Like many philosophers, the problem of evil in the philosophy of religion has been a fascinating, even urgent philosophical topic for me. As an undergrad at BYU (2002-2005) I took classes from David Paulsen, where we discussed potential Mormon responses to evil. David is a Mormon scholar who has profitably published on this topic, and my views were initially informed by his general approach. One element of David’s persona that makes him so accessible as a scholar is his academic humility. I recall visiting with him one day after class. I had just read Alma 14 in the Book of Mormon and found it difficult to square with the other Mormon defenses of God and evil. What do we do with this? I asked. David smiled and shrugged. “I honestly don’t know,” he replied. “It’s a very strange and disturbing account. We’ll figure it out at some point.”
My fascination with Alma 14 continued into grad school. There, I had the opportunity to take a graduate seminar on the Problem of Evil, taught by Stephen Davis. A wonderful course. I was granted permission to engage Alma 14 in my final paper for the course. Later, I would present the paper to students and faculty at Claremont Graduate University as one of the first student presentations of the Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association, which had recently organized. What essentially became the end result can be found here. The blog version is a little different from the paper I wrote for the class. The blog version was updated several months after the paper was written with the caveat that it would be Part I of a two-part essay. I had become increasingly dissatisfied with my conclusions in the paper and my intention was treat Part I as a vantage point from which to see the problem that subsequently must be torn down.. Part II would be a repudiation of Part I. Problem was, I didn’t know how to repudiate it. The chapter was simply disturbing, period. At worst it was a dark stain on Mormon scripture and thought. At best, it didn’t seem to yield any way to make it productive for dealing with evil in scripture.
Nevertheless, I continued to work off and on with Alma 14 over the ensuing years. I submitted a paper proposal for Sunstone centered on Alma 14, hoping that having to write it would spur the hard work that precedes inspiration. That largely happened (mostly in a late night/early morning flurry of mystical composition), and was supplemented by the always interesting exegetical work done by Joe Spencer and Robert Couch and their fellow laborers here. The end result, though rough and incomplete, was something I could finally (for the moment) be satisfied with, gratifying though surely temporary closure after approximately 7 years of wrestling with the text.
The text I presented at Sunstone is below. It’s a “reader’s text,” so there aren’t any footnotes, some things aren’t properly quoted, etc. It’s just the text I read out loud at the symposium. I’ve been asked publish it in Sunstone magazine, so a more “accessible” version of it will see print sometime soon. I also plan on expanding and revising it and publishing it in an academic journal at some point. The response from those in attendance was extremely positive, which was gratifying. As always, any comments (critical or otherwise) are appreciated.
Theologizing in the Presence of Burning Children: Mormon Theology and the Absurd
The attempt to reconcile the existence and presence of the Christian (or Mormon) God in the face of overwhelming evil and suffeirng is known among philosophers and theologians as the problem of evil. The problem, of course, only exists for the faithful; for the non-believer there is nothing to reconcile since God does not exist. In fact, the existence and unrelentingness of evil in the world is likely why the non-believer has rejected active faith and belief in God in the first place, at least intellectually. More specifically, the problem exists because of particular conceptions about the nature of God. Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus formulated an early version of the problem: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?” Over time philosophers have proposed many versions of the problem, from the logical and evidential problem, to the practical and pastoral problem of trying to shore up the faith of believers in the midst of trial and suffering.
The logical problem of evil is the least problematic of the difficulties of reconciliation. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been particularly effective in rationally dismantling this problem, and even some atheist philosophers (William Rowe, for example) concede that the believing theist, through arguments like Plantinga’s, has met the burden of proof in this regard, which is simply that he or she show that theistic beliefs are not logically nor probabilistically incompatible with the existence of evil. The person of faith, however, in having to reconcile her faith particularly with personal suffering and hardship, and generally with the observation of staggering amounts of evil and suffering, is hardly concerned with logic and probability alone. The believer, then, will normally rely on the work of a theodicy.
