A friend asked me what my take was on the problem of evil, or theodicy, so I thought I’d write about it here.
Here was the question:
How do you handle the problem of evil? Coming from a Mormon background, evil had its place in the plan of salvation. If you are right about the idea that to be godly is you be one, then why does the devil of our egos get in the way? What’s the point of a fall in the first place?
It’s a great question. The problem of evil is a problem, one that has vexed philosophers and theologians for ages. Of course, I don’t think I have the final answer, but I’ll share some ideas for consideration.
Yes, in Mormonism (and Christianity more generally) evil has a place in the plan. It is the opposing force against God, coming from Satan, against all good, which must be overcome so that we can return to live with God. My views today are quite similar, actually, but I’ve interpreted these things differently from a mystical point of view, which incorporates spiritual ideas from both East and West.
Ultimately I believe we are all One, and part of God. But in the process of becoming human we forget this truth. This is actually reflected in the LDS temple endowment. This forgetting that we are God is the critical thing (and could be related to the philosophical concept of anamnesis). We forget we are One, and at-one in God. Early on in our childhood we begin to develop a sense of being a separate “self” or ego, the “I,” “me,” “mine” in our minds. This is the emergence of self-awareness, and it is particularly acute and deep, it seems, in humans. Most other animals don’t seem to have nearly the sense of “self” that we humans develop. Maybe it is because of our big brains, or something that happened during our evolution, but our sense of being a separate “self” grew enormously. It became a blessing for us, allowing all kinds of amazing abstract reasoning and critical thinking, but it’s also a curse; we become imprisoned in this small finite sense of “self,” which causes us to act in all kinds of extreme ways.
The emergence of this “self” in our consciousness, it seems to me, is what is symbolized in the Fall story, and is our Fall, collectively in humanity during our evolution, and individually when we are young. It is what seems to cut us off from the presence of God, from the wholeness of the cosmos and nature, from being at-one in the One Uni-verse. Or at least that is the appearance, our perception of things. It’s not actually true at a fundamental level. It is a kind of delusion of consciousness that this “self” is separate or independent from all other things in the cosmos (as even Einstein recognized). If we look carefully, particularly in contemplative practices such as meditation, but even scientifically, we find it simply isn’t true. But from the perspective of the “self” that emerges in our mind, it seems very real. We become a “subject,” and all other things become “object.” We enter the world of dualities, and human knowledge. This is our forgetting of being One in God, of being whole, and we become a separate “self,” cut off and isolated from the All in this “lone and dreary world.”
From the perspective of this separate ego “self” it feels quite vulnerable, broken, apart, subject to death, lonely, disconnected, imperfect, inferior, a fragment, weak, ashamed, sinful. This causes the “self” to want to do things that will protect itself and aggrandize itself. It feels it needs to shield itself from anything that could harm it, lessen it, threaten it, or expose its vulnerability, and so it creates a shell around itself for security. It hides because it feels it is naked. It also seeks to possess things that it thinks will help it be more whole and complete, such as material possessions, social status, wealth, honor, power, control. The ego-self even seeks to perfect itself and immortalize itself (ironically) through spiritual performances and rituals and ideas. These add to its sense of “self,” making it appear larger, stronger, more invincible, at least to itself. Most acts of evil seem to stem from these two pulls towards excessive protection or aggrandizement of the ego “self.” This is where I think the “devil” emerges, the mythology of “Satan,” from the profound sense of being a separate “self.” We might note that “Lucifer” is also a fallen angel, originally the morning star (Christ), which falls from that divine heavenly glory to become “Satan.” I think this is part of the same mythological tradition along with the Fall of Adam & Eve.
When this separate “self” falls away from our consciousness, when “Satan” is cast out of the temple of our mind, when the “self” is transcended or when it “dies” from conscious awareness (Gal. 2:20), then we are redeemed from all these limitations and suffering of the ego “self,” redeemed from the Fall into the separate “self,” saved or liberated from all our “sins” of feeling separate, broken, weak, imperfect, and we realize our wholeness, completeness, and perfection as One in God again, in the full presence of God, which is wholly One in us and all things. We realize our true identity is not that illusory constructed “self” we thought we were, but rather is One in God. We realize our Christ nature, our Buddha-nature, the Atman within that is one in Brahman. We are redeemed from our fallen ego self by realizing our true Self (Christ), liberated from our imprisonment in the separate “self” by recognizing our true identity and nature as One in God, as One with the world/nature, as One in the cosmos/reality, as One with all other beings. We are at-One again. This is the at-one-ment, or Atonement.
