The Shadow of the Apocalypse
Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse
James E. Faulconer
According to the Gospels, one of the most frequently repeated of Jesus’s messages
during his earthly ministry was “The kingdom of God [or “heaven”]
is at hand.”1
Indeed, early in his ministry Jesus describes preaching the kingdom of God,
the reign of God, as his very message.2 He does not announce that the kingdom
will come near, but that it has already done so. As odd as it
may sound to our ears, in the New Testament to preach the gospel is to preach
the present nearness of the kingdom of God.
But the Lord does
not announce the nearness of his kingdom only in the New Testament. He also
announces it, indeed insists on it, in the Doctrine and Covenants, which opens
with a call to all the world to hear his voice and a warning of destruction
for those who do not (D&C 1:1, 4, 11–13). The second coming, the
Apocalypse, begins with the restoration, and it is figured in the lives of
all who hearken to its call: “the Lord is nigh” (D&C 1:12; see
also verses 35–36). To hear the gospel preached is to experience the
nearness, both temporally and spatially, of the kingdom. It is to have an
experience figured by the Apocalypse, the revelation of God’s kingdom; the
revelation of the kingdom of God to a person is figured by, is a type of,
the revelation of his kingdom that will happen at the last day.3 Thus, the revelation of the reign of God is not only something
far away in time, something to be awaited, but something here and now. It
happens in our lives when we become part of the kingdom of God. When that
happens, the reign of God—his rule over us—has begun, a fact we
signify when we agree to take his name on us (Moroni 4:3). In such an experience
the Apocalypse does not so much refer to the end of the world—though
it also refers to that—as it refers to the moment when the nearness
of the kingdom of God is revealed to the believer and the believer’s life
is oriented by that kingdom rather than by the world. To hear the gospel preached
is to experience a type or shadow of the Apocalypse, to “stand before
the judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10), not as a criminal, but as
one freed. So the Apocalypse as the revelation of God’s kingdom is not something
to be feared, but to be hoped for, longed for.
The Book of Mormon uses the terms type and shadow as equivalents
(Mosiah 13:10). We sometimes speak of figures and mean the same thing. Types,
shadows, and figures are the things in the world by means of which we see the
things of God. The various meanings of type (including a small block
with a raised, reversed letter on it for printing; a kind; an exemplar; and
a symbol) result from the fact that they share the same etymological origin:
a τύπος is the mark of a blow or
a stamp, an imprint. If we see the world through religious eyes, we see the
imprint of God’s work in everything. And some things particularly bear that
imprint. When I see my relation to my children to be shaped by the relation
I have to my Father in Heaven, I see my fatherly work as a type of the work
of the Father, as if it were a shadow cast by his work, as something figured
or formed by him and what he does. So, when I understand what it means to be
a father, I have a better understanding of who the Father is and what he does.
I see him through the things in the world because those things are “stamped,”
or figured, by him. I know of no Book of Mormon term for what shows itself in
the type or shadow, but the technical term is antitype, though I prefer
the less common noun prefigure.4
When Christ’s second coming, the prefigure, is fully revealed, the old world
will end, the new reign of God will begin, and no one will be able to resist
(Mosiah 27:31). The individual’s encounter with the risen Lord is a figure of
that second coming, for in each event the old world ends and a new world begins.
Like Christ himself, whose beauty is not apparent, so that people do not see
his desirability (Isaiah 53:2), the prefigure of his second coming remains invisible
to most because they cannot see its figures in the world. It remains invisible
to all who have not encountered the Lord, whose experience of the world is not
a figure, type, or shadow of his coming. Seeing and hearing the announcement
of Christ’s coming and the nearness of his kingdom does not require that we
acknowledge this, that, or another fact, but that we experience the world as
God’s kingdom. Of course, to have that experience will result in facts that
one acknowledges, but the experience is fundamental rather than the facts.
Having read to his people from Isaiah’s
prophecy of Israel’s eventual redemption, Jacob says:
O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. . . .
And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and
they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their
wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save
they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God,
and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them. But the
things of the wise and the prudent shall be hid from them forever—yea,
that happiness which is prepared for the saints. (2 Nephi 9:41–43)
Those who trust
what their riches, learning, or worldly wisdom allow them to see will not
be able to see the happiness prepared for the Saints. The results of the gospel
are hidden from, invisible to, the merely learned; without the figured, typological
experience of conversion, we cannot see the truth of the gospel. Jacob’s insight
has been, I believe, shared by other thinkers. It is, for example, a variation
of Augustine’s admonition, “Believe that you may understand,”5 which became Anselm’s motto, “faith seeking
These thinkers agree that the understanding that the Christian seeks can only
be achieved if he or she first has faith; without faith, understanding will
As I understand the implications of
Jacob’s teaching for theology, they include that as long as theology remains
merely a matter of learning, we can “see” neither the gospel nor
its teaching. The doctrine that the Messiah has come into the world and died
so that all might come to him—meaning that we repent, are baptized,
receive the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end (3 Nephi 27:13–16)—remains
invisible. (In scripture the doctrine is
the preaching of the gospel described by Christ in 3 Nephi. The word
doctrines, in the plural,
is used exclusively to refer to false doctrines.)7 However, as long as the Good News and God’s kingdom are invisible
in theology, it cannot really be talk about God. What we say may concern itself
with his effects in this world or with our ideas and understanding of him.
It may be about the details of our beliefs, our understanding of his revelation.
Theology may be about many things, but it is not about him if it does not reveal him,
and it does not reveal him if it does not announce the nearness of his kingdom.
