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Does God’s justice require suffering as punishment for sin? Philosopher Adam S. Miller answers

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Suffering is just a fact of life. But suffering can, by way of grace, be given a purpose.

Grace and justice are intertwined. Our ideas about justice shape our ideas about grace. And, in turn, how we think about justice depends on how we think about the purpose of God’s law.

If, then, we want to break with the underlying logic of original sin and experiment with the idea of an original grace, the most important question we can ask is this: what is the purpose of God’s law?

In Mosiah 4:16, Benjamin promises his people that, if they will retain in remembrance the greatness of God and their own nothingness, they “will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain.” Benjamin then frames a hypothetical scenario that stages, simply and cleanly, the crucial difference between two divergent views of God’s law and the nature of suffering:

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mosiah 4:17–18).

On my reading, this denial of the beggar’s petition exemplifies a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s law, and most helpfully, it forcefully dramatizes the logic—that is, the explanation for why people suffer—that underwrites this misunderstanding.

What, according to the logic of original sin, is the reason for the beggar’s suffering? As Benjamin has it, the line of reasoning is straightforward. Denying the beggar, you will say this “man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand.”

You will refuse to help the beggar because “his punishments are just” (Mosiah 4:17; emphasis added).

This denial of the beggar’s petition is motivated by a certain understanding of God’s law. It takes for granted that justice requires punishment and that a just punishment will take the form of suffering. The logic of original sin draws a straight line from justice to punishment to suffering. It assumes that the natural order of material things—manifest here in the beggar’s obvious suffering—is identical to the moral order of things. If the beggar suffers, he must deserve to suffer.

My father was clear about the purpose of God’s law: love. Only love can fulfill the law, and only love can justify faith. In January 2019, he shared a list—a strange, arresting, beautiful list—that he titled “10 Reasons I Believe.” That list looks like this:

10 Reasons I Believe

  • My mom and dad told me there is a Christ.
  • Mom walked me to church four miles each Sunday.
  • Mom carried groceries home every day after work.
  • Mom did without clothes, food, and stuff for me.
  • My dad, in his last days, bought Gary (4) and Cheri (2) a winter coat.
  • My dad came to see me play one basketball game.
  • On my 12th birthday, dad gave me five dollars. It was my sister’s wedding day.
  • My mom loved my new wife.
  • My dad helped Kay and me set up our new trailer home.
  • Helping my sister set up a baby bed for my first nephew in Washington, DC, [my dad] tried to beat a yellow light and got a ticket because I (13) said, “You can beat it!”

Each example is pure love.1

My father believed in God because his dad came to his basketball game and his mom carried home groceries from work. He believed in God because his dad bought winter coats for my brother and sister and his mom walked four miles to church each week. He believed in God because his dad ran a yellow light for him and his mom loved my mom.

My father’s 10 reasons aren’t likely to convince any skeptics to read the Book of Mormon or join the Church or pay tithing for 60 years. But I’ve never been more convicted by an argument for God’s existence. My father’s list is better than anything Aquinas or Anselm or Pascal ever managed. What sort of evidence could possibly justify my father’s faith? Only “pure love”: “Love is a willingness to do what is right no matter what, for the right reason and the right person.”2 “My mother, in her love for me, never asked me for anything back.”3 My father was convinced that “there is only one way for all that love to happen—you follow Jesus Christ.”4

At its most basic, the story told by original sin is this: the origin of all suffering is sin. And while this logic is natural enough, Benjamin roundly rejects it. He wants no part of it. In fact, Benjamin boldly claims that anyone who thinks this way has “great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 4:18; emphasis added).

As Benjamin tells it, the sinner isn’t the beggar who, as a sinner, deserves to suffer. The sinner is the person who thinks the beggar deserves to suffer. The sinner is the person who, in line with the logic of original sin, reads the beggar’s suffering as a just punishment. In contrast, Benjamin, like Jesus, sees the moral order as a divinely commanded response to the suffering we experience in the material order, not as a justification for that suffering.

