillips’s point is that it makes no sense to even talk of God microwaving burritos and eating them. Similarly, it makes no sense to describe God’s knowledge as so comprehensive that He could to defeat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. What does it mean to say that God knows what country Ashgabat is the capitol of or how many PGA Tour wins Tiger Woods has had? (The answers being “What is Turkmenistan” and “What is 74.”) Instead of referring to God as the exemplar of super-human power and knowledge, we ought to instead understand God’s power and knowledge in terms of God. In other words, God’s power is a certain type of power, and God’s knowledge is a certain type of knowledge. For Phillips, God’s type of power is not the power to do things, but is rather love; and God’s type of knowledge is not a knowledge of many things, but is understanding. (I will refer to these again later.)
This tendency of philosophers and theologians to anthropomorphize God is especially present in discussions of God’s omnibenevolence, where God is spoken of as if He were a moral character who was freely making decisions between multiple options and always choosing that which was morally correct. Phillips similarly argues that it makes no sense to discuss God making moral decisions because doing so involves time, uncertainty, deliberation, and the possibility of choosing evil--things that we are surrounded with and give sense to our talk of making moral decision, but which do not describe God. He writes: “There is an obvious connection between our criticisms of the notion of ‘all power’ attributed to the sovereignty of God’s will, and the notion of freedom attributed to God’s acts. ‘All power’ cannot be attributed to God, since some kinds of power are to be contrasted to God’s power. ‘Perfect goodness’ cannot be attributed to God if to say that God acts freely entails that he has the power within him to refrain.” He continues, “We can only avoid this conceptual trouble if we see that, instead of saying that God’s will (understood as ‘all power’) is the grammar of God’s nature, we should say that God’s nature (in a sense of ‘perfect’ goodness ) is the grammar of God’s will. [I]t makes no sense to say that God could command me to murder or to say that God has within him the power to do so.”
That these theodicists—Phillips points to Alvin Plantinga in particular—maintain their anthropomorphized concept of God as a moral actor is especially present in their theodicies where God is the universe’s greatest consequentialist (or in the case of free-will defenses, the universe’s greatest rule utilitarian), finely tuning the cosmos through his always morally-correct decisions in order to ensure that the universe maintains a proper balance of unconstrained freedom, desirable ends, and minimal senseless (or purposeful, depending on how you see it) evil.
Because of this simplified view of the cosmos, the theodicists fail to realize that their notion of omnibenevolence in light of the problem of evil is nonsensical because a being that is involved in evil--even for good reasons--cannot be said to be untainted by that evil, or cannot be said to be perfectly good. Phillips writes: “One primary reason why advocates of theodicies are blinded to common moral reactions is because of the consequentialism that dominates their arguments. We are presented with an abstract consequentialist definition of what constitutes a good act, and an equally abstract justification of why it may be good to allow bad states of affairs to exist.”
Because of this abstraction of consequentialist reasoning, these theodicists are able to compare things such as being required to wear embarrassing pants to school (as does Stephen Davis) or the pain a child suffers at the dentist (as does Richard Swinburne and numerous other theologians) to the horrendous suffering of the holocaust and other devastating events. Phillips remarks:
“We cannot speak of swallowing the Holocaust, as we speak of swallowing the pain at the dentist’s. What is more, Swineburne knows this as well as anyone else. When not philosophizing, he does not speak of the Holocaust in the same breath as a visit to the dentists. We wouldn’t know what to make of someone who did in the moral community to which Swineburne thinks God, like us, belongs. The difference emerges even when he philosophizes, for in the case of the Holocaust he has to admit that there is a case to answer. There is no case to answer for taking a child with infected teeth to a dentist.”
Unlike the parent, who need not justify their use of the dentist, with God as the utilitarian, God is nevertheless accountable for choices—such as allowing the Holocaust—that he supposedly makes. According to Phillips, “We are told that evil is a necessary consequence of an ultimate good God has in store for us. But whether that evil is done without or with a second thought, God has to suffer the consequences.”
