googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Epicurus Riddle: The Problem of Evil

Monday, July 25, 2011

Epicurus Riddle: The Problem of Evil


“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?”

The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, penned this famous “riddle” more than 400 years before Christ. While many people acknowledge that he had the Greek god, Zeus in mind when he wrote this, it's still quoted today and applied to the God of the Bible. It's seen by some people as some logical argument against the existence of God. I intend to show why it is not.

To begin to address these questions, one must consider what is meant by the word 'evil' here? Most people have a general idea of what evil is but what are some specific things that are evil? Is murder evil? Most would agree that it is. What about stealing? What about lying? What about “little” things like viewing pornography, drinking, gambling, or smoking? When we start identifying things as evil, we begin to realize that we are evil. The Bible says there are none that does good (Psalm 14:3). If we want God to do “something” about evil, we must realize that we are asking Him to deal with each one of us personally.

What exactly then do we want God to do about evil? Should He immediately remove anyone that commits an evil act? That might have sounded appealing a few minutes ago but if each of us were to be included, then it suddenly doesn't sound so appealing anymore.

Of course, there are those people who excuse their own vices as “not so bad” and only want God to deal with the “really bad” things. I guess that means that something like telling “white lies” is OK but the “bold faced” liars get zapped. This is a sort of special pleading by some people who want some degree of evil to be acceptable – just enough for them to get by. They want God to deal with evil but not their evil. They are saying, “Zap everyone else, God, just don't zap me!” You can see how this doesn't really solve anything because everyone wants to excuse their own sin. The Bible says that everyone is right in his own eyes but the Lord ponders the heart (Proverbs 21:2).

If anyone wants God to deal with evil by removing it, it's an all or nothing proposition.

A second alternative is to restrain people from doing evil. That is, God should simply not allow anyone to do evil. The problem with this is that evil is a free will issue. If we were to use the 10 Commandments as a standard of understanding what is right and wrong, there are some points everyone would agree on. “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), for example, would be one of those things that most people would agree is wrong. We wouldn't have a problem if God took away our desire or ability to kill. But what about the commandment that says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3)? Would the critic be agreeable if God forced everyone to worship Him? Somehow I think he wouldn't like this option. It's a similar dilemma to the one above where we want God to deal with the evil in everyone else, but we want God to let us continue in our own evil.

To be fair to the critic, though, I wouldn't like this option too much either. If God eliminates our ability to do evil, He also eliminates our ability to choose to do good. I want to worship God. I don't want to be a robot who only performs a task because that what it's programmed to do and it doesn't know anything else. Perhaps God too doesn't want this because He has obviously decided not to deal with evil this way.

A third option is this: give people the free will to decide to do good or evil. Everyone chooses to do evil, of course, and the unrepentant will reap the just punishment for their actions. However, God could make a way of forgiveness available to those who repent of their evil. This is the option that God has chosen. God made this option available at a great personal cost to Himself. In doing so, He has demonstrated that He is both able and willing to do something about evil. He has also demonstrated another characteristic that Epicurus did not mention in his riddle; besides being omnipotent and merciful, God is also just.

9 comments:

Steven J. said...

Humans intervene to prevent some evils, while tolerating others, and while certainly the question arises (cf. current efforts to curtail "bullying") of where, on the spectrum from genocide to snide remarks, to draw the line, they can imagine and implement a system in which some evils require preventing (if one can manage it) and others do not. One would suppose that an omnipotent God would not be less capable in this regard than we are.



Now, you note that everyone decides to do evil. You raise the possibility of God making us unable to choose murder, for example, and assume that this is incompatible with free will. Yet you also hold (I'm making an assumption here, but I think it's a sound one) that the saints in Heaven will still have free will, yet never misuse it to sin: they will not merely have no desire to murder; they will have no covetousness, no desire to worship other gods, no desire to say hurtful or untrue things. You're pretty much stuck with the view that in principle, God could have provided us with a free will that did not incline us to evil -- and chose not to.

Note that all our free will is exercised within the constraints of our desires and beliefs: I cannot freely choose to, e.g. find the taste of battery acid to be better than chocolate, or enjoy the feel of a red-hot stove burner on my skin. A different nature would freely choose different things, so in principle, again, an all-powerful Creator could endow us with a nature that freely chose only good things.

In any case, alongside the problem of human evil, the things we choose to do to one another, there is the problem of natural evil, tsunamis and flu pandemics and cancer and drought, etc. They afflict different human beings to different degrees, in a pattern that does not correspond to any intuitive concept of justice or free will, and such natural evil has often been cited as the ideal case where the Epicurean tetralemma applies.

RKBentley said...

Steve J,

You said, “Humans intervene to prevent some evils, while tolerating others, and while certainly the question arises (cf. current efforts to curtail "bullying") of where, on the spectrum from genocide to snide remarks, to draw the line, they can imagine and implement a system in which some evils require preventing (if one can manage it) and others do not. One would suppose that an omnipotent God would not be less capable in this regard than we are.”

There is a difference between us and God. Many differences actually, but I'm thinking of one in particular – namely that God is perfectly just. We might tolerate certain evils – like lying – but God does not. God reserves the same punishment for every sin: death. He has also made salvation available to all who repent of their sins.

