Theologizing in the Presence of Burning Children: From Theodicy to Lament

By Jacob Baker

Image: Galen Dara

The attempt to justify the Christian (or Mormon) God in the face of overwhelming evil and suffering is known among philosophers and theologians as the problem of evil. Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus formulated an early version of the problem: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

Religious people usually spare little thought for the logical problem of evil. They’re more concerned about personal suffering and the staggering amounts of evil and pain in the world than they are about whether their propositional beliefs about God are rationally coherent. Such a believer will normally rely on the work of a theodicy. Unlike the philosophical response to the logical problem of evil, which merely seeks to defend itself against the charge of irrationality, the theodicy seeks to provide positive justification for the existence of a loving, all-powerful God despite the presence of evil and suffering. It hopes to inject a reasonable justification for faith in God into the all too familiar human experience of total powerlessness in the face of evil. If God is something other than all-powerful or all-good, or all-sovereign, then it is easier to accept the presence of evil. But Orthodox Christians (including most Mormons) are usually unwilling to make such a concession.

David Paulsen and Blake Ostler have written an article which is, at present, probably the premier academic Mormon response to the problem of evil.[i] Essentially, they hold that in Mormon thought: 1) God’s power is conditioned by an eternal environment not entirely of his own making. 2) The ultimate “essence” of persons is uncreated, and this essence includes inherent freedom of the will. Therefore, more than one eternal will is at work in the universe. 3) Humans are uncreated “facts” of the universe, existing before this life in a pre-mortal world where God informed us about the nature of his soul-developing plan. He enumerated the dangers lurking within it, and we understood that we would suffer—sometimes horribly. If we are on earth, it is because we consented to come here in spite of (or perhaps because of) our knowledge of what might happen to us. 4) God shares in humanity’s struggle with evil; that is, because all agents are ultimately eternal, evil is an eternal part of the universe in some way. Consequently, humans are self-determining selves, and intelligence and growth are facts of the primordial universe rather than products of God’s creative choice. Taken together, Paulsen and Ostler believe that these four factors take into account and successfully respond to the main theoretical difficulties associated with the problem of evil from a Mormon point of view.

There is, however, one significant passage in Mormon scripture that, it seems to me, cannot be accounted for by Paulsen’s and Ostler’s otherwise excellent encapsulation of Mormon teachings within a rigorous theodicy. I am referring to the 14th chapter of Alma, where many of the converts Alma and Amulek had taught are burned to death in a fire. It is one of the only scriptural passages where God himself seemingly lays down (or at least sanctions) a theodicy.

Alma 14 makes a lot of Mormons uneasy. In September 2007, the blog By Common Consent posted the text of Alma 14 for a discussion that generated over a hundred comments. Some respondents proposed that perhaps Alma was simply mistaken in his assessment of why God did not want to intervene in this situation. Some were generally satisfied with the notion that the women and children were received to God in glory, and that it was the people who were wickedly exercising their agency that caused the problem; but they still admitted that the theodicy troubled them. Others said that they wanted to glue the pages of Alma 14 together so that they would no longer have to deal with this disturbing explanation. Very few of the respondents viewed the passage as an adequate explanation for why God would not prevent evil, and those who did still had reservations. According to this small sample, if Alma 14 is a theodicy, it’s an ineffective one, and perhaps nothing short of scandalous.

Alma 14 seems to present absurdity at its highest level. It appears that the most defenseless and least culpable members of this society (women and children) suffer the worst of fates, while the most empowered members of the society—the men (husbands and fathers of the victims on the one hand and Alma and Amulek on the other)—are saved, either by being cast out of the city or by being miraculously delivered. God, meanwhile, is clearly portrayed as being unequivocally empowered to save whomever he wishes. And he chooses to save not the women and children who are suffering the worst of deaths, but Alma and Amulek. What is the explanation for this decision? Alma says he is constrained by the Spirit to not intervene on behalf of the women and children because God considers it more important that the wicked be fairly judged for their evil works than that the innocent be saved from melting in a fire. Instead, God reserves his saving power for the two men who were the catalysts for the women’s and children’s deaths in the first place. If that is not absurd, then nothing is absurd. Indeed, the words of Jewish rabbi Irving Greenberg seem to address Mormons here as much as they did the Jews who sought to justify God’s goodness in light of the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