A theodicy is a vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil. Unlike the philosophical response to the logical problem of evil, which merely seeks to defend itself against the charge of irrationality, the theodicy seeks to provide positive justification for the existence of a loving, all-powerful God in the face of evil and suffering. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur lists three conditions for a theodicy: 1) univocal propositions: God is all knowing, all powerful, all good, and evil exists. 2) apologetics as the goal, providing justifications for why God is not responsible for evil; 3) argumentation meant to satisfy the law of noncontradiction and systematic totality. The theodicy seeks to inject the comfort of reasonable explanation for faith in God into the all-too familiar human experience of total powerlessness in the face of evil. Various formulations have been tried for centuries.
Consequently, believing and non-believing philosophers alike acknowledge that to tinker with the conception of the nature of God is to deflate the intensity of the problem. If God is something other than all-powerful or all-good, or all-sovereign, then it is easier to accept the presence of evil. Orthodox Christians, of course, are usually unwilling to do this. Those on the margins of the Christian tradition, however, see the strength of their position precisely in this reformulation.
David Paulsen and Blake Ostler have written an article which is, for the moment, probably the premier academic Mormon response to the problem of evil . Essentially, in this piece they hold that, in Mormon thought: 1) God’s power is conditioned by an eternal environment not entirely of his making; 2) The ultimate “essence” of persons is uncreated. This essence includes inherent freedom of the will. Therefore, there is more than one eternal will in the universe; 3) Because humans are ultimately uncreated “facts” of the universe, they existed before this life in a “Pre-existence.” God informed us about the nature of his soul-developing plan and informed us of the dangers fraught within it if we consented to it. That is, we knew that we would suffer and that some would suffer horribly. Nevertheless, if we are here it is because we consented to come here with adequate knowledge of what may happen to us; and 4) God shares in humanity’s struggle with evil; that is, because all agents are ultimately eternal, evil is an eternal part of the universe in some way. Consequently, humans are self-determining selves, and intelligence and growth are facts of the primordial universe, not products of God‘s creative choice. Taken together, Paulsen and Ostler believe that these four factors take into account and successfully respond to the main theoretical difficulties associated with the problem of evil from a Mormon point of view.
There is, however, one glaring omission from their theodicy (at least in my view), an omission because it is a clear (if disturbing) account of a particular way of accounting for evil, located in a specifically Mormon portion of the canon (meaning: not the Bible). It is vastly different from what is laid out in Paulsen’s and Ostler’s theodicy, which primarily utilizes passages from the Doctrine and Covenants and the teachings of Joseph Smith. I am referring here to the 14th chapter of Alma in the Book of Mormon
, one of the only scriptural passages of which I am aware in which God himself seemingly lays down (or at least sanctions) a theodicy as explanatory justification for his own nonintervention in the face of horrific evil and suffering.
Alma 14 makes a lot of Mormons uneasy, to say the least. In September 2007 BCC posted the text of Alma 14 for general discussion
, a discussion that generated over a hundred comments. Many commented that perhaps Alma was simply mistaken in his assessment of why God did not want to intervene in this situation. Some were generally satisfied with the notion that the women and children were received by God in glory, and that it was the evil exercise of the freedom of the people that was the direct cause of the problem, but they nevertheless admitted that it still troubled them. Others said that they wanted to glue the pages of Alma 14 together so that they would no longer have to deal with this disturbing explanation. Very few of the respondents viewed the passage as an adequate explanation for why God would not prevent evil, and none without reservations. According to this small sample of Mormon response, if Alma 14 is a theodicy, it’s an ineffective one, and even perhaps nothing short of scandalous.
