Book Review: Exploring Mormon Thought, God’s Plan to Heal Evil

Book Review: Exploring Mormon Thought, vol 4, God’s Plan to Heal Evil, by Blake T. Ostler

Exploring Mormon Thought: Volume 4, God's Plan to Heal Evil

Evil exists.

Pure, unadulterated evil exists. It exists in nature. It exists in humans. We see the evil in war, in genocide, child sex trafficking, deadly diseases that ravage the bodies of the victims, earthquakes, and famines that slowly starve the innocent to death. Evil exists.

In his three previous volumes on Exploring Mormon Thought, Ostler probed the depths of God’s attributes, his love, and the concept of divinity. Here, he takes us through what is perhaps the most troubling questions haunting mankind: Why does evil exist? Why does God allow evil to happen?

Exploring Mormon Thought, God’s Plan to Heal Evil is smaller than the previous books (about 225 pages), but is as packed full of rich treasures as the other ones. It is divided in the following twelve chapters:

  1. What We Learn From the Problem of Evil
  2. The No Minimum Evil Defense
  3. The Free Will Defense
  4. The Less Evil Options Argument
  5. Natural Law Theodicies
  6. A Mormon Finitistic Theodicy
  7. A Mormon Process Theodicy
  8. A Relational Agape Theodicy
  9. The Plan of Agape
  10. Is it Justifiable to Permit Consent to Personality-Destroying Evils?
  11. Are Radical Evils Essential to the Plan of Agape?
  12. Atonement in Mormon Thought

Healing Evil: A Conclusion

In chapter one, Ostler discusses what he terms “radical evil.” This is the type of evil that causes most humans to cringe. It can be man-made or brought about by nature. He gives three examples for our consideration: smallpox, a man harms and kills a little girl, and a young girl is accidentally crushed by a car that rolled backward.

He discusses each type of disaster. Smallpox has slain millions and millions of people. If smallpox were necessary for God’s plan, then why did God allow mankind to eradicate it? If it isn’t necessary for mankind’s salvation, then why did God create it in the first place?

Such questions lead people to several theories to explain such events. One thought is a good God would never create such evil, therefore there is no God. This, perhaps, is the main cause for many people to embrace atheism; they cannot imagine a god that causes so much evil in the world.

Ostler then takes us through the main theories available by the Christian and philosophical world of religion.  Ostler shows that much of the problem of evil lies in the concept of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). If God created everything from nothing, then he created evil. He created the evil in humans. He created smallpox and all other diseases. He created a world that suffers from famine, and natural disasters.

Along with this concept of creation from nothing, are concepts from St. Augustine and Calvinism that promote the ideas of predestination and that man does not have free will/agency. When one considers deeply such beliefs, they lead inexorably to the concept that God creates the evil men do, and since man has no choice in the matter, God is actually responsible for all evil. Those God condemn to hell are cast down because of God’s choices, not the individuals involved in the sin/evil.

For me, such a god is not worthy of worship.

Ostler goes through various religious theories (theodicies) that are prevalent, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each theory. Some are complete theories, while others are incomplete (such as the Divine Infusion Theory, with which Ostler concurs).

Ostler then begins to explain strengths we find in Latter-day Saint theology. God did not create things from nothing. Matter and Intelligences are coexistent with God. So, when God creates spirits or rocks, these things must choose to obey (see Abraham 4:10-12). Some things are not in the direct control of God. When spirits are created, God has a hand in the process, but does not control the entire event.

Second, Ostler promotes the idea that God knows all things up to the current moment, but does not know the future, except to predict it as a grand chess master. While this is not what most Latter-day Saints believe, it does fit in well with our theology. There are instances in scriptures where God is “surprised” by a person using free will (such as the Brother of Jared seeing the finger of God in Ether 3). As he explains in depth in a previous volume of Exploring Mormon Thought, if God perfectly knows the future, then we cannot have true free will/agency. It also means God is responsible, in effect, for all evil.

