A ‘Vale of Soul-Making’ (Part 1)

This is the first installment of a trilogy of posts I intend to make about Mormon responses to the problem of evil. The title is a turn of phrase I’ve ruthlessly stolen from John Keats because I think it best reflects the most popular answer given by LDS thinkers to date.

The Problem

The problem of evil is essentially the tension that rises between a certain conception of God and the existence of a variety of evils in today’s world. Peter Berger aptly explains the importance of investigating any religion’s response to the problem of evil:

The anomic phenomena must only be lived through, they must also be explained-to wit, explained in terms of the nomos [Lawful Explanation] established in the society in question. An explanation of these phenomena in terms of religious legitimations, of whatever degree of theoretical sophistication, may be called a theodicy [God’s justification]. It is important to stress here particularly…that such an explanation need not entail a complex theoretical system. The illiterate peasant who comments upon the death of a child by referring to the will of God is engaging in theodicy as much as the learned theologian who writes a treatise to demonstrate that the suffering of the innocent does not negate the conception of a God both all-good and all-powerful. All the same, it is possible to differentiate theodicies in terms of their degree of rationality, that is, the degree to which they entail a theory that coherently and consistently explains the phenomena in question in terms of an over  all view of the universe. Such a theory, of course, once it is socially established, may be refracted on different levels of sophistication throughout the society. Thus, the peasant, when he speaks about the will of God, may himself intend, however inarticulately, the majestic theodicy constructed by the theologian. [1]

In other words, what a specific religion says about evil will tell us a great deal about how that particular religion sees humanity’s relation to the entire universe. It also give us something to assess in terms of that religion’s credibility, namely its ability to give its adherents proper and useful categories for thinking about evil itself.

Historical Background

The traditional theodicy of the Western (Latin) tradition usually begins with Augustine. To Augustine, the creation and redemption of the world are key aspects to any biblical worldview, and the existence of evil and suffering posed a serious puzzle. If God created the world free from any contamination by evil (as He would surely do), how then did evil get introduced to the world?

Augustine’s answer (and lasting influence) is that evil is the consequence of human free will and its abuses. If there is evil in the world, it comes from its fallen creatures. This, of course, invites the question: how did humans get free will if they were created without it? Here, Augustine starts to lose steam. He blames the introduction of free will on satanic temptation, tracing it back to Satan, the fallen angel, and his rebellion against God. However, when asked how an angel who was created wholly good by a perfect Creator is even capable of rebelling, Augustine remains silent.

Another view comes from Irenaeus of Lyons (130 c.e.-200 c.e.) who was born somewhere near Smyrna in modern-day Turkey, though he later became Bishop of Lyons in 178 c. e. He is famous for his polemics against Gnosticism and his vigorous defense of the role tradition must play in remaining faithful to apostolic witness when confronted with abhorrent interpretations of scripture. Irenaeus’ answer to the problem of evil seems to take the opposite track of Augustine’s thought:

God made humanity to be master of the earth and of all which was there…Yet this could only take place when humanity had attained its adult stage…Yet humanity was little, being but a child. It had to grow and reach full maturity…God prepared a place for humanity which was better than this world…a paradise of such beauty and goodness that the Word of God constantly walked in it, and talked with humanity; prefiguring that future time when he would live with human beings and talk with them, associating with human beings and teaching them righteousness.. But humanity was a child; and its mind was not yet fully mature; and thus humanity was easily led astray by the deceiver. [2]

To Irenaeus, evil is a necessary component to spiritual maturation and is required for humanity to overcome before we can collectively reach the ‘adult stage’. Augustine looks back at creation and sees the fall of humanity from a perfect creation due to the misuse of human freedom, whereas Irenaeus looks forward to the eschaton and the final stage of God’s plan for humanity through the use of human freedom.

Mormon thinkers often find themselves favoring Irenaeus’ unique theme over and against the more traditional theodicy offered by Augustine and later Christian thinkers, so next installment we’ll take a look at two modern philosophers and their more current theodicies that relate to or borrow from Irenaeus’ ideas.

[1] “The Sacred Canopy Peter Berger, New York, 1967, page 54.

[2] “Demonstration of the Apostolic PreachingIrenaeus, in Source Chretiennes volume 62, edited by L. M. Froidevaux, Paris, 1965, page 51.


