Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?I've seen this riddle more than a few times in the past couple of years, and had always meant to post an article in response to it. Since I had to give a rather in depth response to the seeker on my other blog, I figured I'd re-post it here, and perhaps help others who find Epicurus' Riddle unsolvable.
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?
The good news is, there are a couple of good and short answers to the questions posed by Epicurus. The bad news is, people tend to find short answers unsatisfying, while on the other hand, they find the long, in depth answers boring. So, I'll attempt to provide you, dear reader, with both--the short answers first, and a more in depth elaboration after.
My first reply is that Epicurus' argument is actually nothing more than sophistry. (Sophistry: a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone.) That is, the argument is ingeniously phrased as to appear to cover all the bases, but it makes a deceptive move in plainly ignoring various other alternatives. It is equally deceptive in that, if it does indeed originate from Epicurus, he himself believed in gods. Hence, to formulate an argument against one's own beliefs is either for the purpose of dialogue or deception. The trilemmic formulation of the riddle doesn't tend to allow for dialogue--especially as it is used today by the "New Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins. As such, I tend to view it as sophistry.
Of course, simply saying the argument is sophistry isn't quite effective enough to reassure those who face it that it is nothing about which to worry. So we'll move on to my second short answer, and build from there.
As I mentioned, despite the ingenious formulation of Epicurus' argument, in that it appears to cover all the angles, there are many assumptions being made throughout that should themselves be questioned. St. Augustine, the great early Christian theologian, addressed the problem of suffering point blank when he wrote, "Almighty God would not permit evil to exist in his works, unless he were so almighty and so good to produce good even from evil" (Enchiridion 11).
That, in a nutshell, is the Catholic Church's response to the problem of evil. But let's take a moment to crack that nut, shall we?
The problem with our culture and society today is that as a whole we seem to suffer from collective Attention Deficit Disorder. We want our deepest questions answered before the popcorn stops popping in the microwave. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, in response to why a loving and omnipotent God would permit evil,
To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. (#309, emphasis in original)For some reason, people today take such an answer as being evasive. This is another sophistry, masking the individual person's laziness in actually exploring just what the message of Christianity is.
In paragraph 324, the Catechism sums up by referring to St. Augustine's teaching that while we cannot fully understand why God allows evil, we can in faith be assured that He only does so to bring about a greater good.
So saying leads us to another element that Epicurus' riddle fails to address. He covers God being all-powerful and God being loving, but he fails to mention God's omniscience, His wisdom, nor any other aspect of His infinity.
The fact is, an all-powerful and good God would indeed bring about an end to evil. The ultimate sophistry in Epicurus' riddle is assuming that he knows better than the all-knowing God how to be rid of evil. In fact, Epicurus, and all who repeat his riddle, assume that he, and they, know better than God what actually is evil.
Of course, the fatal error in their questioning lies here: If the existence of evil demonstrates the non-existence of God, then the non-existence of God means that the world is simply the result of random chance, without design or intelligible order. The metaphysical categories of "good" and "evil" have no meaning in such a randomly constructed and meaningless universe--it simply is what it is. Now, if the universe simply is what it is, and good and evil have no objective criteria defining them, then it is impossible to determine what Good and Evil are, or even if they are. As such, "Evil" can not be proffered as an argument against the existence of God, because evil itself ceases to exist.
In other words, if there is something identifiable as "evil", that is, a deprivation of some good, then there must be an order, a meaning, a standard defining that the world ought to be a particular way. That is to say, if we can determine that the world is wrong, then we are at the same time saying there is a design to which the world should adhere. Design, of course, implies a Designer, i.e., God.
As such, the only way for Epicurus' riddle to be internally consistent would be to redefine "evil" as "What I happen to not like," which, I suppose, according to Epicurean philosophy, might very well be how Epicurus might define "evil."