It seems that in humans, who have developed these big brains, that becoming a separate definite “self” may be a natural evolution of consciousness to greater awareness. We first become aware of our finite body-mind, before we can grow to greater awareness beyond it, consciously realizing our oneness in the whole, that we emerged from the whole and are still in the whole, even a manifestation of the whole. As a child, before our Fall into the separateness of the “self,” we were whole (of the Kingdom), but we were perhaps not fully conscious of this wholeness. It took a fall into the separateness in order to transcend it and consciously return to wholeness. Also, it seems that the consciousness of God may need to collapse itself from being infinite in order to inhabit a finite body-mind, God incarnates its Self as our finite self in order to experience the world from a first-person perspective. Also, there “must needs be that there is an opposition in all things,” otherwise there is no existence, no experience. There is light and dark, up and down, hot and cold, good and evil. These seem to be a natural consequence of existence itself, which manifests itself along a spectrum of opposites or polarities, but there is also a unity to be found within these opposites.
We have both a fallen human ego-self, and a divine nature and God-Self, at the very same time. When we allow ourselves to be devoted to the desires of the ego-self, particularly to the thoughts of the ego-mind, then we tend to do evil and succumb to evil, and we cut ourselves off from the Divine in us and all around us; we are that “natural man” who is an “enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19; Romans 8:7). When we let go of the ego-self, let go of those thoughts of the ego-mind, and trust (have faith) that we are in something much greater than this “self” we usually think we are, we can eventually come to realize oneness in all beings, that the “other” is not separate from me but is my Self, then we act out of Love and compassion and from our divinity as One in God. The struggle of life seems to be to recognize the ego-self for what it is as a finite manifestation of God, and to then transcend it to our true identity in God, as One in God (Christ), to realize that ultimately we are not merely this limited finite mortal being, but rather we are the Incarnation of God, a Manifestation of the eternal God/Reality/Cosmos on this Earth that is One with all other beings, and to act from out of that wholeness, that oneness/nonduality, that Love. This is eternal life, for we are no longer identified merely with the mortal ego-self, but with the divine Self which lives on throughout the cosmos.
Some of my ideas here I gleaned from Rupert Spira, who is a wise nondual spiritual teacher. I appreciate his perspective on the problem of evil:
What do you think of evil? Does this help your understanding of evil, where it might come from, why it exists, and how it might be overcome? Please share your thoughts.
16 thoughts on “A Mystical Perspective on the Problem of Evil”
To me the logical conclusion of your post is that if our true identity is the One then there is no real problem of evil–in the sense that nothing nefarious or harmful is being inflicted upon others. All our actions are only an expression of God’s first-person experience in this sphere and ultimately reflect only upon himself as the One true identity.
That said, I suppose that evil might be perpetrated upon one’s self by oneself. Even so, there’s no real retribution or apology necessary–and all “evil” may be considered no more than an incidental exercise in the awareness of the “goings on” in this fallen sphere. And there’d be no real consequences for evil other than, perhaps, a little distraction.
Now I don’t mean to be flippant. Perhaps I’m not getting all that you’re saying–and so I could be way off. Even so, it seems to me that the answers to the problem of evil are to be found in the cosmic vista of the gospel that Joseph Smith received through revelation.
A couple of things come to mind in light of that vista: 1) Where our primal selves are not created by God and are separate from him and 2) we have, as the family of Adam, collectively taken the responsibility for evil upon ourselves after being duly warned of the difficulties inherent in mortality–then it becomes logically possible for God to stand blameless in spite of his foreknowledge. Also, if there was any notion that what we were about to learn through our mortal experience was so valuable that it was worth encountering whatever evil may come–then it seems that such values would underscore our purpose for being here and only serve to further qualify the conditions mentioned above.
