Had God so chosen, he could have planted Abraham’s descendants in a sheltered, peaceful place. But he didn’t. The ancient Middle East was never peaceful, and Syria-Palestine, in particular, was a frequent battleground for the two great powers in the Fertile Crescent of the day.
Neither Egypt nor its traditional rivals in Mesopotamia (successively the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians) wanted to fight on their own territory, so their armies routinely clashed somewhere in between — very often somewhere in ancient Israel or Syria.
One thinks of Wile E. Coyote, run over in the road by a car that then backs up and rolls over him again and again and again. It's funny in a cartoon, but much less so in reality.
Still, one wonders whether the eloquence, the ethical insights and the spiritual heights scaled by the great ancient Hebrew prophets would have been achieved had the Israelites been provided a stress-free environment where the fruit simply dropped into their mouths and soothing mood music was piped into every comfy room.
“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship,” remarked the great medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), “he would keep it in port forever.”
But, of course, no ship’s captain has such a goal. Nor, it seems, does God.
Adam and Eve needed to leave Eden. Otherwise, as 2 Nephi 2 points out, the entire plan of salvation would have been frustrated. “For,” in the words of Lehi, “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11).
Had we ourselves remained serenely with our heavenly parents in the premortal realm, the very purpose of our existence would likewise have been thwarted.
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” the Lord told Adam and Eve upon their exile from the Garden (Genesis 3:19). They became mortal, of course, but perhaps they didn’t foresee (and couldn’t have imagined) the illnesses, injuries, decay, disappointments, betrayals and cruelties that would also accompany the Fall.
We all encounter such things, though. The only question is how we’ll respond.
Seldom noticed, but among the most profound verses in the Book of Mormon, is Alma 62:41. Having just completed a lengthy account of many years of violent conflict, Mormon observes that “because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened ... and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.”
Both groups had, presumably, experienced comparable suffering at comparable length. The pivotal difference was in how they handled their experience.
And so it is with us.
As a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I often found myself counseling with people who faced serious challenges. I worried that any words of explanation or comfort that I could offer might seem, might even be, too easy, too facile. After all, I wasn’t facing the problem. They were. And talk is cheap.
Sometimes I tried to encourage them by observing that we gain strength by pushing against resistance. We don’t go to the gym to work out with quarter-pound weights, or set the treadmill to a leisurely 0.2 miles per hour. I urged them not to be defeated by their obstacles. Overcoming their challenges, I promised, would confer strength of character and spirit upon them that could be gained in no other way.
In 1856, Brigham Young was speaking to a congregation drawn from the refined cities and towns of Europe and the American Northeast. Referring to their new home in the remote, rough and arid Great Basin, he declared, “This is a good place to make Saints.” And, of course, he was right. The pioneer experience transformed a church into a people and has marked Mormonism ever since.
The problem of evil may be the most notoriously difficult of all theological questions. No easy answers exist. But the explanation offered by the late British philosopher John Hick (d. 2012), that the world was designed for “soul-making,” resonates with Latter-day Saint understanding of the plan of salvation.
As another prominent non-Mormon thinker, Henri Bergson (d. 1941), famously wrote, “The universe is a machine for the making of Gods.” As such, it could hardly have been constructed as a luxury resort or spa. It had to be, and is, something more like a gymnasium.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.