Apologetics epicurus

Published on May 16th, 2013 | by Rob Slane


Epicurus and 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?

Thus spake Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived from 341-270 BC. This is what you might call a tight spot argument. It seems to cover all the bases and leave us Christians without the faintest hope of getting out. But tight spots are okay. The people of God have been there before. And so with a range of impregnable rocks to the left and to the right, the most formidable army in the world chasing after us from the rear, and an impassable sea right before us, what do we do? Trust in the God of tight spots and march right on ahead over the path that he clears for us through the waters.

epicurusAlthough the riddle is undoubtedly clever, it turns out to be loaded with a couple of erroneous presuppositions: firstly, a flawed presupposition, and secondly, a really flawed presupposition.

So what is the flawed presupposition? In a nutshell, it is the idea that to deal with evil, God must do so in exactly the way we think he ought to, and if he doesn’t, we’re going to get all uppity and tell him that he doesn’t exist. In our wisdom, we know that he ought to deal with evil, and we also know just how he ought to do it. Yet the problem we have is that any of the ways we can come up with to deal with evil end up destroying not just evil, but humanity itself. Let me explain.

Take the simplest example of the kind of evil that Epicurus might have envisaged: Cain and Abel. “Okay,” says Epicurus, “so if God is good, willing and omnipotent, why did he allow Cain to kill his brother?” Now how could God have prevented it? There are only really three options: he could have simply prevented Cain from doing it either by natural or miraculous means; he could have destroyed Cain either before or after he did his deed; or he could have “reprogrammed” Cain so that he never again had such a thought in his head.

But with each of these “solutions” there is an insurmountable difficulty. The problem with the first option – preventing Cain doing the deed – is that Cain’s heart remains unchanged, and he will simply look for another opportunity to carry out his crime. The problem with the second – destroying Cain – is that not only must Cain be destroyed but Abel too, because he is also a guilty sinner before God. And the problem with the third – reprogramming Cain – is that Cain loses one of the characteristics that make him to differ from the beasts.

With the first option, sin is harboured within Cain’s heart to be brought out into the open on another day. With the second, all humanity is wiped off the face of the earth, because all – not just the Cains and the Hitlers of this world – are guilty before God. And with the third, Cain is no longer made in the image of God. None of these options deals with evil in a satisfactory way, and if God were to choose any of them, humanity dies.

Now in his riddle, Epicurus castigates God for not doing something about Cain, but for choosing another option instead, which was “do nothing.” Here is exactly where the presupposition is flawed. Epicurus assumes that God must deal with Cain in one of the first three ways, and if he doesn’t, this is evidence of his inability, unwillingness or malevolence. Yet God does choose another way, but rather than it being “do nothing”, it is something that not only deals with the evil, but which does so in a way that overcomes all the other problems as well.

So how can this be done? Well God’s method, which may well sound like foolishness to the likes of Epicurus, is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the only method which not only deals with the problem of evil, but does so at the same time as overcoming the three problems mentioned above. It deals with evil by God taking evil upon himself. It deals with the heart problem by drawing men to God through the Cross, changing their hearts and bringing them into a right relationship with God. It deals with the problem of destroying humanity by offering hope of salvation to sinful humanity. And it deals with the reprogramming problem by restoring men to righteousness, so that they learn to choose the good and forsake evil. Whether Epicurus can accept the “folly” of this method is another matter entirely.

So much for the flawed presupposition, what of the really flawed presupposition? Well if Epicurus happened to be around today, the one question I would want to put to him would be this: “Mr Epicurus, your famous riddle about evil and the impotence of God has wowed many an atheist with its cleverness, and no doubt stumped many a Christian with its difficulties, but what I am really keen to know is this: what do you actually mean by evil.”

At this point it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Epicurus’ face contorting in barely concealed contempt, implying that I am some sort of a dimwit for not knowing what evil is. Have I never heard of murders and wars and rapes and thefts and that sort of thing? Well yes I have, but contorted faces notwithstanding, that still doesn’t answer my question: what do you mean by evil? Is it just a bunch of actions such as those you have mentioned, or is it something far deeper than that? What actually is it?

