Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil



Nothing challenges the rationality of our belief in God or tests our trust in him more severely than human suffering and wickedness. Both are pervasive in our common experience. If this is not immediately evident, a glance at the morning paper or the evening news will make it so. At the moment, names like “Oklahoma City,” “Columbine,” “Kosovo,” and “Turkey” evoke image upon image of unspeakable human cruelty or grief. But still “Auschwitz” and “Belsen” haunt our memories. And who can fathom the anguish of family members in West Valley, Utah, when they discovered their precious little girls suffocated together in the trunk of an automobile, the tragic outcome of an innocent game of hide-and-seek. Or the trauma of a dear friend of mine and his five young children who day by day for several months watched their lovely wife and mother wither down to an emaciated skeleton of eighty-five pounds as she endured a slow and painful death from inoperable cancer of the throat. Scenes like these are repeated daily a thousand and a thousand times.

But we need not speak only of the sufferings of others. Few of us here will escape deep anguish, for it is apparently no respecter of persons and comes in many guises, arising out of our experience of incurable or debilitating diseases, mental illness, broken homes, child and spouse abuse, rape, wayward loved ones, tragic accidents, untimely death—the list can be extended indefinitely. No doubt, many of us have already cried out, “Why, God? Why?” And many of us, often on behalf of a loved one, have already pleaded, “Please, God, please help,” and then wondered as, seemingly, the only response we’ve heard has been a deafening silence. All of us have struggled, or likely will struggle, in a very personal way with the problem of evil.

I say the problem of evil, but actually there are many. I want to consider just three, which I will call (1) the logical problem of evil, (2) the soteriological problem of evil, and (3) the practical problem of evil. The logical problem is the apparent contradiction between the world’s evils and an all-loving, all-powerful creator. The soteriological problem is the apparent contradiction between certain Christian concepts of salvation and an all-loving Heavenly Father. The practical problem is the personal challenge of living trustingly and faithfully in the face of what seems to be overwhelming evil.

The Logical Problem of Evil

Soaked as it is with human suffering and moral evil, how is it possible that our world is the creation of an almighty, perfectly loving creator? So stated, the logical problem of evil poses a puzzle of deep complexity. But the conundrum evoked by our reflection on this question appears to be more than just a paradox: we seem to stare contradiction right in the face. The ancient philosopher Epicurus framed the contradiction in the form of a logical dilemma: Either God is unwilling to prevent evil or he is unable. If he is unwilling, then he cannot be perfectly good; if he is unable, then he cannot be all powerful. Whence then evil? And eighteenth-century skeptic David Hume expressed the contradiction in much the same way:

Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.1

The Traditional Formulation. Hume’s succinct statement has since provided the framework within which the logical problem of evil has been discussed. However, I believe Hume’s way of formulating the problem is far too narrow, unjust to both challenger and defender of belief in God—especially to the Christian defender. For the challenger intent on disproving God’s existence, I do not believe that the problem has been stated in its starkest form. While affirming that (i) God is perfectly good and (ii) all-powerful, traditional Christian theologians commonly affirm two additional propositions that intensify the problem: (iii) God created all things absolutely—that is, out of nothing, and (iv) God has absolute foreknowledge of all the outcomes of his creative choices. While apologists for belief in God have labored long to reconcile the world’s evil with God’s goodness and power, they have often overlooked the much more difficult task of reconciling evil, not only with his goodness and power, but with God’s absolute creation and absolute foreknowledge as well.

Twentieth-century English philosopher Antony Flew takes these additional premises into account in arguing that any such reconciliation is impossible. It is perfectly proper in the face of apparently pointless evil, he says, to look first for some saving explanation which will show that, in spite of appearances, there really is a God who loves us. But Flew claims that believers have assigned God attributes which block a saving explanation altogether:

We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe.2

We can formulate Flew’s version of the logical problem of evil as follows:

(i) God exists, is perfectly loving, omnipotent, and omniscient, and created all things absolutely.

(ii) Evils occur.

(iii) A perfectly loving being prevents all the evils it can.

(iv) An omnipotent, omniscient, absolute creator can prevent all evils.