Despite Benjamin’s blunt disavowal of the logic of original sin, this way of thinking about justice and suffering runs deep in both the Christian tradition and the world at large. What’s more, this way of thinking also appears to be commonplace in many parts of the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

However, latter-day revelations, like the second Article of Faith, reject the doctrine of original sin. And beyond this formal repudiation, the Restoration also rewrites—from top to bottom, from the inside out—the crucial Christian stories that bookend the tradition’s reasoning about suffering. Our revelations thoroughly rewrite Christianity’s tired stories about the world’s beginning (especially its stories about Adam and Eve’s blameworthy fall from paradise) and its scary stories about the world’s end (especially its stories that, in the name of justice, consign most people to eternal punishment in the fires of hell).

While the Christian tradition views our collective fall into mortality—and thus our collective fall into suffering, sickness, and death—as a catastrophic loss and a just punishment, Latter-day Saints view our fall into the troubles of mortality as, ultimately, one of God’s greatest gifts. Our troubled mortal lives aren’t a punishment. Our suffering in mortality isn’t proof that God’s original plan was ruined. As Latter-day Saints tell the story, our mortality is God’s original plan. “Were it not for our transgression,” Eve exclaims in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, “we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11).

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And where the Christian tradition views the afterlife simply in terms of heaven’s absolute rewards and hell’s blistering punishments, Latter-day Saints view the afterlife—in light of Doctrine and Covenants 76—as almost entirely composed of differing degrees of salvific glory that, in relation to traditional readings, effectively define “hell” out of existence. Despite the fact that the Book of Mormon alone uses the word hell almost 60 times, Latter-day Saints don’t ultimately believe in anything like Dante’s circles of hell, where God perpetually exacts his justified revenge on vile sinners.

The Restoration’s comprehensive revisions to these traditional stories about Eden and hell have the same effect: while preserving Christian canon, they sharply undercut the logic that organizes a traditional Christian understanding of why we suffer in mortality. This logic has been supplanted by additional revelations that tell a very different story about our suffering and, ultimately, a very different story about justice and grace.

Does sin cause suffering? Yes. Does God’s justice require suffering as punishment for sin? No.

Sin adds to our suffering because “wickedness never was happiness,” not because God insists that we suffer (Alma 41:10). Suffering is a problem, not a punishment.

This, I think, is the upshot of Doctrine and Covenants 19. “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16–17). God doesn’t insist that I suffer. God’s work is to relieve and redeem that suffering. He suffered for my sins so that I wouldn’t have to. If I still suffer because of sin, this is because I insist on suffering. I insist on refusing God’s grace. I refuse to repent. “And surely every man must repent or suffer” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:4).

Does suffering, in general, have a purpose? No. Suffering is just a fact of life. But suffering can, by way of grace, be given a purpose. In addition to being relieved, it can be redeemed. It can teach and strengthen and empower. It can, in God’s hands, be repurposed for growth and progress.

According to the logic of original sin, the purpose of the law is punishment. The law’s purpose is to judge what is deserved. The law is a divine mechanism for judging who deserves to suffer (or not) and to what degree. The point of the law is accusation.

The logic of grace, on the other hand, takes the purpose of the law to be love. The law’s purpose is still to judge—but, now, to judge what is needed. The law is a divine mechanism for judging what is needed to relieve suffering and liberate sinners. The point of the law is grace.

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The contrast between these two logics is sharp. Where sin reasons backward about whether someone’s suffering is deserved, grace reasons forward about how best to respond to that suffering. Where sin understands God’s law as a tool of condemnation, grace understands God’s law as a discipline of compassion. Where sin uses the law to obligate suffering, grace uses the law to command succor.

Sin begins from the original assumption of guilt and concludes that suffering is deserved. Grace begins from the original reality of suffering and concludes that redemption is needed.

Sin uses God’s law to ask what is deserved.

Grace uses God’s law to ask what is needed.

Original Grace

In Original Grace, Adam S. Miller proposes an experiment in Restoration thinking: What if instead of implicitly affirming the traditional logic of original sin, we, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasized the deeper reality of God's original grace? What if we broke entirely with the belief that suffering can sometimes be deserved and claimed that suffering can never be deserved?

In exploring these questions, Miller draws on scriptures and the truths of the Restoration to reframe Christianity's traditional thinking about grace, justice, and sin. He outlines the logic of original sin versus that of original grace and generates fresh insights into how the doctrine of grace relates to justice, creation, forgiveness, and more.

Available at Deseret Book and

1–4. Gary Miller, text messages to Adam Miller.

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