Is Evil the Absence of God?

In the same vein as Clark’s excellent post on creation ex nihilo yesterday, today I encountered another false aspect of this philosophy which could use our attention. It appears in sheep’s clothing at first sight, but potentially can be quite ravenous on the inside (Matt. 7:15).

I received an email that is has been circulating entitled “Did God Create Evil?” It is a purported interchange between an atheist professor and a believing student, falsely attributed as Einstein. I will paraphrase, as you can read the whole email at Snopes.com. As the story goes, the professor asks the class “Did God create everything that exists?” To which the class responds affirmatively. The professor continues, “If God created everything, then God created evil. And, since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are, then we can assume God is evil.” And thus the professor believes he has proven that Christianity and a belief in God is a myth. One student stands and leads the professor through series of counter-arguments beginning with “Does cold exist?” “Of course,” responds the teacher. “Actually no, cold does not exist. It is just the absence of heat.” “Does darkness exist?” The professor says, “Yes!” “No, it doesn’t. It is just the absence of light.” The student concludes with likewise reasoning, “In the same way, evil does not exist, at least not unto itself. Evil is a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart.”

I disagree with this philosophy on several levels. While I agree that God did not create evil, I don’t agree with the philosophy the student uses to support his argument and the existence of God. No doubt this is the apologetic stance that many Christians use against the creation ex nihilo attack on Christianity and a belief in God. They may say, “oh evil is just an absence of God. God didn’t have to create evil, because it’s nothing, it’s not there.” But this line of reasoning also leads to its own pitfalls, quite literally (Isa. 14:15; 2 Nephi 28:22).

I don’t believe the absence of God is what makes evil. That is false doctrine. I believe that evil results from the gift of agency that God has given each of his creations that allows us to create evil, if we so choose. When man uses his agency in opposition to God’s commands and goes against God’s light and truth, that is when evil is made. Evil is opposition to God, if it is none other than knowing God’s will, and not doing it. Evil is made by us, not by God. But it is a very real thing, something this story somewhat denies.

The argument of evil in a belief system of creation ex nihilo without a knowledge of the gift of agency or the other restored truths of the gospel will always stump the Christian world at large because they don’t know how to respond to it. If God created everything, then he must have also created Satan, and his devils. Satan is a real thing. He exists. He is not nonexistence of something, like dark is an absence of light, or cold is an absence of heat. Satan is real. The scriptures plainly attest his actuality. He is an actual being. He must be accounted for. He cannot be explained with the same reasoning as the story. So God must have created Satan. How could he do such a thing! Why would God create the very thing that would oppose everything godly, and even send the Savior, his very beloved and Only Begotten Son, to die a gruesome death at the hands of this wicked being? It is a paradox that the Christian world does not know how to deal with in truth.

Fortunately, we have had the principles of the gospel restored to us and we know that creation ex nihilo is utterly wrong. God did not create Satan or evil. Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother organized Lucifer, and bore him as their son, the same way men and women organize children in the womb in mortality from the basic elements. Lucifer was the son of the morning, a very choice son of God, who then used his agency to rebel against God and do evil things (Isa. 14:12; D&C 76:26–27). Lucifer must have been a very high-ranking official, perhaps even the second son after Christ, to draw away so many, even a third of God’s children, after his own evil campaign (Rev. 12:4). Lucifer became Satan of his own free will, the word satan coming from the transliterated Hebrew word ha-satan for adversary or opponent. He was in opposition to God, and that is what made him and his works evil. Those third part of God’s spirits also exercised their agency in opposition to God, and are evil.

What Satan does is very real. It is evil. What Satan does is not an absence of God, it is an absence of obedience to God. The war against Satan and his emissaries is very actual and literal. One of the teachings we learn from the temple is that Satan, in a very real way, takes the riches of the earth (i.e. mammon/money/business), and builds up military power (both on land and on sea), false prophets who lead men astray, and tyrannical politicians with which the overall effect is utter bloodshed and horror that we witness on the earth today. That is Satan’s gameplan, and he is using it very effectively, as we can see.

Saying that evil doesn’t exist is almost the same as saying there is no such thing as Satan and the evil he produces, which is false. The prophet Nephi teaches us to beware of such made-made opposition, and thus evil philosophies:

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance. (2 Nephi 28:22)

Alma also teaches us:

For I say unto you that whatsoever is good cometh from God, and whatsoever is evil cometh from the devil. (Alma 5:40)

I would add that following the devil’s example in opposing God also fits this scripture, and produces evil.