(v) Hence, all evils are prevented. (i) (iii) (iv)

(vi) Therefore, evils occur and all evils are prevented. (ii) and (v)

By means of this argument, Flew attempts to reduce traditional assumptions about the nature of God to a logical contradiction. Or, to state Flew’s argument differently, if God creates all things (including finite agents) absolutely (that is, out of nothing), knowing beforehand all the actual future consequences of his creative choices, then he is an accessory before the fact and ultimately responsible for every moral and nonmoral defect in the universe. And if, as some believers allege, some human agents will suffer endlessly in hell, God is also at least jointly responsible for these horrendous outcomes. But if so, how can he possibly be perfectly loving? Given the traditional understanding of God, whatever our consistency-saving strategies, in the end (I believe) we must candidly confess that they are not very convincing.

Theodicy in Broader Terms. On the other hand, this exclusive focus on reconciling evil with just a set of divine attributes is unfair to the Christian defender. For it fails to acknowledge the incarnation of God the Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and his triumph over suffering, sin, and death through his Atonement and Resurrection. Any Christian account of the problem of evil that fails to consider this—Christ’s mission to overcome the evil we experience—will be but a pale abstraction of what it could and should be.

I propose, then, to consider the problem of evil from this broader perspective, confronting it in terms of its starkest statement, but also in terms of its strongest possible solution: a worldview centered in the saving acts of Jesus Christ.

The Prophet Joseph Smith received revealed insights that do address the problem of evil in its broadest terms. His revelations suggest what might be called a soul-making theodicy (or explanation of evil), centered within a distinctively Christian soteriology (or doctrine of salvation). But both are framed within a theology that rejects absolute creation and, consequently, rejects the philosophical definition of divine omnipotence which affirms that there are no (or no nonlogical) limits to what God can do. The Prophet’s worldview, I believe, dissolves the logical and soteriological problems of evil while infusing with meaning and hope our personal struggles with suffering, sin, and death. To show (albeit briefly) that this is so is my purpose.

Theodicy (literally, God’s justice) is the attempt to reconcile God’s goodness with the evil that occurs in the world. In coming to appreciate the power of Joseph Smith’s revealed insights for such reconciliation, it will be instructive to compare and contrast them with the theodicy developed by contemporary philosopher John Hick in his fine book Evil and the God of Love, widely recognized as the watershed work on the problem of evil.

In Evil and the God of Love, Hick constructs a soul-making theodicy that retains the doctrine of absolute creation. The soul-making component in Hick’s theodicy is highly reminiscent of Joseph’s revelation. Both affirm that God’s fundamental purposes in creating us and our world environment include first, enabling us, as morally and spiritually immature agents created in the image of God, to develop into God’s likeness; and second, enabling us to enter into an authentic (that is, a free and uncompelled) relationship of love and fellowship with him. To achieve these ends, Hick says, God endowed us with the power of self-determination (or, as he calls it, incompatibilist freedom) and, to preserve that freedom, epistemically distanced us from himself. God effects that distancing, Hick suggests, by having us emerge as largely self-centered creatures out of a naturalistic evolutionary process, or, as Joseph maintains, by God’s “veiling” our memory of our premortal existence. God also endowed us, Hick says, with a rudimentary awareness of Him and some tendency toward moral self-transcendence. The Prophet identifies this awareness and predisposition as “the light of Christ which enlighteneth every man who cometh into the world” (D&C 84:46). Soul-making (that is, development into the moral and spiritual likeness of God) occurs as we overcome our self-centeredness by making moral choices within an environment fraught with hardship, pain, and suffering.

To this point, the understandings of Hick and Joseph seem strikingly similar.

Absolute Creation: Hick and Joseph. With respect to creation, however, Hick and the Prophet maintain decidedly different positions. Hick affirms absolute creation (or creation out of nothing), while Joseph denies it. With his affirmation of absolute creation, Hick endorses all four theological postulates—perfect goodness, absolute power, absolute foreknowledge, and absolute creation—which confront him head-on with Flew’s divine complicity argument. And Hick sees as clearly as Flew, and explicitly acknowledges, the logical consequence of his position: God is ultimately responsible for all the evil that occurs in the world. Hick explains why this is so.

One whose action, A, is the primary and necessary precondition for a certain occurrence, O, all other direct conditions for O being contingent upon A, may be said to be responsible for O, if he performs A in awareness of its relation to O and if he is also aware that, given A, the subordinate conditions will be fulfilled. . . . [God’s] decision to create the existing universe was the primary and necessary precondition for the occurrence of evil, all other conditions being contingent upon this, and He took His decision in awareness of all that would flow from it.3

But given Hick’s admission that God is ultimately responsible for all the evil that occurs in the world, how can he possibly claim that God is perfectly loving?

