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In my previous question How do proponents of the “free-will defense” against the problem of evil explain that God can be free and immune to moral evil at the same time?, I presented the following contradiction:

Premises

  • P1: God is omnibenevolent
  • P2: God is omnibenevolent => God is not capable of moral evil
  • P3: God has free will
  • P4: God has free will => God is capable of moral evil

Deductions

  • D1: God is not capable of moral evil (from P1 & P2)
  • D2: God is capable of moral evil (from P3 & P4)
  • Contradiction between D1 & D2 (=><=)

The contradiction follows logically from the premises, so anyone interested in dispelling the contradiction has no choice but to challenge the premises. And it's interesting to note that there is no consensus among Christians as to how to do this, as different answers would concede and reject different premises. For example, Christians who believe in some form of determinism/compatibilism and reject the existence of libertarian free will would deny premise 3, thus rendering premise 4 moot. Other Christians would concede premises 1-3 but reject premise 4, for example, by claiming that God does have free will but moral evil is not part of the options available to Him (unlike human beings, for whom moral evil is part of the options available to them).

But in the case of Latter-day Saints, they seem to focus more on rejecting premise 2. For them, omnibenevolence entails freedom to do moral evil while consistently choosing not to. I will quote two answers in support of this:

Answer 1:

The "missing link" here is character. God has free will, and is fully capable of being tempted and enticed to do evil, but consistently chooses to use that free will in benevolent and righteous ways. In this, and particularly through the example of the life of his son, Jesus Christ, he teaches us how to use our free will in benevolent and righteous ways as well.

Comment: this answer explicitly affirms premises 3 and 4, and implicitly affirms premise 1 and rejects premise 2.

Answer 2:

The OP presents a logically valid argument to show a contradiction between God having free will and God being omnibenevolent. However, the argument is not sound because premise 2 is false.

Premise 2 (God is omnibenevolent => God is not capable of moral evil) is an untenable definition of omnibenevolent--it in fact begs the very question the argument is trying to evaluate. If God expressed love, provided aid, and sustained life simply because He couldn't not do those things, He would be no more benevolent than oxygen, which also sustains life...but is not benevolent.

Oxford languages defines benevolent as "well-meaning and kindly". Something which sustains life because it is compelled to do so by the laws of nature may be useful, but it fails to demonstrate any evidence of benevolence. For a more down-to-earth example, we might consider how we would feel if someone did a great service for us (oh, how benevolent!), only to learn that they were coerced into doing so (it no longer appears benevolent at all). Neither oxygen nor someone forced into a service project are well-meaning & kindly. It is a category error to assume Christians use "benevolent" to describe a God who is loving, merciful etc. because He is compelled to do so.

God is benevolent because He has free will and chooses to do things that are well-meaning and kindly.

Comment: this answer explicitly concedes premises 1 and 3, explicitly rejects premise 2 and is silent about premise 4, although premise 4 is implicitly accepted since it follows logically from accepting P1, ~P2 and P3.

In summary, both answers, written by Latter-day Saints, seem to concede all premises except P2, and therefore reject that God is not capable of moral evil, which is equivalent to conceding that God is capable of moral evil.

In short: they believe that God is capable of moral evil.

And this brings us to James 1:13-15:

James 1:13-15 KJV
13 Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: 14 But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. 15 Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.

If, according to James, God cannot be tempted by evil, that explicitly contradicts the belief that God is capable of moral evil. See this answer for a more elaborate presentation of this objection.

How do Latter-day Saints account for James 1:13-15, and how do they reconcile this passage with their understanding of God's omnibenevolence and God's free will?


Appendix - Deriving P4 from P1, ~P2, P3

I'm adding this as requested in the comments.

Let:

  • O = God is omnibenevolent
  • E = God is capable of moral evil
  • F = God has free will

Then the premises can we rephrased as follows:

  • P1: O
  • P2: O => ~E = ~O | ~E
  • ~P2: ~(~O | ~E) = O & E
  • P3: F
  • P4: F => E = ~F | E

If P1, ~P2, P3 are conceded, then it follows:

  • E (from ~P2)
  • P4 = ~F | E (from E)

Actually, ~P2 is enough to derive P4. ~P2 entails E, and E entails P4.

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  • Any rationale for the downvote?
    – Mark
    Jun 27, 2023 at 19:03
  • 1
    Here's an upvote to balance it out. I thought we'd be seeing this question soon; good follow up. Jun 28, 2023 at 2:23
  • However, can you clarify how P4 follows logically from P1, ~P2, and P3? I'm not following the deduction there. Jun 28, 2023 at 2:31
  • 1
    @HoldToTheRod I added an appendix that hopefully clarifies it.
    – Mark
    Jun 28, 2023 at 3:41
  • One thing I have a problem with is the use of the words "capable", "not capable" and "incapable". Does it mean that one can't do it even if one wants to (e.g. leap over tall buildings with a single bound), or that one won't ever want to do it (e.g. eat roadkill skunk when there's lots of normal food available)? Jun 28, 2023 at 13:34

2 Answers 2

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I'm not sure I see that God cannot be tempted with evil => God is not capable of moral evil. There are some things in this life that don't tempt me in the slightest, but I'm still fully capable of choosing to do them. You may put all the oysters you like in front of me; I am capable of eating them, but I will not be tempted to do so.

