Epicurus (341-270 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher known today for providing what some tend to believe is a knockdown argument against belief in God. It is a fairly popular argument within atheistic circles where an observer will see it widely quoted and often shared in memes and graphics (such as the one above).
Nonetheless, 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?”
I think Epicurus’ quote encapsulates much of the skepticism held by many today when it comes to the evil and suffering as an argument against God, which makes it particularly helpful to analyze and respond to. Essentially Epicurus raises an important question on the subject of evil in the world given Christianity’s belief in an all-powerful, all-loving creator God.
One way we can observe its logic is to break it down into smaller units of evaluation.
1. If God is willing but not able to prevent evil, then He’s not omnipotent (therefore not God).
I believe that one can question this line fairly convincingly. Indeed, at least on what the Bible teaches, God is willing to prevent evil but that does not necessitate the fact that God cannot prevent it. In other words, God may have morally sufficient reasons (see my brief article here) for allowing evil to exist in this world. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig in a Q&A during one of his debates 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).
However, 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? After all, it is not impossible that God would have reasons for it. Craig argues that God’s purpose for human history might be to bring the maximum number of people freely into his kingdom to find salvation and eternal life which requires the existence of evil and suffering.
Thus, it could be the case that salvation might require a world that is suffused with natural and moral suffering. It might be that only in a world like that the maximum number of people would freely come to know God and find salvation. Craig continues, “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 subsequent line builds on the assumption exposed by Craig in point 1 above. However, as a Christian theist might retort, biblical revelation seems to suggest that it will be God who one day does rid the world of evil. In other words, though God could rid the world of evil right now (which would naturally result in God’s obliteration of us in the process given that the Bible affirms that evil exists within every person given that every person has sinned. A fact that would make God’s sacrificing of Jesus on the cross for humankind’s sins a pointless exercise) the time right now is not appropriate. If God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing suffering and evil in the world, as briefly stated above, then it doesn’t follow that he is malevolent or not omnipotent.
3. If He is able and willing, then where does evil come from?
The Bible claims that evil manifests from the fall (Genesis 3) which essentially says that man, given the gift of freewill, chose to reject God. And through that act sin (evil) entered the world. This is if you’re looking for a simple answer according to scripture that seems to be taken seriously by most Christians.
4. If He is neither able nor willing, then He is not God.
Again, given that God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist this line falters, the conclusion does not follow. Perhaps most informative in this regard is the atheist philosopher William Rowe who pens 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).
Ultimately Epicurus’ argument does not provide a logical defeater of a Christian concept of God, though it is undeniably an important objection that needs to be answered for those wishing to rationally justify belief in God in a world that is suffused with evil and suffering.
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.