“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.