Hi Jack. Ultimately, God wins. So yes, in that sense, there is no real problem. But the ignorance that causes evil does produce a lot of suffering in our lives and others. We can inflict much evil and pain on others if we are ignorant of our divine nature, if we remain imprisoned in our ego identity, in our “separate self.” I think we tend to do evil when we remain ignorant, unaware, unconscious of who we really are in God, and the consequences of this ignorance is suffering and torment in our lives and others, otherwise known as “hell.”
Joseph Smith once said,
“A sinner has his own mind and his own mind damns him. He is damned by
mortification and is his own condemner and tormenter. Hence the saying: they
shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. I have no fear of hell
fire, that does’nt exist, but the torment and disappointment of the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone—so is the torment of
I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t understand how there’d be a problem if we were all purely emanations from God. In what way is there a problem of evil — philosophically speaking — if ultimately there is only one cosmic identity perpetrating evil upon itself?
Ultimately, there is no problem. Is there any problem for a beetle? Is a tree worried about anything? How about a flower? Is a monkey concerned about evil? Not really. It seems that we humans perceive that there is a problem because of our extra large brains and complex consciousness. We don’t simply live as one with nature as most other creatures of creation, but we think we’re separate from all of it. Our egos think they are independent from the world and cosmos. We have “forgotten” that we are Michael and one of the gods. All of us. It is this ignorance, this unawareness/unconsciousness, this misidentity which perhaps causes most of our suffering, for ourselves and others. We humans perpetrate all kinds of evil acts because we are unaware of who we really are, that we are one in God. The problem of evil and suffering seem to dissolve when we recognize once again our oneness in God, and that all of this is one great process in flow. Is there still pain and discomfort? Yes, but these are recognized as part of this life, the polarities of existence which also allow us to know goodness and experience joy.
Thanks for your patience as I bombard you with questions.
I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t know how to reconcile our complicity in evil if we are not “uncreated” agents unto ourselves.
Thank you for the conversation, Jack. It is through this kind of dialogue that we can grow.
I suggest that our egos do think they are agents unto themselves, separate from the rest of creation, which is why they commit evil. It is because we think we are independent agents unto ourselves that we “know not what [we] do” (Luke 23:34). If we had full awareness of ourselves, of who we really are, of our divine nature as One in God, then we would do no evil. Our natural activity would be fully at-one in God’s will. But we don’t know who we truly are, and so we do evil to protect and aggrandize this separate sense of “self.”
You’re welcome–and thank you.
I certainly believe that we typically build a psychological construct in order to protect ourselves as we interact with the world around us. And that sometimes this construct is so formidable that it almost seems to have a mind of its own–I’m kind of following Jung here. Even so, as we learn to get underneath the construct and to see the mental landscape for what it truly is what we have is (IMO) still a unique singular agent–though, perhaps, more authentic and intelligent.
That said, I think it may be possible that we might sense a loss of sorts because of the connection that we had with God prior to this life. Even so, my belief is that reunification with God, at least, as a permanent condition, will only come about by virtue of a covenant relationship with him as sanctioned by his holy priesthood.
I agree that underneath the ego-self construct is a singular agent, but I don’t think it is unique to each of us. I think it is universal. It is the One of Plotinus. It is the Father of Jesus. It is the Dharmakaya of Gautama Buddha. It is perhaps the Singularity of the physicists. It is the deepest you can go in consciousness, prior to all subject/object differentiations. I don’t think there is any uniqueness in this, but it is wholly undivided in itself. It is One Great Whole. In order for a whole to be a whole, it must not be divided or split in any way. I think all apparent uniqueness and distinctions flow out of this Whole, emanate from it, but are yet contained within it. They are only “apparently” distinctions, because ultimately they remain undivided in the Whole.
I believe we are even now part of that Whole, within that One, at-one with the Father, even if we don’t know it or aren’t conscious of it. I think Jesus prayed that we would become conscious of it (John 17). Becoming fully conscious of this reality I believe is the essence of the spiritual journey of life. We are becoming conscious of who/what we really are, our true divine nature. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
My sense is — and I can only speak from my own experience — when we get underneath the “construct” what we find is that portion of the mind that is unsullied by fear or shame. It is one space, so to speak, without any partitions or divisions. My opinion is that this is the oneness that many folks encounter when experiencing altered states of consciousness–and it can be a wonderful and even euphoric experience to go there.
