The Perennial Problem of Evil

St. George

St. George slaying the dragon.

Pick a day—any day, in our lifetimes—and you’ll find in the headlines stories of depredation and tragedy, of murder and torture, of degradation and slaughter of human beings. The systematic killing of innocent men, women, and children trapped in a mall in Kenya is simply the latest of these outrages against humanity.

To describe this slaughter in general terms seems to minimize the horror. To describe it in specifics brings revulsion.

Far from being some kind of blow for justice, it is a declaration of inhumanity and collective corruption by the group behind it.

Always after an occurrence like this, the question is asked somewhere: “How could a loving God, one who truly cares for His children, let something like this happen?”

The answer is simple: because He promised you, and me, and every one of us that when He sent us here to earth to learn and grow, He would give us freedom to choose whether to do good or evil. It is a promise He will not violate. But we must not blame Him when someone else chooses to use that agency to do great evil.

The implied question here—“Why didn’t He protect the innocents?”—used to bother me. Some years ago, after one of these troubling tragedies, I spent time pondering this question. A deeply personal spiritual experience—a moment of personal revelation, if you will—taught me that He is aware of every one of His children who suffers, and He will not permit any one of them to lose blessings that might have been gained in this life when it is cut short. He will compensate them in His own way; His touch will be sweet to their eternal spirits. Those who have used their agency to harm others will face His justice, and it will be appropriate to their crimes.

But why does God permit evil to exist at all?

If it were not for the existence of evil, we could not know and appreciate goodness, love, and joy. We could not grow by choosing good.

A very wise man, a prophet named Lehi, taught centuries ago: “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. . . . Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other. . . . [M]en are free . . . to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2: 11, 16, 27, Book of Mormon). This passage teaches of a Savior, Jesus Christ, who willingly and lovingly made it possible for us to repent of our choices, because we all sin and there is no power in us to undo evil choices and save ourselves. We would be lost without Jesus Christ, who paid the price for our sins.

His eternal justice will be proportionate to the crimes of the unrepentant and those who take innocent lives, a crime for which they cannot make restitution. His mercy and grace will ease the pain of those who have been hurt. But in this life each one of us will have the promised opportunity to choose good or evil.

Since the choices of others are beyond our control, there is only one way in which we can make any individual dent in evil. Many years ago, in a museum, I stood and studied a famous painting of St. George slaying the dragon—a dragon representing sin. We have no power to slay that dragon except within ourselves, and even then we lack the power to do it by ourselves. We need that great Redeemer and Mediator, the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Paul taught the Romans: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:23–24). Likewise, the prophet Nephi testified of the grace of Jesus Christ: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God: for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23, Book of Mormon).

Even knowing the goodness of God and His love for His children who suffer, I still mourn for the pain of those who are victims of depravity. I pray for them and the loved ones left behind. But dealing with these tragedies in our minds and spirits is not so much a question of accepting His will as it is of accepting His wisdom. He will bless us for the use of our agency in doing good, and He will compensate us for the ways in which other’s use of agency brings evil into our lives. His divine, eternal plan covers all of it.

What others may do with their agency is out of my control. My efforts are more wisely spent on struggling to overcome my own foolish or wicked choices. I want the Lord to know that I am trying, and that I understand the need for the grace of Jesus Christ in my own life. I want him to help me slay that dragon. I so desperately need His grace “through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” I so desperately want my faith to demonstrate that I know “it is by grace we are saved after all we can do.”


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