The Problem of Evil
The Epicurean paradox is very often used as a tool to deny or at least too seed doubts about the existence of a God. Now, I am very luck to have my own atheistic and sceptical followers on my video channels. I mean, some would even say that a self-respecting apologist needs to have at least his very own YouTube-atheist… and whatta you know! I’ve got several! Anyway, one of them posted this paradox under several of my videos on Odysee.
The Epicurean Paradox
Let’s look at this paradox together, shall we? Click on the image right for a bigger view.
Well, that sounds convincing right? If you read it quickly it might even sound logical, and I believe that this is the reason so many adore this paradox.
The Real Thing
Before we go into this flowchart it seems to me that we have to read the original paradox first. Epicurus of Athens (BC 341–270) was the founder of ‘the Garden,’ a philosophy school. Epicurus believed the gods didn’t bother themselves with us, humans. Epicurus believed that the purpose of philosophy was to encourage peace and quietness and relieve suffering. However, we don’t even know whether this paradox comes from him, it was probably just a popular way to dismiss God which had his name under it.
Christian philosopher Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (ca. AD 250–325) cites the paradox in his book De ira Dei. Now, that is a book in Latin, so I use a translation which I found on the web.i
Epicurus said God either wants to eliminate evil and can’t; or can, but doesn’t want to; or neither can nor wants to; or can and wants to. If he wants to and can’t, he’s weak—which fails to describe God. If he can but doesn’t want to, he’s jealous—which is equally alien to God. If he neither can nor wants to, he’s jealous and weak—therefore not God. If he can and wants to, which is the only proper conclusion… God, where are you?
Instead of asking why there is evil, Epicurus apparently wondered more about God’s supposed absence in this world.
Lactantius came up with a very interesting answerii
For God is able to do whatever he wishes, and there is no weakness or envy in God. He is able, therefore, to take away evils; but he does not wish to do so, and yet he is not on that account envious. For on this account he does not take them away, because he at the same time gives wisdom, as I have shown; and there is more of goodness and pleasure in wisdom than of annoyance in evils. For wisdom causes us even to know God, and by that knowledge to attain to immortality, which is the chief good. Therefore, unless we first know evil, we shall be unable to know good. But Epicurus did not see this, nor did any other, that if evils are taken away, wisdom is in like manner taken away; and that no traces of virtue remain in man, the nature of which consists in enduring and overcoming the bitterness of evils. And thus, for the sake of a slight gain in the taking away of evils, we should be deprived of a good, which is very great, and true, and peculiar to us. It is plain, therefore, that all things are proposed for the sake of man, as well evils as also goods.
What does this mean? Lactantius basically says that God can remove evil but doesn’t want to, not because He is evil Himself, but because He wants to learn us to fight evil alongside Him, and that’s good.
I realise that this is not an answer my atheistic friends want to hear. Most of them don’t even believe it to be possible to have a relationship with God in which we can learn something. I think it actually scares them to think about a relationship with God. No, they don’t care about that, and they only want evil and suffering to stop right away; they don’t want to battle it; they don’t want to learn something new, and they don’t even want to consider the effect it has on them when God destroys evil all together. So, in that sense I think most of my sceptical and atheistic friends will reject, in advance, any answer which involves God at all.
Yes or No
Okay, let’s get back to the flowchart. The biggest flaw of this paradox lies in the idea that you can only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the questions. That is fine with the first three questions. However, you could argue that you can also answer with ‘maybe’, but that would bring us to the realm of agnosticism, which is a religious orientation of doubt; a denial of ultimate knowledge of the existence of God. The paradox only gives a few options and neglects the fact that we can think of more options. This makes it a false paradox. In the end it isn’t a paradox at all.
But when we look at the fourth premise, ‘does God want to prevent all evil,’ it becomes interesting. If we say ‘no’, the sceptic says that this means that God isn’t good. If we say ‘yes’, the sceptic jumps right in, and will ask why God doesn’t prevent it then. But what happens if we answer the question with ‘sometimes’?
Now, the sceptic needs to think of possible answers of why God sometimes allows evil to happen. What would the answer be? Simply saying that it is bad to let it happen doesn’t suffice. I let my kid climb the trees in our garden. I will not always stand underneath the tree to catch him in case he falls down. However, in some cases I do stand there. I can think of many reasons of why I do or do not. Not standing there is not immoral persé. I might have very good reasons not standing under that tree all day long. Likewise, God might have very good reasons to let evil happen. Saying that God is unloving and bad for letting it happen is just silly. How on earth do we, mortals, even assume to know why these things happen?