In light of what Jacob tells us, that theology must go beyond mere learning
to allow the things of God to be opened or revealed to us. Our theology must
be a figure of the Apocalypse, a theology that reveals God himself, even if
only as a figure, rather than revealing only our current partial understanding
Four years ago, I addressed the question
of how Latter-day Saint theology is possible in another lecture, “Why
a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke.”8 There I argued that the absence of official rational explanations
or descriptions of beliefs and practices, and the presence of differing and
inconsistent explanations for and descriptions of belief within the membership
of the church, suggests that we have little if any official systematic, rational,
or dogmatic theology.9 (I use those three terms, systematic theology, rational theology, and dogmatic theology, as synonyms.) We are “a-theological”—which means
that we are without a church-sanctioned, church-approved, or even church-encouraged
systematic theology—and that is as it should be because systematic theology
I made my argument using three subarguments:
1. Continuing revelation is primary to Mormonism. Since
Latter-day Saints insist on continuing revelation, they cannot have a dogmatic
theology that is any more than provisional and heuristic, for a theology claiming
to be more than that could always be trumped by new revelation. Dogmatic theology,
however, tempts us to think we have found something more. As a rational system,
it gives the appearance of being complete.
2. Practice is more important than belief, particularly explicated
belief. By focusing on belief rather than on practice, dogmatic theology
poses a danger to true religion (see James 2:19–20), threatening to invert
the relative importance of thought or belief, on the one hand, and practice,
on the other, as it eventually did in the early church.11
3. Scripture is more important than rational explanation.
In addition to continuing revelation, the locus of explanation for Latter-day
Saint belief is scripture. However, unlike rational/dogmatic theology as it
is usually construed, but like prophetic revelation, scripture is testimony
that questions us, thereby calling us to new life in Christ rather than to a
set of rationally ordered belief propositions to which we are asked to assent.
In other words, dogmatic theology does not deal directly with the substance
of religious faith, namely life in Christ rather than beliefs about
If my arguments are right, then systematic
theology is dangerous, and it is not surprising that we find little official
sanction for it in the church.
Of course, for
Latter-day Saints, talk about God that reveals God—the best sense of
the word theology—is, first
of all, the revelations given through the prophets. We dare to say that God
continues to reveal himself authoritatively to human beings through another
human being. Unless one insists that all theology be systematically rational,
and I know of no one who does, it makes sense to call prophetic revelation
theology. Indeed, revelation is the Latter-day Saint theology. However, I believe that those Saints who have
done theology in the nonrevelatory sense have, for the most part, done it
systematically and rationally.12 From the nineteenth and early
twentieth century, Orson Pratt and John A. Widtsoe come to mind, both in works
that few today would find philosophically or scientifically acceptable.13 Some, such as BYU’s David Paulsen
and the independent scholar Blake Ostler, do it today with interesting and
These kinds of
thinkers see no difficulty in holding to two propositions, “Theology
is the continuously revealed word of God” and “Theology is rational, dogmatic, or systematic theology.” I do
not know what either Paulsen or Ostler believes regarding
the second of these claims,14 though I assume
that they accept the first as one meaning for the word theology. Regardless of their positions, however, based
on more than thirty-five years of talking with other Latter-day Saints about
theological questions, I believe that most of us who do theology or some informal
version of it assume that God’s knowledge is a systematic whole and that he
reveals parts of that whole over time, gradually revealing or restoring more
and more of it. If so, then those who think that way assume that, using the
part of the whole that has been revealed so far, they can tentatively speculate
as to the systematic whole which stands behind the part. However, as reasonable
as that may seem, I think it is mistaken.
For one thing, to claim that our speculations
are concerned with an eternal, rational system of truths that God reveals
to us over time assumes that knowledge is fundamentally and essentially systematic
and rational. In other words, it assumes that all knowledge is either self-evident,15 incorrigible,16 or a result of direct sense-perception—or
it can be rationally and systematically derived from those three kinds of
knowledge. However, much of twentieth-century philosophy, with work ranging
from that of Martin Heidegger, to American pragmatism, to Alvin Plantinga
and others in the analytic tradition of philosophy, has made that assumption
about the character of knowledge dubious, each in different ways. It is questionable
whether it makes sense to believe that there is an eternally existing set
of systematically related fundamental truths expressed at least in part in
our accurate understanding of things. Indeed, I believe that most who have
dealt with the question carefully have concluded that the notion is rationally
incoherent. However, it does not follow from that rejection of an eternal
realm of truth that is metaphysically prior to or beyond this world that there
is no truth, nor that there is no eternal truth. We can reject the Enlightenment
formulation of truth without rejecting truth itself.
Some forms of systematic theology that
we find among Latter-day Saints are philosophically problematic and, whether
a particular kind of systematic theology is entangled in those problems or
not, it is dangerous. However, the possible problems of systematic theology
mean neither that systematic theology per se is impossible nor that those
who do it sin. We need apocalyptic theology, to be sure—at least as
continuing revelation—but apocalyptic theology is not a kind like “dogmatic
theology” or “liturgical theology.” A kind is a group
of related objects, and apocalyptic theology is not in the same group as dogmatic,
liturgical, or other ways of doing theology. The latter kinds of theology
are defined by their objects and methods. They differ by having differing
objects and methods, but they are alike in that they are defined by those
objects and methods. In contrast, apocalyptic theology is of a different kind,
for it is defined by what it does rather than by its objects and methods;
it is defined by its revelation of the nearness of the kingdom of God.
So I would supplement my previous argument:
though rational, dogmatic theology may be dangerous, it too can be apocalyptic.
