Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher known today (particularly in skeptical circles) for providing what some claim is a knockdown argument against belief in God. Epicurus’ argument focuses on the problem of evil and how it might present a problem for a classical concept of God generally embraced by theists; Epicurus presents the following set of questions and propositions,
“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 captures the heart of skepticism embraced by many today, which is the use of evil and suffering in the world as an argument against God. It functions as a justification for why one shouldn’t believe in a good God, or a God that theists usually hold to. Whether this argument succeeds or not, one should not hesitate to credit Epicurus for raising an important question. He raises a question concerning the obvious evil in the world in light of belief in an all-powerful and all-loving creator God, or gods. However, theists find that the conclusion to Epicurus’s argument that believers are unjustified in believing theism does not follow. It is helpful to break down the argument to present the theistic response:
If God is willing but not able to prevent evil, then He’s not omnipotent (therefore not God).
One way Christian theists have responded is by pointing to the narratives in the Bible that teach that although God is willing to prevent (or end) evil but does not. The interpretation is that this does not necessarily mean that God cannot prevent evil. Importantly, for the Christian, this raises difficult questions and theologians have spilled much ink searching for answers. One answer 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 argues,
“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 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 and seldom extends beyond an assumption. Craig thinks that there reasonable grounds for thinking God can indeed permit evil and suffering in the world and that this is because it is a way for God to bring the maximum number of people freely into his kingdom to find salvation and eternal life. To achieve this would require the existence of evil and suffering, and perhaps only in such a world could the maximum number of people freely come to know God and find salvation. Craig explains what the skeptic is required to do to counter this possibility,
“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.”
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. Thus, if God’s ultimate goal is good then it would show that he is not malevolent; rather, it suggests that God has reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist in the world because it somehow accomplishes his purposes.
Many Christians are convinced that the Bible teaches that every person is in his or her heart evil. This is not to say that all people are inherently evil because the Bible teaches that they are all made in God’s good image, but that because of humanity’s rebellion (the Fall) evil has come to pervade the hearts of all people. On this teaching, one must wonder how God could rid the world of evil when the people he is said to love have evil within their hearts. Perhaps this is a reason why the Christian God permits evil and suffering in the world because he knows that to go on a crusade to destroy evil he might just have to destroy people whom he sent Christ to die for.
If He is able and willing, then where does evil come from?
This premise of the dilemma views evil as being something real, perhaps as the antithesis to what is good. But Craig and Christian apologists find this a problem for atheism. Even atheist philosophers have conceded that objective good and evil do not exist on atheism, for philosophical naturalism does not allow it. Instead, humans create standards of morality, which makes morality subjective rather than objective. The challenge this presents atheism is that if morality is merely subjective (as opposed to objective), then how can the atheist meaningfully claim that “evil” and “suffering” have any significance, even as an argument against God? Consider the words of William Provine that there are “No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there any absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life” (2). How can one then argue anything meaningful from the illusion of morality?
Some thinkers have found the existence of evil and suffering to confirm rather than negate the existence of a God. The famous C.S. Lewis was an atheist who one day noted how he had been using the evil and suffering to reject the existence of God, but then realized that atheism undercut moral objectivism. This caused him to doubt his atheism because if he accepted a naturalistic worldview then how could he make any meaningful moral judgment, including the judgment that evil and suffering is proof against God? Lewis found that if he was to make meaningful moral claims then he would have to embrace belief in God. It is God who provides a transcendent standard that can ground moral claims and beliefs.
Christians like Craig continue to hold to a tradition that has long since claimed to know where evil has its origin: in the Fall. The Bible teaches that evil resulted from the Fall when humanity chose to reject God. Through that rejection, evil entered the world, and that is where it comes from.
If He is neither able nor willing, then He is not God.
If God has sufficient reason for allowing evil and suffering to exist then the conclusion that he is not God because evil exists does not follow. Some atheist philosophers have noted a weakness in the argument from evil and suffering; William Rowe, for example, claims 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” (3).
As noted by Craig, the atheist making the argument from the incompatibility between a good God and the existence of evil needs to know more than he possibly could. At the most, the argument must remain an assumption and an unjustified one at that. In fact, apologists have argued that the philosophical naturalism of the atheist cannot account for objective morality or for good and evil, which undercuts the argument itself. So, when the Epicurus dilemma is examined through the lens of an atheistic worldview a number of concerns arise.
1. Craig, William Lane. 2009. Transcript: Does God Exist? William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens. Available.
2. Provine, William. 1998. Scientists, Face it! Science and Religion are Incompatible. Available.
3. Quoted by Louis Pojman. 2012. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Boston: Cengage Learning. p. 314.