Agency is one of the greatest gifts of God, but it is also one of the reasons that evil exists in the world. Some of God’s children choose to obey God, others choose to oppose Him. There is opposition in all things (2 Nephi 2:11). Evil is very real. There have been many who have died on this earth in “God’s absence,” having no knowledge whatsoever of God in the world, who will yet be saved and exalted in the kingdom of God through the vicarious work of the temple. They did no evil on earth solely by being without God, or a knowledge of Him. If they oppose the light of Christ which has been given to each and every person who has been born on this earth, which tells men and women to do good, then they are in opposition to God and are doing evil.

Evil takes action by someone. It is not an absence of something, unless that thing is obedience to God.

This entry was posted in General by Bryce Haymond. Bookmark the permalink.

About Bryce Haymond

Bryce grew up in Sandy, Utah, where he attended Jordan High School. He served a mission to the El Salvador San Salvador East mission, including eight months as mission financial secretary. Bryce graduated from Brigham Young University in 2007 in Industrial Design and a minor in Ballroom Dance. He loves all things Nibley and the temple, and is the founder of TempleStudy.com, and also blogs at BlackpoolCreative.com. Recently Bryce joined the Executive Board of The Interpreter Foundation, where he serves as a designer and technologist. Bryce has served in numerous Church callings including ward sunday school president, first counselor in the bishopric, and currently as temple and family history instructor. He is a Product Manager and Design Director at HandStands in Salt Lake City, and lives in Pleasant Grove, Utah, with his beautiful wife, three children, and another on the way!

16 thoughts on “Is Evil the Absence of God?

  1. Bryce, I agree with your philosophy. I would take this even a step further (this is not doctrine, just my own personal philosophy).

    God is the super-scientist who discovered how the universe works. All of the elements of the universe (intelligences, if you will) like order and love and purpose, and God’s way provides order and love and purpose. But He also provides free agency, which is another example of His perfection. A world with order and (some) purpose could be attained through Satan’s plan, but it would not have love and it would not have free agency. This is the genius of Heavenly Father’s plan.

    So, evil comes about whenever people try to choose a way that is not in harmony with God’s way. And it’s not just that we are hurting ourselves by choosing Satan’s path — we are going against the way of God and disrupting the perfect order that exists and causes the elements of the universe to participate in the plan in the first place.

    So, Satan’s plan, and the thing that keeps him going even though he must know he will lose in the end, is as much anarchy as possible in rebellion to God’s plan. This is evil — following a path opposed to God’s plan. It is all about anarchy and nihilism.

    Interestingly, God allows Satan to exist and tempt us for our own benefit — He knows that if we are tested and pass the test we will progress.

    So, Heavenly Father is so smart that he uses Satan’s attempts at creating anarchy to better us and test us and allow us all to progress. Even evil has its uses.

  2. Very interesting. I agree with you. Sounds like Cleon Skousen. He believed that God’s power and authority are not necessarily intrinsic within himself, but that it comes from the elements honoring him, using the scripture D&C 63:59, that his “power lieth beneath.” Through righteousness He has gained the honor of even the elements. The elements themselves agree with God’s way, and obey him accordingly. This is how mountains and rivers are moved by the priesthood.

    But there must be some contingencies or exceptions with this theory. If even the devils believe and tremble (James 2:19), and when God commands even they must obey, why is that? Do they still have honor for God, even in the smallest amount? Or is God addressing the elements that make up the devils? Or is there intrinsic power in God’s command that forces the devils against their will?

  3. The idea of evil as the negation of the good actually goes back to the Platonists. To say that it doesn’t ‘exist’ isn’t to say it isn’t real. Usually you end up making a distinction between the two. For the Platonists the Good is God (also typical in mainstream Christianity – although that view has problems). So when we do good it is by the influx of the spirit. The more spirit the more goodness (maybe not the best terminology, but you get the idea even if it isn’t completely accurate) In this case Hell is the absence of God. Which actually is an idea we find in Mormon thought in our theology of outer darkness.