Hick’s Way Out. Hick sees one, and only one, way out. His avenue of escape is through appeal to a doctrine of universal salvation. In Hick’s view, all of us will finally achieve an authentic relationship with God in a postmortal life, the value of which will far outweigh any finite evil suffered here. He explains:

We must thus affirm in faith that there will in the final accounting be no personal life that is unperfected and no suffering that has not eventually become a phase in the fulfilment of God’s good purpose. Only so, I suggest, is it possible to believe both in the perfect goodness of God and in His unlimited capacity to perform His will. For if there are finally wasted lives and finally unredeemed sufferings, either God is not perfect in love or He is not sovereign in rule over His creation.4

Though I find Hick’s way out appealing, its scriptural warrant is questionable, and it engenders conceptual difficulties of its own. Let us consider briefly just two.

(i) Though, in Hick’s view, God endows us with a strong power of self-determination, it does not follow from his view that our choices occur in a vacuum. They are always choices of particular persons with particular natures. Recall that Hick describes our primordial nature as being largely self-centered with a rudimentary awareness of God and some slight tendency toward morality. Since in Hick’s account God creates out of nothing these primal natures (or, alternatively, the world process that invariably produces these natures), I see no reason, given Hick’s assumptions, why God could not have made us significantly better than we are. Why is there not, for example, some significant reduction in our sometimes seemingly overwhelming tendencies toward self-centeredness or some significant increase in our natural aversion to violence? Such creative choices on God’s part might have narrowed somewhat the options over which our own choices might range but would apparently negate neither incompatibilist freedom nor soul-making objectives. Seemingly, Hick’s absolute creator could have made a much better world than ours.

(ii) On the other hand, it is hard to see how it can be certain (as Hick claims) that God, without compromising anyone’s freedom, will inevitably lure every finite agent into a loving relationship with himself. Given that in Hick’s view we must have incompatibilist freedom in order to enter into an authentic personal relationship with God, how can it be certain that there won’t be, as C. S. Lewis suggested, “rebels to the end” with “the doors of hell . . . locked on the inside”?5 How can this possibility be precluded? Hick suggests that while it is not theoretically, it is practically precluded because

God has formed the free human person with a nature that can find its perfect fulfillment and happiness only in active enjoyment of the infinite goodness of the Creator. He is not, then, trying to force or entice His creatures against the grain of their nature, but to render them free to follow their own deepest desire, which can lead them only to Himself. For He has made them for Himself, and their hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him.6

But now Hick is waffling, for it appears that we are not free after all. If so, Hick’s position is inconsistent. To account for moral evil, Hick posits God’s giving us incompatibilist freedom and genuine independence to choose for ourselves—even contrary to His desires for us. But given his affirmation of absolute creation and absolute foreknowledge, Hick sees that God’s perfect goodness is possible only if not one soul is lost. To salvage God’s goodness, Hick is forced to accept some mode of determinism that undermines his free-will defense. Hick’s way out, as appealing as it first appears, seems on analysis to be incoherent.

Joseph’s Way Out. Joseph’s way out of the conceptual incoherency generated by the traditional theological premises is to not go in. His revelations circumvent the theoretical problem of evil by denying the trouble-making postulate of absolute creation and, consequently, the classical definition of divine omnipotence. Contrary to classical Christian thought, Joseph explicitly affirmed that there are entities and structures which are coeternal with God himself (D&C 93:23, 29). In my reading of Joseph’s discourse, these eternal entities include chaotic matter, intelligences (or what I will call primal persons), and lawlike structures or principles. According to Smith, God’s creative activity consists of bringing order out of disorder, of organizing a cosmos out of chaos, not of the production of something out of nothing. Two statements from Joseph’s King Follett sermon should give some sense of how radically his understanding of creation departs from the classical Christian notion. With respect to the creation, Joseph wrote:

You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say He created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize. . . . Hence, we infer that God has materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter. . . . Element had an existence from the time [God] had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end.7

More particularly, with respect to the creation of man, Joseph added:

The mind of man—the immortal spirit. Where did it come from? All learned men and doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning; but it is not so. . . . I am going to tell of things more noble.

We say that God himself is a self-existent being. Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles? Man does exist upon the same principles. God made a tabernacle and put a spirit into it, and it became a living soul. . . . How does it read in the Hebrew? It does not say in the Hebrew that God created the spirit of man. It says “God made man out of the earth and put into him Adam’s spirit, and so became a living body.”