To make this point, he refers to the oft-used example of Sophie’s Choice, where a mother is forced to choose which child, Jan or Eva, will die at the hands of the Nazi’s in order to save herself and her other child. Philosophers of religion attempting to defend God often point to this as an example where an evil (the death of the Eva) is allowed--or even chosen--in order to prevent greater evil (the death of both children and possibly Sophie). While the cool utilitarian may be able to point to Sophie and argue that she made the morally upright choice, Phillips points out that Sophie leaves the experience stained and burdened with her participation in sin--in her choosing the death of her child. As Phillips puts it, “She is involved in a moral tragedy where, whatever she did, would involve evil. Sophie never thinks of handing over Eva as an act to be excused in the light of the total situation.”
Just as with God’s power and knowledge, Phillips argues that the premise of God’s goodness falls prey to anthropomorphizing God and attempting to describe him in human terms of decision making and sin. “If we treat God’s moral agency as akin to our own [we] leave no logical space for the notion of God’s perfect goodness.” Instead, he argues, the sense in which God is good is similar to that in which God is powerful and knowledgeable. God’s type of goodness is not moral decisions, rather it is love, understanding, and forgiveness. In short, it is grace.
While the problem of evil itself is based on misconceptions of God’s power, knowledge, and goodness, by responding to the problem with theodicies that attempt to explain God’s existence in light of suffering (or vice-versa, to explain evil in light of God’s absolute attributes), the theodicists deny the very life that the supposed problem arises from. According to Phillips, the basis for the problem of evil is not the philosophical puzzle wherein God is placed against the evils of the world, but is rather the existential question of life that both religious believers and atheists face. It is the question that asks: “Why this suffering?” For Phillips, this is not a question that seeks an answer, but is rather one that emphasizes the futility of any answer that might be given. When the cancer victim asks “Why this suffering?” or when the parents of a rape and murder victim ask “Why this suffering?” a biological explanation of the causes of cancer or the circumstantial and psychological facts of the crime are not the desired responses. Rather than a question that seeks an answer, it is an acknowledgment that life--that living--involves seemingly indiscriminate, senseless, and undesirable suffering. In other words, it is a declaration of frustration concerning the raggedness of life.
As Phillips puts it: “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 seems to seek for something explanations cannot give. This is what theodicies and secular attempts at explanation fail to realize.”
By attempting to provide an explanation to why bad things happen, to “Why this suffering?”, the theodicist attempts to give the theological equivalent of a doctor telling the cancer patient that her suffering is the result of a mutated growth suppressor gene resulting in abnormal cellular production, or a police officer telling grieving parents that theirs and their child’s suffering is a result of their child unfortunately being at the wrong place at the wrong time where a neurotic pedophile happened to be desiring to fulfill his deviance. Even more so, by playing by the rules of the problem of evil--where every evil must ultimately be accounted for or explained--or else God seizes to exist--the theodicist attempts to provide the cosmological divine answer to “Why this suffering?” They call it God’s will, a means to a greater good, and an unfortunate allowance for our benefit. Whatever the suffering, God has a reason, there is an answer. And in doing so, they deny the very raggedness of life that is a part of our very concept of living.
The theodicist may respond to this by pointing out that Phillips is wrong because while the theodicy may provide a broad explanation for suffering in the world, because we do not share the mind of God, the seeming uncertainty and raggedness remains for us. In other words, while the omniscient God knows why a particular suffering is omnibenevolently allowed by His omnipotent will, the individual person does not. Adding to this, they argue, as does Stephen Davis, that the momentary suffering from both the pain and the raggedness itself will also be overcome in the eschaton by an understanding and reflection on life in God’s presence. In other words, it will all make sense in the end.