    Now the problem for the person who accepts creation ex nihilo is that if there is an evil state of affairs and God created and sustains everything then God is responsible for that. Those who reject ex nihilo can say creation preceeds from God with varying degrees of his light. This is what some Jewish theologians say. It’s also what gnostics said and is partially why they think matter is so evil. (Matter becomes total privation from God who is pure thought)

    Now, like you, I think that while we can talk about the influx of God’s glory, knowledge and spirit that this isn’t the same as goodness as a choice. Put an other way we have to distinguish between a state of goodness and choosing goodness. Usually we use the same terms but I think there’s an important distinction. One might well say that a state of goodness is this full activity of God. When we choose less than this we are limiting things from God’s influence. Thus it is the absence of God (which we chose) that made it evil.

    Note however that if you invoke free will to choose then the person who accepts creation ex nihilo can appeal to free will just as you can. Now there are some very sophisticated arguments regarding whether this ends up being possible. (Blake Ostler discusses them in volume 2 of his series on Mormon theology) I’m not entirely convinced by Blake here. But ultimately what is at stake is whether God can create free agents.

  4. Sounds like Cleon Skousen. He believed that God’s power and authority are not necessarily intrinsic within himself, but that it comes from the elements honoring him

    Note that this actually originates with Orson Pratt and his view that all the universe was made up of intelligent atoms. These atoms are in communication with God who tells them what to do. So lawlike behavior of matter (say, for Pratt, Newton’s laws of motion) is really due to God telling matter to behave in a lawlike manner. God’s power is thus communication and obedience.

    While the idea of God’s power coming from obedience can be found in some other places the unique shape Pratt gave it tended to be pretty influential. After B. H. Roberts gave a slightly different view of creation Pratt’s scheme became less dominant. However it definitely was influential affecting even how Roberts thought about the issue.

  5. I will admit that I find the ideas of Cleon Skousen and Orson Pratt extremely convincing. For me, they answer questions I have always had, such as: “If Satan knows he’s going to lose, why does he keep on going?” The answer is that Satan actually thinks he can disrupt things and win in the end by creating as much anarchy as possible. We know the story will have a happy ending, but Satan must think he can win in the end. In addition, it explains for me very convincingly the nature of the priesthood (ie, the priesthood is the ability to communicate with intelligences, and the more in tune you get with God’s plan the more ability you have to influences how the intelligences act). So, the whole quotation from Jesus about moving mountains makes sense — if you have true faith in Heavenly Father’s plan you can gain the power to influence how the elements act, and you could literally move mountains or eventually create entire worlds.

  6. “Does darkness exist?” The professor says, “Yes!” “No, it doesn’t. It is just the absence of light.”

    But darkness does exist. de Selby clearly proved that “nighttime is a result of the accretion of black air.” If you can’t trust the famed scientist and philosopher de Selby, who can you trust?

    Okay, that was my bid for obscure literary reference of the day. I honestly have nothing to add, since Clark said most of what I might have said, only better.

    Except that I would add that I find nothing of value in the ideas of Cleon Skousen. But I won’t go into that here. I’ll just say that Skousen’s God is a god who might not be God tomorrow, or later today if he screws up. I believe God is God, and isn’t going anywhere.

  7. In the scriptures the idea of God ceasing to be God is a hypothetical to teach a point. In Skousen’s view, God could cease to be God in fact and it’s a constant danger. In Skousen’s view God is NOT all-powerful, “intelligences” are, and God merely does what they ask.

    Here’s what I’m talking about:
    http://radio.weblogs.com/0114013/stories/2003/10/08/theMeaningOfTheAtonement.html

    Some quotes:
    God the Father cannot save us

    and

    Now, keeping in mind D&C 29:36, what would happen if the Father violated the confidence of these intelligences? What do you think would happen. No one on the face of the earth has dared to announce the doctrine contained in the back of Alma 42. No church has dared to suggest that God could fall. Our Heavenly Father has said, “I want you to know I walk the razor’s edge of celestial law continually in order to maintain the confidence and honor of all these who trust me, because that is the source of my power.

    and
    Now, the genius of the solution: The gods know that these little intelligences have a capacity for compassion. Therefore, the atonement is based not on law, but on mercy. That�s in Alma 34:15. In other words, we are going to try to get to these little intelligences in some way so that we can overcome the demands of Justice. The families of God must have worked this out eons and eons ago with other families. So this is the pattern.

