How to Respond to the Epicurus Dilemma

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Epicurus (341-270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher known today (particularly in skeptical circles) for providing what some tend to believe is a knockdown argument against belief in God. Epicurus’ argument focuses on the problem of evil and how it might present a big problem for a classical concept of God generally embraced by Christian theists,

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Epicurus would seem to capture the heart of skepticism held by many today, namely, the use of evil and suffering as an argument against God or justifying why one shouldn’t believe in a good God. Whether this argument is successful or not, one should not hesitate to credit Epicurus for raising an important question on the subject of evil in the world given belief in an all-powerful and all-loving creator God.

However, my contention is that the argument does not follow, and I hope to show that this is the case by breaking it into smaller units.

1. If God is willing but not able to prevent evil, then He’s not omnipotent (therefore not God).

One way Christians have responded to this is by pointing to the narratives of the Bible which teach that although God is willing to prevent (or end) evil but doesn’t, does not necessarily mean that God cannot prevent it. Importantly, for the Christian, this raises crucial questions, and theologians have sought after answers. One of these answers is that God does not prevent all evil (or instances of evil) because he has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist in the world. Philosopher, theologian, and apologist William Lane Craig explains that

“In terms of the intellectual problem of suffering, I think that there you need to ask yourself is the atheist claiming, as Epicurus did, that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the evil and suffering in the world? If that’s what the atheist is claiming, then he has got to be presupposing some kind of hidden assumptions that would bring out that contradiction and make it explicit because these statements are not explicitly contradictory. The problem is no philosopher in the history of the world has ever been able to identify what those hidden assumptions would be that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit” (1).

As Craig rightly challenges, how could the atheist, skeptic, or anyone else, know that God would not, if he existed, permit the evil and suffering in the world? This is the assumption made by the atheist, and more often than not merely remains an assumption. One of Craig’s hypotheses to account for God’s allowing of evil and suffering is that it is a way for God to bring the maximum number of people freely into his kingdom to find salvation and eternal life, all of which requires the existence of evil and suffering. For Craig, it could be the case that salvation, at least how Christian theology teaches it, requires a world that is  suffused with natural and moral suffering, and perhaps only in a world such as that could a maximum number of people freely come to know God and find salvation. Craig explains,

“So the atheist would have to show that there is a possible world that’s feasible for God, which God could’ve created, that would have just as much salvation and eternal life and knowledge of God as the actual world but with less suffering. And how could the atheist prove such a thing? It’s sheer speculation. So the problem is that, as an argument, the Problem of Evil makes probability judgments, which are very, very ambitious and which we are simply not in a position to make with any kind of confidence.”

2. If He is able but not willing, then He is malevolent (therefore not God).

This line builds on the assumption challenged by Craig above. Christians will also respond that given biblical revelation it is clear that God will one day be the one to rid the world of evil and suffering. As such, if God’s ultimate goal is good then it would show that he is not malevolent. Rather, it would show that God has reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist in the world because it somehow accomplishes his purposes.

But the Bible goes further to teach that every human being is in his or her heart evil. It teaches that we aren’t inherently evil for we are all made in God’s good, merciful image, but because of humanity’s rebellion and the Fall, evil pervades the heart of every human being. Naturally, on this teaching, one would wonder how God could rid the world of evil when the very creatures he so loves and created (human beings) are themselves evil. As such, perhaps this is another reason for why God permits evil and suffering in the world. Why? Because he knows that should he go on a crusade to destroy evil and suffering he might just have to throw in those made in his image and for whom he sent Christ to die for.

3. If He is able and willing, then where does evil come from?

This is a good question. For one it concedes that evil is something that is real, perhaps a perversion (or the antithesis) of what is good. But this poses a challenge to our atheist friends and skeptics using Epicurus. Atheist philosophers widely note that objective good and evil (or objective morality) does not exist on atheism, for naturalism, as a worldview, does not allow for it. Rather, human beings create standards of morality, and thus morality is, in essence, subjective. The challenge this poses is this: if morality is merely subjective, as opposed to objective, then how can one meaningfully claim that “evil” and “suffering” have any significance? Well, as atheist philosophers note, one can’t, and so it seems strange that atheists will uses evil and suffering as an argument against God.

But not everyone has been oblivious to this. In fact, some have found the existence of evil and suffering to confirm the existence of a God, and not to constitute a proof against him. For example, the famous writer of the 20th century C.S. Lewis, who was an avowed atheist, realized that he used evil and suffering in the world to undermine (or as an argument against) the existence of God, but he realized that atheism undercut moral objectivism, which caused him to doubt his atheism. If he accepted atheism then how could he make any meaningful moral judgement, including the judgement that evil and suffering is a proof against God, for this would assume moral objectivism. Lewis found that if he really did make moral claims of ultimate value then he could only do so while believing in a God, for it was a God that provided a transcendent standard in which to ground those claims with any objective meaning.

However, Christians have long since claimed to know where evil has its origins: in the Fall. The Bible’s teaching is that evil manifests from the Fall which teaches that humanity chose to reject God, and that through that act, sin (evil) entered the world.

4. If He is neither able nor willing, then He is not God.

If God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist then this conclusion does not follow. Some atheist philosophers have come to see the weakness in the argument from evil and suffering. William Rowe, for example, penned rather openly that,

“Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God [who is all-powerful and all-good]. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim. Indeed… there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God” (2).

But should this be true (which I have argued we have good grounds for believing it to be so) then the argument does not provide a logical defeater of God existence and, in particular, a Christian concept of God.

References.

1. Craig, W. 2009. Transcript: Does God Exist? William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens. Available.