Indeed, systematic theology has an important place in apologetics as well
as in critical theology, for it explains our beliefs to others and helps us
understand the limits of our claims about God. I doubt that we could argue
that Orson Pratt’s theology was defective, as I would, without doing systematic
theology. It may be, as I believe, that other kinds of theology are less likely
to fail to be apocalyptic, but no theology is, in itself, incompatible with
apocalyptic theology, and no theology can, in itself, avoid the dangers of
How, then, does a theology avoid the
being nonapocalyptic, of making the gospel something I choose rather than
something God gives? Theologizing by those who are not prophets may put the
kingdom at a distance by making talk about the gospel merely talk about our
own learning, but how does theologizing by nonprophets avoid doing that and,
at the same time, take seriously the proximity of the kingdom, inviting us
to enter it?18
With Jacob as our guide, as a first
step toward understanding what apocalyptic theology is, we could say that
it opens a moment of understanding and conversion, a moment on the way toward
membership in the kingdom of God. Thus, we could recast the discussion in
these terms: Philosophy thinks being-in-the-world.19 Theology thinks
being-in-the-world directed toward God. If we recast the discussion further,
using the terms of apocalyptic theology we can say that philosophy thinks
being-in-the-world while apocalyptic theology thinks being-in-the world as
a figure of the Apocalypse. The danger is that the addendum directed toward
God will cease to be the compass of our thinking. When it does, our
being-in-the-world is no longer a type and shadow of the Apocalypse. The nearness
of God’s reign no longer defines as a whole the movement of our life with
others and among things.
Of course, theology occurs in the world.
However we theologize, whether with dogmatic theology or some other kind (hermeneutic,
feminist, liberation, liturgical, . . .), the challenge is to do
it without succumbing to the unavoidable risk that our theology will turn
in on itself, becoming a merely academic, only mental, exercise that claims
to refer to God but in which he does not make himself known nor call us to
his kingdom, because it is an exercise referring to our own ideas. However,
the alternative to that mistake is not a thinking that is outside of or beyond
the world in some way, the thought of that which is absolutely other than
this world—and given the Latter-day Saint belief in God’s immanence
in existence, his indwelling in existence, we ought not even to desire such
supposed purity of thought. The challenge is not to think another world or
to think other than the world. It is not to create a Platonic metaphysics.
The challenge is to think our being-in-the-world differently, to think it
directed toward God by his self-revelation in the world. In other words, apocalyptic
theology aims to remake the world of its hearers and readers by allowing the
kingdom to be revealed.20 An apocalyptic theology is one
in which the theologian can see the “happiness which is prepared for
the saints” in this world (2 Nephi 9:43).
French philosopher-theologian Jean-Luc Marion makes a distinction that we can use to think further about the difference
between apocalyptic and nonapocalyptic theology because it mirrors the distinctions
of scripture. Marion writes of the “idol” and the “icon.”21 Begin with the icon: an icon reveals something other than
itself, something divine. Apocalyptic theology as I am describing it is iconic.
It reveals the nearness of the kingdom. In contrast, with an idol I claim
to produce something that re-presents, that makes manifest,
the Divine. The idol creates the appearing of the god rather than merely creating
a locus in which that appearing may happen. In creating an idol I have the
audacity to claim to make the Divine appear, even if only in an image. If
“theology” means only “our talk about God,” then it is
idolatrous, for in it I use my powers of language to create an image of God,
violating the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4–5; Deuteronomy
5:8–9). I walk in my own way and after the image of my own god, “whose
image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol”
(D&C 1:16). I reveal myself—my ideas, my world, my perspective on
God—in what I say; I do “autology” rather than theology. By
contrast, in an icon the Divine reveals itself (cf. D&C 1:17). As Christian
theologians know (and not only Latter-day Saint Christian theologians), without
revelation, theology is idolatry. In my terms, unless a theology is apocalyptic,
it is idolatrous.
Marion’s terminology helps us see more
clearly something about theology that we have already glimpsed—namely, that
the difference between the two ways of doing theology is not methodological.
The difference between them is how they exist
in our world, not what properties they have. Just as is true for any religious
object, any theology can be idolatrous, and any theology can be iconic. There
is probably no theology that is, in itself, apocalyptic; there is probably
no theology that is unavoidably blind to “the things of the wise and
the prudent.” However, if the essential difference between idolatrous
and apocalyptic theology is neither their objects nor their methods, then
how can we describe the latter? If the difference between the two is primarily
their existential how, what can we say of that how? What happens in a theology
in which God reveals himself, an apocalyptic theology, that does not happen
in one in which we merely examine our ideas of God, a theology simpliciter or idolatrous
In apocalyptic theology, whatever we
do, what is most important is not what we do or what we say, but what happens
to us and our audiences. The passivity of experience is more important than
the activity of reason and will (which does not make reason, will, or content
unimportant). What happens, what we experience, is the coming of the kingdom.
We find ourselves in the kingdom of God—at least at its edge—rather
than in the dark and dreary world. The practice of psychiatry, whatever one
thinks of the merits of that practice, provides a good analogy to apocalyptic
theology.22 The traditional psychiatric therapist encourages
the patient to talk, asking questions to encourage more talk and to give direction
to the patient’s talk. Whatever cure finally comes is the result of the patient
talking in response to the psychiatrist’s questions. Trying to deal with the
therapist’s questions and aporias (puzzling difficulties) and trying to say
something coherent in response, the patient comes to see the world newly.
It is not that the questions led directly to the patient’s insight. It is
not that the content of the patient’s responses was the cure. Rather, trying
to formulate coherent responses to the questions and aporias brought the patient
to the point of seeing things differently. A new world was revealed to the
patient as he or she went through the therapy of being questioned.
We can think of doing apocalyptic theology
as something like that. An apocalyptic theology confronts us with questions
and aporias, whether it does so explicitly or not. The questions may arise
in us without being explicitly proposed by the theologian. They may come from
the philosophical tradition as things for us to ponder. They may happen as
we read scripture and find ourselves accused as did David, “Thou art
the man” (2 Samuel 12:7). Of course the questions have content,
as do our responses. Without a particular content, the questions are meaningless.
