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.
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.