You said, “Now, you note that everyone decides to do evil. You raise the possibility of God making us unable to choose murder, for example, and assume that this is incompatible with free will. Yet you also hold (I'm making an assumption here, but I think it's a sound one) that the saints in Heaven will still have free will, yet never misuse it to sin.”

Being finite creatures (sinful, finite creatures), I can't profess to know exactly how God will accomplish His will for us once we are in heaven. The Bible does attest that angels had the free will to disobey and one-third of them did when Satan rebelled. Perhaps our time here on earth somehow prepares us so that we will be able to resist sin once we are rid of this body of flesh.

You said, “Note that all our free will is exercised within the constraints of our desires and beliefs: I cannot freely choose to, e.g. find the taste of battery acid to be better than chocolate, or enjoy the feel of a red-hot stove burner on my skin. A different nature would freely choose different things, so in principle, again, an all-powerful Creator could endow us with a nature that freely chose only good things.”

What God could do is not necessarily what He does do. And, again, I can't claim to know why He does what He does. However, it would be presumptuous for us to say He should have done it a different way since the way He did do it is fair.

You said, “In any case, alongside the problem of human evil, the things we choose to do to one another, there is the problem of natural evil, tsunamis and flu pandemics and cancer and drought, etc. They afflict different human beings to different degrees, in a pattern that does not correspond to any intuitive concept of justice or free will, and such natural evil has often been cited as the ideal case where the Epicurean tetralemma applies.”

Natural “evils” are part of the same Curse. The Bible says that God also cursed the ground for Adam's sake and the creation groans under the Curse even until now. God initially created a “very good” world. Surely tsunamis, tornadoes, droughts, etc, weren't a part of the original paradise. But just as God has paid the price for our sins, He has also planned to restore the creation. In the New Jerusalem, there will be no more Curse!

Thanks for your comments and for visiting my blog.

God bless!!
RKBentley

Anonymous said...

You contradicted logic with assumption. I can write a book that says anything, and any argument against what it says would be refuted within its pages. Try again.

RKBentley said...

Thanks for your comment. I have thought about expanding on some of these points in a new post but you're point is rather vague. Could you please try to explain how you think I "contradicted logic with assumption"?

Making a statement without any attempt to demonstrate how it is true is a logical fallacy called a "balled assertion." I've written about this in my series "Loving God with your mind." You can use the search tool in the top, left corner of the page to find it. You might find some useful information in the series.

Please keep visiting. God bless!!

RKBentley

RKBentley said...

Oops. I had a misspelling. I meant to type "Bald" not "Balled." Sorry. Carry on!

RKBentley

Eamonn Conlin said...

You can dance around the riddle but the point has stood for 2500 years. It does not disprove any god of course, since you can't disprove what cannot be defined. But it does prove beyond any real argument that if there is any type of god then he is not omnipotent. So that rules out the Christian god.
You can twist and turn all you want but if there is a god it does not resemble anything in the christian fairy tale.

RKBentley said...


Eamonn Conlin

Thanks for your comments. You've not really attempted to explain where my argument fails. Like I said in the post, God is both willing and able to do something about evil. However, there are variables that the “Riddle” fails to include – namely, what about things like justice and mercy? What do you think an omnipotent God should do about YOUR sin in particular? Have you ever told a lie, for example? Should God have struck you dead them moment you told a lie? Or do you think God should remove your free will so that you are forced to always tell the truth?

I ask in earnest. Tell me what you think an omnipotent god should do.

It seems to me people want a god who will fix the “world's problems” without affecting them personally.

Thanks again for visiting. God bless!!

RKBentley

Anonymous said...

Holy Cow, you atheists are thick. Do you not get that you have to first define evil? There is a reason evil only has a brief definition in the dictionary, it is because "evil" is open to interpretation, based on the individual's personal understanding and bias. Look up the meaning of objective verse subjective.
Since, in your opinion the OP "cannot disprove what cannot be defined," neither can you, smarty pants. So this stupid asinine riddle fails based on the fact that "evil" cannot be qualitatively defined- according to your own standards.

-The fact that you use it to define your whole ideology (and yes it is an ideology) says more about your intelligence that that of any theist.


-Always ready to spew out some comment you've obtained from this or that skewed source and never able to actually parse through what has been said. -Like a trained monkey. Seriously, that should be the atheist's motto. Put that up on your church wall. And yes there are atheist churches.

You clearly do not have enough of a grasp of theology to understand a theist's perspective. You cannot understand that, to a theist there is a greater evil than could possibly be understood on this earth. If you knew anything about theology you would understand that Christians believe God does intervene.

Since you either lack the intelligence to comprehend what theists are trying to explain to your dim witted brain, or you lack the will power to get educated before you rudely and arrogantly invite yourself into a conversion about theology, you really should keep your mouth shut, because, now you just look stupid.

Also, Epicurus was a deist and he most likely didn't even say this. Open a book.

-Maybe if atheists got a dose of their own condescension every time they sought to bully, intimidate or ridicule people with different beliefs, you all would learn some manners.

RKBentley said...

Wow. Thanks for your comments. They're a little bold but I can't say I find much that I disagree with. It does annoy me too how atheists, because their arguments usually lack sound footing, often resort to arguing semantics. Demanding that I define “God” is a red herring.

Thanks for visiting. Please keep coming back. Pray for me! Good bless!

RKBentley