Even so, IMO, this is not God–not in the ultimate sense. It may be patterned after him–in the sense that we might get a taste of unity within ourselves. But to be redeemed of God is an experience with an agent (or agents) that is far, far greater than ourselves. A marvelous Sacred Other who sweetly condescends to invite us to unite with both him and the divine chorus of souls who are at one with both him and each other.
Yes, I agree that what we find underneath the construct of “self” is unsullied by fear or shame. It seems it is unsullied by anything. It is absolutely clean, pure, innocent, holy (whole). It is “perfect,” or complete and whole, fully fulfilled in itself, and absolutely as it should be. I think this is what Christianity is referring to as a “remission of sins,” “redemption from sin,” or “forgiveness of sin.” We see what we really are in our true nature, our divine nature, and it is One in God. It is the Christ.
I also agree that this is not God in God’s ultimate essence. It is the incarnation of God, the manifestation of God in reality, in physicality, God in expression. And I agree it is far greater than ourselves, our egoic “self.” The ego-self is sometimes called the “small self,” or “false self,” or “fallen self,” or “separate self.” In Mormonism I think it is known as the “natural man,” or “carnal mind.” Our true nature as One in God, as an incarnation of God, is far greater than anything this smaller “self” could ever know or be.
The ego-self is merely a construction in mind, a story, memories of a lifetime of experiences, but it is not who we really are on the ontological level. When that “self” passes away from consciousness, we find union in God, oneness, at-one-ment, not as something separate, it seems to me, but wholly one with and in God. We find ourselves in the bosom of the “Father,” and the “Father” in us, not as a separate individual, but as our deepest and most real being.
As Jesus said to Philip when he asked him to show them the Father, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” (John 14:9-11)
You are missing that the duality that you are posing is only temporary and should be overcome, and that’s where the inconsistency comes when dealing with good and evil as a problem. whereas posing and eternal duality in unity that does not need to be overcome because they are always united however diverse.
I completely agree with what you are saying, since the beginning the question of what’s the problem within non duality creates a philosophical problem. whereas posing an everlasting unity in diversity solves the problem. God is not man, however man is made of God.
That’s a wonderful verse from John–I love it. Even so I read it a little differently than you do–at least, I think I do. To me the Savior’s words imply the reality of two separate agents in spite of their perfect unity. Indeed, the idea of unity would be rendered moot if there were no separate agents to engage in the act of becoming one.
Re: That which we find underneath the construct: My sense is that while it is an authentic aspect of ourselves it is still in need of redemption. It is not perfect or whole, IMO–not yet. It, too, must be sanctified. In fact, I almost regret speaking of it in dualistic terms–because it is simply who we really are. Each one of us is a unique little “I am” susceptible to enlargement–and that’s why we’re here: to gain the gifts and experience we need to continue in the process of enlargement.
Yes, it is great verse. If the Father and the Son are two separate agents, then how would it be that the Father dwells (or lives) in the Son? In my view they are not two; Jesus said that they were one (John 10:30). The idea of unity is not that there are two, it seems, but that there is just one (unity means “one”). I don’t think they “become” one, so much as they realize they are one. That which seemed to be two (us and God) is ultimately realized as actually only One. I perceive that we come to recognize that we are God in manifestation, that every being is the same Holy One in manifestation, also known as the “Christ” in Christianity.
I would add to the conversation that when the Bible speaks of redemption and of Christ is really different from the interpretation given by non dualists. redemption is done by an actual death of Jesus, showing the love of the Father in forgiving us of our sins by being punished on Christ spiritually. a very important point, is the resurrection from the dead, jesus’s body being taken up again after being dead and stay forever with that body for good. it speaks of our eternal individuality and glorified single bodies we will have even united to God, this contradicts non duality at its core. Mere oneness is incomplete and is mere duality. but the truth resides in Unity in diversity. the subject experience is of oneness but its objects are many, God in Christ is glorified in the many, and the many experience the one Christ. God himself is a trinity that is where unity in diversity comes. Non dualists teach that Knowing knows itself but this very act of knowing itself creates a perfect duality, that is, an infinite duality, this is the Logos and together with this act is the sensation, which is the Holy Spirit.
Marcos, I don’t think Jesus’ body was literally raised up to life again after being dead. It seems to me that this is a mythology that is pointing to the death of the ego identity, and a realization of unity in the One. This does not contradict nonduality.