But the questions and responses are not the point. The point is what happens
to us in dealing with those aporias: trying to respond to them coherently,
we find ourselves reinterpreted, resituated in the world. We find ourselves
in a world revealed by the Spirit and directed toward a God who makes himself
known. In the aporias I experience the second coming, the nearness of the
kingdom. I hear a call that obliges me to respond, and I respond with acceptance.
I recognize that many will find this
way of thinking about theology difficult. I suspect that the difficulty is
rooted in our tendency to think of religion as a set of beliefs, a tendency
inherited from the Christian tradition. On this view, religion is a set of
beliefs, and theology organizes and examines that set of beliefs in some way.
Those who understand theology in that way do not understand talk of apocalyptic
theology because they cannot see more than one basic kind of theology, and
in that kind they see religion is defined by belief. Of course, religion as
we understand it entails beliefs. It is problematic to say, “I am a Mormon,
but I do not believe what Mormons believe.” Beliefs certainly matter.
Nevertheless, believing what Mormons believe is not enough to make one a Latter-day
Saint, so examining beliefs is not enough to understand Mormonism. We can
imagine someone who believes everything that most Saints believe but is, in
spite of that, not a member of the church. Why? Because that person has not
yet been baptized. Even in religions that do not, as do Latter-day Saints,
insist on the necessity of ordinances, religion cannot be reduced merely to
in a faith for which priesthood is essential and ordinances are required,
beliefs are not sufficient to define religion.
The Lord commands ancient Israel, “Ye
shall be holy [“set apart,” “consecrated”]: for I the
Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Similarly, during his ministry
in Israel, he commands, “Be ye therefore perfect [or “whole”],
even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48),24 and he repeats that command when he comes to the Nephites
(3 Nephi 12:48). To be in Israel, ancient or modern, is not only to hold
a set of beliefs, but to make and keep covenants with God. It is to enter
into a formal relation with him in which we imitate him. For Latter-day Saints,
covenant rather than belief is the heart of religion. It is probably true
that no covenants fail to entail beliefs, but the important point is that
religious beliefs do not matter if they are not intimately bound up with covenants.
Apocalyptic theology evinces that intimate connection to covenant. It is not
enough to say what we think about God. It is not enough even to say what we
know. If a theology is apocalyptic, it must go beyond learning to the gospel,
to the revelation of Christ.
It must be not only about beliefs; it must also be testimony. For Latter-day
Saints, apocalyptic theology must go beyond learning and even testimony to
being part of covenant life, for we cannot reveal God by representing him
in an idol of some sort, but he reveals himself in our covenant life.
That we cannot reveal God, make an
image of him, takes us back to a point in Jacob’s sermon: theology is not
only a matter of going beyond learning through testimony and covenant, though
it is that. It is also a matter of remaining a fool before God in knowledge.
The fool is not empty-headed merely because there is some fact he does not
To be a fool is to be silly in the old sense of that word;26 it is to be weak, to be deficient in judgment and sense. It
is to be nothing (and King Benjamin reminds us that salvation requires that we recognize
our nothingness; Mosiah 4:5, 8–9, 11).
Of course the silliness, deficiency,
and nothingness of the foolishness recommended by Jacob are before God rather
than human beings. Foolishness and humility before God do not require that
we say and know nothing in our relations with others. Being dumbstruck is
one kind of deficiency in judgment before God, but so are many kinds of speech.
Neither does foolishness before God require that we have no confidence in
what we say. Indeed, that foolishness may be the ground of our confidence
before other human beings.27 Nevertheless, the necessity of foolishness and humility before
God means that if our theology is to be apocalyptic, it must demonstrate its
foolishness before God in some way. One person may do so by an explicit, sincere
statement acknowledging the not only tentative but foolish character of her
speculation. Another person may do it in a style that reveals his humility.28 Surely there are also other ways. In addition, I think that
some theological methods are more conducive to demonstrating that godly foolishness,
including hermeneutic and narrative theologies, because they make questioning
and being questioned rather than claiming the center of their methods.
Sometimes nothing is so helpful as
an example, and in philosophy sometimes nothing is so rare. Let me try, therefore,
to give an example of theological thinking that I hope will show how theology
can be apocalyptic, showing our foolishness as thinkers before God as well
as the nearness of his kingdom. My example will be the problem of theodicy,
and my thinking about that problem will rely heavily on the work of Paul Ricoeur.29
As classically formulated, the problem
of theodicy is the seeming impossibility of believing four propositions at
the same time, four propositions that most religious people believe:
1. God is all-loving.
2. God is all-powerful.
3. God is all-knowing.
4. Evil exists.
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.
Notice, first of all, that neither
the prophets nor scripture has given us these propositions as they are understood
philosophically. These are philosophical interpretations of scriptural and
prophetic statements, and we must not assume without question that the translation
of prophetic discourse into philosophical discourse is innocent, retaining
the meaning of the former in the latter.
responded to the problem of theodicy in a variety of ways. For example, some
have denied the reality of evil.30 Others have argued
that the problem is set up so that it demands that God do what is logically
contradictory. That means that the problem itself is faulty. For example,
one might 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.31 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. Perhaps one could argue that
if there is suffering in the broad sense, then it is impossible to avoid there
being evil, suffering in the narrow sense, as well. If so, then it seems that
the three characteristics describing God could continue to be held without
contradicting the claim that evil exists. That is because the contradiction
between God’s character and the existence of evil is derived only if one supposes
that God logically could create embodied beings that are not affected, and
that involves contradiction.