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Greek

The punch line of the OP is a question about Greek more than a question about theology.

The word often rendered in English as "cannot be tempted" is ἀπείραστος, which occurs only once in the New Testament and never in the Septuagint. The alpha is a negative prefix affixed to the word πειράζω. The verb "can" is nowhere to be found; it is supplied by the translators (in some cases).

The same word (πειράζω) is used by the same James in Acts 15:10

Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

It is also used in Hebrews 3:9, quoting God as saying:

When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years.

Furthermore, that God can be tempted is explicitly acknowledged in Deut. 6:16

Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.

In this latter example, we have God acknowledging that God was tempted.

However, if we remove the idiomatic translation in James 1:13, there is no contradiction here. As explained in Benson's commentary on James 1:13

Here, to tempt, signifies to solicit one to sin, and actually to seduce him into sin, which is the effect of temptation or solicitation. See James 1:14. In this sense the devil tempts men. And because he is continually employed in that malicious work, he is called, by way of eminence, Ο πειραζων, the tempter. It is in this sense we are to understand the saying in the end of the verse, that God is incapable of being tempted, that is, seduced to sin by evil things

That people can (and have) tested or challenged God is demonstrated many times in the Bible: but He passed every test. People tried to get God to renege on His promises and that game never worked. The same concept shows up in the other direction in Malachi 3:10 where God challenges people to put Him to the test--to try out His promises and see them fulfilled.

Greek Conclusion

Translating James 1:13 idiomatically to claim that God cannot be tempted (or tested or tried) makes James contradict his own statement at the Jerusalem conference (see Acts 15 quote above). Rather, what James establishes is that no temptation levied against God will be successful. God will not be seduced or tricked.


Logic

In my linked answer (Answer2) to the antecedent question, I accepted premises 1 & 3, and I rejected premise 2. I did not take a position on premise 4. Another answer had already challenged the OP on the matter of (potentially) switching definitions between premises, and I did not explore the matter further in my post (save for a comment that I had qualms with the presentation of premise 4).

I am not convinced that "capable of moral evil" is being used the same way in premise 4 as it was in premise 2. If premise 4 adopts a novel definition of "capable of moral evil" then the argument is not logically valid. Since the terms were not defined and I was left with some uncertainty, I didn't take a definite position on the matter.

A few of the questions that occur to me are: how are we defining moral evil? Are acts of omission potentially morally evil? Is choosing anything other than an optimal outcome (or choosing nothing) morally evil? Is Divine Command Theory in or out of scope?

Capable

What is meant by capable?

Derren Brown's show Pushed to the Edge (aka "The Push") is a recent effort at exploring this question. In this "reality tv" drama, an unsuspecting participant is surrounded by actors who will put the participant into increasingly stressful/compromising situations and try to convince him to push another human being off a roof to his death. The pushed individual actually has a harness and will not be harmed, but the pushing individual does not know this. If persuaded, the pushing individual will have made a decision to commit murder.

Whether or not the whole thing was staged is another matter. The question presented to the audience of the show is whether a person can be manipulated into deciding to commit murder.

That one human being is physically capable of pushing the other human being is obviously true. The sinister question Derren Brown explores is whether the one human being is psychologically capable of pushing the other human being. Both are questions of capability, but they carry very different ramifications.

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One other brief matter with respect to James 1:13 -- aside from the discussion of Greek above, I see a logical gap in the argument:

The OP suggests that If, according to James, God cannot be tempted by evil, that explicitly contradicts the belief that God is capable of moral evil. How so? That only holds if it is impossible to do evil without first being tempted. There may be good reason to conclude that such is the case, but none was presented (e.g. for an interesting counterexample, Satan does moral evil all the time--is someone/something tempting him?).

Logic Conclusion

What we mean, then, by "is God capable of committing moral evil" is not so clear cut. I found premise 2 of the original argument straightforward to refute because it misused the meaning of omnibenevolent, but in hindsight, my answer would have been stronger had I discussed what I understood the words to mean.


Theology

I do not speak for all Latter-day Saints (presumably the statement in the OP they believe that God is capable of moral evil uses "they" to refer to myself and Mason Wheeler, not all Latter-day Saints). Christian denominations tend not to make doctrinal pronouncements on deeply philosophical questions unless they believe they have an authorized source supporting that pronouncement. My own church's Articles of Faith cover matters much more relevant to human salvation.

That is to say, my comments here are speculative and a matter of personal opinion.

My read of the scriptures is that when we are told "God cannot do X" (e.g. Titus 1:2 - God cannot lie) it is an acknowledgement of God's perfection, not a philosophical treatise on free will (or omnipotence). God is consistent and reliable such that "He can't do X" is but an emphatic and entirely assured statement that "He won't do X".

I've heard it said that mature love in a relationship includes (but is not limited to) knowing exactly how to push someone's buttons and choosing not to do so. I see that God exemplifies this principle.

Theology Conclusion

God sticks to His principles 100% of the time. So even if He physically can do something that would violate His principles, He doesn't. And He promises that He never will. We can't independently fact-check Him on this--we can either choose to believe Him at His word or not. God has given me clear reason to trust Him, and I take Him at His word.

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