Phillips responds that even though God’s supposed particular reason for a particular suffering might be shielded from the individual, the theodicist nevertheless attempts to remove the raggedness by declaring that for whatever reason, it is God’s will. Furthermore, any attempt to appeal to the eschaton as a response to the problem of evil mistaking attempts to resolve it by an appeal to its being resolved. According to Phillips, “If the transcendent divine plan refers to a future state of affairs after death, continuous, in some sense, with this life, which is supposed to justify or redeem its tribulations, it is difficult to see why this future life should not be as puzzling as our present one.” In other words, saving the solution to the problem of evil for a later day does not solve it, but merely sets it aside to be visited again. If the answer does not work for us now, there is no reason it should be sufficient later.
Ludwig Wittgenstein famously quipped that “What’s ragged should be left ragged,” meaning that there were certain ways of life in which philosophy was an alien intrusion, forcing concepts, logic, and/or meaning where no more is needed. Like an amateur restorationist who seeks to sharpen and brighten a centuries old tattered and worn mural of Jesus, the strokes of the theodicist’s philosophical paintbrushes ultimately create a brightly colored, alien, and horrendous freaky Jesus. Phillips understood his philosophical project as removing the theodicists’ “corrections” and returning the mural of life back to its original and beautiful raggedness.
Latter-day Saint philosophical responses to the problem of evil take an interesting mirrored response that share Phillips’s rejection of the absolute attributes of God. However, while Phillips argued that the attributes were anthropomorphizing a non-anthropomorphic God and were thus conceptually misapplied, these LDS responses instead contend that the traditional absolutes cannot appropriately be applied to God because God is actually anthropomorphic--that is, because God is fleshly embodied, physically located, within time, and emotionally involved, his attributes must be finite or at least absolute in a limited sense. Because of this, it at least makes conceptual or grammatical sense to say that God can cook a burrito in the microwave, can know how to ride a bicycle, and can deliberate over a decision. However, I argue that despite the denial of God’s infinitely absolute attributes, these LDS theodicies are nevertheless subject to Phillips criticism--in that they still assume the underlying absolute assumptions of traditional philosophical theology, force an anthropomorphic understanding of what type of attributes God has, and propose a theodicy that also denies the existential raggedness of life.
Without going into too much detail, the LDS rejection of absolute omnipotence is a consequence of three traditional Mormon beliefs: the anthropomorphic nature of God just mentioned, the uncreatedness of laws and matter, and the uncreatedness of individual free-will. Thus, God’s power is limited by his finite embodiment, his inability to circumvent natural law, and his inability to relinquish human-free will. In and of itself, this could be reason for LDS theologians to cross out omnipotence from the problem of evil and announce the problem dissolved. Pain and suffering may exist simply because God cannot circumvent the biological laws resulting in cancer, because he cannot stop the child-predator from his present location, and if he could, he cannot intercede into the predators free-will.
The LDS theodocists, however, do not clap the chalk off their hands and announce “mission accomplished.” Instead, their response is to argue that yes God’s power is bounded in some way, but His power is still infinite (or at least really, really, really, really powerful). This, I believe, is a result of two things. First, it attempts to take into account the numerous traditions and scriptural narratives where God does seem to circumvent natural law or violate free-will to divide seas, destroy cities, cure diseases, and change hearts. Second, it is because of what I believe to be the same conceptual flaw pointed out by Philips--that by maintaining God’s infinite or near-infinite power, the LDS theodicist is forcing an anthropomorphic or mundane concept of power on God, where to have more power is always better.
Take the following statements involving power:
“President Barack Obama is the most powerful man in America.”
“Because of his influence Rush Limbaugh is has more power than Obama.”
“A twelve-year-old priesthood-holder has more power than either Obama or Limbaugh.”
“The current UFC champion is more powerful than all of them.”
“The sun at center of our solar system has more power than everyone who has ever lived combined.”
Which of these best describes God’s power? Is it a combination of all of these plus many more multiplied to near infinity, or is it something different altogether?
Blake Ostler, David Paulsen, and other LDS theodicists seem to imply that it is the former. For example, Ostler writes that “Mormons can agree that the set of great-making properties defining Godhood must include maximal power. [T]here cannot be a greater being than God in Mormon thought. God is necessarily unsurpassable by any other being.” And David Paulsen writes: “God’s power is not absolute power to suspend the operations of all natural laws, but rather the power to maximally utilize natural laws to bring about His purposes.”