Of course, we cannot just glue the pages of Alma 14 together. We can’t ignore it or interpret it into whatever we desire. We have to find some way of making the text productive for us in the present, to redeem the text in much the same way that it should redeem us. Theologizing, in this sense, is the act and practice of mutual redemption. However, as French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur would warn us, this redemption isn’t simply a matter of working toward systematic totality (where the text fits comfortably and naturally with other texts and doctrines) and noncontradiction (interpreting the text in such a way that it doesn’t become meaningless or nonsensical). Rather, it should lead us toward an aspect of human experience that shatters every conceivable theodicy, one that mercilessly calls into question every possible explanation: what he calls “the lament.”

The Psalmist perfectly exemplifies the lament when he cries, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 35). The lament is an unrequited, unreciprocated cry from the depths of unjust suffering—suffering so acute that the only relief comes from the lament itself or from death. No hope for a better world can silence the lament; indeed, the lament might be seen as the soulcry for hope in the face of hope’s final abandonment. The lament invariably finds the cracks and fissures in theodicies and pries them apart. Every conceivable theodicy will fail to reconcile God’s existence with evil because the lament reveals the theodicy to be complicit in the very evil and suffering that called forth the lament in the first place. When the theodicy seeks to rationalize suffering—attempting to impose a meaning on that which cracks and wrenches and kills our brothers and sisters—it inevitably theologizes in the presence of burning children. In their presence, rationalization is obliterated. The lament communicates to us that no solution has ever been provided that would allow us to rest peacefully while children burn.

The lament is a path distinct from rationalization but not distinct from thought. The lament still thinks, but it does not rationalize. To rationalize is to justify, to vindicate, to explain away. But what is justifiable in the face of ultimate suffering? What can be explained to a child who is dissolving in a fire, or to those who love the child? How can a loving God be vindicated when so many innocents suffer in similar ways? To rationalize is to attempt to use the past or the future to legitimize the present. By contrast, to think is to imagine possibilities, to consider—even to believe. To think is an act of faith, not so much faith that God might physically intervene or provide solutions, but faith that there is always—always—a task to be accomplished, a call to be responded to, a life to be received, a death to be mourned. The lament is the insistence that the present remain fully and without exception the present, or in other words, it maintains that the present truly and unconditionally matters. This insistence on dwelling in the present—in all its glory, banality, or brutality—is to maintain that no future hope of rest and salvation and no reconstruction of the memory of the past can replace the reality and intensity of the here and now. To require that such a future or past hope perform such work is to collude in the very evil that elicits the lament in the first place. To think is to legitimize the present with nothing other than itself. The lament, then, is the full-souled, embodied mourning of those who dwell in and with the present.

In this light, let us consider the narrative of Alma 14 not as a theodicy (or at least not as a theodicy propounded or sanctioned by God), but as a canceled theodicy. A close reading of the chapter reveals that while Alma claims to be constrained by the Spirit to not stretch forth his hand to deliver the victims from the fire, the reasons he provides to Amulek are entirely his own. He attributes none of them to God directly. Does God approve or disapprove of Alma’s reasoning? The text is silent on this point. But we will see that over the course of the chapter, Alma, in effect, abandons the theodicy he presents at the beginning.

