Epicurus and The Problem of Evil

The Newtown, Connecticut shooting that happened the other day has sparked the blogosphere—or at least the part of the blogosphere that I frequent—into a frenzy of conversation about God, Heaven and evil. I don’t want to talk about the shooting; I find it disrespectful to tie the shooting up in a theological discussion. The only thing I want to say about the shooting is to paraphrase President Obama: “[m]ay America bless the memory of the victims and, with the love of the American people, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.”

And I am paraphrasing, because Obama actually talked about God and Scripture. I changed it to America and American people. In this internet world, it doesn’t have to be limited to America, and as a British person my thoughts are with those affected. As I said in a comment I left here, I don’t believe religion is true, so when a person finds strength from religion I firmly believe that strength comes from the person, not a god. And now is a time for people to find their own, human strength.

But the conversation has brought up an old discussion: the problem of evil. This comes in many forms, but the most commonly quoted one is this:

“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.”

– Epicurus

There is an answer to this dilemma: God may have moral reason to allow some evil. Imagine a hostage situation where the kidnapper takes 10 people hostage and says he will release all 10 hostages if he can shoot and kill one person. Assuming there are no other ways out, what do you do? You can take the “we do not negotiate with terrorists” approach, but then 10 hostages die. You can try to neutralise the kidnapper, but I’m setting the parameters of this thought experiment, and if you take that option the hostages will die. Or, you can let the kidnapper shoot someone and save all 10 hostages.

This is the world that some theists imagine we live in, except we don’t see the saved hostages. We only see the person that got shot, we call that evil and we don’t recognise that the evil actually brought more goodness to the world.

But this is the act of negotiation. What is God negotiating with that He cannot perfectly circumnavigate? Any non-perfect outcome from a negotiation means that both sides were not omnipotent. An omnipotent (and moral) being would have saved all 10 hostages, rehabilitated the kidnapper and no one would have been shot.

That God has to accept some evil to get more goodness means that there is an obstacle in the way of God’s perfect plan. And that means that God is not omnipotent. Epicurus is still right.

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20 thoughts on “Epicurus and The Problem of Evil”

    1. One of the biggest problems of omnipotence is that it is self-limiting–think: could god make a boulder so heavy not even He could lift it. Many theists argue that you should accept ‘omnipotence within logical limits’.
      That’s great fun, because the Cosmological arguments necessitate that getting something from nothing is a logical impossibility, therefore God is needed. So which is it?

      Within the context of evil and suffering, if you assume an omnipotent being everything that happens has to be something that being permits.
      You can have a lot of fun with the idea of omnipotence.

  1. Excellent post. While I agree that God has to “accept evil” in order to get goodness, I would say that’s because it is the natural order of things. People believe that there is something inherently wrong with evil whereas I would say that evil is necessary in order for life to evolve. On that basis, Epicurus’ argument would be moot.

      1. You could certainly look at it that way or you could say that God created the natural order of things, including Nature’s universal laws, and everything will play out in accordance with those laws.

        1. The whole discussion about whether there is a God or not or the nature of evil is in effect just so much mental masturbation. I should know because I participate myself. Our feeble minds cannot conceive of an Absolute and yet we study Nature to prove, or disprove, something that is outside of Nature (i.e. outside of space and time). We treat God as if he were a person with human attributes (e.g. does he care to stop evil?) but of course if he exists he isn’t even a physical lifeform. Whatever exists in the great world beyond (say, the Multiverse and whatever lies even beyond that) no doubt operates under different laws of physics. It’s fun to discuss these topics, but alas there are no real answers.

        2. This isn’t about nature.
          There is suffering. I can either stop it or I can’t. I either want to stop it or I don’t. The same is true of you. The same is true of God.
          If an omnipotent and caring God exists where does the suffering come from?
          These details–“omnipotent” and “caring”–are not details I have made up. They are details other people claim to know about. I’m following up on an argument that is more than 2000 years old. Still no one can reconcile the suffering with these details of God.
          One of these claims has to give, but suffering is evidential…

        3. Those are all valid concerns, just not something that is provable or disprovable. Sorry, but you can’t apply finite logic to the Absolute, nor that matter could Epicurus. For example, you say that “if there is an omnipotent and caring God where does suffering come from”. Well, omnipotent and caring are terms that we humans invented with our pea brains. Those words don’t have any meaning beyond space and time. Sure there is suffering in the world, but I defy anyone to prove how that applies to God (better to simply look in the mirror). How can you prove that when you don’t even know what God is or why he created the world. We are all operating out of ignorance and as much as it might pain us not to know, we will forever not know.

        4. I appreciate that you don’t think this issue is accessible, and I’d be happy to agree that God is not “caring” or “omnipotent” because they are finite words and we know nothing of God.

          But the fact of the matter is that we can tell what the symptoms of omnipotence and benevolence would look like, and this world is not that.

          I agree that humans are responsible for much evil and suffering, too.

        5. Interestingly enough, both believers and non-believers struggle with this same issue of suffering. I can not give you the answer you are looking for (nobody can). I can only offer you my perception of reality which is that we live in a free will universe where we get to choose between good and evil. Accordingly, our choices create most of the so-called evil in the world. Even with respect to events of Nature (e.g. tsunamis), that’s mostly man’s fault. We don’t have to live where natural disasters are likely to hit. You should consider though that it is possible that God did not even create our universe. Recent polls show that a majority of people believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life (can you spell Elohim) who just might have had the creative power to fashion our world. Lastly, can man possibly conceive of a world that he may have volunteered to come to regardless of, or perhaps because of, the inherent dangers and pitfalls here. I could also talk about such things as how the brain interprets our sensory experience and the illusion of death, but in the end each of us has to make peace with what we think that we are experiencing and why we are here at all.

        6. Link me to one poll where a majority of people believe in ET life that might have the power to fashion our world.
          Also, the problem of evil doesn’t challenge me at all. It challenges theists, and I find that they dodge the question, which is why I posed it alongside the most common dodge I encounter.
          The second most common dodge I encounter is the “how can an atheist call anything evil?” dodge.

  2. Hi,
    But what do you have to say about God allowing us to have our free will? Free will is so important to God that He will allow babies to die in order to maintain it. I don’t know why this is so important to Him – but I do believe it’s that important. Do you believe we have free will? Or do you believe that we are only machines programed to do what our programs tell us to do? I’m interested in your take on this – as an atheist.
    Would you not answer this comment directly, but instead, put up a post about this subject (our free will)?
    robin claire

    1. As it happens, I do not believe in freewill (https://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/freewill-the-neurological-weather-pattern/).

      But even if I were to accept freewill, that doesn’t account for droughts, famines, tsunamis, mudslides, parasites, illnesses, pestilence, cancer… So we could separate evil and suffering into two groups: human-caused and naturally caused. We can dismiss human caused suffering as being the result of freewill (I might write a post about why that doesn’t make sense either, but for now I’ll let it slide) and Epicurus’ point still makes sense focusing only on naturally caused suffering.

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