Taken as a whole we seem to see absurdity at the highest level in Alma 14. On the face of it, in this chapter it appears that the most defenseless members of this society, those in need of the most protection and, because of their powerlessness, the least culpable of anyone (women and children), suffer the worst of fates, while the most empowered members of the society, the men (husbands and fathers of the victims on the one hand and Alma and Amulek on the other) are saved, either by being cast out or by being miraculously delivered. That of itself is unjust enough but now we throw divine intervention in. God is clearly portrayed here as being unequivocally able to intervene to save whomever he wishes, and he chooses not to save the women and children who are suffering the worst of deaths. Not only does Alma insist that this is the case at the beginning of the chapter, but Alma’s and Amulek’s miraculous deliverance at the end of the chapter confirm that God has power to physically intervene. This is significant because many theodicies (Process theology for example) maintain that God does not have the power to intervene in the natural world in such a way, and so evil exists because the power of God is not the type of power that can intervene. The explanation here for nonintervention? Alma is constrained by the Spirit not to intervene because God seemingly considers it more important that the wicked are fairly judged for their evil works than that children are melting in a fire, not forgetting to remind us that the victims are received unto him in glory, as if that alone justifies such a fate. Instead, God reserves his saving power for the two men who were the catalysts for the women’s and children’s deaths in the first place. If that is not absurd, then nothing is absurd. Indeed, the words of Jewish rabbi Irving Greenberg condemningly reverberate for Mormons here as much as for Jews seeking to justify God’s goodness in light of the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” As a scriptural text, Alma 14 seemingly effectively disturbs even the most unorthodox of theodicies, Mormon and otherwise.
Of course, we cannot just glue the pages of Alma 14 together. The binding and bonding nature of scripture is such that we are forced to wrestle with it in ways that result in individual and communal redemption. Thus, we can’t simply ignore it or interpret it into whatever we desire. We have to find some way of making the text productive for us in the present, to redeem the text in much the same way that it redeems us. Theologizing, in this sense, is the act and practice of mutual redemption. However, as Paul Ricoeur reminds us above, it’s not simply a matter of working toward systematic totality (where the text fits in comfortably and naturally with other texts and doctrines) and noncontradiction (interpreting the text in such a way that it doesn’t become meaningless or nonsensical). He points out, crucially, that there is one aspect of human experience that shatters every conceivable theodicy, that mercilessly calls into question every possible explanation, what he calls “the lament.” The Psalmist perfectly exemplifies the lament when he cries, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 35). The lament is the unrequited, unreciprocated cry of unjust suffering, of suffering so acute that the only form of relief comes within the purge of the lament itself or in death. No hope for a better world can silence the lament. Instead, the lament might be seen as the soulcry for hope in the face of hope’s final abandonment. The lament invariably finds the cracks and fissures of rational explanations that seek to reconcile God and evil and breaks them apart. Every conceivable theodicy will fail in seeking to vindicate God’s presence and evil, and it will always fail because the structure of the theodicy can never fully take into account and encompass the lament, which calls to theodicy only in order to break it pieces. The theodicy is destroyed by the lament because the lament reveals the theodicy as complicit in the very evil and suffering that called forth the lament in the first place: the theodicy betrays the sufferer by attempting to explain suffering away. When we seek to reconcile the experience of evil through rationalizing about suffering, demanding a meaning for that which cracks and wrenches and kills the earth and its children, we theologize in the presence of burning children. In their presence, rationalization is obliterated. The lament seeks no solutions. None are forthcoming, for sufficiency of meaning is not what the lament calls out for and none have ever been provided such that we rest in peace as children burn and the innocent are ravaged. Instead, the lament embodies a response, as in a response to a call, a path distinct from rationalization but not distinct from thought. In other words, the lament still thinks, it simply does not rationalize. The difference between rationalization and thinking as I’m interpreting these concepts is significant. To rationalize is to justify, to vindicate, to explain away. But what is justifiable in the face of ultimate suffering? What can be explained to a child who is dissolving in a fire or to the child’s loved ones who must witness it? How can a loving God be vindicated when so many innocents suffer in analogous ways? To rationalize is to attempt to wrest the past or the future into the present. This is because explanations, justifications, vindications invariably make use of the past or the future as ways of legitimizing the present. By contrast, to think is to imagine possibilities, to consider, even to believe. To think is an enactment of faith, not so much faith that God might physically intervene or provide solutions as responses to suffering but faith that there is always–always–a task to be accomplished, a call to respond to, a life to be received, a death to be mourned. The lament is the insistence that the present remain fully and and without exception the present, or in other words that the present truly and unconditionally matters. This insistence on the present, in all its glory and brutality, is to maintain that no future hope of rest and salvation and no past hope of future awareness of evil and suffering to come can replace the reality and intensity of the here and now. To require that such a future and past hope can do that work is to collude in the very evil that elicits the lament in the first place. To think is to legitimize the present with nothing other than itself. The lament, then, is the full-souled, embodied mourning of those whose presence is in and with the present.
