Book Review: Exploring Mormon Thought, vol 4, God’s Plan to Heal Evil, by Blake T. Ostler
Pure, unadulterated evil exists. It exists in nature. It exists in humans. We see the evil in war, in genocide, child sex trafficking, deadly diseases that ravage the bodies of the victims, earthquakes, and famines that slowly starve the innocent to death. Evil exists.
In his three previous volumes on Exploring Mormon Thought, Ostler probed the depths of God’s attributes, his love, and the concept of divinity. Here, he takes us through what is perhaps the most troubling questions haunting mankind: Why does evil exist? Why does God allow evil to happen?
Exploring Mormon Thought, God’s Plan to Heal Evil is smaller than the previous books (about 225 pages), but is as packed full of rich treasures as the other ones. It is divided in the following twelve chapters:
1. What We Learn From the Problem of Evil
2. The No Minimum Evil Defense
3. The Free Will Defense
4. The Less Evil Options Argument
5. Natural Law Theodicies
6. A Mormon Finitistic Theodicy
7. A Mormon Process Theodicy
8. A Relational Agape Theodicy
9. The Plan of Agape
10. Is it Justifiable to Permit Consent to Personality-Destroying Evils?
11. Are Radical Evils Essential to the Plan of Agape?
12. Atonement in Mormon Thought
Healing Evil: A Conclusion
In chapter one, Ostler discusses what he terms “radical evil.” This is the type of evil that causes most humans to cringe. It can be man-made or brought about by nature. He gives three examples for our consideration: smallpox, a man harms and kills a little girl, and a young girl is accidentally crushed by a car that rolled backward.
He discusses each type of disaster. Smallpox has slain millions and millions of people. If smallpox were necessary for God’s plan, then why did God allow mankind to eradicate it? If it isn’t necessary for mankind’s salvation, then why did God create it in the first place?
Such questions lead people to several theories to explain such events. One thought is a good God would never create such evil, therefore there is no God. This, perhaps, is the main cause for many people to embrace atheism; they cannot imagine a god that causes so much evil in the world.
Ostler then takes us through the main theories available by the Christian and philosophical world of religion. Ostler shows that much of the problem of evil lies in the concept of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). If God created everything from nothing, then he created evil. He created the evil in humans. He created smallpox and all other diseases. He created a world that suffers from famine, and natural disasters.
Along with this concept of creation from nothing, are concepts from St. Augustine and Calvinism that promote the ideas of predestination and that man does not have free will/agency. When one considers deeply such beliefs, they lead inexorably to the concept that God creates the evil men do, and since man has no choice in the matter, God is actually responsible for all evil. Those God condemn to hell are cast down because of God’s choices, not the individuals involved in the sin/evil.
For me, such a god is not worthy of worship.
Ostler goes through various religious theories (theodicies) that are prevalent, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each theory. Some are complete theories, while others are incomplete (such as the Divine Infusion Theory, with which Ostler concurs).
Ostler then begins to explain strengths we find in Latter-day Saint theology. God did not create things from nothing. Matter and Intelligences are coexistent with God. So, when God creates spirits or rocks, these things must choose to obey (see Abraham 4:10-12). Some things are not in the direct control of God. When spirits are created, God has a hand in the process, but does not control the entire event.
Second, Ostler promotes the idea that God knows all things up to the current moment, but does not know the future, except to predict it as a grand chess master. While this is not what most Latter-day Saints believe, it does fit in well with our theology. There are instances in scriptures where God is “surprised” by a person using free will (such as the Brother of Jared seeing the finger of God in Ether 3). As he explains in depth in a previous volume of Exploring Mormon Thought, if God perfectly knows the future, then we cannot have true free will/agency. It also means God is responsible, in effect, for all evil.
However, when God has these two limitations: cannot create things from nothing and does not perfectly know the future, it opens the door for evil to come about on its own accord.
And it is here that Ostler then shows us the strength of his Agape Theodicy. Agape is the Greek word for Christ-like Love. While I won’t go into detail on his theory here, he shows it to be a complete and intriguing explanation for evil. Evil exists. Radically dark evil exists. While God cannot totally eliminate or separate evil that coexists in the universe from our experience, God can directly be involved with us in ending evil. Through concepts such as the light of Christ (which illuminates and is in all things), and the atonement of Christ, we can use our agency to help Christ to eliminate evil.
So, in discovering a cure for smallpox, we are involved in bringing goodness and order to the world, reducing the chaos and evil that comes naturally with matter. We are helpers in bringing order to the universe and establishing God’s kingdom.
Second, and more importantly, the atonement of Christ is an ongoing event. While much of it occurred in Gethsemane and on the cross, whenever we repent, Christ pulls us into his embrace. That embrace may cause him a moment of pain right now, as he empathizes and forgives us, but the eternal joy that occurs for both Jesus and us becomes a healing balm.
Third, Ostler considers the premortal existence and foreordination. He explains that in the original councils, we may all have accepted the possibilities of going through horrific events, in order to bring to pass the work of God and the ultimate end of evil. Yes, we conceivably agreed to be foreordained to experience great tragedies. This also, according to Ostler, may be why so many of God’s spirit children refused to accept his plan, and embraced Satan’s plan instead.
Fourth, life doesn’t end here. It seems the Spirit World becomes a place to heal, as well. All of this ends in a glorious resurrection for those who repent and embrace Jesus.
For Ostler, it is all about being in a Godly relational experience. The Godhead are three beings entwined in the perfect relationship. They are One through their loving familial ties. For Ostler, this is exactly the kind of relationship Christ desires to have with us, and through him, to bring us into an agape relationship with the Godhead. It is becoming One with Christ that we eliminate evil and are able to heal the pains and struggles inherent with evil.
In Ostler’s Agape Theodicy, we find a strong and compelling theory of how God seeks to heal the evils that are in the world. Yes, the evils are terrible and cause death, emotional and physical pain, and sorrow. However, through the atonement of Christ and his perfect love, God heals all the pains, sorrows and afflictions.
While some concepts may be new and even different for many Latter-day Saints, Ostler’s views are well thought out and provide us with a better understanding of how the atonement of Jesus Christ works, why there is evil in the world, and how we have an active part in bringing about God’s plan of salvation and healing. Whether you fully agree with his theory or not, it deserves careful consideration. It absolves God from being the source of all evil, and it shows our part in embracing the overall plan of God. Finally, it shows us how a loving God provided a Savior that heals us and warmly brings us back into full agape relationship with the Godhead.
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