Another tack is to take up the problem
of theodicy in terms of the quantity of suffering: “Why didn’t God create
the world with less suffering in it than he did?” Most answers to this
question accord with Leibniz’s answer in some way: this is the best of all
possible worlds; if there were more or less evil in the world, the world would
be defective. The problem is that, by asserting that the way we find the world
is, inexplicably, the way things must be, Leibniz’s answer runs the risk of
denying the evil of evil. If I say that the evil of the world is a necessity,
then I no longer call it evil. At best, perhaps I express my lack of understanding;
at worst, I acquiesce to or become complicit in its presence. The only answer
of this sort that does not go in the direction of denying evil is one that
goes in the direction of faith: though we cannot explain the degree of suffering
we see in the world, we have to trust God as we confront that suffering. Of
course, to say that I do and must trust God is not to answer the question,
“Why isn’t there less suffering in the world?” It is to deny that
there is an answer for us. This may be the best of all possible worlds, but
the claim that it is requires an incredible amount of optimism, an optimism
explicable only on the basis of faith and, so, an optimism that begs the question.
There is yet another
way of understanding the problem itself to be the problem: As usually set
forth, the problem of theodicy assumes that God’s power is essential to his
being; the claim that God is omnipotent is crucial to the problem. That may
sound reasonable at first, but it is questionable. Latter-day Saints are hardly
alone in seeing in God, not power, but a kind of powerlessness, namely the
holding back, allowing, suffering, persuasion, charity, gentleness, and absence
of compulsion that is described so eloquently in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–46
and that informs much of the scripture that we share with other Christians.
That seeming limitation of power appears to be correlate with his power to
save, perhaps the only power essential to his divinity. I take it that this
way of understanding God’s power is among the reasons why the scriptures show
us a very human God rather than an omnipotent one: After dinner, Abraham walks
with God’s messengers and perhaps with God himself, showing them the way to
Sodom, and God bargains with Abraham over the fate of those who live there
(Genesis 18). It is one thing to speak of God as all-powerful when we praise
him and to mean what we say when we do. It is another to assume that our praise
can be parsed directly into logical propositions that we can use to solve
theological conundra such as the problem of theodicy. Whatever the case for
dogmatic or rational theology, scriptural assertions of God’s power are enriched
and, therefore, complicated by instances in which his power is limited and,
even more, by the importance he himself puts on his patience, persuasion,
Still another way a Christian might
respond to the problem of theodicy is to object to the question it asks. It
would not be unreasonable for a Christian to argue that since even Christ
suffered on the cross, with suffering incomparable to any of our own, we have
no right to ask why we suffer. To do so is impertinent, perhaps impertinent to the point
of blasphemy. To complain about my suffering when faced with the suffering
of Jesus Christ is, implicitly, to deny the gravity and effect of his suffering.
I have no right to ask why I suffer. Here is another way to put the same point:
if Jesus Christ asked the question of God’s justice while on the cross—”My
God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
(Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)—we have no right to think that we can avoid
the same question. And if he did not receive an answer in mortality,
we have no reason to think that we can.
But thinking about the problem of evil
need not be a complaint about my suffering. It could be a question
about the suffering of others. As the name we have given to the problem suggests,
our question is about God’s justice as a whole, including his dealings with
others. The question is not only a personal complaint, and the scriptures
themselves show prophets from Abraham to Joseph Smith sometimes questioning
God’s justice. In fact, it is not unreasonable to construe their ability to
question God’s justice as a sign of their righteousness before God. Abraham’s
bargain with God over Sodom occurs immediately after the Lord has described
him as someone who “will command his children . . . to do justice
and judgment” (Genesis 18:19). Thus the Christian argument puts me in
my place, but it does not dissipate the question of theodicy, for as a general
question rather than a complaint, the question may be rooted in Christlike
compassion for our fellows rather than in a demand for a justification of
My intuition as
a philosophy teacher of Latter-day Saint students is that most Mormons who
have tackled the problem have done so by reformulating the second proposition
of its traditional formulation, namely that God is all-powerful. They do so
by redefining what it means to be all-powerful in such a way that the paradox
will disappear. That solution neatly dissolves the problem, but many Saints
are uncomfortable with the limitation that the solution puts on God’s power.
I have described a few of the ways
of dealing with the problem of evil. There are any number of others, but I
believe we see a pattern here. When we deal with the problem of theodicy,
we most often, perhaps always, find ourselves at an impasse that requires
us either to give up, to reformulate the question, or to show how the problem
is itself problematic, and even when we do seem to have dissolved the problem,
it reappears soon afterward in some new form. However, behind that impasse
is a perhaps surprising assumption. If I look at the problem, its solutions,
and its problems with a merely theological eye, I find in it the attempt to represent
rationally a god who is God and yet allows the evil we encounter. I create
a god in my own image, a rational representation of God, and then I try to
resolve—to dissolve—the problem of evil; I try to make it go away.
I commit idolatry. Then I pretend that the enemy of God is either unreal or
not really an enemy.
However, there is yet another way to
think about the problem—namely, as a problem that makes things more
difficult, a problem that will not go away. Though the problem of theodicy
can be a legitimate topic of philosophical and theological thought, and philosophical
and theological thought can be legitimate pursuits, even apocalyptic ones,
seeing the problem of theodicy as one that makes thinking more difficult rather
than as a problem to be dissolved tends toward apocalyptic theology.
Notice that the Christian talks about
the problem of evil differently than does the philosopher. This difference
is not just a matter of taste or style. It has everything to do with the difference
between what each kind of discourse does. Sometimes we treat scripture and
revelation as if they were simplified scientific explanations of things, but
I think that is a mistake, and sometimes a serious one, for it assumes that
science is the measure of all discourse. Though religious discourse may offer
us explanations, its purpose is not explanatory, but soteriological: it is
concerned, not with telling us how the world and the things in the world are
(at least not in the way that science does),32
but with telling us about God’s power to save and how we can
be saved. Given its purposes, revelation ignores the problem of theodicy—which,
since it is a philosophical/theological problem rather than a religious one,
is not the same as ignoring the problem we face in reconciling the evil we
encounter with our faith in God—and that revelation ignores the problem
is deeply suggestive. Of course, revelation is not blind to suffering.33 Christian revelation
often reminds us that we must be deeply concerned with suffering, especially
with the suffering of others and with our own spiritual suffering. God wills
neither, and he offers answers to both. But Christian concern is with the
proper, Christlike response to that suffering, not with explaining its logical
compatibility with God’s existence. One can even imagine a Christian arguing
that, as a speculative rather than a practical problem, the problem of theodicy
distracts us from the existential problem.