However, when God has these two limitations: cannot create things from nothing and does not perfectly know the future, it opens the door for evil to come about on its own accord.

And it is here that Ostler then shows us the strength of his Agape Theodicy.  Agape is the Greek word for Christ-like Love. While I won’t go into detail on his theory here, he shows it to be a complete and intriguing explanation for evil. Evil exists. Radically dark evil exists. While God cannot totally eliminate or separate evil that coexists in the universe from our experience, God can directly be involved with us in ending evil. Through concepts such as the light of Christ (which illuminates and is in all things), and the atonement of Christ, we can use our agency to help Christ to eliminate evil.

So, in discovering a cure for smallpox, we are involved in bringing goodness and order to the world, reducing the chaos and evil that comes naturally with matter. We are helpers in bringing order to the universe and establishing God’s kingdom.

Second, and more importantly, the atonement of Christ is an ongoing event. While much of it occurred in Gethsemane and on the cross, whenever we repent, Christ pulls us into his embrace. That embrace may cause him a moment of pain right now, as he empathizes and forgives us, but the eternal joy that occurs for both Jesus and us becomes a healing balm.

Third, Ostler considers the premortal existence and foreordination. He explains that in the original councils, we may all have accepted the possibilities of going through horrific events, in order to bring to pass the work of God and the ultimate end of evil. Yes, we conceivably agreed to be foreordained to experience great tragedies. This also, according to Ostler, may be why so many of God’s spirit children refused to accept his plan, and embraced Satan’s plan instead.

Fourth, life doesn’t end here. It seems the Spirit World becomes a place to heal, as well. All of this ends in a glorious resurrection for those who repent and embrace Jesus.

For Ostler, it is all about being in a Godly relational experience. The Godhead are three beings entwined in the perfect relationship. They are One through their loving familial ties.  For Ostler, this is exactly the kind of relationship Christ desires to have with us, and through him, to bring us into an agape relationship with the Godhead.  It is becoming One with Christ that we eliminate evil and are able to heal the pains and struggles inherent with evil.

In Ostler’s Agape Theodicy, we find a strong and compelling theory of how God seeks to heal the evils that are in the world. Yes, the evils are terrible and cause death, emotional and physical pain, and sorrow. However, through the atonement of Christ and his perfect love, God heals all the pains, sorrows and afflictions.

While some concepts may be new and even different for many Latter-day Saints, Ostler’s views are well thought out and provide us with a better understanding of how the atonement of Jesus Christ works, why there is evil in the world, and how we have an active part in bringing about God’s plan of salvation and healing. Whether you fully agree with his theory or not, it deserves careful consideration. It absolves God from being the source of all evil, and it shows our part in embracing the overall plan of God. Finally, it shows us how a loving God provided a Savior that heals us and warmly brings us back into full agape relationship with the Godhead.

Now available at: 

Greg Kofford Books


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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery ( He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Exploring Mormon Thought, God’s Plan to Heal Evil

  1. I am an engineer and scientist, both by education and nature. I have found, that as I learn and come to understand the universe, and the Gospel, my understanding of both, together, increases. I find little insights and clues everywhere. I long ago began to understand why traditional Christianity or Judaism (involving ex nihilo creation) lead to agnosticism or even atheism with “learning”. My understanding of evolution is almost in complete agreement with both our (LDS) and worldly (modified Darwinism, punctuation evolution), and leads to no conflict. Formal and informal education in statistics also helped. I could go on, but I also found great insight years ago, reading the 2nd book of Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy. The statistical foundation was able to monitor and “shepherd” civilization because of overall “determinism”, but it was unable to predict or control the individual. My belief in the Gods’ knowledge of future events is much like that. Individual will can lead to previously unknowable events, such as the experience of the Brother of Jared. History also is rife with examples where the world, or a society, was ready for some discovery or invention. If the most likely candidate did not “come through”, there were others “in the wings”, ready, but perhaps days, months or a very few years, later. Perhaps that even explains the presence of the people of Zarahemla. They left Jerusalem very shortly after the Lehites, there was just no book of records available for them to bring along.

