Joseph Smith’s Theodicy

By March 11, 2008

If you are looking for a post that explores the rich theological possibilities of theodicy, this post is not it. While I find the topic interesting, I don’t want to address the questions associated with it here. Rather, I want to use the topic of theodicy as a starting point for a discussion on how we use Joseph’s teachings.

Mormon scholars from B.H. Roberts to Sterling McMurrin to, most recently, David Paulsen and Blake Ostler have (persuasively, in my opinion) suggested that Joseph laid the groundwork for a gospel which helped solve the problem of evil. In their writings they explained that the doctrines Joseph revealed a God who did not create everything ex nihilo, and therefore provided a framework that allows things to happen without God’s will. This, then, makes it appear that we believe in a “finite” God.

But, did Joseph really believe that?

When I read Joseph’s writings and teachings, I see someone who saw God’s hand in everything that happened. He saw meteor showers as signs of Providence, natural disasters as divine warnings, and fully expected God to punish those who persecuted the Saints (often in very Old Testament-like ways). I think there are several possible reasons for this, including:

1. My reading of Joseph is completely off (which is very possible).

2. Joseph’s teachings really taught that God is omnipotent in the same sense that other Christians believe, and hence our understanding of theodicy is flawed.

3. While Joseph revealed the doctrines that help solve the problems of evil, he did not fully understand them in his lifetime.

Personally, I tend to lean towards the final of the three. This brings up an important issue: Does it matter if Joseph didn’t understand these things? For those who believe that Joseph really received divine revelations this is an acceptable approach because they believe that the teachings come from a higher source. Those who take a humanist perspective, however, must either find an alternative meaning or believe that we are misreading Joseph.

What do you think?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Methodology, Academic Issues Theology


  1. 4. The idea that God is very involved in the universe (meteor showers and whatnot) is not in conflict with the denial of creation ex nihilo.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 11, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  2. I think that it is an uphill battle systematizing Joseph’s thoughts. As far as theodicy goes, when push comes to shove, as in the case of infant mortality, Joseph went to a limited form of predestination, something that was otherwise incompatible with some of his other more progressive attitudes.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 11, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  3. The idea that God has his hand in all things isn’t incompatible with the idea that God is, in some senses, finite. (With finite here meaning limited)

    It’s important to realize that really what is being argued is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as that relates to the problem of evil. Mormons have God as maximally great but, because of the doctrine or pre-existent and uncreated matter, have God very limited relative to the God developed between 200 – 500 AD who is the ground of all existence and by extension the one responsible.

    A good book for the earlier Jewish view which parallels the Mormon view is Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. There we have Yahweh battling against the forces of chaos. A creation that is endlessly under threat and is endlessly repeated. In the mainstream Christian view this makes no sense as everything that exists (including the chaos) is created by God. That has significant implications for the problem of evil.

    Now God can be in and through all things however. And, as I’ve argued, this entails that while Mormon finitism avoids the logical problem of evil it leaves what I call the evidentiary problem of evil. That is why do we have the evils we experience around us. One solution (posed by Dennis Potter) is that God is so busy elsewhere that he can’t do anything more. He’s doing as much as he can. This seems pretty implausible on numerous grounds.

    The better solution, which I first saw posed by Nate Oman, is that the problem of evil isn’t a problem since we all freely chose to come to this world. Therefore we and not God are responsible for experiencing the evils we do. It’s analogous to being burned when we put our hand in a pot of water. It’s our fault and not the fault of the person boiling the water.

    The problem with this is that, according to LDS theology, we chose to come to this world because it was in some sense necessary. But why was it necessary? So at best this view merely pushes the problem of evil back a step.

    Comment by Clark — March 11, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  4. I would suggest a fourth alternative. In Joseph’s day, much like our own, the problem with evil was discussed and most if not all of Joseph’s innovations were readily available in printed form for Joseph and others to read and study.

    I think J. is correct that systematizing Joseph’s theology is difficult, but B.H. Robert’s did one heck of a good job. Talmage with “Articles of Faith” is still one of the best works, and I think a great attempt at systematizing.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — March 11, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  5. “But why was it necessary?”

    I think this is a good question. I always look at it in terms of progression. If we want to progress, then we must experience evil and suffering. The presuposes a few things, hoewever,

    1.) Progression is a choice
    2.) Evil and suffering are independent of God
    3.) There must needs be opposition in all things.
    4.) Without evil there could be no good
    5.) Part of being a god is knowing our limitations and boundaries.
    6.) God is limited and cannot keep evil or suffering from occuring or He would trump our agency
    7.) Free agency is an eternal principle independent of God’s power

    Comment by gilgamesh — March 11, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  6. The problem with (6) are natural evils like earthquakes, disease and so forth. Clearly it seems reasonable to assume God could have put us somewhere without them. Why didn’t he then? If we say it has some purpose (which seems the natural answer for a Mormon) then what is that purpose?

    Comment by Clark — March 11, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  7. I appreciate all the comments so far; like i said, i enjoy a discussion on theodicy. However, I would rather get back on the question of if it is fair to say that Joseph believed this. Historically, I dont see Joseph believing in a “finite” God (although I personally agree with the theology that Clark and others have mentioned).
    My question, again, is more historical. Do you think we project our systematizing of our theology back on Joseph, or did he understand all this stuff?

    Comment by Ben — March 11, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

  8. I think the comments about the difficulty systematizing Joseph’s thought are suggesting that Joseph didn’t have it all worked out. I agree with that. So, in many cases, I would sign up for option 3. from the post. My comment in #1 was saying that the example you gave in the post is not one of those times.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 11, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

  9. From the believer’s point of view, I think the question is very difficult. One can think of Joseph as struggling with information pouring “through him,” trying to put things together for the Saints. Was Joseph’s view a fragmentary cosmology, where he tried to fill in the blanks with reason? We see Joseph’s reflection in a cracked mirror in two ways, the records of what he said are fragmentary, and he purposely held back things and reserved others for small private audiences. I think he may have understood more clearly than he was recorded, and perhaps more clearly than he could express. So we struggle when we try to understand him categorically. Moreover, I think his colleagues and successors struggled too. They clearly had great reverence for what he said, but also some frustration – we witnessed that seventy years after KFD and for many, still today. Perhaps as a result, I think, the Church does not focus on Joseph’s favorite subjects at all – and they are the ones that impacted his theodicy in many cases. There is not enough detail to damp legitimate divergent views, or perhaps in some cases, the subjects don’t seem relevant. I’m hoping for a long interview at some point – I imagine there will be a long line.

    Comment by WVS — March 12, 2008 @ 1:44 am

  10. This finite theodicy you describe is not something Smith actively explored, nor did it figure prominently in his idea-world, nor would he I think have endorsed it if presented to him. I hate to sound like a broken record, but his “head” was the top of a Chain of Being, and that Chain, as Smith’s actual theodicy, argued that evil was required for cosmic balance. Smith situated it more in terms of moral trial, but he affirmed the notion that evil had a special role to play in human exaltation.

    Comment by smb — March 12, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  11. The Book of Mormon clearly points to a finite God in Alma with Justice vs. Mercy. Alma notes that, without absolute justice, God would cease to be God. Even giving a hypothetical limitation, in this case, opens the idea that God could cease to be God, therefor to remain God some guidelines apply which make God limited.

    Whether or not Joseph agreed with Alma can be up for discussion.

    Also, according to Eugen England, the “Weeping God of Mormonism” found in Moses also points to a limited God. Again, whether or not Joseph agreed is up for speculation. My assumption is he did.

    Comment by gilgamesh — March 12, 2008 @ 12:24 pm


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