The heinous massacre in Las Vegas last weekend left 59 dead and more than 500 wounded. President Donald Trump called the shooting “an act of pure evil.” The senseless suffering of this tragic slaughter rightly shocks our senses.
Where was God?
Perhaps he was there aiding the heroic rescuers, the first responders and those that rushed to save those suffering.
This week, my philosophy of religion students in Provo are studying the so-called “problem of evil” — i.e., the theological challenge that evil poses to the Christian belief in an all-powerful, all-loving God.
Paraphrasing the philosopher David Hume, the problem goes something like this: If God is unable to stop evil, then he’s not all-powerful. Worse yet, if God is able to stop evil, but chooses not to, then he’s surely not all-loving.
Hume concludes: “Whence then is evil?”
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a genuine Christian believer, puts forward literature’s most poignant presentation of the problem of evil as well as its most penetrating response.
In his masterwork, "The Brother’s Karamazov," the skeptic Ivan passionately articulates the problem of evil to his believing brother, Alyosha. Ivan simply can’t fathom God creating this world, containing such seemingly unnecessary suffering, especially the suffering of innocent children.
“And if the suffering of little children is needed to complete the sum total of suffering required to pay for the truth, I don’t want that truth,” Ivan says. “And I declare in advance that all the truth in the world is not worth the price!”
Philosophers in various epochs have toiled to provide a strong response to these quandaries. Theologically, the Latter-day Saint revelations received by Joseph Smith provide us powerful paradigms with which to grapple with the so-called problem of evil. Some of these helpful LDS doctrinal teachings include: the primacy of agency in God’s plan of salvation; the belief in co-eternal intelligences; the eternal salvation of innocent children; the role of adversity and opposition in moral progress; and finally God’s promise that suffering is only “but a small moment” in the context of eternal life and eternal reward.
Yet, one of the most profound forms of theodicy isn’t tidy theology, but human sinew and soul. Indeed, Dostoyevsky’s answer to Ivan’s argument isn’t a spoken rejoinder but a person, the saintly monk Father Zossima.
“Here, Zossima’s life and character are crucial,” writes scholar Timothy O’Connor. “Zossima recounts his transformation from an angry, self-absorbed soldier to his present state as an elderly monk. As a young man, seized by a sudden realization of his own folly, he backs down from a duel he had deliberately provoked, apologizing instead for his unjustified actions. Eventually, he takes the drastic step of turning to the monastic life, to the predictable scorn of his fellow soldiers.”
The elderly Zossima we encounter throughout the novel is a man of great virtue, a Christlike figure who is meek, kind and compassionate. His influence for good is contagious, and he’s held in reverence. The devout travel many miles to seek his blessings and listen to his teachings.
“The trajectory of Zossima’s life, Dostoevsky is telling us, indicates the possibilities even for frail human beings who are not naturally disposed towards saintliness. And his fundamental reply to those of Ivan’s (persuasion) is that it may indeed be impossible to show them — or, in truth, most of us as well — how it is possible to embrace divine providence, understand God to be perfect love itself, and experience joy, while living in solidarity with the one who suffers deeply. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to believe that it is possible, because it is reasonable to accept the testimony of the living.”
Thus, every life that answer’s Christ’s call to “love your enemies” and to “do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you,” becomes a compelling existential apology. It makes a case for a living God who so loves this suffering earth that he was willing to send his perfect son to succor, suffer and save, that, in the words of scripture, “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Only with that belief, Dostoevsky seems to say, can we begin to answer the problem of evil by living the Christian credo to return good for evil.