    Remember when they were selecting a Savior? Jesus volunteered. Then Satan said, “You know, Father, this is a very old-fashioned plan. I mean, this isn�t necessary. You can satisfy the intelligences of the universe

    and

    That was the mission of Jesus Christ. He had to suffer so much that when He goes to those little intelligences and pleads on the behalf of someone who did the best he could, which is called repentance

    Go read the whole thing, but the take away is that the “intelligences” are in charge, and God “walks the razor’s edge” – capable of falling at anytime if the true masters aren’t satisfied.

    Skousen, to me, is far too speculative and too far off base. God the father can save us, through his son. The plan was his and was not cooked up to satisfy his real boss, the “intelligences” as Skousen would have us believe.

  8. Ivan: In the scriptures the idea of God ceasing to be God is a hypothetical to teach a point. In Skousen’s view, God could cease to be God in fact and it’s a constant danger. In Skousen’s view God is NOT all-powerful, “intelligences” are, and God merely does what they ask.

    I think everyone who adopts a thorough-going view of free will has to allow that God could chose to do evil. Blake Ostler obviously is the biggest recent proponent of this idea. He has an interesting argument as well. (Ignoring for the moment his commitment to Libertarian Free Will which entails it)

    Consider which is greater – a being who could do evil but doesn’t or a being that could never do evil? Whose choice is more praiseworthy?

    It’s an interesting argument and has a lot of strength to it. However it does leave open the possibility of creation ceasing to be in a normal fashion. And, since Blake rejects the endless recursion of Gods ala traditional readings of the KFD, this leaves him with a real pickle of a problem IMO.

    Regarding Skousen and who is more powerful intelligence or God I honestly haven’t read him since I was a kid. So I can’t speak there. My guess though is that, like Pratt, he wouldn’t see this as a real problem. Mormons already have to put serious limitations on God. For instance if intelligences are co-eternal with God and without end then God is limited against creating or destroying them. Likewise if there is some element of free will (ignoring the ontological discussion of what kind) that is eternal then God is limited against infringing on that fundamental will.

    I don’t see that as a problem especially if this view of will explains how God has all power without adopting creation ex nihilo. Once you have co-eternal intelligences I think something like this is a logical consequence.

  9. Skousen’s problem is even worse than intelligences ruling over God. It almost seems like an attempt to have penal substitution atonement without the nastiness of God being violent or so petty that he wouldn’t just forgive. Rather, Skousen places this on the intelligences. Intelligences which are petty, unforgiving, and frankly sound like judgmental pharisees. These are the intelligences that God has to cater to?

    I dont buy penal substitution ideas and I dont buy God being God by virtue of catering to intelligences who may or may not be good.

  10. Clark -

    you really need to go read the essay I linked to. Skousen’s conception of intelligences is a lot different than what you are recalling it to be. In his view, God isn’t just limited by them, he’s subservient to them. And joshua is right – Skousen’s view is very much like penal substitution, except that God is helpless instead of angry.

    Of course LDS theology limits God in some ways, but Skousen pretty much makes God a mid-level bureaucrat.

  11. I’ll see if I can’t check it out. I have to be honest that the last time I read Skousen I was a teenager and it seemed quacky to me then.

  12. Great post.
    Did any of you catch Micheal Green of Colombia University on BYU TV?

    If he believed in scripture (or God) I think he would be in harmony with Orson Pratt in that perhaps in his view, everything can eventually be explained by string theory.

    He put together The Elegant Universe for Nova a few years back.

    http://www.amazon.com/NOVA-Universe-Michael-B-Green/dp/B0000ZG0TA

    When our agency is “in tune” with God at the sub-atomic level, we become good or God-like in all 10 dimensions.

  13. Umm. What? Note that if one buys into M-theory and all those dimensions one is always in all of them. Indeed it is those dimensions that give gravity and so forth its characteristics.

    (Still not had time to read the Skousen link yet)

  14. According to Brigham Young, Gods have existed for eternity, and so have devils. There was no first God, and there was no first devil. Both are eternal, and therefore not created.

    Also according to Brigham Young, evil is simply inverted or perverted good. Think of how true this is. Take sex, for example. It’s a good thing, ordained by God, but if perverted/misused, it becomes evil. I think this is true of everything evil I can think of. There’s always a true principle to be found in every kind of sin and wickedness.

Comments are closed.