Let us seriously consider, then, that the narrative of Alma 14 is not, in fact, a theodicy, not an attempt to explain away God’s justification for not saving those who most needed saving, or at least, and this is crucial: not a theodicy propounded or sanctioned by God. Better, let us consider that Alma 14 is best seen as a canceled theodicy. A closer reading of the text reveals that while Alma claims to be constrained by the Spirit to not stretch forth his hand to deliver the victims from the fire, the reasons he provides to Amulek are entirely his own. There is no attribution of these reasons to God. This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that God unreservedly disapproves of Alma’s reasoning; we simply don’t know what God is thinking about the events in question in the text. Thus, it is not that Alma’s reasoning constitutes a bad theodicy, but that, as we will shortly see, what begins, structurally speaking, as a theodicy, ends in an act of nullification that cancels the theodicy’s intended work. Alma, in effect, ultimately abandons his theodicy.
We see the work of canceling the theodicy in Alma and Amulek’s silence in the experience of their own suffering. This, I think, should give us pause. When others were suffering, it was sufficient for Alma that reasons could and should be provided to explain why God would allow it. When suffering themselves, reasons became absurd, the theodicy seemingly falling away. His own experience of suffering condemned reasons to silence. Three times, the text informs us, Alma’s and Amulek’s tormenters demand explanations from them as to why God had not delivered the innocents and was not delivering the two men now. Three times Alma and Amulek “answered them nothing.”  In short: Alma’s and Amulek’s persecutors demand a theodicy from them. It’s possible of course that Alma (or Mormon as the text’s redactor) simply isn’t reiterating the theodicy that Alma had promoted a few verses earlier. But when Alma finally speaks what does he say? Does he explain to the Ammonihahites that they are filling the cup of their iniquity so that judgment could come upon them, or even that the Lord would deliver them from their torment? Does he, in other words, provide them the requested theodicy, repeating to them what he had said to Amulek in the presence of burning children? No. When finally we hear Alma’s voice, it is the cry of the lament: “How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord?” It is possible of course that Alma still believes in the logic of his earlier theodicy, that he can see that his suffering was also furthering the cause of the eventual righteous judgment of the wicked. Nevertheless, his speech here is not the language of theodicy but the raw howl of lamentation. True it is that Alma and Amulek are then delivered from suffering and death in the text when the women and children were not, but the logic of who survives needn’t damage the observation that Alma 14 is not, in the end, (on the level of the narrative as a whole) a theodicy. In Alma 14 we see a movement or trajectory from theodicy to lament, in effect cancelling the work of the theodicy. On the level of textual interpretation, the unravelling of theodicy is one important way that the text becomes redemptively relevant for us.
How do we think of evil and God outside the restrictions and betrayals of the terms of theodicy? How do we do justice to the lament, both our own lamentations and those of others? Ricouer replies that the desire to know the origin of evil, to answer the why me? or why her? and where did this come from? is replaced by the idea of a task to be accomplished. It might, in fact, be more precise to say that the task of the lament is to respond in a particular way to the origin of evil, to reveal what potentially might be done in the face of suffering. This practical response of action calls forth an additional response, that of the emotional response, the catharsis that nourishes the lament and transforms it in the imagination, consideration, and faith of thought. Following Freud, Ricouer refers to the response as the work of mourning. According to Freud, mourning is a step by step letting go of all attachments and investments that make us feel the loss of another as the loss of our very own self. This detachment liberates us for new affective attachments and further investments. Ricoeur wants to consider the work of mourning in relation to the ways in which thought, action, and feeling can all work together in order to transform the lament and and reaffirm our own humanity and God’s divinity without having to worry about whether faith is then jettisoned or strengthened. This is what Ricoeur calls catharsis of the lament, in which the lament is cleansed and purified. Crucially, mourning is a particular form of thought (opposed, remember, to rationalization and explanation), a way of rethinking and re-symbolizing the world in the face of a void or emptiness created by suffering. It is to be affected and influenced and to affect and influence others in this way.
