Finitude is Not the Answer

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Jeffrey Thayne

3. Pain that Results from Non-moral Causes

Much of human suffering simply cannot be attributed to moral agency; natural disasters, disease, death, etc., are all the results of mortal weaknesses and natural circumstances for which no human agent is responsible. Nobody escapes this kind of suffering; everybody gets sick, and if anybody escapes a violent death, they will die of natural causes. I cannot say why people suffer the things that they do, and I will not attempt an explanation in this post. In this post, I would only like to present what I believe is a non-satisfactory response to this challenge, and why I think it is problematic.

Abridging God’s Power

A small minority of Latter-day Saints claim that the Latter-day Saint answer to this challenge is that God is not as all-powerful as we have traditionally thought. David Grandy explains that one trend in LDS thought is to talk about a more finite God, whose powers are limited in important ways:

Many, though not all, subscribe to the view that [scientific] laws are binding even on God. He cannot contravene them, though his perfect or near-perfect knowledge of them allows him to do things that may strike mortals as miraculous. Still, he is limited or relativized by certain laws or principles, these having been in place prior to the time that God become God.1

Thus, some scholars inside the Church believe that LDS doctrine abridges God’s power over the material world. This, say some, presents a possible solution to the problem of suffering, because although God’s redemptive power is still complete and intact, he may not be able to prevent suffering that may be due to immutable scientific principles.

I think most of us will find this solution very unsatisfactory and also unlikely. It is difficult for me to believe that the same Being who calmed the storm, who healed the sick, and who even overcame death itself is in anyway limited in his ability to alleviate the pains and sufferings of the masses because some scientific law forbids him. Nor do I wish to believe in a God “who is a nice enough guy, but whose hands are tied.”2 The Savior, while on the earth, demonstrated a remarkable capacity to ease the pain of those around Him.

God has Claimed Responsibility for Some Natural Disasters

Jesus appearing to the Nephites. If God does not intervene in our lives because it would remove our agency, then why has he dramatically intervened many times in the past?

In fact, it seems to me that God has claimed personal responsibility for inflicting at least some pain and suffering upon his children through an impressive display of power and command over matter, particularly prior to his visit to the Nephites on the American continent:

That great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned. … The city of Gilgal have I caused to be sunk, and the inhabitants thereof to be buried up in the depths of the earth. (3 Nephi 9:4–6)

This does not sound to me as though human suffering which is caused by natural calamity is always something God “would prevent if he could.” Thus, there must be a more satisfactory way to explore this problem that goes deeper than imposing arbitrary limits on God’s power. This is why I believe it is important to separate pain and evil, as I will attempt in the fourth post of this series. If all pain is genuinely evil, then God is responsible for at least some evil in the world. Is it possible that there are qualitatively different kinds of pain? This is a question I will address in my next post.

To be Affected

James Faulconer explains that one possible response to the problem of pain by natural causes (and, I suppose, this argument could apply to all suffering) is that to be an embodied agent means to be affected by the world in some relevant way. He says,

I believe one could argue that, by definition, embodied beings are necessarily passive as well as active. They can be acted on; to be embodied is to be able to be affected. In technical terms, it is to be pathetic, to have things happen to one. But to be pathetic is to suffer in the broad sense of the word (and, for our purposes, suffering is not best defined as “feeling pain” because feeling pain is a species of suffering, of being affected). If an argument from the nature of embodiment were successful, it would show that it is logically contradictory to create a world without creating suffering.3

I really appreciate the logic of this thought. It is possible that to be embodied requires us to live in a world that can affect us. Whether or not this is true, I don’t know. At this point, I’ll leave the question unanswered. I’m not even sure it resolves the problem addressed in this series; it is just one of many possible perspectives. I do think it lends more insight into the problem of evil than the claim that God is somehow prevented from easing pain and suffering by immutable scientific laws. In my next post, I’ll talk more about the relationship between evil and suffering.


1. David Grandy.
2. Richard Williams, personal conversation.
3. James Faulconer, “Theodicy.”


  1. To be human means we are children of God and endowed with choice, power to act and capacity to experience emotions.

    God has emotions too. He did not abandon them upon obtaining perfection. Nirvana is not heaven; it is an abdication of the gift of feeling we have been given. Controlling the emotions in faith and knowledge is the way of Heaven. Suffering is the path to learn that self control.

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