The recent catastrophes in New Zealand and Japan, like all such disasters, raise the problem of evil in one of its most acute forms.
It's one thing to deal with human moral evil. We know that God has allowed us the free exercise of our agency, and there is no way for us to be genuinely free if we are not at liberty to do evil as well as good. Accordingly, moral evils are to be expected in this life. "It must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" (Matthew 18:7).
Natural evils, however, pose a different kind of problem. Why have horrific plagues killed so many people? Why are Boy Scouts sometimes hit by lightning? Why do crops fail, leading to famines? Why must tectonic plates intersect in such a manner as to cause massive earthquakes and tsunamis? Are such things really necessary to our mortal probation?
A Latter-day Saint believer will be inclined to answer yes. Faith isn't merely or even principally agreement with a checklist of historical and doctrinal assertions. Faith is trust — trust in a person. Even if we can't now understand, our trust in a loving and incomprehensibly wise Heavenly Father teaches us to believe that there are necessary and sufficient reasons for him to permit natural evils. (We now know, in fact, that active tectonic plates are vital to the origin and continuation of life on earth; among other functions, they maintain the proper level of acidity in the oceans.)
I'm not going to try to resolve the problem of evil in a 700-word column. It has been debated for centuries, and, given our current level of knowledge, it's likely that no final resolution, convincing and acceptable to all, will be found on this side of the veil. In the biblical book of Job, God's answer to his suffering servant ultimately comes down to this: "You, Job, are a human mortal; I am God."
It seems that God puts us into a world with natural processes and allows events, by and large, to take their course. The question is how we respond. Moreover, through the Atonement, and through God's grace and his Spirit, bad things can be redeemed and engender good things, such as increased love and service. We can rise to meet these challenges, or we can sit in sullen resentment and faithlessness. Studies over recent decades have consistently and overwhelmingly shown that it is the faithfully religious who, on the whole, give the most to charity, donate the most blood and spend the most hours in service.
I can understand why some, confronted with enormous suffering and evil, lose faith. I can also understand why many, faced with the same pain and evil, choose faith. (See Alma 62:41.)
If there is no life after death and no loving and merciful God, horrific moral evils and devastating natural disasters have the last word. The little child swept out to sea and the elderly woman slowly dying of thirst under concrete rubble have no hope. Life, for them, ends horribly, and then there is nothing. Under the plan of salvation, however, even those who have died are not ultimately lost. They still live, and they are very likely to be heirs of at least some degree of glorious salvation. "As it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).
It can easily sound heartless (or pie-in-the-sky) to say it, but, from the standpoint of eternity, even death in a tsunami may someday come to seem a relatively small thing.
Some atheists seek to solve the problem of evil by dissolving it. There is no God, they say, no purpose in the universe, no meaning to the deaths of those killed by child rapists, plague viruses and earthquakes — and, thus, no theological "problem." In drawing this conclusion, though, they also surrender any hope of ultimate redemption or a happy ending.
The gospel of Jesus Christ declares their surrender unnecessary: "All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection," the Prophet Joseph Smith declared, "provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it."
Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.