The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is [coeternal] with God himself.8

Elsewhere Joseph taught that there are also “laws of eternal and self-existent principles”9—normative structures of some kind, I take it, that constitute things as they (eternally) are. What are possible instances of such laws or principles? Lehi, I believe, makes reference to some such principles in the enlightening and comforting explanation of evil he provides to his son Jacob as recorded in 2 Nephi 2 in the Book of Mormon, an explanation I call Lehi’s theodicy. “Adam fell that men might be,” Lehi tells Jacob, “and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). But to attain this joy, Lehi explains that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, . . . righteousness . . . could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness [nor] holiness, . . . neither good nor bad, . . . [neither] happiness nor misery” (2 Ne. 2:11). “And [so] to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, . . . it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Ne. 2:15–16). According to Lehi, there are apparently states of affairs that even God, though omnipotent, cannot bring about. Man is that he might have joy, but even God cannot bring about joy without moral righteousness, moral righteousness without moral freedom, moral freedom without an opposition in all things (2 Ne. 2:25–26; italics added). With moral freedom as an essential variable in the divine equation for man, two consequences stand out saliently: (i) the inevitability of moral evil, and (ii) our need for a redeemer.

If my interpretation of 2 Nephi 2 is correct, then we ought to reject the classical definition of omnipotence in favor of an understanding that fits better with the inspired text. Given that text, how ought we understand divine omnipotence? B. H. Roberts plausibly proposed that God’s omnipotence be understood as the power to bring about any state of affairs consistent with the natures of eternal existences.10 So understood, we can coherently adopt an “instrumentalist” view of evil wherein pain, suffering, and opposition become means of moral and spiritual development. God is omnipotent, but he cannot prevent evil without preventing greater goods or ends—soul-making, joy, eternal (or Godlike) life—the value of which more than offsets the disvalue of the evil.

Armed with Joseph’s doctrine of entities coeternal with God and our revised definition of divine omnipotence, let us consider again the logical problem of evil and Flew’s argument charging God with complicity in all the world’s evil. From Joseph’s theological platform, it does not follow that God is the total or even the ultimate explanation of all else. Thus, Joseph Smith’s worldview (unlike that of classical theism) does not imply that God is an accessory before the fact to all the world’s evil. Nor does it follow that God is responsible for every moral and nonmoral defect that occurs in the world. Indeed, it does follow that the strictly logical problem of evil is dissolved. This conclusion can be seen more clearly when Flew’s reductio ad absurdum argument (see page 55) is restated with premises drawn from the Prophet’s insights:

(i) God exists, is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly loving, and created (organized) our world employing eternally existing structures and entities.

(ii) Evils occur.

(iii) A perfectly loving being prevents all the evil he can without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil.

(iv) An omnipotent being can do anything consistent with the natures of eternal existences.

From these premises, it does not follow that all evils are prevented. Rather, what does follow is a much more complex conclusion, something like this:

(v) Hence, whatever evils occur are, given the natures of eternal existences, either

(a) unpreventable absolutely

(b) unpreventable by God, but not absolutely11

(c) unpreventable by God without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil. (i) (iii) (iv)12

On Joseph’s premises, therefore, it does not follow that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically incompatible.

Of course, recognizing this fact does not serve to explain or explain away every instance of evil. What it does do is to make possible saving explanations of the world’s evils, explanations that in no way impugn God’s loving-kindness. To see what such explanations might be like, we need to fill out the picture considerably. And to do so, it will be needful to move from argument and analysis to narrative. This is a task for another venue, but articulating a Mormon theology will involve a rehearsal of the old familiar yet ever new and renewing story of the plan of salvation.

The Soteriological Problem of Evil

Earlier when I first introduced the logical problem of evil, I argued that most discussions of the problem were too narrow and especially unfair to the Christian believer in that they failed to take into account the problem’s strongest possible solution—the incarnation of God the Son in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and his triumph over sin, suffering, and death through his Atonement and Resurrection. But ironically, “the strongest possible solution” to the problem of evil when understood in traditional terms becomes, itself, part of the problem. How can this be?