The first step in the catharsis of the lament is to integrate ignorance into the work of mourning. We do not claim to know, nor to have access to the ways in which we could know, why a particular evil event occurred. Secondly, we allow the catharsis of the lament to develop into a kind of complaint against God, a theology of protest. What is to be protested? Not God’s lack of intervention per se, nor even his silence in the face of extreme suffering. Instead, one is to protest the agonizing interlude, suspension, postponement, in which we cry, along with the Psalmist, “How long O Lord?” in which we allow the lament to fully be what it is, that of a cry-against, without reservation. The final stage of catharsis of the lament is to realize that reasons for belief in God have nothing to do with the need we feel to explain the origin of suffering. Suffering is only truly scandalous when God is believed to be the sole source of everything good in creation, including our indignation against evil, our courage to bear it, and our feelings of sympathy towards victims. Instead, we say that we believe in God in spite of evil, not that God is the source of our strength to bear up against it. This last point is obviously controversial, but when we see God as the source of our strength to bear up against evil, this only emphasizes the impossibility of reconciling belief in God with the existence of extreme suffering. Linking belief to relief underscores that only when God alleviates suffering are we truly free to have faith in him. Our beliefs in God, according to Ricoeur, must be severed from our beliefs about the causes of suffering, including the causes of the suffering of God himself in his condescension and atoning death.
Ricoeur allows that many find the ultimate consolation in the idea that God too suffers and that Christ therefore suffers with us, but this remains finally meaningless without the transformation of the lament. The transformation of the lament is the renouncement of the desire to be spared of all suffering. It is the renouncement of the desire for the “infantile component” of our desire for immortality, and the willingness instead to accept our own death. Perhaps the ending of the book of Job lends itself to this idea, where we read that Job came to love God for naught, or in other words that Job’s love for God was not predicated of anything, it wasn’t a conditional love that was only activated upon the fulfillment of certain conditions (i.e., the alleviation of his suffering). His love was not found in the interstices between cause and effect; his faith was not a product of his experience with suffering or vice versa, nor was his faith bound to whatever answers (if any) he may have formulated about the cause of his suffering. The lamentation is enslaved to the cycle of divine retribution and/or divine indifference and Job escaped the cycle in that he did not in the end mourn the injustice of his fate. Which isn’t to say he didn’t mourn; Job seems to have done the work of mourning in the catharsis of the lament, allowing for ignorance, protesting the interlude, and loving God in spite (not because) of the suffering that befell him.
Perhaps the larger issue here, ultimately, is how we orient ourselves to scripture, as the fount of our theology. Alma 14, of course, is but one of many controversial and troubling scriptural accounts. The scriptures are replete with narratives and explanations of the world that fly in the face of what we take to be commonsense and decency. And we don’t really have the option of gluing shut that which makes us uneasy or even disgusted. BYU philosophy professor James Faulconer points out that scripture is qualitatively different from philosophy and theology per se  With scripture, the question is not, what can I know? What can I master? (the language of rationalizing discourse), but instead, how should I be? What should be allowed to master me? The scriptures are not logically reasoned texts, which isn’t to say that they are the polar opposite of rationality, but to say that they are simply from a different world than the world of rational thinking and reasoned justification (another reason why theodicies derived from scripture are at minimum confused). Instead, the scriptures are supposed to call to us, to elicit a response. But not to explain and legitimize. The scriptures do not ask for our intellectual understanding, Faulconer says. They ask for our repentance.
Scripture (and therefore Mormon theology) is meant to be radical in precisely this way, what I will call a subversive radicality, which is that we are unsettled, destabilized, disoriented and then re-oriented, constantly revising what we thought we knew. This is the work of repentance, not merely repentance from sins; or more exactly, sin is to permissively desire the stasis and the fossilization of comfortable familiarity, where we slowly, imperceptibly, and simultaneously become deaf and blind both to the call of the divine and to the cry of others, enclosing ourselves selfishly within ourselves.