What of God’s omniscience. Again, to make things short, as many such as Ostler, have argued, because God is embodied He must be located within time. Combined with a premise of indeterminate free-will, God’s knowledge must be limited by those things which are contingent upon free will. Unlike open-theism where God conceals the future from himself to allow for human free-will, according to this LDS approach the future is not yet a thing to be known. Because much of the future is made up of contingent events that are not yet things, God can still be described as knowing all things.
But even if we posit that all knowable things consist of only that which has existed in the past and in the present, what sense does it mean to say that God knows all things? While God can certainly hypothetically learn to ride a bike, assuming that he does not have a bicycle in heaven, what does it mean to say that God knows how to ride a bike? Where did he learn it? Does God know how many degrees of separation there are between Kevin Bacon and Kirby Heyborne? (2, Heyborne was in “Me, You, a Bag & Bamboo” with Margaret Easley , who was in “We Married Margo” with Bacon). Because he is embodied we can say that God might know pain, but what does it mean to say that he knows what it is like to experience a late-term miscarriage or give birth to a still-born child? Does God know what pizza tastes like? Does he know how it feels to confess to a spouse that he deeply loves that he was once unfaithful to her? Does he know what it is like to read a text message while driving and kill a child walking to school? Is God’s knowledge a knowledge of things, or is it something else?
Again, the same approach can be made with God’s goodness. Because God is in time, it makes conceptual sense to say that God can deliberate over a choice. But does God face moral dilemmas? Does he struggle with decisions? Can he choose wrong? From a Mormon perspective these questions could perhaps be answered in the affirmative, adding that God’s omnibenevolence is not prescriptive of what God necessarily does, but is rather descriptive of what God has done and continues to do. Returning to Phillips, however, is this what we mean by God’s goodness? In light of evil, are we also guilty of anthropomorphizing God’s goodness, turning God into the universe’s greatest planner, the Great Rule Utilitarian? As Paulsen and Ostler claim, “God is omnipotent, but he cannot prevent evil without preventing the possibility of greater goods or ends—the value of which more than offsets the disvalue of evil.” Can he allow the Holocaust—even if it is for some supposed greater good—and remain unscathed?
Like the traditional Christian theodicies, the LDS response to the problem of evil has been to ultimately affirm the premises concerning God’s attributes with slight modifications. God may not be all powerful, but He is powerful enough; God may not know all things past, present, and future, but He knows everything there is to know; and God may not be necessarily good, but He has always chosen the right. Because of this, LDS theodicies share the same problem of their Christian counter-parts: they inevitably present a cosmological plan where all perceived pain and suffering is accounted for--where no suffering (or at least no preventable suffering, depending how limited God is by natural law) is allowed that does not result in a greater good and is not made good in the eschaton.
By attempting to meet the metaphysical assumptions imposed on God, both Christian and Latter-day Saint theodicists seek to provide God’s answer to the problem of evil in such a way that they confusedly assume that the primal question is satisfied—that is, they provide an answer to “why this suffering?” In doing so, suffering and evil in the presence of God’s existence are explained through a system of checks and balances where each are either purposeful pains utilized for a greater good (for example, X develops moral character), unfortunate but necessary results of goods (X is a result of the great good of free-will), or compensated or overshadowed in the eschaton (X will be seen as “worth it” or seem to be “not that big of a deal” in heaven).
For Phillips, living in the face of unexplainable suffering, where there is no reason why one is stricken and another is not, undergirds our very conception and grammar of life. To talk of life without this is to be confused about what is meant by human life and experience. Compare this with Lehi’s teachings in 2 Nephi Chapter 2 (which is often presented as a theodicy or defense): “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all; things. If not righteousness could not be brought about to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness not misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound of one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility” (vs.11).