The problem with Epicurus’ riddle is that it never gets around to telling us what this “evil” is that God ought to be stopping, and so it seems a pretty safe bet that Epicurus had in mind a bunch of things “out there”. But since his riddle assumes the existence of God before apparently going on to disprove him it follows that the riddle really ought to allow God to define evil, rather than leaving it to Epicurus to assume that his half-baked definition will suffice.

If God is God, then evil is not defined merely as a bunch of bad actions “out there”, but rather as “anything and everything which is opposite of God.” Now if this is the case, then what this means – amongst many other things – is that Epicurus’ riddle itself falls into the category of evil. I doubt very much whether this possibility actually crossed his mind when he wrote it, but if evil is defined by God as being that which is opposite to him, then Epicurus is guilty of that very thing in even proposing his conundrum. In which case, his only legitimate questions would be these: why doesn’t God come and strike me down for even daring to state such a thing? Why doesn’t he come and deal with my evil?

The answer, once again, is the mercy of God. Epicurus had an evil heart, just like the rest of us. He was opposed to God, just like the rest of us are by nature. He calls on God to come and deal with evil, but does he include his own in this? Is he really prepared for God to come and deal with his evil? If he really does desire this, is he prepared for God to leave his heart unchanged, or to strike him dead or to reprogram him? Does he really want God to deal with it in that way? Or will he not rather hope that God can deal with it in such a way that changes his heart for good, leaves him alive, and doesn’t turn him into a machine?

The good news is that this is exactly what God does. It took some thorns, some nails and the death of the Light of the World to achieve it. But it is finished. The grave is empty and the throne is filled. So come, Epicurus, God has found a way to deal with evil and he invites you to join him. Now are you willing to accept?

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About the Author

Rob Slane lives with his wife and five home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and a soon-to-be-released book, A Christian & an Unbeliever discuss Life, The Universe & Everything. He is a regular contributor of worldview pieces for Samaritan Ministries International and for the Canadian magazine, Reformed Perspective. He also blogs once or twice a week on cultural issues from a biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com.

18 Responses to Epicurus and the problem of evil

  1. Sara says:

    Great article Rob. You really hit the nail on the head.
    God Bless!

  2. Reid says:

    Excellent piece, Mr. Slane. Thank you!

  3. Denis Khan says:

    G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown says, “No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away … till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”

  4. Wesley says:

    the biggest problem people have with God and evil is that they think that have a dualistic view of good and evil where each is equal and opposite like God and the devil are equal which is heresy by the way. dualism is at the center of dispensational eschatology for their antichrist is believed to be absolute evil which is more evil than the devil himself. St. Augustine stated that evil is the absence of good just as darkness is just the absence of light. Epicurus had the same problem as modern atheist and skeptics, and it does not help that many people who call themselves Christians are walking around promoting heresy.

    • MoGrace2u says:

      Unfortunately it’s not just the dispensational ideology that is flawed on this point, rather it is the whole futurist eschatology that must imply the cross was not enough to deal with the problem of evil – but when Jesus comes again in the flesh, THEN we will see Him eradicate evil permanently in exactly one of those ways Epicurus suggested. And since this a partial preterist site, I can only assume that Mr. Shane thinks the same for how this world must end “some day”, else God in Christ has not done all that we imagine He should!

  5. Alex Alexander says:

    Whenever I hear the word “Epicurus”‘, I always think… “pickle”.
    It’s the Plato/Greek-washing-up-liquid problem in another guise.
    Great article…
    Alex A (philosophy graduate)
    Remember: “Semper ubi sub ubi”

  6. Tom Mills says:

    I do not ever give Epicurus’ question much time. While I would have LOVED to debate him on it, the person who is usually quoting it to me is incapable of defending it, such is the problem with borrowed wisdom. They only say it because of its poetry and they think it’s clever. I usually can turn the question to my advantage by merely saying, “I am glad you acknowledge God exists and we are now just debating his motives.” This usually makes them very mad, because they think I have never heard it before and that his question should have me begging for mercy. Once you acknowledge that a supreme being exists, and that he is so powerful as to create all matter and all existence, how can you possibly question his methods? Epicurus is saying this in mockery and is not truly acknowledging his existence, but as the bible says, “…answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

    Paul takes much the same approach in Romans, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”

    • Antichus "Tony" says:

      ” “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”

      YES because if you dont like how i act dont make me like this

      • Tom Mills says:

        I can see that logic is wasted on you, tis sad…

        Yes what is formed CAN ask whatever it wants, that does not mean that it has a right to complain about it. Each should be happy that God made them exactly the way they are.