  2. Cheute, thanks for your comments. Ostler also notes that his theodicy fits nicely with evolution.

  3. It is good to see another publication from Ostler. His theory of Christ’s Atonement is quite profound and is well-articulated in the previous volumes in this series.

  4. Yes, several have talked about foreknowledge. Not being trained philosophers, apostles often teach from what they understand, without fully understanding the implications. Perfect foreknowledge means no real agency for man. Oster wrote extensively on this issue.
    Some members insist the earth is only 6000 years as JFS2 said it was so, even tho Talmage and Widtsoe disagreed.
    There is actual doctrine, then there are those teachings based on best understanding at the time.
    BY taught men lived on the moon and dressed like Puritans. That was the best guess in his day. Modern revelation and science update our understanding of God’s creation.

  5. “And yet the Great Jehovah was surprised.”

    Yeah, just like the Great Jehovah repented.

    “What is interesting is that Ostler actually had a meeting with Elder Maxwell regrading his views.”

    Ostler reports that that meeting took place when he was a junior in college; i.e., in 1980. Note that Elder Maxwell continued to preach about God’s foreknowledge for decades thereafter.

  6. I think a philosooher is not the best-trained person to understand the higher dimensions of space and time, or space-time.

    In my opinion, physicists, cosmologists and mathematicians are better capable of conjecturing what one can “see” from those higher dimensions.

    Carl Sagan’s Flatland presentation on Youtube is a good start.

    Michio Kaku is another advanced-degreed “popularizer” of higher dimensions.

    LDS blogger Bruce Webster has also touched on the subject.

    Higher dimensions of space-time, including multi-verse and string-theory stuff, go a long way to explain scriptural passages about omni-presence and omniscience, and seeing all past and future as present.

    We are limited to a one-dimensional time line. But exalted beings are not.

    Exalted beings may be multidimensional themselves, not merely 3D beings who traverse 4D/5D space.

    I think: “Eternal” is to “immortal” as a 2D plane or 3-dimensional space is to a line.

    This may not be the best way to word it, but Higher dimensions of time “mathematically” allow observational fore-knowledge of lower/included dimensions without violating the agency of the viewed creatures who are limited to the lower time-dimension.

    IOW, the perceived incompatibility/paradox of fore-knowledge and agency is limited to _within_ our 1D time-line. The incompatibility/paradox does not apply to or even exist with a higher-dimensioned viewer who is viewing from “above.”

    IMO, those who think fore-knowledge is incompatible with agency, don’t quite get the physics/math of higher dimensions where time and space become “space-time”.

    In 2D or 3D time, you can see the past/future somehow like we can stand next to a railroad track and observe it in both directions.

    Kurt Vonnegut caught and shared that vision in a passage of Slaughterhouse Five.

    Star Trek DS9 writers described multiple dimensions of time in a dialogue Capt Sisko had with the “Worm-hole aliens.” (If anyone can find the episode name/# of that, I’d be grateful.) I think someone like Michio Kaku might have advised the script-writers with the dialogue.

  7. Higher or other dimensions are still theoretical. Also, even if they are determinant, it does not follow that God controls them. Also, philosophy is able to discuss foreknowledge, something still theoretical for science, as science cannot prove/disprove God. Finally, science is not disposed to consider foreknowledge affecting agency. If you fully accept quantum determinism, then you cannot accept the concept of free will (one needn’t be a scientist to understand science).