If we Answer with ‘yes’
But let’s move on. If we answer ‘yes’ on whether God can prevent evil, we go to the next part where the chart asks why there is evil in the world. We do not have to come up with answers because the chart is doing this for us, we simply end up with only three options in the flowchart.
Satan [To which the flowchart states that an almighty God should destroy Satan]
To test us [To which the flowchart says that an all-knowing God knows all the answer and thus does not have to test anything]
Other reason [To which the flowchart insists that an almighty God have dealt with those reasons as well. If He doesn’t, it might be because He cannot be bothered with those reasons too]
It doesn’t really matter what other option you can think of. They all end up under the third category: Other reason. And see there! The maker of this flowchart decided that God seems to be not all-powerful or in the other case, an uninterested, distant God. This brings us back to Epicurus. Epicurus was a so-called Deist. A Deist believes in God, but does not believe that He interacts with His creation. Deists believe that evil is there because God might want to show off by crushing it. Yes, they believe He is able to beat evil, but for the time being He can’t be bothered. He is far away and stays out of earthly business. This is why the original paradox isn’t wondering about the existence of evil, but more about God’s absence in the midst of it.
The maker of this flowchart basically betrays his deistic tendency. Therefore, an atheist cannot really use this chart because it presumes the existence of God in the first place. Also, it seems to assume a deistic God, A Christian can come up with many good reasons of why there is evil. But in this flowchart all our reasons are reduced to that one option in which the maker states that God is not a almighty God at all or an totally uninterested God who could not be bothered. Accepting that outcome brings us in a never-ending loop. The flowchart is just a clever trick with words and meanings. It gently pushes us into the direction of an unworthy to be praised God or towards deism. The push is so subtle that many of us don’t even notice. We are too busy thinking about the answer. We quickly end up following the arrows as drawn by the maker of this flowchart. We just go round in circles unless we do not accept the premise of an uninterested distant God.
Free Will Without Evil
Finally, let’s talk a bit about the answer many Christians give, that of free will.
- Evil Exists
- Can God prevent evil? [Yes]
- Does God know about all the evil? [Yes]
- Does God want to prevent evil? [Yes]
- Then why is there evil? [It is necessary for this universe]
- Could God have created a universe without? [Yes]
- Why didn’t he? [Free will]
- Could God have created a Universe with free-will and without evil? [Yes and no, but read on!]
So, God wants to prevent evil but allows it to happen anyway. Why? Because, it is needed for this universe we live in. I’ll get to the answer of the ‘why’ in a moment.
We move on to number six and seven, God could have created a universe without evil, but He didn’t because He created us with a free will. And now we get to the surprise of the day! God can not create a universe with free-will and without evil!
Does this mean that God isn’t all-powerful? Well, that depends on your definition of all-powerful. If you think that it means that God can do the logical impossible, you’re wrong! He cannot make a square circle; He cannot lie because He is truth; And He cannot create beings with a free will that would never choose evil, even if they wanted to.iii
Free will entails that one is only really free when one can decide to obey or not! You can’t possibly go around this by saying that God should have prevented people from choosing the wrong thing. Try to imagine that God created a Universe with free-will but without the possibility of disobedience. This would be a world where God’s creatures have only a very limited kind of freedom.
Okay, what if people in this imaginary world can only choose good options and are not capable of choosing any bad options. If someone was faced with certain options—two of which are morally good and one morally bad—this person would not be free with respect to the morally bad option. He would not be able to pick any bad option even if he really wanted to. Even though this person is free to pick one of the two good options, his freedom would be limited nonetheless.
You might say that in such a world we would have peace and love. However, the question arises whether such peace and love is something we can be praised for. Helping you grannie to cross the street is no longer a moral good deed. It is just something you will be forced to do, you can’t decide against it. If you install a nifty program on your laptop which can be programmed to say nice words. Would you praise your laptop for doing that? Your laptop has to do it because you have programmed it in such a way! It is not admirable, it is just the way it is. In this world you do not have the option to be atheist. In this world you are free to obey God, that is, to do only morally good deeds. Praising God is depicted as a morally good deed, meaning you can’t decide to not praise Him.
How about the Future?
