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Publication TypeEncyclopedia Entry
Year of Publication1992
AuthorsPaulsen, David L.
Secondary AuthorsLudlow, Daniel H.
Secondary TitleEncyclopedia of Mormonism
Place PublishedNew York
KeywordsEvil; Theodicy
Citation Key467

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Author: Paulsen, David L.

[The LDS concept of evil is also explained in the article on Devils. The following article discusses a view of the purposes of evil and presents an LDS response to traditional discussions of the problem of evil. ] In ordinary discourse, the term "evil" has a very wide definition and, along with the term "bad," is used in English most often to refer to morally wrong intentions, choices, and actions of agents (moral evil); to the operations of nonhuman nature such as disease, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tornadoes (natural evil); and to the human and animal pain and suffering (psychological evil) that moral and natural evils may cause. In more technical philosophical discourse, it is applied also to inherent human limitations and defects (metaphysical evil).

The term is used with additional meanings in LDS scripture and discourse. In the Old Testament, the term is translated from the Hebrew term, ra', and its cognates, whose applications range widely from (1) what tastes nasty or is ugly, displeasing, or sad, through (2) moral wickedness and the distress, misery, and tragedy that ensue from it, to (3) willful disobedience of God and his intentions for human beings. The latter two senses of the term predominate in the New Testament and in latter-day scriptures. Given its widely variant meanings, the precise meaning of evil must be ascertained from its context.

LDS scripture further illuminates biblical suggestions about God's purposes for his children and, thereby, helps to clarify one fundamental sense of evil. God disclosed to Moses: "This is my work and my glory-to bring to pass the immortality [resurrection, with everlasting bodily duration] and eternal life [Godlike quality or mode of being] of man" (Moses 1:39). Thus, anything inconsistent with, contrary to, or opposed to the achievement of these ends would be evil.

There seems to be no basis in latter-day scripture for either the privative or relativistic views of evil advocated by some philosophers. In the fifth century, St. Augustine, puzzled by the existence of evil in a world that was created by God, concluded that evil must not be a substance or a positive reality in its own right, but only the absence of good (privatio boni). Yet, in the Old and New Testaments, evil is depicted as menacingly real, a view shared by latter-day scripture. Nor is there any scriptural evidence that good and evil are simply matters of personal preference. Rejecting this kind of relativism, Proverbs declares, "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death" (Prov. 14:12); and Isaiah warns, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Isa. 5:20). Relativism is also rejected in latter-day scripture (2 Ne. 28:8).

Nonbelievers and believers alike often question why God would allow evil of any kind to exist. The question becomes especially acute within an Augustinian worldview that affirms God to be the ex nihilo or absolute creator of whatever exists other than himself. On that premise it appears that God is the ultimate source or cause of all evil, or, at least, a knowing accessory before the fact, and thus omniresponsible for all evils that occur.

Latter-day Saints reject the troublesome premise of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), affirming rather that there are actualities that are coeternal with God. These coeternal actualities include intelligences (sometimes perceived as primal selves or persons), chaotic matter (or mass energy), and laws and principles (perhaps best regarded as the properties and relations of matter and intelligences). Given this plurality of uncreated entities, it does not follow, within an LDS worldview, that God is the ultimate source of evil. Evil is traceable, alternatively, to the choices of other autonomous agents (such as Lucifer, the Devil) who are also coeternal with God, and, perhaps, even to recalcitrant properties of uncreated chaotic matter.

Though on the basis of latter-day revelation it is evident that God is neither the source nor the cause of either moral or natural evil, the question still arises as to why he does not prevent or eliminate it. The ancient philosopher Epicurus posed the problem in the form of a dilemma: Either God is unwilling to prevent the evil that occurs or he is unable to prevent it. If he is unable, then he is not omnipotent; if he is unwilling, then he is not perfectly good. Epicurus' statement of the dilemma is based on two assumptions: (1) a perfectly good being prevents all the evil it can; and (2) an omnipotent being can do anything and, hence, can prevent all evil.

From an LDS perspective the first assumption appears to be false. A perfectly good being would certainly wish to maximize the good, but if, in the nature of things, allowing an experience of evil were a necessary condition of achieving the greatest good, a perfectly good being would allow it. For example, it seems evident that the existence of opposition and temptation is a necessary condition for the expression of morally significant freedom and the development of genuinely righteous personalities (see 2 Ne. 2:11-16; Moses 6:55).

Latter-day Saints would also reject the second assumption. Since there are realities that are coeternal with God, his omnipotence must be understood not as the power to bring about any state of affairs absolutely, but rather as the power to bring about any state of affairs consistent with the natures of coeternal realities. This insight makes possible an instrumentalist view of evil. With Epicurus' basic assumptions thus modified by latter-day revelation, it seems possible to construct a coherent LDS concept of the nature, use, and existence of evil (see Theodicy). [See also Great and Abominable Church; Sin; War in Heaven.]


Paulsen, David L. "Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil." BYU Studies 39:1 (2000):53-65.

Welch, John Sutton. "Why Bad Things Happen at All: A Search for Clarity among the Problems of Evil." BYU Studies 42:2 (2003):75-90.