Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 4

Part four of McMurrins book addresses Mormon theology and the problem of evil. McMurrin contends that the explanation of moral and natural evil is the most persistent problem that any theistic philosophy must contend. He rightly suggests that this is an area of chief theoretical strength for Mormonism. Here the free will of the uncreated self joins with the non-absolutistic conception of divine power to absolve God of complicity of moral evil. Also, the uncreated impersonal environment provides the explanation of natural evil.

In Mormon thought evil is seen as a potentially positive factor in the area of human experience, and much of the purpose of existence is found in the struggle to overcome it. In this struggle, the moral decisions of mankind make a genuine difference in their own destinies, and in the history of the world. Evil is seen as a given element in the world. Moral evil is the inevitable consequence of genuine moral freedom. Natural evil is the result of a morally neutral material universe. God is not seen as responsible for either that freedom or that neutrality. These are uncreated facts of existence.

For Mormons, the vocation of man is found in this experience of moral struggle against evil. And the God whom they worship participates in that struggle with them. He suffers when they suffer, and grieves for their sins, and rejoices in their triumphs. Mormons believe that they are laborers together with God in their efforts to subdue evil.

With this theology, God is not held as the author of evil. Yet evil is genuine and real, not just relative to man’s limited experience and perspective, but real from any standpoint. With this view God is set against evil and is committed to its destruction, which destruction is in process. Thus the absolute goodness of God can be declared, and the dignity and moral responsibility of man is upheld.

This of course does not answer every possible question associated with evil. Understanding when God intervenes seems at times to be a mystery – to provide one example. But the non-absolute concept of God, and the genuine moral freedom of man, provide a foundation for a reasoned explanation for the problem of evil. To further attempt explanations of evil is the task of theology. The task of Mormonism is to achieve in man the noble character to live through the severest adversity, and to transmute loss and sorrow into some moral good for the universe.

8 Responses to “Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 4”

  1. 1 Clark August 21, 2008 at 12:02 am

    This is one (of many) places where McMurrin is so frustrating. Take:

    Natural evil is the result of a morally neutral material universe. God is not seen as responsible for either that freedom or that neutrality. These are uncreated facts of existence.

    This works for the universe God encounters but not the universe, let alone world, he gives us.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson August 21, 2008 at 7:01 am

    Sorry Clark. I only understand about half of what you say sometimes, so I must respond with a huh? (It can be a little frustrating)

  3. 3 Clark August 21, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Sorry. If God wasn’t always God or at least not God in the sense of creating, then it’s possible neutral at that point. As soon as he is God and can change the universe then he is responsible for what changes he either makes or doesn’t make. By the time we are born and look at the world we encounter there is no reason to assume it is in the same state as when God encountered it.

    So for McMurrin to say this is a huge dodge and just bad philosophy and theology.

    God is responsible to the state of the universe to the degree he could have made it better. The analogy is to moving into a new house. Maybe the yard was a mess and there were some dangerous stuff around. Yet if, 10 years later, you’re neighbor’s little girl comes into your yard and is seriously hurt simply saying it was like that when you got there is absolutely no defense.

  4. 4 Mogget August 21, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Nice job, as usual. And Clark’s point was precisely what I had keyed on as I read your post. You’d have to ask a real theologian to be sure, but I think the issues is one of omnipotence. If God COULD fix the universe and didn’t, then it’s hard to say that he has no responsibility when the train jumps the track, so to speak.


  5. 5 Eric Nielson August 21, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Sorry it took so long to get back, I was traveling for work today.

    I see your point. We may be guilty of patting ourselves on the back to much for explaining evil – but I still think there is something of value there.

    The intervention thing seem to be the tricky part. It would be nice to someday know the factors that go into intervention.

  6. 6 Jacob J August 21, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    I agree with Mogget and Clark, but I am not quite as down on McMurrin as Clark is. On the one hand, creation ex nihilo coupled with the traditional views of omnipotence grossly exaccerbate the problem of evil. So, I think it is legitimate to point out the fundamental differenced in Mormon theology which help us deal with the problem of evil. I think this is what McMurrin was shooting for.

    On the other hand, Mormons very frequently overestimate how much of the problem of evil is solved by the arguments McMurrin is advancing. I understand Clark’s frustration on that front.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson August 22, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Thanks Jacob.

    McMurrin makes clear that this is not a complete answer for the problem of evil, and suggests that it is still an open discussion for theologians. Yet, I do believe Mormonism supplies the best foundation for a reasoned explanation that there is.

  8. 8 Clark August 22, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    If you are interested in the problem of evil we’re discussing it at my blog. Although perhaps in a more complex way.

    I agree with Eric that I think LDS have one of the nicer approaches but I think one has to be careful. The general approach of a test offers a lot, although a Dennis Potter has noted this general approach is at best a first step towards a theodicy (solution to the problem of evil) and not an actual solution.

    I do think that McMurrin flubs this one pretty badly though. As I noted in my discussion of this chapter McMurrin did write before a lot of work on the subject was done in the last 50 years. So there’s been a lot of philosophical investigation of the problem. (By both theists and atheists)

    The more interesting question which McMurrin unfortunately doesn’t spend a lot of focus on is the question of the ontology of good and evil. I think Blake Ostler’s done a lot of nice work on this in an LDS context in his books. Even if I don’t always agree with some of his ontological assumptions I think his basic approach of defining good and evil in terms of real relations between “free individuals” is basically correct. (I put the scare quotes in since I’m pretty skeptical of Blake’s view of what constitutes a free individual)

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