Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who, today, is known for providing the following quote challenging belief in God:
“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?”
How does this stand in the face of a Christian conception of God? Essentially it raises an important question on the subject of evil in the world given Christianity’s belief in an all-powerful, all-loving creator God. Let’s take a look:
1. If God is willing but not able to prevent evil, then He’s not omnipotent (therefore not God).
I believe that we can question this line. Indeed, at least on what the Bible teaches, God is willing to prevent evil but that does not necessitate the fact that God cannot prevent it. In other words, God may have morally sufficient reasons (see my brief article here) for allowing evil to exist in this world. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig in a Q&A during one debate offers the following examination:
“In terms of the intellectual problem of suffering, I think that there you need to ask yourself is the atheist claiming, as Epicurus did, that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the evil and suffering in the world? If that’s what the atheist is claiming, then he has got to be presupposing some kind of hidden assumptions that would bring out that contradiction and make it explicit because these statements are not explicitly contradictory. The problem is no philosopher in the history of the world has ever been able to identify what those hidden assumptions would be that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit” (1).
Craig goes on to expose this assumption:
“How could the atheist know that God would not, if He existed, permit the evil and suffering in the world? Maybe He has got good reasons for it. Maybe, like in Christian theism, God’s purpose for human history is to bring the maximum number of people freely into his kingdom to find salvation and eternal life.”
Craig explains why he thinks God may allow evil and suffering to exist in the world:
“And how do we know that that [salvation] wouldn’t require a world that is simply suffused with natural and moral suffering? It might be that only in a world like that the maximum number of people would freely come to know God and find salvation. So the atheist would have to show that there is a possible world that’s feasible for God, which God could’ve created, that would have just as much salvation and eternal life and knowledge of God as the actual world but with less suffering. And how could the atheist prove such a thing? It’s sheer speculation. So the problem is that, as an argument, the Problem of Evil makes probability judgments, which are very, very ambitious and which we are simply not in a position to make with any kind of confidence.”
2. If He is able but not willing, then He is malevolent (therefore not God).
This subsequent line builds on the assumption exposed by Craig in point 1 above. However, since the Christian God is under scrutiny it would be best to note that according to the Bible it will be God who one day does rid the world of evil. Therefore, given Christian theism’s witness, this shows us that God can rid the world of evil but that the time right now is not appropriate. We can thus reject the claim that he is malevolent for allowing evil to exist should he have morally sufficient reasons to allow it to be that way.
3. If He is able and willing, then where does evil come from?
The Bible claims that evil manifests from the fall (Genesis 3) which essentially says that man, given the gift of freewill, chose to reject God. And through that act sin (evil) entered the world. The point is that a diagnosis of evil is not neglected by the Bible.
4. If He is neither able nor willing, then He is not God.
Again, given that God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist this line falters, the conclusion does not follow. Informative in this regard is the atheist philosopher William Rowe who writes:
“Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God [who is all-powerful and all-good]. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim. Indeed… there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God” (2)
1. Craig, W. 2009. Transcript: Does God Exist? William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens. Available.
2. William Rowe quoted by Pojman & Rea in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (2012). p. 314.