Agency and the Existence of Sin

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Jeffrey Thayne

Truman Madsen, a Latter-day Saint and a philosopher, said that for some “the most staggering objection to belief in a personal God is the ugly, tragic, overwhelming fact of human inequality and suffering.” 1 Although I am personally not presented with any crisis of faith when presented with the facts of human suffering (I sincerely hope our readers do not see this as lack of compassion), many do experience difficulties, and this has led apologists to attempts solutions to this problem.

James Faulconer explains what, exactly, the challenge is:

The argument is that if God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then the existence of evil is inexplicable, for such a God could create a world without evil—he has the power and the knowledge to do so—and he would create it, for his love would require that he do so. According to the argument, therefore, the existence of God is incompatible with the existence of evil. For many, the suppressed conclusion is that it is irrational to believe in God if one recognizes the existence of evil, as most people do.2

Subdividing the Problem

In this series, I have no intention of completely resolving the issue, or presenting any conclusive answers. I do not claim to know why people suffer. I would only like to present a few thoughts I have had about the issue. Many scholars will recognize that the problem of evil as described above is a conglomeration of several, more subtle, challenges. I would like to divide the challenge into five different topics. By dividing the problem in the following way, I believe the problem shifts in important ways.

1. The problem of sin.
2. The problem of pain that results from sin.
3. The problem of pain that results from non-moral causes.
4. The relationship between suffering and evil.
5. Redemption through the Savior Jesus Christ.

In this series, I will not attempt to solve this dilemma; thinkers for centuries have wrestled with the problem and developed many solutions. Everything I will say about the subject has already been said by many philosophers, and even disputed and criticized by many philosophers. The purpose of this four-post series is simply to present my personal opinion as to the merits of some proposed solutions when compared with others and with the restored gospel. I will also question some of the assumptions we bring to the problem.

1. The Problem of Sin

The first problem, the problem of sin, is this: How do we reconcile the existence of a powerful and loving God who wants us to do right and a world where people do wrong?

This problem is very simply dealt with by acknowledging moral agency. There is something inherent in us that allows us to live in rebellion against God and His teachings. Although God granted us agency by placing us in a moral sphere in which we can in either resist or yield to moral obligations, it is not in his power to compel us to do either.

(Right now I am speaking only of choices of the heart—we can wish to teach the gospel, and yet be imprisoned in a cell, or we can rebel against God in our hearts, but still attend church, serve a mission, etc. I’m sure that God could compel our bodies to strictly obey His commands, even though we are rebellious in our hearts. He certainly grants us freedom to act upon our choices, since this is a crucial aspect of our mortal test. Sin, however, takes place in our response to God in our hearts, and this is a capacity that we inherently have in us from the moment God enters our lives. The same is true of our relationships with our brothers and sisters here on earth: the capacity to either to love them or to wish harm on them is inherent from the moment of our introduction to them.)

Therefore, the possibility of sin in the world is a necessary consequence of agency. God cannot simply tinker with our metaphysical nature and compel us to love others. In this regards, however, I am not talking about man’s capacity to inflict harm upon others; I am only talking about capacity to wish harm upon others. Someone who was trying to fathom God’s goodness could probably reconcile it with a world in which people freely chose for themselves joy (through obedience) or misery (through sin, rebelling against God in our hearts). It’s fairly easy to see that a good God could create a world where evil and good exist, when each person only experiences evil if they chose it, and has but to cease to do evil in order to escape it.

The next challenge, however, is the problem of pain that results from sin. The existence of agency necessarily entails the possibility of a rebellious heart, but it does not explain why God allows us to act upon our wishes, especially considering the fact that it so frequently inflicts pain on others who did not choose it. I’m not sure I know the answer to this question, but I believe a simple appeal to agency isn’t sufficient to resolve the issue. I will address this in a future post.


1. Edwin Gantt, “Hedonism, Suffering, and Redemption: The Challenge of a Christian Psychotherapy,” Turning Freud Upside Down (Provo: BYU Studies), p. 53.
2. Faulconer, James, “Theodicy.”

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