I hesitate to broach the subject of religion from a logical perspective (mostly because religious tenets are seldom accepted on the basis of logical reasoning). However, I’m hoping to encourage some thoughtful feedback from readers by sparking a small discussion.
I often oversimplify, making sweeping generalizations when I’m too hasty in my writing. I’ve written on several occasions that I can recall that “I can argue logically for God as well as I can argue against Him.” I still mostly believe that to be true, but while I was a missionary in Taiwan, I was once asked a question, the logical theist response to which still eludes me:
“Where did evil come from?”
The simple answer from a Judeo-Christian point of view comes naturally enough from any five-year-old in Sunday school: “Satan!” Called the father of lies, Satan is accepted as the father of all other undesirable qualities, and he is the father of evil above all else. It was Satan who first tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and her acquiescence gave birth to the fallibility and mortality of mankind. Now Satan and his minions tempt the sons and daughters of Eve, drawing them away from God by introducing them to evil.
The Taiwanese gentleman who asked me about the origin of evil was not interested in the origin of evil in this world, however, and neither am I. What he wanted to understand was the origin of evil in the universe. When did evil come into existence?
This requires a much more involved and complex series of considerations if we are to attempt to answer this from a Mormon point of view, so let me first address it from a more non-denominational Christian perspective. We’ll turn to Mormonism shortly.
Non-Denominational Christian POV:
Most Christians claim little (if any) knowledge regarding the universe prior to the moment of creation. Taking the book of Genesis at its word, the universe does indeed have a beginning. (The word genesis means beginning, after all.) And at the beginning of the beginning, “God created the heaven and the earth.” Then, over the course of six days, God created light and darkness, divided water from land, and made plants and animals to live and grow on the earth.
And this is key: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31)
To this point, all that God made from the beginning was good. Very good, in fact.
Then on the seventh day, God made man from the dust of the earth, breathing into him the breath of life, making him a living soul. He put the man in the Garden of Eden, commanded him to tend the garden, and told him that he could eat of every tree in the garden save one—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God names the tree and commands the man not to eat its fruit.
Here, in naming the tree, God (who is omniscient and infallible) indicates that there is such a thing in the universe as evil. And yet, God has seen to it that all his creations to this point have been “very good.”
To me, this makes perfect sense. God, if he were perfectly and ultimately good, would not and could not create evil. It must have existed, then, before God began the creation of the earth. It must have begun before Genesis—before “the beginning.”
But this is where our assumptions regarding the nature of God come into conflict. St. John taught that God created all things, saying: “All things were made by him [God]; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) Yet, if we believe the Bible, evil exists, and, assuming that God is without beginning or end, we are left with few logical explanations:
- God created evil
- Evil came into existence but was not created
- Evil has always existed and is also without beginning
Let me address these in turn.
- I believe most Christians will be offended that I have suggested option 1 and dismiss it out of hand. And true, if God is wholly benevolent, he could not have the capacity to create evil (omnipotence notwithstanding).
- If we are to believe St. John, this option is impossible, as God created all things that are, which would include Satan and evil—unless, somehow, we can argue that these things are not. And yet, for God to name evil in the Garden of Evil is to acknowledge its existence and power.
- This seems, to me, the most logical explanation of the origin of evil. It seems blasphemous to suggest that evil has existed as long as God (forever), but suggesting that God created it or that it is self-existent (as is God; Jehovah or Yaweh means “self-existent one”).
There is, obviously, the possibility that Genesis refers to the beginning of this earth only when it says “in the beginning.” It may not refer to the beginning of the universe. This point is irrelevant, however, as ultimately the question remains constant: where did evil come from?
Mormon theology delves much more deeply into the pre-earth universe than any other Christian philosophy of which I am aware. Most of my readers will also be more familiar with Mormon philosophy than with most other religious dogmas, so it seems fair to address this question from that more interesting point of view.
(Warning: for those of you unacquainted with Mormon theology, this is about to get REALLY confusing!)
Perhaps one of the most unique bits of Mormon doctrine is also one of the most controversial: the nature of God. In short, Mormon doctrine indicates that God is an exalted man and was once human in the sense that you or I are human.
The following is Joseph Smith’s explanation of the nature of God:
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man. . . .
. . . It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did. (History of the Church, 6:305)
And this from Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be. (Quoted in LeRoi C. Snow, “Devotion to a Divine Inspiration,” Improvement Era, June 1919, 656)
Taking this understanding of the nature of God as truth, evil must have existed before God began creating the world on which we live. However, our question remains unanswered. Where did it come from? And with a Mormon’s understanding of the nature of God, is it possible to say that evil has not existed longer than God?
Setting this aside for a moment, let’s deal with the more immediate religious history of our world. In Mormon theology, Jesus and God are separate and distinct beings of immortal and perfected bodies of flesh and bone. God is the father of our spirits, and we are his children. Christ, as the firstborn of God, was chosen in the pre-mortal life to be a savior for mankind. Satan, or Lucifer, rebelled against this decision, was cast out of heaven, and one-third of the sons and daughters of God followed him into exile, from whence they tempt the two-thirds who remained loyal to God, receive physical bodies, and live on the earth.
With this chronology in mind, it becomes apparent that Satan was evil enough not only to rebel against a perfectly wise and benevolent God, but also to draw one-third of God’s children to follow him into the endless torment and misery of the damned. Significantly evil, in my opinion. But where did Satan learn evil and rebellion? This is where Mormon theology becomes confusing to me.
First, according to Mormon doctrine, no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God. That means it is absolutely impossible to be in the presence of God unless you are completely pure. (See Boyd K. Packer’s famous 1977 Conference talk entitled “The Mediator”.) Therefore, if Satan lived in the presence of God with the rest of God’s children before he was cast out for rebellion, where (between the time of his creation as a spirit and his rebellion against his Father) did he learn the concepts of rebellion and evil? It does not seem possible that he did.
In short, I do not believe it is possible to logically answer the simple question, “Where did evil come from?” from either a general Christian point of view or from a Mormon point of view. The only answer I’m able to supply (and the one I gave the Taiwanese gentleman who so thoroughly stumped me) is this: I don’t know. Maybe God does.