We see the beginnings of this abandonment after the burning when Alma and Amulek are brought to prison where they are humiliated and abused. Three times, the text informs us, Alma and Amulek’s tormenters demand explanations from them as to why God had not delivered the innocents and was not now delivering the two men. Three times, Alma and Amulek “answered them nothing.”[ii] In short: Alma’s and Amulek’s persecutors demand a theodicy from them. It’s possible, of course, that Alma (or Mormon, as the text’s redactor) simply isn’t reiterating the theodicy that Alma had promoted a few verses earlier. But when Alma finally speaks, what does he say? Does he explain to the Ammonihahites that they are filling the cup of their iniquity so that judgment can come upon them, or that he is expecting the Lord to deliver him soon? Is it just an incredibly fortunate coincidence for Alma and Amulek that the blood sacrifice of the women and children has quantifiably filled the cup of their oppressors’ iniquity? Does he provide the requested theodicy? No. When finally we hear Alma’s voice, it gives forth the cry of lament: “How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord?” It is possible, of course, that Alma still believes in the logic of his earlier theodicy. However, his speech here is not the language of theodicy but the raw howl of lamentation. When others were suffering, Alma felt that reasons could be provided to explain why God would allow it. But when suffering himself, reasons become absurd, and Alma’s theodicy starts falling away. Alma’s own experience of suffering condemns reasons to silence. It is true that Alma and Amulek are subsequently delivered from suffering and death while the women and children were not, but the facts of who survives needn’t damage the observation that Alma 14 does not turn out to be a theodicy but a trajectory from theodicy to lament. This unraveling of theodicy is one important way that the text becomes redemptively relevant for us.


How do we think of evil and God outside the restrictions and betrayals of theodicy’s terms? How do we do justice to the lament—both our own and those of others? Philosopher Paul Ricouer replies that the desire to understand the core of all theodicies, the origin of evil—to answer the why me? or why her? or where did this come from?—is replaced by the idea of a task to be accomplished. In fact, it might be more precise to say that the task of the lament is to respond in a particular way to evil, to reveal what potentially might be done in the face of suffering. This practical, action-oriented response calls forth an emotional response: a catharsis that nourishes the lament and transforms it. Following Freud, Ricouer refers to this response as the work of mourning. According to Freud, mourning is a step-by-step release of all attachments and investments that make us feel that the loss of another is the loss of our own self. This detachment liberates us for new affective attachments and further investments. Similarly, instead of worrying about whether our faith in God is being strengthened or weakened, Ricoeur wants us to use thought, action, and feeling to reach a “catharsis of the lament,” rethinking and re-symbolizing the world in the face of the void our suffering created.

The first step toward a catharsis of the lament is to integrate ignorance into our mourning, in other words relinquishing the need to know why a particular evil event occurred, and thereby relinquishing the need to proclaim to the world a universal “solution to evil.”

The second step is to allow our lament to develop into a kind of complaint against God—a holy protest. However, we are not protesting God’s lack of intervention or even his silence in the face of extreme suffering. Instead, we are protesting the agonizing interlude, the suspension and postponement of relief. Along with the Psalmist, we cry without reservation, “How long, O Lord?”

The final stage of the catharsis of the lament is to realize that reasons for belief in God have nothing to do with the need we feel to explain the origin of suffering. Suffering is only truly scandalous when God is believed to be the sole source of everything good in creation, including our indignation against evil, our courage to bear it, and our feelings of sympathy towards victims. Crucially, if we see God as the source of our strength to bear up against evil, this only emphasizes the impossibility of reconciling belief in God with the existence and persistence of extreme suffering. Linking belief to relief underscores that only when God alleviates suffering are we truly free to have faith in him. Our belief in God, according to Ricoeur, must be severed from our beliefs about the causes of suffering, including the causes of God’s own suffering during the Atonement.

Ricoeur admits that many sufferers find consolation in the idea that God too suffers and that Christ therefore suffers with them, but this reasoning is ultimately meaningless without the transformation of the lament.

The transformation of the lament is our renouncement of the desire to be spared suffering. It is our renouncement of the “infantile component” of our desire for immortality, and the willingness instead to accept our own death. Indeed, we read that Job came to love God for naught, or in other words that Job’s love for God was not predicated on anything—it wasn’t a conditional love that was only activated upon the fulfillment of certain conditions (i.e., the alleviation of his suffering). His love was not found in the interstices between cause and effect; his faith was not a product of his experience with suffering or vice versa, nor was his faith bound to whatever answers (if any) he may have formulated about the cause of his suffering. In the end, Job did not mourn the injustice of his fate—but he did mourn. In fact, he seems to have reached the catharsis of the lament, allowing for ignorance, protesting the interlude, and loving God in spite (not because) of the suffering that befell him.