So, for the time being it is impossible to have a universe without evil but with free-will. But how about the future? The Lord promised to make everything new. Listen to this
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
How is this even possible with free-will? There seems to be no evil in this new world and yet everybody retained his and her own free-will! But we just determined that such a universe cannot exist, right! Well, that’s why I said ‘yes and no.’
Just think about it. For now, it is impossible because many do not freely choose to obey God. If God had decided to create a universe without evil in the first place, everybody was pushed into obeying Him. But that’s not the world God wanted. He didn’t want to be like the computer programmer and having a system which just did what it was programmed to do. No, God wanted to have a world in which people would enjoy Him and in which He enjoyed them.
Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is man’s primary purpose?” and the answer is, “Man’s primary purpose is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The new earth is going to be different. There will be no evil and suffering in this new world. However, this it is not because God will force people to always choose that what is right and to avoid what is wrong. No, everyone will have a real free-will, no trickery attached! This is only possible because the people who will live in this new world—by their own free will—have chosen to do the right thing, to always obey the Lord.
In this new world we will enjoy and glorify God forever because we, who are there, voluntarily decided to choose to do the right thing. Those who inherit this new world voluntarily agree with God taking away evil from the repertoire of choice. This is why God still not ushered in this new era. He honestly wants to give all humans a reasonable change to free choose to be with Him forever.
Lewis formulated it as followsiv
Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other… And for that they must be free. Of course, God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk.
To my Unbelieving Friends
I know you say that God does not exist. Still, you keep on complaining about all the surrounding evil. I agree, it is a horrible thing to see what we do to each other. However, have you ever wondered what should be done about your own behaviour? Complaining about God doesn’t help much, does it? What should be done about all evil? Can we do it ourselves?
I guess if you were God, you would terminate evil a lot faster. You would capture evil people with a fast rate. You would be able dishing up harsher punishments. No way you would show any mercy to murderers and rapists. And why worrying about people who need to be saved from your wrath? I mean, do you really want to preserve their lives? They have ruined the world you created so diligently. No, just destroy everything and everybody because everything has the stench of evil around it. To get your peaceful and inherently good world, you will go through great lengths to achieve it! However, in your piety for peace you’ll ultimately do all sorts of evil yourself.
This is why we, Christians, have answered the problem of evil as I did above. In the end, God will remove all evil. There will be no trace of the effects of evil, even death will be no more. God Himself will wipe away all tears and make everything new. Christian are looking forward to this day. Obviously we are being called to show God’s mercy already in this world. We have to love our neighbour as ourselves! But we are not convinced that our effords will usher in God’s perfect world. We can help making this present world a better place to live in, but in the end the perfect world can only be created by God Himself. It is God’s love for His creation which caused Him to wait.
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
Still, the unbelieving people are trying to create the perfect world right now. They do not have the time for this thing called ‘love.’ They think they can achieve this through laws, ridiculing those who think differently and above all, a lot of peer pressure (this is why we, Christians, should stop calling people, who think differently, conspiracy thinkers, sheep, anti-vaxxers. Christians ought to love others like themselves).
Please, don’t be fooled into the idea that you will be save on the day God is going to deal with evil. Nobody is save, everybody has done evil things. However, some of us have realised that God provided a way out of jail. His Son, Jesus Christ, paid the penalty. The price was hight but God
so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Anyway! Do let me know your thoughts in the comments of the video or article below. Remember! I am mostly active on my Odysee channel. You’ll find a link to that channel in the description of this video.
I very much appreciate your prayers and support! Please take a look in the description of this video to find out how you can help me. Also, I’ll place a link there to both the Dutch and English transcripts of this video. And finally, you’ll find the links to other videos and articles related to this topic.
God bless you, thank you for watching, and Lord willing we’ll see eachother in my next video!
i Lactantius, De Ira Dei, University of Leipzig, translation in English: K.W. Leslie, [internet] <https://scaife.perseus.org/reader/urn:cts:latinLit:stoa0171.stoa006.opp-lat1:13.20-13.21/>, pp. 13:20-21, accessed 08-11-2022.
ii Lactantius, Chap. XIII. Of the Advantage and Use of the World and of the Seasons, [internet] <https://ccel.org/ccel/lactantius/anger_of_god/anf07.iii.iii.xiii.html#iii.iii.xiii-p16>, p. 271, accessed 08-11-2022.
iii Plantinga, 1977, A. God, Freedom, and Evil, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 17.
iv Lewis, C. S. 1943. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan. p. 52.