This—the soteriological problem—arises out of the scriptural teaching that salvation comes through, and only through, Christ. For instance, John reports Jesus as having claimed this very thing: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Similarly, Peter declares: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

In his book The Logic of God Incarnate, Thomas Morris, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, puts the difficulty (which he calls a “scandal”) this way:

The scandal . . . arises with a simple set of questions asked of the Christian theologian who claims that it is only through the life and death of God incarnated in Jesus Christ that all can be saved and reconciled to God: How can the many humans who lived and died before the time of Christ be saved through him? They surely cannot be held accountable for responding appropriately to something of which they could have no knowledge. Furthermore, what about all the people who have lived since the time of Christ in cultures with different religious traditions, untouched by the Christian gospel? How can they be excluded fairly from a salvation not ever really available to them? How could a just God set up a particular condition of salvation, the highest end of human life possible, which was and is inaccessible to most people? Is not the love of God better understood as universal, rather than as limited to a mediation through the one particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not a moral as well as a religious scandal to claim otherwise?13

Claremont professor of philosophy Stephen Davis expresses a similar perplexity. In a recent issue of Modern Theology, he put the problem this way:

Suppose there was a woman named Oohku who lived from 370–320 B.C. in the interior of Borneo. Obviously, she never heard of Jesus Christ or the Judeo-Christian God; she was never baptized, nor did she ever make any institutional or psychological commitment to Christ or the Christian church. She couldn’t have done these things; she was simply born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Is it right for God to condemn this woman to eternal hell just because she was never able to come to God through Christ? Of course not. . . . God is just and loving.14

The problem that Morris and Davis state can be expressed in terms of an inconsistent triad, a set of three premises all of which are apparently true yet the conjunction of any two of which seemingly entails the denial of the third:

(i) God is perfectly loving and just and desires that all of his children be saved.

(ii) Salvation comes only in and through one’s acceptance of Christ.

(iii) Millions of God’s children have lived and died without ever hearing of Christ or having a chance to receive salvation through him.

(iii) is indisputable, forcing us, it seems to give up either (i) or (ii), both of which seem clearly warranted on biblical authority. So how to resolve the puzzle? The issue is receiving much attention right now from keen and sensitive Christian thinkers. Proposed resolutions are many, ranging from “universalism” on one pole to “exclusivism” on the other. Universalists typically affirm premise (i), compelling them to deny the explicit New Testament teaching that salvation comes only in and through acceptance of Christ. Exclusivists usually affirm (ii), concluding that Oohku, and millions others like her, must be lost. But this leaves them at a loss to square their view with (i). Neither view is satisfactory.

Many Latter-day Saints readily recognize that adding a premise (iv) to the triad resolves the puzzle:

(iv) Those who live and die without having a chance to respond positively to the gospel of Jesus Christ will have that chance in the spirit world.

Thank God for Joseph Smith! Not merely for being God’s conduit in resolving one more thorny problem of evil, but for being the instrument through whom God restored the knowledge and priesthood powers that make the redemption of the dead possible. In an eternal perspective, the only evil is damnation, and by solving the problem of salvation for the dead, the Prophet removed the classical barriers encountered in the problem of soteriology. Elder John Taylor wrote truly when he penned the words “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).

The Practical Problem of Evil

It is vital, finally, to consider the Prophet Joseph’s contribution to the practical problem of evil—the personal challenge of living trustingly and faithfully in the face of what seems to be overwhelmingly evil. Joseph left us much by way of revelation that speaks to this problem of evil, but perhaps his own life speaks more powerfully than the words.

Joseph was no stranger to sorrow. He speaks, though inspired by God, from the crucible of his own experience. In section 127 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Prophet reflects, “The envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life. . . . Deep water is what I am wont to swim in.” Indeed, Joseph faced continual persecution. He faced health problems and painful surgery. He was tarred and feathered, subjected to numerous lawsuits, and confined in intolerable conditions in dungeonlike jails. He was deeply affected by the death of his brother Alvin; his brother Don Carlos and his father also died prematurely. Four of his eleven children, including twin sons, died at childbirth, and a fifth died at fourteen months. Joseph was never financially well-to-do and was often impoverished. For much of his life, he had no regular place to call home. After the failure of the bank in Kirtland, many of his friends turned against him. It was members of the Church who published the Nauvoo Expositor for the purposes of denouncing him, and this event eventually culminated in his martyrdom. Even Joseph, who walked so closely with God, on occasion in his life experienced the troubling sense of God’s absence when he felt God should have been there for him.

