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Epicurus and the problem of evil

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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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