Mormon Inquiry

Mormon Inquiry

Does preexistence really absolve God?

The Mormon Times has a short write-up on a presentation given by Terryl Givens at UVU (that’s Utah Valley University) on the preexistence in Western thought, the topic of his soon-to-be-released book. While the doctrine certainly has its appeal, it remains a heresy to orthodox Christians. Here, quoting from the article, is one purported theological advantage of accepting the doctrine.

In most historical writings that reference a pre-mortal existence, Givens said the pre-existence served as a solution to a theological problem — usually that of the argument against the notion that men have free will.

Quoting John Taggart, Givens said, “‘If God created our souls, he could have prevented all sin by creating us with better features and more favorable surroundings.'” Givens went on to say “(Taggart’s) argument led him to conclude that … a human spirit rooted in an eternal pre-existence solved this dilemma.”

So defenders of the preexistence suggest that holding God to be the Creator of human souls lays some or all of the responsibility for sin at God’s feet. Instead, they posit an eternal past for human spirits or souls, mirroring an eternal future. If spirits are uncreated, then God is absolved of the responsibility for having created our flawed nature and corrupt will, which give rise to the world of sin we know so well.

But I’m not sure positing a preexistence or eternal and uncreated souls really delivers on this promise to absolve God. Between a host of preexistent heavenly spirits and a world of bodily enfleshed spirits lies the problematic process of matching spirits to bodies. Problematic, of course, because not all bodies are the same. They come with radically different initial endowments (as an economist would say), including a genetic inheritance that contributes an undetermined but substantial measure of one’s earthly disposition and predilections. If God assigns spirits to bodies, the same degree of responsibility seems to follow as if he created spirits using a just-in-time process. “If you had matched me up with a healthy mind and body and with decent parents, I wouldn’t have been so evil” seems to be an objection that raises the same or similar issues to just-in-time creation. And it would be hard to avoid the objection by suggesting the matching process occurs independent of God’s control.

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Mark D.

posted March 3, 2009 at 3:50 am

Granting the assumption that a body is often accompanied by relative moral impairments, matching spirits to bodies does not make God accountable for the total evil in the world (averaged over all persons) unless he is accountable for the statistical impediments of the bodies themselves.
If one takes the position that the acquisition of a body is a net long term harm, then certainly perpetrating the advent of spirits into an earthly existence is a net wrong. If on the other hand, the long (or short) term moral benefits of having a body outweigh the statistically averaged impediments of particular bodies, the promotion of bodily acquisition is a net good.
It seems to me that the only thing necessary for such a scheme to be morally justified is differential judgment according to the impediments of the body that one has to deal with – and voluntary original participation, of course.

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Matt W.

posted March 3, 2009 at 9:19 am

Perhaps eternal Spirits choose their own bodies? (ad hoc, I know)

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posted March 3, 2009 at 9:23 am

I’m not clear on what the problem is supposed to be. Your first paragraph relates to a problem of free will. The second seems to relate to the problem of evil. It is unclear to me which problem (or both?) that Givens is addressing. It is equally opaque to me how preexistence is supposed to solve these problems based on what you quote here.
However, the problem of evil that you see, that God matches our spirits to our bodies (whatever that means) isn’t a problem because our moral qualities aren’t dependent on the type of body we have, but how we exercise our power to will. Having a certain body or even a body-type (if there is such a thing) doesn’t entail anything about what one does unless you’re a determinist. Givens certainly isn’t such a determinist.

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Seth R.

posted March 3, 2009 at 9:49 am

The problem is not just physiological either. It’s also situational. If I’m born as a street urchin in Mexico City, my moral life is going to be a lot different than if I was born where I was – upper middle class suburban USA.
I’m not sure how much “agency” or control I would exert over my situation when a mere change in life scenery could generate such a powerful and inescapable pull.

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posted March 3, 2009 at 10:00 am

I would say that is why, per the Book of Mormon, the Atonement covers both the sins we can’t control and those we can. In those areas where there is free will it is up to us to repent and come closer to Christ. For the human conditions that we have no control over Christ has covered them for us. Therefore, I find pre-existence neither here nor there in this argument.

