The news yesterday was worse that usual, but not unprecedented. Once again, innocent lives lost because of inexplicably evil acts. It occurs daily, but some stories pierce our hearts more than others. And for many people, it raises a very old and familiar question: “Why would a just God allow that to happen?”
I think it is a perfectly fair question. You don’t have to look too hard to see the ugliness and evil in the world, especially the violence and neglect directed at children. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t read a news item that leaves me in stunned silence, and I don’t blame anyone who, taking it all in, questions the value of a God that allows such living nightmares to occur. Countless theologians and philosophers have wrestled with this question, and I’m uncertain whether I can add anything to the mix. But I have a free hour and a blog, so why not give it a shot?
I try to approach this question a little differently. If we are willing to assume that there is a God, what other kind of world could He have created? What is the alternative to the mess we are in now?
In my mind, evil acts are the result of evil choices. The only way to absolutely ensure that nobody does anything awful is to take away the option of doing so. Consider how parents raise their children. In order to avoid certain bad things happening to their children, parents remove some of their choices. For example, it is important to me that my daughters live virtuous lives. One of the things that I believe will help them get to that goal is if I do not permit them to date until they are 16. By eliminating certain choices, I hope to eliminate dangerous behavior.
But they have to date sometime. My daughters would be missing out on the greatest joys of life if they were never permitted to date, marry and have children. Locking them in their rooms for the rest of their lives would leave them innocent, but it would also leave them incomplete. So, at the end of the day, even an overprotective dad has to let his kids take some risks in order for them to grow, progress, and be able to participate in the good things of life. (Which is not to say that I still don’t try to do what I can to protect them: There is a bat in the umbrella basket by the front door for a reason…)
From a historical perspective, societies generally must balance freedom and safety. The most “stable” societies typically are totalitarian regimes in which the people are given few options about how to live their lives. Even in the United States, following the terrorist attacks of 2011, we were faced with the hard choice of whether to improve our security at the cost of certain liberties. Which means that now I don’t have the freedom of wearing socks with holes to the airport without everyone knowing about it.
Taking things more universally, would we really want a life in which all choices were taken from us, in which God–for our own “good”–would give us no option to fail? Would we be willing to exchange what we have now for perpetual moral slavery?
Mormons believe that each of us already has answered that question. One of the unique aspects of Mormonism is that it provides considerably more detail about our existence before coming to mortality than do other Christian churches. What we believe, based upon the Bible and other scripture is that all of us existed as spirit children of our Heavenly Father prior to coming to Earth. We believe that our Father in Heaven presented to all of us a plan by which we would be able to gain physical bodies and our moral agency so that we could experience the trials and temptations of mortality and eventually be able to return to Him. Our Father’s plan recognized that none of us would be perfect in mortality, and therefore He provided a way for us to overcome our sins: The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
However, we also believe that Lucifer (Satan) was in that great council in Heaven, and that he opposed our Father’s plan. We believe that he proposed instead that he would save us in mortality by taking away our moral agency and forcing us to be obedient (with the added condition that the glory for such success would go to him and not our Father in Heaven).
We believe that Lucifer was cast out of the presence of God for his disobedience, but he did not go quietly or alone. We teach that a third of our Father in Heaven’s children followed him in rebellion, rejecting the risks of moral agency or free choice, and that they were cast out of our Father’s presence and are now Lucifer’s subjects and servants.
Thus, LDS doctrine teaches that the question of liberty versus captivity was the first and most fundamental debate, one that rent our premortal family apart at the seams. According to Mormon belief, taking our moral agency from us, along with all of the good and ill that results from it, would be the ultimate evil. We believe that we were meant to grow and progress and learn to be like our Father, but to do that we must choose good, rather than be sheltered from evil.
Yes, there are costs associated with that, and some of them are great. A world in which there is a choice is a world in which there is suffering. But choice also comes with accountability. While some look at the evil in the world and wonder how God could permit such things on His watch, we also need to ask how we have permitted such things on our watch.
Our task, it seems to me, is to use our God-given agency to alleviate suffering where we can, to bring light and happiness to those within our respective circles of influence, and to oppose evil. We won’t eliminate all suffering, but we aren’t expected to. Even in His own mortal ministry, Christ did not heal every leper, restore sight to every blind eye, or raise every father’s daughter from the dead. But wherever he was, he made inroads against suffering, one person at a time. We need to find a way to do the same.