    Strawman arguments, Bookslinger

  8. Nat Whilk,

    As you look at Elder Maxwell’s teachings, he is infatuated with the idea that the Godhead exists in an “Eternal Now.” Ostler pointedly critiques this perspective on pages 152-53 of his book “Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God.”
    Here is a snippet of Ostler’s argument:

    “At first blush this statement appears to say precisely that all things past, present and future as with God one eternal now. Such a reading supports a conclusion that God is timeless in precisely the way intended by Boethius. However, a closer reading shows that this cannot be the case. Reading this to say that God is timeless so that temporal designations of “before and after” do not apply to God is inconsistent with the statements that Jehovah contemplated these events “before” the morning stars (i.e., the sons of God in the heavenly council) sang for joy. Thus, we must look for another interpretation to make sense of the context of the statement. The entire context is describing the plan of salvation and how God preplanned and made provision for salvation of the dead by providing the doctrine of baptism for the dead. A more consistent reading of this statement is that in the deliberations leading to the plan of salvation, God considered all of the possibilities that were likely to occur. In his contemplation, God considered all things past, present and future and he made provisions for all possibilities that could befall the human family in adopting his plan. For example, he contemplated the fall of Adam and knew that it could occur. If it did occur, then God planned to provide a Savior to redeem mortals from the fall.

    “If read to indicate that God is timeless, it is hard to make sense of the notion that God was once a man as the Book of Mormon unambiguously asserts (1 Ne. 19:7-10; Mos. 13:34; 15:1-2) or that God progresses in any manner as Joseph Smith asserted in the King Follett discourse delivered in Nauvoo in 1844. For if God is timeless, then there was no real time prior to which God became man nor could there be an interval during which he experienced mortality and again became divine. Indeed, the view that the past and the future are just as real as the present leads to a clear absurdity: in the same moment of reality in the eternal now (EN) Washington is both crossing the Delaware and already dead! If God sees simultaneously with his gaze that the Apollo 11 astronauts are walking on the moon, then it follows that Washington’s crossing of the Delaware is simultaneous in time with the Apollo 11 astronauts walking on the moon–for if a is simultaneous with b, and b, is simultaneous with c, then the law of transitivity requires that a is simultaneous with c (a=b, b=c, therefore a=c).”

  9. Bookslinger,

    I agree that exalted beings MAY BE multidimensional. But scientific speculations or mathematical models do not necessarily make for good theology. And I’m not so sure that Slaughterhouse Five and Star Trek DS9 wormhole aliens are convincing models.

    I was always frustrated that the DS9 non-temporal wormhole aliens, who had access to past, present and future couldn’t access Sisko’s explanation of temporal existence before their meeting, but could then remember it after it occurred? And doesn’t a conversation involved a stream of information that has a beginning, a middle and end, which implies it must exist temporally? But I may be missing something.

  10. “Yes, several have talked about foreknowledge. Not being trained philosophers, apostles often teach from what they understand, without fully understanding the implications.”

    I could make a joke about how much better things would be if only the apostles would mingle their scriptural comments with the philosophies of men…but I won’t. While I don’t think that is where you were going, it is important to remember that the apostles are under no obligation to cede any ground (especially theology or moral philosophy) to those in the “black robes of a false priesthood.” (h/t Nibley).

    As to the issue of God’s perfect knowledge, that isn’t really arguable to me. There are countless examples of that perfect knowledge in the scriptures — none of which negatively impacts agency in any way. God uses His perfect knowledge to craft a perfect Plan — thus we can trust that God will provide the best opportunity for each of us to return to Him (if we will allow it and accept the Atonement). A god without knowledge of what tomorrow will bring is a god neither omniscient (without that knowledge) nor omnipotent (without the capacity to bring about the tomorrow he chooses). That isn’t God — you are describing a god you cannot perfectly trust because it is a god that can be wrong. And it is only a very short jump from that to apostasy — if god can be wrong then you can be right and god wrong. I’ve seen that happen in the lives of others once that door is cracked open.