      • Antichus "Tony" says:

        “that does not mean that it has a right to complain about it”
        so then are you against freedom of speech?
        “Each should be happy that God made them exactly the way they are.”
        so people should be happy that god predestined them to hell? also i should be happen that when god designed me he made the same tube i use to breath also to swallow down food?

  7. cesar garces says:

    Good points brother. I suggest you also and first deal with the origen of evil which is where you find the real essence and solution to the problem of evil. The simplistic and erroneous view of the “free will” as the origen of evil has permeated the church with an array of false notions about God, man, evil and salvation. Even if you accept the proposition that evil could be more than what we think and God deals with evil in his own way and not ours, it does not answer the ultimate question of why there is evil. Not merely how it entered the heart of men but why there is evil. These great truths (the origen, the influence, the solution and the purpose of evil) need to be addressed in their right order and together, based on scripture if we want to respond the question of evil. I recomend you to study Gordon Clark’s master piece on this theme. It would be chapter 5 on his book Predestination. God bless.

    • Simple Girl says:

      Well I am a simple person and I think the answer to your question of why there is evil is simple.

      If your a parent as God is our Father, how much more are we pleased when we have a child come to us even after being punsihed and to tell us they Love Us.

      If there was no evil then our praise of God would be empty praise, for we would not know anything else.

      So when a bad deed makes you stop and ask God to forgive you, and you thank God for your life and the ability to come to God, then he is pleased that we choose to come to him and are not forced to come to him.

      God Bless and keep you and yours.

    • Tom Mills says:

      Origen was a great man, he was not evil.

  8. Vance says:

    Whether or not Epicurus is the one who made that statement doesn’t matter much. Your reply to the flawed logic is nonetheless excellent. I especially appreciated your point about how some of us think that if God doesn’t deal with the problem of evil the way we think He should deal with it, He must not be God. When you carefully and honestly analyze that thought, which is the premise most modern atheists offer for their rejection of God, you begin to realize what kind of incredible arrogance lies behind it.

    • Chris Benz says:

      Vance ,

      Your answer to Tom was Awesome as you replied in Love , which we as Believers in God should do for , ” God Is Love “. To debate with an Atheist to make them Angry or to satisfy our Egos is counterproductive , as the Atheist , as possibly Epicurus , is simply asking a legitimate question from their point of view and seeking the Truth. Even Christians at times ( speaking for myself as well ) , have questioned Gods motives and at times it is hard to understand with our Finite minds , An Omnipotent , Holy , And Powerful Creator with Infinite Wisdom in which we as Humans are simply not capable of understanding beyond what God has chosen to reveal to us through His Word , The Holy Bible.
      The Book Of Job gives the reader a Glimpse of Gods ” Personality ” for example , as it relates to the Source of Evil and how God , In His Glory and Wisdom , does at times Intervene in mans affairs , and how the Spiritual World affects the Physical World.
      Being born into a World of Evil , we as Sinful Humans , can only begin to answer these questions through the study and application of Gods Word.
      In summary , We live by Faith and are instructed to ” Trust ” God that he Has already prevailed Through Jesus Christ over Evil and it is our responsibility as Christians to Walk in Love towards the Atheist so we may help their Eternal Souls to escape Eternal Evil.
      My Apologies for straying from Topic a bit.
      I found myself asking a stupid question after reading this thread , “To allow Death is not Evil , To Murder is.” Does this make any sense as far as viewing things regarding Evil from Gods perspective ? And , what is the best way in your opinion to answer as simply as possible Epicurus if we were to meet him today ?
      Thanks and great Topic !
      May God Bless You All

  9. ob says:

    no one knows whether epicurus was the one who said that. it may have been carneades. it may have been lactantius. it may have been sextus empiricus. it may have been someone else altogether.

    • Chas says:

      Also not addressed is that Epicurus believed in attaining “Higher Nature” through sensual pleasure, an OBVIOUS TRAP to those familiar with Buddhism and how the “EvilOne” entraps those with these beliefs!!…Christ was NOT fooled when Satan offered these things while He was in the wilderness forty days/ nights….

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