The Riddle of Epicurus: The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil has been addressed by philosophers for centuries. The problem stems from the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good and just God; that if such a God exists, then evil should not exist. The very fact that there are too many evils that have existed since the dawn of man contradicts the omnipotence, omniscience and perfection of God. Critics claim that if God has a complete knowledge of everything that happens, he would know when evil would occur; that he would not tolerate the existence of evil if God is truly a perfectly good God; and that he could eliminate or prevent the existence of such evil if God has infinite power. The existence of evil in this world only proves that God is not all-knowing, not all-powerful, or not perfectly good and just, or that there is simply no God at all (Adams, 1990; Inwagen, 2006; Martson, 1998).
Epicurus is credited to have formulated the problem, known as the “riddle of Epicurus.” It states that “If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to, then He is not omnipotent. If He is able, but not willing, then He is malevolent. If He is both willing and able, then where do evil come? If He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him God?”
The existence of evil in this world poses questions about life. These questions are primarily focused on how can a life burdened with suffering and punctuated by death have a positive meaning? Theists try to supply an answer to these questions which at the same time resolves the problem of evil. However, most solutions presented make it unavoidable to contradict one or more of the divine qualities, such that one is forced to accept that either one or more of the divine qualities are false or that God simply does not exist.
Moral and Natural Evil
Before discussing the problem of evil, it is necessary to understand its nature. Proponents argue that there are basically two types of evil: moral and natural. Moral evil results from an act, or the failure to act, of human beings such that without the action, or inaction, of humans, such an evil would not exist (Martson, 1998). Moral evil includes, among others, wars, crimes, and self-destructive vices (Adams, 1990). On the other hand, natural evil comprises those that humans have no control of (Martson, 1998). It includes, among others, things such as diseases and natural disasters which evidently causes human sufferings (Adams, 1990). The inevitability of death is also considered to be a natural evil (Adams, 1990). In contrast to moral evil, humans are not responsible for the occurrence of natural evil, and that even if they could do something to prevent, or at least reduce, human suffering, they can nevertheless prevent the existence of such evil.
St. Augustine and the Problem of Evil
Like most defenders of religion, especially of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo was troubled by the problem of evil. He has spent much of his career understanding God and has searched for the cause of the existence of evil. At first he confessed that he “had no clear and explicit grasp of the cause of evil” (Ferguson, 1993, n.p.). He, however, was desperate to find a solution if he was to defend God’s immutability on the problem of evil.
Like most theist, Augustine would not accept to alter any of God’s attributes in order to justify the existence of evil. He therefore sought to find another solution that would make God’s characteristics be compatible with the existence of evil. First he resolved that evil is not at all a ‘substance’ but that it is caused by the privation of good. He argued that “things which are liable to corruption are good” in that “if they were not good at all, they could not be corrupted” (Ferguson, 1993, n.p.). He argued that “all things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good. If they were to be deprived of all good, they would not exist at all.” (Ferguson, 1993, n.p.). Augustine held that all things were created by God and that all things created by God are good. If evil would turn out to be a substance, then it would be good. Therefore, Augustine concluded that evil, which is not good, is not a substance, and from which it only follows that it was not created by God and is therefore immutable to evil.
The argument of Augustine that evil has no substance was met with the question of human morality or the belief that suffering is a punishment from God because of sin. How could humans choose evil if it does not exist? That humans are capable of doing moral evil only proves the distinction between good and evil, and therefore evil exists on its own, in contrast to just the deprivation of goodness. Atheists believed that if God is all-knowing, he would know the hearts of humans, thus, by knowing, would in turn give him knowledge of an impending evil performed by men, and by virtue of his omnipotence and benevolence would be able to prevent such evil from happening. Furthermore, if suffering is God’s way to punish the sins of humans, then it would seem unfair that he become immutable for such evil which he has the power to prevent.
Augustine argued “that the origin of moral evil and the punishment it entails is a consequence of the free choice of rational creatures” (Ferguson, 1993, n.p.). He argued that sin is consistent with evil as deprivation of good in that sin is a product of human’s aversion to God, who is the supreme good. He defended that humans could not claim that God is the author of sin in that they had the choice whether to partake in an evil act or not. He used the account in Genesis (chapter 3) where Adam and Eve committed the original sin. Humanity’s fall from grace as initiated by Adam and Eve is the cause of moral evil and that evil continue to exist where humans deliberately turns away from the goodness of God. It is also argued that God had created humans and the world free of evil but that God has especially given humans free will. Evil began to exist, and will continue to exist, when humans decides from his own free will to avert from God’s goodness. Augustine argued that “because that defective movement (sin) is voluntary, it is placed within our power. If you fear it all you have to do is simply not to will it, it will not exist” (Ferguson, 1993, n.p.). Just as God had punished Adam and Eve, Augustine argues that all humans deserve to be punished as all are seminally present in Adam. When faced with the question of why had God created men with free will knowing that it may, and has been, used for evil to prosper, Augustine asserted that the creation of man which was made in his own image could be perfected in virtue by giving him free will, which at first seemed to be the cause of imperfection.