The disturbance and confusion Alma 14 has provoked prompts the question: Why is it that the scriptures are so replete with narratives and explanations of the world that fly in the face of common sense and decency—especially when we are so often enjoined to search the scriptures for prescriptive behavior? BYU philosophy professor James Faulconer posits that scripture is qualitatively different from philosophy, theology, or ethics.[iii]When we approach the scriptures, we must realize that they are not an argument or an explanation; they do not appeal to the intellectual understanding—rather they are a call. When we engage with scripture, our question should not be “What can I know?” or “What can I master?” but “How should I be?” or “What should I allow to master me?”

Scripture unsettles, destabilizes, disorients, and then re-orients, constantly revising what we thought we knew. It calls us to repent: to free ourselves from the stasis and fossilization of comfortable familiarity, where we slowly, imperceptibly become deaf and blind to both the call of the divine and the cry of others. It calls us out of ourselves and into a world inhabited by rich realities.

In other words, the religious life is not supposed to be a comfort. The call from scripture to repent—to constantly revise ourselves in light of our perpetual brokenness, to reconsider our world, and to reach outward to others as they call to us—is better defined as exhausting, disorienting, and sometimes disheartening. No, religion (to the religious) is anything but comforting, and our genuine encounters with God are often painfully transformative. Though Mosiah 18 teaches that comfort is a divine mandate, it is not a comfort derived from God: rather, we are to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. And others can and do comfort us, most often in silence, and in ways that have nothing to do with explanations. We participate in mourning that did not originate in ourselves, and we suffer that which did not originate in ourselves. (Remembering that mourning is not a synonym for comforting. These are separate and distinct tasks, important at different times in their own ways.)

Following Ricouer, we remain with those who mourn in such a way that we help to create a safe space in which their catharsis of the lament can occur. We affirm that it is entirely appropriate to be ignorant about the causes of suffering; we nurture their protest against the suspension of consolation and closure; and we separate our faith in God from the causes of suffering—all as a means to allow the work of mourning to proceed for other mourners. Indeed, comfort and assistance was Amulek’s first impulse upon seeing the women and children being consumed in the fire—an impulse with which, by the end of Alma 14, we can plausibly imagine Alma being in agreement.

Together we suffer. There are no explanations. Nothing can fully satisfy our intellects. We usually say that after Christ cried out on the cross that he had been forsaken by God, he was more alone than he had ever been. But is that true? At the foot of the cross stood the women he had been closest to in life. On either side of him hung fellow mortals also nailed to trees, sharing his death. None of these could provide explanations to him, and perhaps he needed none. Perhaps his mission was clear. However, in light of this scriptural passage—known in the Christian tradition as the Word of Abandonment—Albert Camus remarks, following Dostoevsky, that maybe this was not the case: “Christ could only really incarnate the ‘human drama’ if he shares that which marks it out as most absurd: a belief that there is no resurrection, that he was tortured and killed for no reason and that he lived and died for a lie.”

In any case, there were none to provide comforting explanations to the women at the cross, nor to Christ’s fellow sufferers. That they were together—that they would not leave him—was all there was. God withdraws from the scene altogether, and who is left? The mourners and the comforters. Perhaps God can provide reasons for suffering, but if he truly suffers with us, what value can these reasons possibly have? Can reasons turn genuine suffering into non-suffering? This seems impossible. If God suffers with us—not just physically, but emotionally, including the suffering of the absurd and the meaningless—then reasons will not save us. The only thing that will save us, perhaps, is first to discern that there are always those, worlds without end, who need us to mourn with them—a task to which we should devote ourselves; second, to retain at least the possibility that someone remains with us, perhaps noticeable only by absence—the only one whose presence or absence is always manifest, always unmistakably apparent for each one of us: the one who eternally remains, even if in silence.

[i] Blake Ostler and David Paulsen, “Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil,” In Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 237–284. Also note that Ostler has written a piece on the problem of evil in Mormon thought that will likely supersede this one, to be published in a forthcoming book.

[ii] I don’t have time or space for this, but the parallels here with Christ’s experience before Pilate, in which Christ also says nothing to Pilate’s inquiries, are quite interesting.

[iii] See James E. Faulconer, Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010).