Addressing Epicurus' quote about God willing to prevent evil

by Matt Slick

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who was born in Athens, Greece in the third century BC. He taught that the purpose of life was to obtain tranquility and peace with the avoidance of pain and suffering. The following four statements are attributed to him. They are sometimes used by atheists to deny God's existence. Let's take a look at them.

  1. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
  2. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
  3. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
  4. Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?1

Do his statements make sense? Are they true? Let's examine each one.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

First of all, if God is willing to prevent evil but not able, then it would be true that he is not omnipotent. But this would mean that he is not the God of the Bible since the God of the Bible does whatever he desires to do (Eph. 1:11).

Second, Epicurus offers no definition for evil. Therefore, how can his assertion be validated? It can't. How would someone, say an atheist, define evil and also justify the definition as being the right one? Is evil unnecessary suffering? Is it murder but not stealing a paperclip? Is it a famine, an earthquake, bad thoughts, and/or wrong motives? Again, without defining what evil is, the validity of the statements cannot be properly assessed.

Third, after a definition is offered, and hopefully justified, we can then ask to what degree ought God prevent evil? Should God prevent mass starvation, but not the theft of a paperclip? Who decides where the boundary is drawn? What about a person's evil thoughts and intentions? Should God prevent those from occurring as well and thus violate a person's free will? Is that okay? If so, why? If not, why not?

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

This objection presupposes that if God can prevent evil, then he should. But why ought God stop evil (all evil?) from happening? Just saying so does not make it so. Furthermore, the second assertion presupposes a kind of moral absolute; namely, that evil ought to be prevented by anyone who is able to prevent it. We must ask, from where is such a universal moral absolute obtained? Is it made up by people? Is it voted on? Or is it just assumed, by faith, to be true? This is important because this second assertion presupposes a moral absolute. So how do we validate the moral assertion? Is it by intuition? If so, how do we know the intuition is right? Is it by logic? Then what logical syllogism or deduction is used that necessitates such moral obligation?

In addition, there are questions we would have to ask that are related to this second assertion. Could it be that God can use evil for a greater good, as would be exemplified in the evil of the crucifixion by which people are redeemed? Could it be that the freedom God allows people to have also means that they must have the freedom to choose to do what is bad? This would mean that he desires people not to do evil, but that he also desires that they be free to do that which is contrary to God; namely, evil. 

Also, could it be that God would have reasons to allow evil that we do not understand? After all, he's greater than us and he understands things in a way that we do not, and we are not privy to his scope of knowledge. Therefore, it is possible that he could have reasons to allow evil that we cannot understand.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

If God is both able and willing to stop evil, but chooses not to stop all evil, that means God has allowed evil to exist. As is stated above, there are many aspects to this issue of allowing evil, including free will, the degree of evil, the definition of evil, how much evil ought God stop, etc.  

Biblically speaking, evil originated in the heart and mind of Lucifer who decided to rebel against God. It was he who acted as though he "lacked belief in God," when he did not trust in God's wisdom and declarations but instead behaved in a manner that is consistent with independence from God.

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

We should call him God because he is God. Also, as is stated in the previous paragraphs the issue of ability and willingness to prevent evil should not be taken as isolated assertions without context, further examination, or establishing some moral contexts (definition of evil, levels of evil, kinds of evil, how much evil to prevent) by which the assertions can be properly evaluated. Since this fourth assertion is built upon the previous three, and the previous three are in no way conclusive, then the fourth cannot be trusted as being a valid couplet.

Summation

The problems with Epicurus' statements are as follows.

  1. Evil is not defined. Therefore, the assessment of the statements cannot be validated.
  2. If evil were defined, what would justify the definition as being the right one?
  3. Epicurus presupposes a moral absolute that if God can prevent evil, then he should. But how is such a moral absolute justified as being true?
  4. The problem of how much evil (all, most, some) ought to be prevented is not addressed.
  5. The problem of preventing evil thoughts and intentions with its implication of denying free will is also not addressed.
  • 1. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8199-is-god-willing-to-prevent-evil-but-not-able-then
 
 

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.