A case in point: the dark days of 1838 when the Saints were driven from Missouri. The setting was as follows: A vast number of Mormon families had been burned out of their homes by mobs. Fathers were tied to trees and bullwhipped. Thirty-four people, including women and children, had been massacred at a settlement known as Haun’s Mill. Shortly thereafter, the Mormon settlement at Far West, Missouri, was sieged and sacked by the state militia. Contrary to their leaders’ orders, soldiers raped some of the women, one of them so many times that she was rendered unconscious.15 Joseph Smith had been betrayed by a friend and turned over to military mobsters to be killed. He was taken to a small dungeon called Liberty Jail. During the four months of imprisonment, Joseph and his companions were abused, fed human flesh, and left in filthy conditions.

Joseph Smith felt abandoned by God. In a prayer, Joseph questioned from the depths of his soul, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people?” (D&C 121:1–2). In response to this prayer of the soul’s desperation, Joseph heard God:

My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high. (D&C 121:7–8)

Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? (D&C 122:7–8)

Confronted with what seemed overwhelming evil, Joseph found meaning in his suffering, maintained hope, trusted God, kept the faith. And God spoke peace. As befit the Savior himself, Joseph too “learned . . . by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).


As I have perused the philosophical literature on the problem of evil and noted men’s perplexities and then returned to once more ponder the revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith, I have been constantly amazed. Joseph had no training in theology, no doctor of divinity degree; his formal education was at best scanty. And yet through him comes light that dissolves the profoundest paradoxes and strengthens and edifies me through my own personal trials. The world calls him “an enigma,” but I know that the inspiration of the Almighty gave him understanding. I bear witness that he was a prophet of God.

About the author(s)

David L. Paulsen has served as a member of the Brigham Young University faculty since 1972 and currently serves as Professor of Philosophy. He received his B.S. in political science from Brigham Young University in 1961, his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1964, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan in 1975. He has published “The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Judeo-Christian, Restoration, and Philosophical Perspectives,” BYU Studies 35, no. 4 (1995–96): 6–94. Professor Paulsen also served as the Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding from 1994 to 1998.

This address was given at a forum at Brigham Young University on September 21, 1999. I must acknowledge my debt to others for much that appears in this address. My thinking on the subject was first stimulated by reading many years ago Truman Madsen’s Eternal Man—a classic that ought to be reprinted. My idea has been shaped by conversations and collaborative work with Blake Ostler. Indeed, some of my text is taken from that work with him. Finally, my thinking has been refined by numerous in- and out-of-class discussions with hundreds of students over the past twenty-seven years. To these students and to Truman and Blake, I express gratitude.


1. David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. Richard H. Popkin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 66.

2. Anthony Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Anthony Flew and Alasdair Macintyre (London: SCM, 1955), 107.

3. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977), 290.

4. Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 340.

5. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 127, italics in original.

6. Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 344–45, italics added.

7. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 350–52.

8. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet, 352–53. According to the transcriptions of Joseph’s sermon, the Prophet apparently used the word “co-equal” rather than “coeternal.” See Donald Q. Cannon and Larry E. Dahl, The Prophet Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse: A Six Column Comparison of Original Notes and Amalgamations (Provo, Utah: BYU Printing Service, 1983), 48–49. Assuming that he did, it is clear (given the context of the Prophet’s remarks) that by “co-equal” he intended to convey that man is co-equal with God in duration, not co-equal with God in all respects. B. H. Roberts, in an explanatory footnote in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 353, makes a similar point. “Undoubtedly the proper word here would be ‘co-eternal’ not ‘co-equal.’ . . . For surely the mind of man is not co-equal with God except in the matter of its eternity.”

9. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet, 181.

10. B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology, 2 vols. (Dallas, Tex.: S. K. Taylor, 1976), vol. 2, Fourth Year, Lesson 12, 70.

11. A possible instance of this kind of evil would be the moral wrongdoing of human agents. Given our freedom, this kind of evil is unpreventable by God, but it is nonetheless preventable—by us!

12. From the fact that these three kinds of evil are consistent with God’s existence, it does not follow that there are actual instances of each kind. For example, given that there are self-existent realities which God did not create and cannot destroy, it is possible, but not necessary, that there have always been and will always be wills set in opposition to God.

13. Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), 174–75.

14. Stephen T. Davis, “Universalism, Hell and Ignorance,” in Modern Theology 6, no. 2 (January 1990): 176; italics in original.

15. Alexander L. Baugh, “A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1996; BYU Studies, 2000), 363–64.

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