2. William Rowe quoted by Pojman & Rea in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (2012). p. 314.

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14 responses to “How to Respond to the Epicurus Dilemma

  1. This article is pure crap. Please answer a simple question with a simple answer, not with fallacies like circular logic: “Is there a God? Yes. Prove it. Read the Bible. How can you be so sure it is true? Because it is the Word of God”. Pfffff, crap.
    Epicurus had a few questions, please answer them punctually. Without the Bible. Do not use the Bible as proof or as mean of information.
    Why not use the Vedas as proof? Why not use the Qur’an as proof? Why not use Norse Legends as proof? Hmmmm???? These books are as good and false as the Bible.

    • Hey, Error…
      The point of the article wasn’t to prove God’s existence as you were hoping for. The point of the article was to refute Epicurus objections to the common monotheistic God, and answering that through the monotheistic Christian worldview which requires the bible.
      The article did answer them punctually and made no claims to answer anything else outside of Epicurus loaded questions.
      For you to expect this article to prove God or use a god from a different worldview is like me reading a vegan cookbook and throwing it away bc it didn’t explain anything about the intramolecular forces between the organic molecules of the food. In other words, the chemistry of cooking is already established beforehand, or at least presupposed, and moving on to further subjects.
      The author had every right to use the bible as a source of refutation because Epicurus is referring to God of the bible.
      The article also doesn’t use circular reasoning, idk where you’re even getting that from. It did a great job with outside sources to also show that Epicurus’ claims are invalid.
      I recommend checking out the links that the article provides, bc it uses sources outside the bible, aka the William Lane Craig links.

  2. “And how do we know that that [salvation] wouldn’t require a world that is simply suffused with natural and moral suffering?”
    actually, that is exactly what Epicurus and atheist are pointing. this world, this nature and our existence is a creation of such God, therefore pain and suffering is part of the creation of this sadistic entity.

    • Your position is valid and legitimate once you can justify the existence of evil, to define evil itself, therefore your claim of the sadistic entity is not itself a justified claim.. you judged from the perspective of the existence of evil that the creator is sadistic, but what about the good that exists, how it can be justified?? And can an evil God allow for goodness in this world?? Rational people would say no, an all evil, sadistic God will not allow goodness to exist. Then what becomes of the objection that this world is created by an evil God because of the existence of evil??
      Epicurus’s and athiests’ position are not justified, because if God doesn’t exist, then you have no objective ground to object against evil and to name bad actions evil.
      I’m not saying believing in the existence of God, but the ontological necessity of this being.
      Consider these questions in your search for truth.
      Best regards.

  3. I’ve noticed that Christianity is often very strong in areas where poverty & suffering occur but in the West spoilt atheists use this suffering as an excuse for them to reject God.

    • “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. Matthew 19 23-26

  4. Epicurus actually reveals that tge problem of good and evil side by side in time and space is not as trivisl or as simple as some people want to pretend.

  5. Excellent article! I don’t believe in a God or subscribe to any religions. James does an fantastic job at debunking Epicure’ s logical inferences. What I would like to add is that both epicurean and theological logic fail to consider that in the universe there’s no such things as Good or Evil. Those concepts are constructed by society, and dynamically shift throughout history. What was viewed as evil in ancient times might not be today and the opposite is true too. Therefore, Epicure and theology are both addressing a pointless argument, much like trying to define whether Dark is different from light. Both are basically the same, the presence or absence of light. A dark or lighted room keeps its intrinsic quality and structures regardless of external conditions. It’s only the perception that changes. An erupting volcano destroying a town is no more Good or Evil than child labour, for example. We simply agree as a society what should be considered good or evil. For the victorian capitalist society, for example, child labour was totally acceptable. Hence, from the premise that good and evil have no universal qualities or definition, the question whether there is or not a willing and /or able God is irrelevant.

    • Child labor is acceptable to the person profiting from the labor but not acceptable to the laboring child. Slavery was acceptable to those profiting from slavery but not acceptable to the slave.

      What you call “historically acceptable” was not acceptable under God or Man. It was only “justified” by those perpetuating the evil.

      Mankind justifying evil. That has not been acceptable under God ever.

  6. Epicurius’ argument is sound, his logic is undeniable for those are willing to find truth through logic. The only fault in Epicurius’ statement above is his last statement, “why call him God”. That conclusion assumes that a being must be “all-powerful” in order to be God. In other words, if God is not able to prevent suffering, then he is not worthy to be considered God. The question is why? Why must a being be all powerful in this 3-dimensional realm we exist in, in order to be two things. First, human beings Creator. And second, the One who made a way for human being to enter into eternal life.

    In terms of Craig’s argument, “In terms of the intellectual problem of suffering, I think that there you need to ask yourself is the atheist claiming, as Epicurus did, that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the evil and suffering in the world?”; did Craig purposely ignore the second premise, which is that a being who is omnipotent and loving (stated from the reverse angle “malevolent”) would stop evil? It is sad to see Christians and Biblians bound by a theology that is contradictory because things that are contradictory are not true.

    Please see https://www.thepeacefulrevolution.info/almighty-god.html

  7. I really like this well thought out position.

    I love how you were able to draw out the inconsistancy within the atheistic worldview in order to show the arbitrariness of the epicurean claim.

    Then when responding gracefully to someone who was overly aggressive, not only do you address the issue, your press the persons objections to the furthest extreme (an all good God cannot allow evil, can it) reducing the objection to absurdity.

    Thanks for defending the claims with grace.

  8. Pingback: Who was Epicurus? | Bishop's Encyclopedia of Religion, Society and Philosophy·

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