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Jacob J

posted March 3, 2009 at 12:03 pm

To add to the good responses already, I would say that it is not clear what it means for God to match spirits to bodies in the first place. When does the spirit enter the body? At whatever point that turns out to be, how much is known about that body?
I think the argument from eternal existence may genuinely help with the problem of free will and even with the problem of evil, although the problem of evil has plenty of problem which is not addressed by pre-existence.

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posted March 3, 2009 at 12:09 pm

I’d second Blake’s point.
I think that the LDS notion of premortality combined with the idea of a choice to come here absolves God from being responsible for these evils. Rather we become responsible for experiencing these evils. Yet our notion of the plan of salvation entails that these evils were in some sense necessary and thus it doesn’t really resolve the problem of evil. After all a truly omnipotent (in the classic sense) God could simply have devised an other plan where there was less evil experienced.
I’m also pretty dubious that the pre-existence was seen as a theodicy by folks with the doctrine. I suspect Plato’s pre-existence was the source for a lot of other views. Also one ends up going back to Hinduism and reincarnation. (Which probably was indirectly the source for Plato) But then things get complex. But certainly when you get to monotheism or near monotheism you already have Plato affecting thinking. And the Platonic God is really completely unlike the personal God of the Hebrews.
I’ve not read John Taggart on this issue. But I’m skeptical it works. If only because it merely says that instead of God being responsible for creating evil he’s responsible for not eliminating evil.

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Todd Wood

posted March 3, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Yes, “the Platonic God is really completely unlike the personal God of the Hebrews.” Clark, as a monotheist, I would soundly concur.
And evil will come to an end. The biblical narrative awaits to be fully played out where evil is confined forever by the uncreated God of all.
But to my LDS friends, is this true of the LDS narrative? Is the potential havock of evil eternal?

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posted March 4, 2009 at 1:56 am

Todd: Whether evil ends depends on whether we do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. We can bind Satan by our righteousness. Yet not even God can force his creatures to love him.
On the other hand, if God is going to just decisively end evil, then why doesn’t he do it now? It seems to me that such a god has little excuse for not doing so now if he can.

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posted March 4, 2009 at 2:01 am

Can anyone explain why my prior post on this site isn’t showing up?

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Trish W

posted March 4, 2009 at 2:06 am

I have read many of the blogs and other dicussion in this website.
I would like to share my experience with the LDS church.
I was raised in the LDS church a strong beleif. I went to an LDS collages. After school I met a man from the world. A man with no
gospel bakground of any kind.In went to the world of darkness with
little contact with my family and none with god. You wonder why?
Being young in dating,mix love or I thought it was love,mixing
in influences from darkside. I spent six years with darkness it took me the next 16 years to over come this darkness and to find my GOD
once more.During these yrs I went to many churches. Many of the churches didn’t have anwsers to Jesus’s world. Yes I did go back to
the LDS church. I have my ANSWERS,my LOVE to my LORD forever!

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posted March 4, 2009 at 2:51 am

Blake look for the Show all comments link

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posted March 4, 2009 at 9:28 am

Todd: Can you explain to me how evil comes to an end in Christian doctrine as long as hell exists and some of God’s children are suffering in hell? It is an unusual conception of evil if hell doesn’t qualify as such.

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posted March 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

Hell is the consequense of evil, it is not the source of it. Hell will exist even after Satan is bound. All this means is that the Devil and his followers will no longer be albe to tempt men. The judgement has already taken place and those that were wicked on Earth will remain in Hell. This brings up a bigger question, What is Hell?

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Todd Wood

posted March 4, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Blake, doesn’t Jeremiah ask a similar question, and God answers it? I don’t have my Bible in front of me. Is it chapter 12?
Gary, we could probably get into discussion sometime as to what defines a child of God. I am looking forward to the day when I completely and forever freed from evil and the celestial presence of God.

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Your Name

posted March 4, 2009 at 7:59 pm

Todd: I don’t think the definition of a child of God is the issue. A human being is a human being, and it is hard to argue that evil has come to end as long as human beings suffer in the kind of hell envisioned by conventional Christian doctrine.

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Todd Wood

posted March 4, 2009 at 11:12 pm

Sometimes those human beings go far below even the basic instincts of the animals. I am learning this in the book of Jeremiah, too.

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