Obviously I am
sympathetic to the charge that the philosophical problem of evil and suffering
is a distraction. However, since concern for the philosophical problem can
be a concern for justice, it is not enough to ignore that problem as a distraction.
My sympathy does not extend to agreement. Nevertheless, even if the problem
of evil is not merely a distraction, it is also not a purely philosophical,
theoretical problem. In the end, it is a problem for action, and philosophical speculation has little place among
the actions required when we respond concretely to suffering and evil. At
the second coming not only will every knee bow and every tongue confess, but
also the lame and the halt will be cured.34 But confession
and cure show themselves in the type and shadow of our concrete responses
to suffering rather than in rational speculation. They show themselves in
the confession we make and the succor we offer in a world remade by our encounter
Of course, it does not follow that
careful thought is irrelevant or unnecessary, and by “careful thought”
I am not just referring to the planning we must do to make our actions fruitful.
Careful thought may include the rigorous analyses of rational philosophy.
Philosophy does many things. It has many purposes, including the pleasure
of philosophy, a good that does not require that I justify it by showing how
it leads to some other good. But among its other purposes is that of showing
us the limits of reason. When we think of philosophers who are concerned with
the limits of reason, perhaps we most often first think of Immanuel Kant and
the first critique. Kant says that knowing the limits of pure reason will
remove obstacles that stand in the way of practical reason (Bxxv) and will
make it possible to take morality and religion seriously (Bxxx–xxxi).35 But Kant was neither the first
nor the last philosopher to think that we needed to consider the limits of
reason. In fact, thinkers whose goal it is to make things difficult—Kierkegaard
and Nietzsche come to mind—generally do so as a means of showing the
limits of reason.
In the fifth century, Pseudo-Dionysus
gave us negative theology, not to demonstrate that we cannot have faith nor
to attack religion, but to show us the limits of reason when reason tries
to talk about God. He believed that by opposing negative theology to affirmative
theology, a third way will show itself to us, the way of revelation. Pseudo-Dionysus
explicitly wanted to do apocalyptic theology and saw negative theology as
a means for doing so. Others, such as Maimonides, have taken a similar approach.
As I read Kierkegaard, though he does not do negative theology, he does show
us the limits of reason by making it less philosophically clear how to understand
what it means to be a Christian. For example, his claim in Fear
and Trembling that Abraham can only be understood by means of the absurd is a
claim that we can understand Abraham, but not philosophically.36 Similarly, we can understand the problem of theodicy as demonstrating
the limit of reason confronted by evil and, therefore, as an aid to foolishness,
reminding us of God’s greatness and our own nothingness.
However, to see the problem as demonstrating
the limits of reason is not to reject reason. We can neither reject nor avoid
it. We ought not to wish to do so. For reason not only helps us find solutions
to problems, but it sometimes sharpens the problem. I think the long history
of the problem of theodicy is sufficient evidence that we are unlikely to
find a solution that puts an end to that problem once and for all. The merely
theological response is to take up the question of theodicy as a free-floating
philosophical problem, but if we do, the most we can gain from it is the pleasure
of philosophical thought. Though that is not a good to be ignored, few who
are religious can deal with this issue only for its philosophical
pleasure. The apocalyptic alternative is that the problem is a philosophical
goad, a spur, an itch that will not go away, for it challenges our faith even
when it points to the need for faith. Every call invites a response, and in
doing so it disturbs the status quo.37 The problem of theodicy calls to us, challenging our faith
and, by doing so, inviting us to respond. It invites us to see the world as
still awaiting the second coming even if we live in a world that has been
figured by the presence of Christ.
For some, faith fails in the face of
that challenge by the problem of theodicy, but not for most. Most of us continue
to believe even as we struggle with the problem. In fact, we struggle with
the problem because we believe. We struggle only because we have faith.
If we find the problem of theodicy to be a real problem rather than only an
intellectual game, that is evidence that we have faith. Thus, by continuing
to be a problem—by the fact that we seem unable to find any solution
to the problem of theodicy that does not merely shift it someplace else where
it reappears in a new and slightly different guise—the problem of theodicy
shows us the limit of reason and the necessity of trust. The problem of evil
and suffering is intractable to our powers of reason. As believers we find
ourselves foolish before it. Ultimately the only thing to which it is tractable
is moral and faithful response: action.
Thus, the intractability of the problem
of theodicy can be positive in Christian life rather than merely negative.
First, it can continue to serve as a goad. That it is intractable can continue
to remind us that evil and suffering are real and that they require our action.
Second, the rational difficulty of the problem can provide an impetus for
recognizing that faith is prior to reason.38
To paraphrase something that Heidegger
said of theology and that Kierkegaard could have said, the problem of theodicy
may only render faith more difficult—that is, render it more certain
that faithfulness cannot be gained through reason, but only through faith.39 So, the problem of theodicy continues to be important to believers
for two reasons: because it points to the ground of our belief by showing
a limit of reason and because it reminds us that we must not neglect to respond
to evil and suffering as Christian faith calls us to respond.40 When the problem of theodicy does these things for us, we
find ourselves not only awaiting but expecting the coming of Christ and seeing
his nearness. When it does these things, it is apocalyptic.