Mormon theology in this way is meant to subvert the establishment, in which the establishment is: ourselves established
, continuously calling us out of ourselves and into a world inhabited by rich realities (divine and otherwise) other than our own.
Seen in this light, the religious life cannot be a comfort to us. We think that spiritual comfort or strength is the primary benefit of lived religion but that’s because we continue to bind belief in God to the causes and origins of our sufferings. The call from scripture to repent, to constantly revise yourself in your perpetual brokenness, to reconsider your world, and to reach outward to others as they also call to us is better defined as exhausting, disorienting, and sometimes disheartening. No, religion is anything but comforting and our genuine encounters with God are often painfully transformative. It’s radical indeed to consider a relationship to God that is not comforting and reassuring. But there is still comfort to be had. In Mormonism comfort is a divine mandate
(Mosiah 18) but not as comfort derived from God: we
are to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort. And others can and do comfort us, most often in silence, and in ways that have nothing to do with explanations. In the Mormon theological perspective we participate in mourning that did not originate in ourselves, the suffering of which did not originate in ourselves (remembering, essentially, that mourning is not a synonym for comforting. These are separate and distinct phenomenological tasks, important at different times in their own ways). We remain with those that mourn in such a way (following Ricouer) that we help to create a safe space in which the catharsis of the lament can occur. This means we affirm the appropriateness of ignorance about the cause of suffering, the importance of protest against the suspension of consolation and closure, and a willingness to consider God apart from the causes of suffering, all as a means to allow the work of mourning to proceed for other mourners. Ironic, then, that comfort and assistance was Amulek’s impulse upon seeing the women and children consuming in the fire, an impulse that, by the end of Alma 14, we can plausibly imagine Alma agreeing with.
The very fact of presence is comforting, even, and maybe especially, in silence. That Alma had a constant companion in his suffering, and in the witnessing of ultimate suffering, is perhaps symbolic of the significance of this truth. Together we suffer, though there are no explanations, nothing that can satisfy our intellect. Even on the cross, even after God himself withdrew his presence and Christ cries out that he had been forsaken by God, we usually say that he was lonelier than he had ever been. But is that true? At the foot of the cross, stood the women he had been closest to in life. On either side of him, fellow mortals, also nailed to trees, sharing the form of his death. None of these could provide explanations to him, and of course perhaps he needed none. Perhaps his mission was clear. Though as Albert Camus remarks, following Dostoevsky, maybe this was not ultimately true: “Christ could only really incarnate the ‘human drama’ if he shares that which marks it out as most absurd: a belief that there is no resurrection, that he was tortured and killed for no reason and that he lived and died for a lie.”
In any case, there were none to provide comforting explanations to the women at the cross, nor to his fellow-sufferers. That they were together, that they would not leave him, was all there was. God withdraws from the scene altogether, and what is left? The mourners and the comforters, to whatever extent possible. Not that God is simply unable to provide reasons. But if he truly suffers with us, of what value can these reasons possibly have? Can they turn genuine suffering into non-suffering? No, this seems putatively impossible. If God suffers with us, not just physically but emotionally or psychologically, including the suffering of the absurd and the meaningless, then reasons will not save us. Even if God cannot, because of intimate relation with the world and the broadest perspective possible, cognitively comprehend absurd meaninglessness, reasons will still not save us. The only thing that will save us, perhaps, is first—to discern that there are always those, worlds without end, who need us to mourn for them—the task to which we devote ourselves in the presence of the suffering of others. Second, to have available to us at least the possibility to realize that at least someone remains with us, noticeable even in absence, the only one whose presence or absence, for all of us, believer and non-believer alike, is always manifest, always unmistakably apparent for each one of us, the one who eternally remains, even if in silence.
 “Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil,” in In Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, 237–284. Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002. I should note here that Ostler has written a piece on the problem of evil in Mormon thought that will likely supersede this one, to be published in a forthcoming book.
 I don’t have time or space for this, but the parallels here with Christ’s experience before Pilate, in which Christ also says nothing to Pilate’s inquiries, are quite interesting.
 See James E. Faulconer, Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010).