In the end, Augustine concluded that “for God… evil does not exist at all” (Ferguson, 1993, n.p.). Evil is a concept made by humans who do not see or understand God’s overall design. He stated that “it is clear to a learned man that what displeases in a portion displeases for no other reason than because the whole, with which that portion harmonizes wonderfully, is not seen, but that, in the intelligible world, every part is as beautiful and perfect as a whole” (Ferguson, 1993, n.p.). Evil, then, turns out to be an illusion when things which appear to be evil are considered or observed from a finite perspective, from which they are only a part of the totality of God’s design.
Irenaeus and the Problem of Evil
Another theist who defended God in the problem of evil is Irenaeus of Lyons. Unlike Augustine who had an ‘outdated’ view of the free will, Irenaeus used a progressive view of free will. While Augustine’s view of free will was regressive in that it caused humans to fall from God’s grace, Irenaeus held that free will is the path to perfection in that humans will be able to understand evil and its consequences. Irenaeus’ theodicy revolves around evil and free will. By giving humans the choice to decide, they come to know, understand, and appreciate goodness. McGrath (2007) explains that “unless a real choice is available between good and evil, the biblical injunctions to ‘choose good’ is meaningless.” If God would every time interfere with human decisions, then free will would no longer exist. If free will was to exist, then the natural order of things would have to be designed with the possibility of evil. Therefore, Irenaeus concluded that evil is necessary in order to create humans with perfection, ultimately developing humans into the likeness of God.
Philosophical Solutions to the Problem of Evil
Like theological proponents, some philosophers also try to resolve the problem of evil. Spinoza, for example, held that humans’ love of God makes them better enabled to control their emotions, hence, living up moral lives, and gives them an understanding of the necessity of events from things which are beyond their control (Ferguson, 1993). Spinoza’s view on the problem of evil is seconded with a similar concept from Nietzche. He held that humans can overcome misfortunes either by removing its cause or by changing the effect it has on our feelings (Ferguson, 1993). Furthermore, it appears that philosophical thinkers do not regard, or regard with minimum effect, natural evils as being evil in actuality. Nietzche wrote: “We don’t accuse nature of immorality when it sends us a thunderstorm” (Ferguson, 1993).
Insufficiency of the Solutions
While philosophical thinkers present suitable solutions to the problem of evil, they nevertheless fail to affirm God’s attributes. Spinoza and Nietzche held in their solutions that God has no hand in the existence of moral evil, attributing it all to humans’ free will. This poses a serious question on God’s omnipotence. On the other hand, their views disregard natural evils to be an actual evil. This affirms that God is indeed infinitely good but can only be perceived as such by those who love God to the utmost of their being.
Irenaeus’ theodicy, while seeming to be more optimistic than with Augustine’s, offers more questions than answers in the problem of evil. While it is true that most who have found God have done so through experiencing profoundly immense situations of suffering and distress, Irenaeus’ theodicy nevertheless gives dignity to evil, which in turn gives justification to immorality, which again questions God’s divine retribution against those who commit grievous sins, especially those without remorse. Irenaeus’ theodicy also posits that God could not create perfect humans without giving them free will. It questions God’s benevolence by stating that God had willingly created an imperfect world, a world where humans must endure suffering before they can be united with God and his perfection. Furthermore, Irenaeus’ theodicy posits that God is the source of evil, a point which had in the first place gave rise to the problem of evil.
On the other hand, Augustine had some effective solutions to the problem, although not necessarily without objection. Augustine’s claim that evil had come from nothing does not answer the philosophical and theological question of evil. Even human free will causing the existence of evil still causes some to question God’s omniscience and omni-benevolence. Perhaps giving up in not having an answer for the cause of evil, Augustine admitted that he does not have the answer. He is, however, convinced that evil does not come from God.
Other Solutions to the Problem of Evil
There were many who stood up in defense of their belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good and just God. Theists cite many arguments to prove that the divine qualities are consistent with the existence of evil. They are, however, refuted by opponents of God and religion. Unbelievers, you may call them, but the problem of evil poses a serious challenge to the authority and even the existence of God.
One argument presented by theists is that evil is a necessary counterpart for good, without which, all things are neither good nor evil (Rowe, 2001). This, however, poses a limitation to God’s omnipotence—that God could not have created goodness without simultaneously creating evil. Some argue that God creating good all by itself is a logical impossibility. This seriously puts doubt in God’s omnipotence, that there some, after all, that would be impossible for God to do. And if it were true that God had simultaneously created good and evil, then it contradicts the claim that God is perfectly good.
But what if God had created only goodness? Logical thinking would therefore make us believe that evil was pre-existent or that someone else had created it. Theists argue that God created good to counter evil. Again, this is a contradiction to the claim that God is an omnipotent being. Surely, an all-powerful God could have simply eliminated evil altogether. Still, others argue that the existence of evil only heightens the goodness of God, a means wherein God’s goodness is emphasized. This begs another question: why does God need to emphasize his goodness? Is it, perhaps, for humans to have faith in him? Or perhaps God needs humans to acknowledge him, giving him praise and glory? Surely, no defender of God and religion would accept these to be true.