    In my own life I have had too many experiences where minor events made major impacts consistent with God’s designs on my life to think that He doesn’t have complete control of what goes on. And a person with experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument. So instead of arguing that God doesn’t know what’s coming, a better use of time is to carefully watch and contemplate what God is trying to communicate to us through His perfect plan.

  11. Hi Jonathon,

    “As to the issue of God’s perfect knowledge, that isn’t really arguable to me.”

    Perfect knowledge? What does that mean? I am unsure if you have plumbed the ramifications of your thinking. Let me know if I am wrong. For example: Does God know absolutely everything that will happen? If so, you have seriously tossed free will out the window. If what happens must happen because God knows it will happen, then is there rationally room for agency?

    But if you are saying that God knows all that can be known, with the proviso that God is instituting a plan with creatures (us) who possess agency because there is an element within us that is co-eternal with God (which Joseph Smith taught), which may choose or not choose to be part of that plan, well that is a different kettle of fish, and you will agree with much of what Ostler discusses. Or at least enjoy the intellectual ride as you read his books.

    Ostler proposes that God knows all that CAN be known while accepting the notion that some things can’t be known. Now let’s admit, that is still far more than our minds can comprehend. God has perfect data on all the past and all that is in the present. Let’s toss in a plan tailored to meet the laws of heaven and provide for the inadequacies of mortality. Is that enough perfect knowledge for us to have faith in? But are there things that God can’t know yet? Can God know what has not yet be decided and actuated? That’s where things get blurry. So can people change while in mortality? Can decisions and commitments be made? On the negative side of things….Can the very elect (pre-mortal) be deceived while in mortality?

    What Ostler does is open the door on a discussion of the importance of decisions and suggests that we are accountable for those decisions.

    For Calvinists and others who want a God that is in charge of everything and possess a worldview that life is a predetermined journey with an outcome that is absolutely planned out and executed in every detail, well, I guess you will not like what Ostler has to say. But for those hearty individuals who believe eternal beings have a voice and make choices throughout the process, for those who possess a libertarian element in your worldview, well… Ostler is certainly worth a look.

  12. “Timeless or not?”, “In time?”, “Outside if time?” are the wrong questions.

    All we can observe is 1-D time. We have to imagine or extrapolate what 2-D or 3-D time might be.

    “Timeless” is not the only option of a framework/paradigm in which to understand fore-knowledge and “eternal” things.

    Multiple dimensions of time make those questions (timeless or not) moot, /and/ have the benefit of not having to nuance or explain away fore-knowledge.

    Just as the theory of 11 dimensions allows quantum physics to make sense logically and mathematically, so do extra dimensions of time allow fore-knowledge and other attributes of “eternity” to make sense.

    As I see it, Multi-dimensional time “fits” better than other jumping through hoops I’ve seen to nuance scrupture.

    The “simultaneity” (sp?) of God’s operations (not merely “multitasking” in a computational sense) almost demand multiple dimensions of time. And by this, “timeless” is then a misnomer.

    As in dimensions of space, the dimension you inhabit has both lower and higher dimensions relative to it… subsets and super-sets. You “see” all dimensions that are below you, you “experience” the one you’re in, and are blind to the dimensions above you unless they are somehow revealed from above.

    I mentioned Kaku, Sagan, DS9 and Vonnegut as “explainers” of the concept of multiple dimensions, not of theology. Compare Sagan’s Flatland to Bruce Webster’s essay. It makes sense to me.

    Of course higher-dimensional theory is not theology itself. But if it provides a framework in which to better accept scriptural pronouncements, I’m fine with that.

  13. “For example: Does God know absolutely everything that will happen? If so, you have seriously tossed free will out the window. If what happens must happen because God knows it will happen, then is there rationally room for agency?”

    First, this is what it means for God to be Omniscient (at least as to this world). To say that this tosses free will out the window is to mistake cause and effect. What happens does not happen because God knows it will happen — it happens because of the exercise of agency and God’s Omniscience allows Him to know it beforehand. God’s knowledge is not the cause.

