Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Stephen Taysom
In Mormon thought, the most important moral principle is that of agency. Agency existed as a necessary element of existence even before human beings populated the earth. Drawing from and elaborating on biblical accounts, Mormon scripture tells of a "war" in heaven in which God's spirit children had to choose between two plans. The first plan was presented by God himself and endorsed by his eldest spiritual child, Jesus Christ. It held that, once born into mortality, human beings would be free to choose between good and evil. This plan recognized that some of God's children would choose evil and thus be banished eternally from God's presence. Others would choose good and, in so doing, could eventually become gods and goddesses themselves.
The second plan, designed by Lucifer, one of God's most promising and talented children, called for the suspension of moral agency. Lucifer argued that he would force all humans to choose good over evil. In return for his role in exalting and saving the totality of God's offspring, Lucifer demanded God's throne and glory. Lucifer and the one-third of God's spirit children who sided with him were cast out of God's presence and denied the opportunity to inhabit a physical body. Lucifer, who became known as Satan, and his angels actively tempt mortals to choose evil, but Satan is not the founder or source of evil.
The narrative of the war in heaven is based on the idea that evil existed before Satan. The narrative hinges on two concepts: that moral agency is an eternal principle that cannot be abrogated, even by God, and that moral agency requires a choice between, and thus the existence of, good and evil. Mortals are placed on earth in order to experience the forces of good and evil and to choose between them.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden thus takes on a slightly different cast in the Mormon telling. The fall of Adam and Eve is not seen as the source of moral evil, because the presence of Satan in the Garden as a fallen and rejected angel presupposes a universe in which agency, with its attendant choices of good and evil, was already operative. In fact, the Mormon view holds that Satan made a mistake by tempting Adam and Eve because the divine plan required that they be cast out of the Garden.
A situation in which moral agency operates is one in which good and evil choices comingle. Moral evil is thus understood within Mormonism as a necessary byproduct of agency and an indispensible part of the mortal and divine experience. The Book of Mormon expands on this idea, and explains that existence itself is defined by the presence of two contrasting and competing choices that may broadly be categorized as good and evil, or light and darkness. The absence of either good or evil as options from which to choose is, according to The Book of Mormon, the absence of being.
Another Mormon text, the Book of Moses, provides a poignant demonstration of the power of misused moral agency to cause pain even to God. Enoch, a mysterious figure mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 5:21-24), is, in this Mormon text, a witness to the weeping of God. When Enoch, utterly shocked by this sight, asks God why he weeps, God explains that the wicked choices of his children will result in their damnation and will thus deprive God of their company. The weeping God of Mormonism is thus a potent symbol of the unbreakable bond between being, evil, and suffering. As long as something is, then evil is a possibility.
In contrast to moral evils, natural evils such as death, disease, and natural disasters are understood in the Mormon context in much the same way as they are in other Christian traditions: as a result of the fall of Adam and Eve. When they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve, and all of their human posterity became subject to entropy. Their bodies, now mortal, began to decay with age and suffer from disease and the effects of natural forces. Mormons believe that the physical body is a blessing and that every person born on earth will one day be resurrected to live forever with a physical body. The suffering that accompanies the mortal physical body is explained as a necessary part of human experience, and death is as important to the ultimate destiny of each soul as is birth.
1. Why is agency the most important principle of moral thought?
2. What is the role of Satan in explaining evil?
3. Are suffering and evil necessary to the Mormon faith? Explain.
4. Describe the “Weeping God of Mormonism.” Why is God portrayed this way?