For the theodicists to point to heaven or an afterlife as a resolution to this struggle, is to misuse the very language of life. To repeat Phillips’s quote from earlier, “If the transcendent divine plan refers to a future state of affairs after death, continuous, in some sense, with this life, which is supposed to justify or redeem its tribulations, it is difficult to see why this future life should not be as puzzling as our present one.”
Again, Phillips point is that if the next life is to be called life, then it must be just as puzzling and ragged as this one; and this marks another point at which he and LDS thought diverge. For Phillips, a primary reason why an appeal to the afterlife cannot be used to answer the problem of evil is because, for him, talk of a life after death is conceptually nonsensical. According to Phillips, those things that give sense to our concept of life—particularly relationships—do not exist in the next life. In other words, if I am no longer a husband, son, brother, father, friend, uncle, etc., what does it mean to say that I continue to exist, when my very understanding of myself is parasitic upon those relationships. Similarly, he argues, in what sense can the theodicist talk of God’s moral character when God lacks the very things that give sense to us talking about each other having moral character—bodies, emotions, relationships, and the ability to suffer.
However, far from “solving” the problem of evil and providing an answer to the suffering, what the anthropomorphic understanding of God and the afterlife reveal is that the problem of evil (not the philosophers’ problem of evil, but the sufferer’s problem of evil) is as eternal as eternal life. Whereas LDS theodicists, like their Christian compatriots, want to argue or imply that in the end all will be revealed—or at the very least, God knows the answer to “why this suffering?” what LDS scripture and theology may show us is that what will be revealed in the afterlife is that the problems and questions will still remain, that life will continue to be as ragged as ever, because that is what life is. The problem of evil is not just a problem for mortal man, but is God’s problem as well.
A few years ago at the SMPT conference in Claremont, I also presented a comparison of Phillips’s thought and LDS theology to argue that eternal life should not be understood as something experienced only after this mortal life or an extension of this life on another sphere, but instead that eternal life denotes a type of life that God lives (similar to how God’s power, knowledge, and goodness do not denote degree but rather the type of power, knowledge, and goodness that God has or expresses). I argued that what made eternal life in both the present and in the next life conceptually possible were the shared concepts that exist in both, particularly relationships of family and friends--the very things that Phillips claimed were lacking in concepts of the afterlife, and whose lack was sufficient reason for him to repeatedly argue that it made no sense to call a continued existence after death “life.”
Along these same lines, for our next sphere of existence to be appropriately be called “life,” or for God to be understood as possessing eternal life in a meaningful way, then our ragged experience with suffering must remain intact and undissolved into the next life. The sufferer’s problem of evil, “Why this suffering?” must be a puzzle and struggle for us in heaven, and a continued struggle for even God.
Thus in the book of Moses when Enoch asks God, “How is it thou canst weep?” God doesn’t reply with a theodicy or explanation to suffering. Rather he simply points to the evils of existence and replies “Wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”—or, how could I not weep? Enoch wanted the God of the theodicies. After all, Enoch pointed out: “were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy [Gods] creations.” But God doesn’t respond with a theodicy—with an explanation of his power, knowledge, absolute goodness, and his utilitarian sensibilities. Instead it is response of heartbreak, misery, and even despair. “Wherefore should not the heavens weep?”
Enoch’s encounter with the weeping God, however, should not be confused of being a theodicy. Here, God is not a weeping deity who mourns over the hardship of soul-making and who sheds tears because consequentialism is difficult. After all, the Book of Moses does not end with soul-making glee, but with God angrily telling Noah that he is going to “destroy all flesh off the face of the earth.”
To understand this passage, I think Simone Weil provides insight when she remarks that “The Gospel contains a conception of human life, not a theology.” In this light, the account of the weeping god is not a theology describing God’s anthropomorphic attributes, including His power to destroy all life, but is rather a demonstration of God condescending to show us what life is. Furthermore, and more importantly the text allows not just Enoch but the reader to partake in the divine attributes. As we read it we are forced to participate in God’s power, knowledge, and goodness as we attempt to love, understand, and in the light of the angry and violent act that God is about to perform, find grace in forgiving Him.