In the end, therefore, the problem
with merely theological answers to the problem of theodicy is that every one
of them looks for a way to integrate evil into our understanding of the world. But
in the end it is evil to do so, to explain evil, to tame it, no longer to
be horrified by it. If evil ceases to be horrible, then we cease to struggle
with it. The shadow of the apocalypse is concrete struggle with evil, not
abstract thought about it, which may well be relevant but is never enough.
Our horror in response to transcendent evil is one with our eschatological
hope for the good of the kingdom that is to come, and that hope makes no sense
apart from the fight against evil. Only if the problem of theodicy is genuinely
a problem—only if all solutions ultimately fail in this world without
the Apocalypse, the Revelation of Jesus Christ—can we continue to know
that evil is genuinely evil.
I hope it is not
too much of a conceit to suggest that thinking about the problem of theodicy
has a relation to the struggle for justice that is similar to the relation
of prayer to that struggle: for the apocalyptic Christian theologian, the
problem of theodicy is a kind of prayer.41 To pray is to turn
oneself toward God in response to his call. The believer who approaches the
problem of theodicy also turns toward God, responding to the question of God’s
justice as to a call. At the same time, because that person’s intellectual
powers fail in responding to the call, the believer recognizes her own weakness,
her own foolishness, a recognition requisite to prayer. And as every prayer
ought, in responding to the problem of theodicy, the believer praises God’s
goodness, wisdom, power, and sovereignty and prays for his kingdom to come—for
the Apocalypse (Matthew 6:9–10, 13). Those are, after all, the divine
attributes that give rise to the question that calls us to respond. Without
those divine attributes, there is no problem of evil, only evil. Without the
promise of the Apocalypse, there is no answer to the problem, only intellectual
confusion and continued evil.
Finally, as is also true of prayer,
to deal with the problem of theodicy is to be concerned for others beside
oneself. Just as one always prays in community with others who pray, even
when one prays only for oneself—”our Father” rather than “my
Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9)—the problem of theodicy
is a concern for others as well as oneself. When thought apocalyptically,
prayer and thinking come together in the problem of theodicy, and because
it continues to remain a problem, the problem of theodicy can allow us to
continue the prayerful thought of belief and a believing awareness of the
nearness of the kingdom of God.
Theology is possible that, in responding
to God’s call, demonstrates our foolishness before God, praises God, and opens
the possibility of seeing the world anew by seeing the nearness of God’s kingdom
(divine life with others) both in time and space. Some theologies are better
at doing that than others. As I said, I believe that hermeneutic and narrative
theologies—to which I would add liturgical, ritual, scriptural, and
pastoral or practical theologies, as well perhaps as a theology modeled on
what some Protestants call canonical theology (without the forced assumption
of scriptural inerrancy)42—are more likely to be apocalyptic.
However, ultimately the question of
whether our theologies are, on the one hand, merely theology and, therefore,
idolatrous or, on the other hand, apocalyptic is not a methodological question.
It is a question of character and spirit—our own, our audience’s. That
is why, though some theologies may be more amenable to idolatry than others,
none are immune to it. As human beings, we are not immune to it. Whether
a theology is apocalyptic depends on what the theologian does and the experience
of his or her audience, not on the content of what the theologian says or
on the method the theologian uses. Understanding the difference between theology
simpliciter and apocalyptic theology brings us to the understanding
that the danger of theology is ultimately the danger of human character: we
may believe that the theological work we do is directed toward God and be
wrong; we may be right that it is, but our audience may fail to take it up
as the apocalyptic theology that it is for us. The attempt to do apocalyptic
theology can go wrong in many ways, all of them ways in which we are wrong.
It does not follow that we ought to
avoid all theology. Rather, it follows that we ought not to do theology unaware
of the danger of failure, of the danger that our theology may be a species
of idolatry. Apocalyptic theology should be our goal, but idolatrous theology
is its ever-present danger. If we do theology, whatever other reasons we have—and
there are other good reasons—we must do it to announce “the Lord
is nigh” (D&C 1:12) and to proclaim the revelations of the restoration
(D&C 1:18), remaining weak, simple (D&C 1:23), and prayerful,43 yet confident in the presence of God that figures
our lives (D&C 121:45).
earlier version of this piece was first given for Brigham Young University’s
Harold B. Lee Library “House of Learning Lecture Series,” 25 January
2007. M. Gerald Bradford, Jeffery Johnson, Joe Spencer, and David Whetten
have helped me immeasurably to make significant revisions to the original
piece, both for clarity and for substance. Of course, whether I have succeeded
in using their excellent suggestions to improve the paper is another question.
See, for example, Mark 1:15 and Matthew 10:7. The verb translated “is
nigh” means, literally, “has come near”: ἐγγίζω: to draw near
in space or time. Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, W. F. Arndt, and
F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English
Dictionary of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,
3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
2. Luke 4:43: “I must preach the
kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore am I sent.”
3. I rely here on the fact that the
Greek word ἀποκαλύπτω,
the root of apocalypse, means “to uncover, to disclose, or to
reveal.” Bauer et al., A Greek-English Dictionary.
4. In Greek, ἀντίτυπος
means “that which corresponds to something else.” Bauer et al.,
A Greek-English Dictionary. The type is the shape impressed in the
soft wax. The antitype is that which has struck the wax, forming the impression.
Compare 1 Peter 3:21: “which [referring to the salvation of Noah’s
family in the ark] was a prefigure [ἀντίτυποςπος]
on the Gospel of John 29.6.
6. As Anselm explains in the preface to
Proslogion, that motto
was the original title of his Monologion.
7. Louis Midgley, review of Doctrinal
Commentary on the Book of Mormon: Volume I, First and Second Nephi; Volume
II, Jacob through Mosiah, by Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert
L. Millet, Review of Books on the
Book of Mormon 1 (1989): 92–113, esp. 100. It seems that
scripture generally understands doctrine to be the preaching of the gospel
rather than a collection of beliefs.