    As a brief aside, my wife (looking over my shoulder as I write this) notes that in her job she has predictive software that is remarkably accurate despite human choice taking place. Her comment is that if this software, being written by people in their basements “in between picking their nose and playing video games,” is able to know what is going to happen before it does how can anyone think that God cannot know and know better than the best knowledge we can bring to the party.

    But back to the main principle, there are a number of examples of this. The most obvious is prophecy — doesn’t the Lord revealing what will come ‘make’ it happen? Of course not. For example, Nephi foresaw through prophecy that Christ would be crucified — something God knew for surety — yet that doesn’t diminish Christ’s exercise of moral agency (and good thing for that because if it did the Atonement would be of no effect). Just because God knew that Christ would fulfill the Atonement did not in any way ’cause’ Christ to complete the Atonement or in any way remove the exercise of Agency from the Savior or reduce His ultimate triumph.

    Whether it be the lost pages of the Book of Lehi or the Lord telling something that will be coming down the road to His servants (at times, perhaps, to each of us) the existence of this Omniscience does nothing to diminish agency in the slightest.

    “But are there things that God can’t know yet? Can God know what has not yet be decided and actuated?”

    Let’s apply that to the Atonement. If God knew, before sending His children to mortality, that Christ would fulfill the Atonement, yet the Atonement is still operative, then that shows that this knowledge is not causative nor is it damaging of agency. If, on the other hand, God didn’t know — regardless of how confident He might be — He would be sending His children into a world where one wrong decision by the Savior would damn them for eternity (rolling dice — playing the odds — for the souls of men). I can let you choose for yourself, but I know which of those two is more in line with the encounters with the Divine that I have been fortunate enough to experience.

    “So can people change while in mortality? Can decisions and commitments be made? On the negative side of things….Can the very elect (pre-mortal) be deceived while in mortality?”

    Yep, in fact people must change because even the pre-mortal elect need to go a long way to reach where they need to reach. God, with His Omniscience will put each in the best position to make the changes that we each need to make to become what we need to become, but because we are eternal beings we may choose otherwise. If, after being placed in the best position to succeed based upon God’s perfect knowledge we then fail it is not His fault — it is ours — even if He knew we would fail all along.

    There is no incongruence between a full respect for human agency (the libertarian approach, as you described it) and a full respect for God’s knowledge.

  14. As another aside, I am struck at how often false dichotomies like this arise. Faith and works. Justice and mercy. Agency and Omniscience. This, like most of these, is not either/or — both can be given full weight and the conflicts between them arise from our lack of understanding rather than the principles themselves being in conflict.

  15. Jonathan, first, it is not a false dichotomy. It is a theory. Second, your predictive software example is exactly what Ostler suggests that God is doing. He predicts. On important things, he can actively cause changes, so his work comes to pass. Exactly predictive, as your wife’s super predictive software.
    As it is, I’m not interested in discussing this with anyone who hasn’t ever studied Ostlers work. Read it and ThEN we can have a real discussion. Your lack of study in this area is telling, such a s trying to prove God’s foreknowledge by explaining predictive software, essentially proving my point for me, but not realizing it.

  16. “As it is, I’m not interested in discussing this with anyone who hasn’t ever studied Ostlers work.”

    Hmm, fair enough I suppose. I find that contrary to the original post — which is obviously a summary intended to encourage engagement with a new and unknown book, but so be it.

    It is fairly safe to say, based upon your description of my posts, that you have not understood what I was trying to convey in any event (whether my fault or yours).

    “As he explains in depth in a previous volume of Exploring Mormon Thought, if God perfectly knows the future, then we cannot have true free will/agency.”

    This was the thing that my posts were countering. This is the false dichotomy that Ostler, at least, is presenting (based upon the description in the original post). But, per your request, I will bow out and allow the discussion to continue without me.

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