Some argue that God did not create evil, but that evil exists due to the absence or the lack of goodness (Martson, 1998). They claim that evil is a product of human free will, which is a gift from God who allows human to choose (Rowe, 2001). This solution consequently does not apply to natural evil, since the existence of such evil is independent from the human free will (Martson, 1998). This seems to be a valid solution at first glance, until opponents of religion pose the question of God’s omniscience: how could God who knows everything give humans free will when it would lead to some evil? This, of course, would not be free of a counter question from the defenders of religion. They ask: would it be better for humans to act in a wholly determined good way, according to God’s dictate, or would they prefer to act freely that they should learn from committing some mistakes? With this, defenders of religion seem to have scored victory. Yet again, there is the question of the divine quality. How could an all-knowing and perfectly good being allow humans to commit mistakes when this being who is also infinitely powerful could have just lectured humans who are about to commit mistakes and prevent them from doing so? But then again, where is the free will in that?
This goes on to be a series of questions and counter questions about divine qualities and in defense of God and religion, until it is apparent that this is the most suitable solution to the problem of evil. The solution, however, as already specified, is limited to moral evil. What about natural evil? Clearly, it cannot be solved by invoking the argument of the human free will.
Another solution presented is that evil exists in order to enable the existence of greater good (Rowe, 2001). The existence of pain and suffering, for example, makes it possible for the existence of sympathy and benevolence; the existence of peril makes it possible for courage and heroism; corruption and abuse of power enable many to become reformers struggling to overcome the evils; and the existence of diseases enable physicians to strive for creating or finding a suitable medication to counter it. In short, the existence of evil allows people to morally mature and, with the encouragement of religious proponents, allows humans to grow in spirit with God. This has a tremendous impact on the claim that the highest form of need of humans is the spiritual need, which the existence of evil makes it possible for humans to satisfy. The problem again is that it is not possible for God to create the existence of goodness such as those specified above without the existence of such evil specified above, clearly a contradiction to God’s omnipotence.
Perhaps the most considerable solution to the problem of evil, at least in Christian and Jewish contexts, could be summarized from the Book of Job. Here, Satan claims that Job, who represents mankind, only serves and obeys God because of the blessings and protection God has given him and that Job would cease his obedience to God if inflicted with pain and suffering. God has allowed Satan to inflict pain and suffering to Job, which Job ultimately considered to be an injustice done to him by God for he remembers no wrong that he committed against God. Finally, God answered Job by stating that he has complete dominion over the world, that none may question his authority and that he does not need the approval of men. Simply put, the Book of Job posits that while God is not necessarily evil, he allows evil for some reason known only to him.
Another famous story in the Bible wherein human suffering is manifested by God is that of Abraham and his son Isaac (Genesis 22). Here, human suffering is presented as a test by God. There is, however, another flaw on this God’s test argument. If God really is omniscient, then he really needs no test to give humans to know their fear of him.
The existence of evil in this world is undeniable. Everyday, people have to face challenges and sufferings which would be difficult to believe are good. Everyone have his or her fair share of committing evil deeds or have to contend with situations of which the morality is questionable. Furthermore, the existence of natural calamities and diseases does not have particularly beneficial result to those who are affected. These lead some to question God’s purpose for allowing such predicaments. God’s omnipotence, omniscience and omni-benevolence do not allow the existence of evil. The very existence of evil has led to some to believe that God’s attributes are not completely accurate, or that God simply does not exist.
Theists are unable to present an adequate solution without, in effect, altering one or more qualities attributed to God (Rowe, 2001). If they are unwilling to alter any of the divine attributes, which of course they must not choose to accept, it must be considered that either God does not exist or that evil does not exist. Due to the inadequacies of the solutions, few are willing to deny that evil exists—that pain and suffering are all part of God’s plan, in which case is not necessarily evil.
The problem of evil is imbibed in the difficulty of understanding the existence of so much evil in this world if an infinitely powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good and just God exists. Theists present varying solutions to the problem in defense of God. Atheists, on the other hand, always see a contradiction to one or more of the qualities attributed to God in the solutions presented by theists. Theists are unable to present effective solutions that would not alter the qualities attributed to God. Defenders of God and religion would definitely not accept defeat. While the problem of evil casually contradicts divine attributes, it also seriously questions the mere existence of God. Theists are convinced there is a reason for the existence of evil, but are unable to find a suitable solution to the problem. It all boils down to one final solution, an acceptance of the fact that no human could ever expect to understand the divine.
Adams, M. M. (1990). The Problem of Evil. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Ferguson, W. (1993). “Beyond the problem of evil.” Retrieved November 23, 2008 from http://www.kheper.net/topics/philosophy/Beyond_the_Problem_of_Evil.html.
Inwagen, P. V. (2006). The Problem of Evil. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Martson, B. H. (1998). “The Problem of Natural Evil.” Retrieved November 5, 2008 from http://www.update.uu.se/~fbendz/library/bm_evil.htm.
McGarth, A. E. (2007). Christian Theology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Rowe, W. L. (2001). God and the Problem of Evil. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
The Bible. (1984). New International Version.