8. James Faulconer, “Why a Mormon
Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (lecture, conference on
God, Humanity, and Revelation: Perspectives from Mormon Philosophy and History,
Yale University, 29 March 2003).
9. As used in theology, dogmatic
means “pertaining to doctrines/teachings,” not “asserting . . .
opinions, in an authoritative, imperious, or arrogant manner.” Cf. Oxford
English Dictionary, s.v. “dogmatic.” Though dogmatic
and systematic theology are not the same, the difference between them—namely,
the sanction of a church for the first but not the second—is irrelevant
here, so I ignore it, and I add rational
theology as a synonym for the other two.
10. Though there are many varieties of
theology, dogmatic (i.e., church-approved) theology is always systematic theology.
11. I’ve recently learned of an unpublished
paper by John L. Sorenson, “Ritual as Theology and as Communication,”
which makes a case that for Latter-day Saints ritual is our most common theology.
The paper is “a substantially revised version” of “Ritual as
Theology,” Sunstone, May–June 1981,
11–14. Needless to say, I find Sorenson’s paper persuasive.
12. I ignore the fact that I think church
history has been, for many Latter-day Saints, the place where our theology
has been expressed. I do so because few, if any, church historians or other
Saints have seen history as at the same time theological.
13. Some of Pratt’s work is particularly
flawed, but to my mind both Widtsoe and Pratt accept Newtonian science as
if it were unquestionable, making each untenable.
14. Either of them, for example, could
believe that systematic theology is merely one of several kinds of theology
rather than either the fundamental or the only kind.
15. For example, axioms.
16. For example, my genuinely held beliefs
about what I am currently, explicitly thinking.
17. I depend here on the meaning of the
Greek root, αἱρετικός,
“to grasp,” “to take for oneself,” “to choose.”
Bauer et al., A Greek-English Dictionary.
18. I am, of course, using the word prophet
here in its narrow sense, namely to refer to those called and set apart as
prophets. In its wider sense, “someone who genuinely speaks the word
of God,” the term prophetic
theology would mean the same as apocalyptic
19. This phrase comes from the work of
the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He argued that
our fundamental encounter with the world is not one of a consciousness faced
with something outside of or opposed to it. Rather, we are beings who find
ourselves already in a
world of things and others, with projects to accomplish. Reason, abstraction,
explicit consciousness—these arise as part of and in response to our
initial situation in the world. “Being-in-the-world” describes that
20. “Allowing” is essential.
We cannot force or guarantee that the revelation will occur. We can only strive
to make it possible.
21. See, in particular, Jean-Luc Marion,
The Idol and Distance: Five Studies
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2001).
22. I am indebted to an online discussion
with Joe Spencer and others, particularly Adam Miller, for this analogy.
23. See my “Scripture as Incarnation,”
in Historicity and the Latter-day
Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: BYU
Religious Studies Center, 2001), 17–61; esp. 54 n. 22.
24. Given the parallel of this verse
and Leviticus 19:2, I suspect that the latter is being at least referenced
in the former.
English Dictionary, s.v. “fool,” from the Latin follem,
“bellows,” so “one full of air,” “an empty-headed
English Dictionary, s.v. “silly.” The older meaning was
“deserving compassion, defenseless,” “weak,” or “rustic.”
27. D&C 121:45 suggests as much.
28. I take this to be characteristic
of David Paulsen’s work: students love his classes, not so much because of
what he teaches as because of what he is when he teaches. In my day, David
Yarn was a popular philosophy teacher for the same reason.
29. See, for example, Paul Ricoeur, Le
mal (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1996). To a lesser degree, I also
depend on the work of Philippe Nemo, Job
and the Excess of Evil (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,
30. David Ray Griffin argues that all
theologians prior to the twentieth century disputed the existence of evil.
God, Power, and Evil: A Process
Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 2004). I suspect that, if
he is right, they did so as a consequence of assuming creation ex
nihilo. If God created the world from absolutely nothing, then
one can argue that either evil is not real or he created it. Latter-day Saints
avoid that dilemma by not believing that the world was created ex
31. For our purposes, suffering is not
best defined as “feeling pain” because feeling pain is a species
of suffering, of being affected.
32. And its explanations are not scientific,
not even in a primitive way. For a discussion of how I understand scripture
and, therefore, religious discourse, see my “Scripture as Incarnation.”
33. Christ’s healing miracles were not
incidental to his mission. Indeed, in Jesus’s first sermon he identifies himself
as the one appointed “to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance
to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18; cf.
34. See Mosiah 3:5, where we see the
first coming as a figure of the second. See also such passages as Jeremiah
30:17 and Alma 41:4.
35. These are standard references for
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,
referring to pages of the B edition.
36. For more discussion of this claim,
see my “Room to Talk: Reason’s Need for Faith,” in Revelation,
Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. Donald
W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002),
37. Jean-Louis Chrétien, L’Appel et la Réponse (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1992), 20.
38. Notice that I do not think faith
is opposed to reason. I am not a fideist.
39. Martin Heidegger, “Phenomenology
and Theology,” trans. James G. Hart and John C. Maraldo, in Pathmarks,
ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 46.
40. Though this is not the place to explore
the question, it may be that these two things are really one.
41. For a discussion of the phenomenology
of prayer, see Jean-Louis Chrétien, “The Wounded Word,” in Phenomenology
and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate (New York:
Fordham University Press, 2000). I think that Chrétien pays insufficient attention
to the fact that much prayer is petitionary and that the believer hopes that
the requests of his petitions will be granted, but in spite of that his description
of prayer is very helpful.
42. Canonical theology is a theology
of the canon, of scripture. It seeks to understand the scriptures in their
own terms rather than as documents to be deciphered so as to conform to some
implied, preexisting theology.
43. Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it shall
be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto
you.” This and its variations appear over and over again in scripture.