But then his argument runs thus:
"If God is willing to prevent things from happening which I don't particularly like, but not able, then He is not omnipotent.Do we see what happens? If there is no objective standard of good or evil (which is the logical consequence of there being no God), then "evil" is simply what irritates me. Now, a great many things irritate me. My job irritates me because I have to do things that I don't want to, and can't do things that I do want to. So God should eliminate my job, because it is evil to me. Of course, no job means no paycheque, which means no food or clothes or housing. So, which should God eliminate next? The need for money for food, clothes, and shelter? Or the need for food, clothes, and shelter? How far do we take it? If we carry this line of thinking--that God should eliminate every evil--to its logical conclusion, pretty soon He will be eliminating everything, because it somehow irritates someone, or He will eliminate everyone, because we're irritating each other or ourselves. If there is no objective standard for good and evil, ultimately, nothing has a right to exist.
Is He able but not willing [to prevent things that I don't like]? Then He is malevolent.
Is He both able and willing [to prevent things I don't happen to like]? Then whence comes that which I don't happen to like?
If He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him 'the Great Vending Machine in the Sky'?"
Furthermore, without any objective standard of evil beyond that which happens to displease us, expecting God to simply obliterate that which displeases us according to our whim and fancy, on the grounds that God is "all powerful" and "loving" simply shows Epicurus' riddle to be the sophistry that it is. Because God isn't waiting on our every beck and call to answer our demands for perfect happiness in the way we want it, when, how, and on the terms which we want it, He therefore must not exist. The ultimate sophistry of Epicurus' riddle is that he wants to have it both ways: For the argument to work, there needs to be Evil, because it apparently demonstrates that there is no God--but if there is no God, then "Evil" itself has no meaning.
I could continue to explore further reasons that bringing the riddle to its logical conclusions really rather backfires on the person making the argument, but I think you get the point.
So, whence comes evil? Ironically, it stems from God's Love, and His desire to love and be loved. He created the world and populated it full of rational beings like you and me, so that we could love Him and He us. But love requires a free choice, and so He gave us that choice, to love Him, the source of all goodness, or to reject Him and choose lesser goods instead. Evil, which is a deprivation of some good, results when a good is chosen in a disordered fashion. When, through sin, we choose not to love God, we become disordered in our desires, and this causes evil and suffering, both for ourselves, and for others, and to the world as a whole.
So, can God just "stop" the evil? Yes, but not without eliminating our freedom of choice. If He did so, He would negate the sole purpose of our creation. Since we were created to be free, eliminating our freedom would itself be evil--a deprivation of a good which we possess, or should possess, by our nature. In other words, in order to eliminate evil, God would have to commit a greater evil. As the old adage goes, two wrongs don't make a right.
So then, we're back to St. Augustine. God only permits evil because He's powerful enough to turn it into a greater Good. Our free ability to sin is the exact same things as the good of our free ability to love. And if we're willing to make that choice, then all the other evil, all the other suffering, all the other things we don't particularly happen to like, can actually become vehicles for His Grace to pour out greater good.
We see this analogically in nature. The very notion of "exercise" bears this out. We want to "feel the burn" because "no pain, no gain." The often uncomfortable and sometimes painful exertion of our muscles leads to greater fitness, health, and strength.
Similarly, the suffocating struggle of the butterfly to emerge from the cocoon is precisely the necessary exercise it needs to be able to fly. The most fertile ground results from forest fires. Or, as Jesus Christ Himself said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).
Nowhere is this better realised than in Jesus Himself. The Greatest Good entered the world, and encountered Evil head on. It was precisely through His Suffering that He conquered Evil--not to make it something we never experience, but rather to make our experience of evil something that can be grace-filled, that when we follow Him, and suffer with and through Him, that suffering will bring about greater good in our life, and in the lives of others (see Colossians 1:24).
Of course, the same choice that brought about evil is ours today. Do we choose the lesser good to avoid the suffering, or do we go through the suffering with faith, knowing that God will bring out of it something that we can't even imagine? (c.f. Ephesians 3:20-21.)
"We are well aware that God works with those who love him, those who have been called in accordance with his purpose, and turns everything to their good" (Romans 8:28, NJB).
By way of further reading, Robert Colquhoun over at Love Undefiled addresses this issue as well as provides some rational arguments in favour of God's existence in an article he wrote in the wake of the Asian Tsunami of Christmas 2004.