A ‘Vale of Soul-Making’ (Part 1) — 10 Comments

  1. Minor quibble, Patrick. You said that Augustine “blames the introduction of free will on satanic temptation, tracing it back to Satan.” My understanding is that Augustine says humans were created with free will. He describes our created state as “possible not to sin.” This contrasts with our post-Fall state, “not possible not to sin.” So it’s not free will that he traces to Satan, but the bondage of the will. The Fall was a loss of free will, not an acquisition of it.

    If God created us with the possibility of sinning, does this make God the creator of sin? Here Augustine punts to the idea that evil doesn’t really exist; it’s simply a privation of good. That’s the core of Augustine’s theodicy, IMO.

    Anyway, good first post, and I look forward to reading the rest of your series!

  2. Nice explanation of origins of these two lines of thoughts.

    Do you know if either Augustine or Irenaeus addressed evil that is not associated with freewill (IE acts of God, or acts of nature)?

    I could see how Irenaeus’s line of thinking could accommodate acts of God as part of God’s attempt to help humanity grow into adulthood. I have a harder time seeing how Augustine could explain this.

  3. Since the focus will be on Irenaeus, I’ll comment on that. It is true that human society has been changing and becoming more peaceful (maturing) over the last few hundred years (A book called “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker makes this argument well). But I still don’t think that really answers the question. First, we usually give less strict punishments to children (for example, in America, people under the age of 18 can not be given the death penalty for any crime whereas people over the age of 18 can in some circumstances). But are we really willing to say that less developed countries should be shown this lower standard as well? Are the brutalities in places like North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Sudan less serious because they are done by “less developed” countries? And if human society is unwilling to cut these dictators a break, why should God? Most people want to step in to stop the atrocities even if they feel they can’t for whatever reason (often arguing, for example, that going to war would only make things worse for the people suffering). But God, we are told, has no such limitations. He is all powerful. He could stop all abuse, murder, rape, beatings ect if he wanted to or at least punish people afterwards for doing it. And yet often these people have no Earthly punishment. We are told by many faiths that they will be punished after death, but it is always hidden where the living can not see it to know whether it is actually happening or not. This seems to be a problem to me.

    Secondly, as cvbarrus mentioned, there is the problem of acts of God. Things like earthquakes, floods, forest fires, tornados, blizzards, ect which are not directly caused by humans. Some people may claim that these disasters teach us to mature as humans, but a moment’s thought will show this not to be true. If a father locked his three children in a burning building, letting two of them die while one of them survived with 3rd degree burns, in order to teach his children to “be mature” we wouldn’t praise him. We’d arrest him for child abuse and murder. Why should God throwing natural disasters at us be held to a weaker standard?

  4. Hey Chris,
    I had to gloss for the sake of brevity, but Augustine has a different notion of the “will” Adam and Eve had in the garden, then of the “will” humans have today. Satan’s temptation is what spoiled Adam and Eve’s “will” that was given to them by God. Book 7 in his Confessions goes into some detail, but I drew heavily on his dialogues with Evodius in ‘On Free Choice of the Will’, specifically book II, when I was trying to construct his theodicy for myself.

  5. Hi cvbarrus,

    Augustine does, into some detail in his ‘City of God’ defense of Christianity, but I don’t think Irenaeus does, he never really got a chance to develop this idea (or if he did, it wasn‘t preserved). Augustine was kind of forced into making those kind of distinctions about evil, because he had the hefty task of explaining why the decline of the Roman Empire had absolutely nothing to do with the rise of Christianity within the Empire.

  6. Patrick,

    Are you perhaps saying that Augustine makes Satanic temptation the origin of the idea to sin, which just creates the new problem of where Satan got the idea?

  7. You’re right, it is hard to see how a father purposefully allowing his children to burn in a house — would be helping those children grow, or mature in some manner. I suppose a common response to that example would be that we don’t understand God’s ways, or see things from an eternal perspective.

    I’m looking forward to see where you take this Patrick.

    -Clair (formerly “cvbarrus”).

  8. Very interesting, Patrick. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Interesting enough, I believe that this will dovetail nicely with what I hope to share as my initial post in the blog: an explanation of the concept of agency in LDS scripture.


  9. It seems to me, Chris’ latest question is spot on, although I don’t know if it’s the “new” problem.