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 (341 – 270 BC)
The above is a quote accredited to Epicurus (though it likely predated him). It’s sometimes called the Epicurean paradox. As a 40+ year Christian, I have to admit that I’ve been at many times riveted by it … and not in a good way. It has often caused deep tremors in the bedrock of any theological certainty I thought I might possess. You see, my theology (and resulting world view) rests upon a few critical premises. Among them are the following: A: There IS a God. B: He is good. C: He is all-powerful. D: He cares about me (and you) in a passionate and personal way. And E: His will is good and will ultimately prevail. At first glance, the paradox would seem to drive a stake right through the heart of these treasured ideals, killing them (and by extension, God himself), much in the same way one would dispatch a powdery-white, red-eyed vampire in a silly chick flick. (By the way, is that still how they do it)?
This Epicurean paradox is prevalent within atheist and agnostic thought. (Spoiler alert: this piece is not a hit piece on atheists and agnostics. If that’s what you’re looking for here, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The fact is I’ve been lucky (or blessed) enough to encounter a growing group of atheists and agnostics over the last couple of years. And with few exceptions, I’ve found them to be very sincere, fervent, inquisitive, intellectually engaged, often given to much kindness and compassion, and well-meaning people. I will not be clubbing them about the head and neck with that all-too-familiar Christian browbeating stick today … or ever for that matter. That doesn’t mean that I agree with all of their philosophical or theological conclusions. I certainly do not. But neither do I wish to treat them as adversaries. I simply view them as fellow seekers of truth. It’s been my experience that what we Christians too quickly define as contempt from these folks isn’t necessarily contempt for us personally, as much as a great sense of disillusion … even grief for the fact that so many of us seem to share so little in common with our supposed Lord, Jesus, whom many atheists / agnostics hold in high regard. They just wish we, his followers, would reflect a little more of his nature (characterized by immeasurable doses of love, compassion for the poor and vulnerable, grace, kindness, mercy, and an unquenchable thirst for truth), and a little less of our own (often characterized by selfishness, judgment, foolish knee-jerk rejection of scientific enlightenment, and blind stubborn dogmatism, etc). In short, they often see inspiring things in Jesus, but rarely see him or these qualities in us. We simply miss the mark … just as the apostle Paul noted in Rom. 3:23. Sadly, I count myself among those who all too often miss our objective, so I can’t automatically discount their skepticism).
Now back to the paradox. Riveting as it is, I think it also “misses the mark,” or perhaps stems from a flawed premise.
I suggest that perhaps there’s a better question to ask than “why is God seemingly unable or unwilling to ‘prevent evil?'” Interestingly, Epicurus did ask a better question right there in the middle of his larger question … “then whence cometh evil?” Ahh, there’s a good question. The larger question seems to indict God as if he himself were the source of the evil in question. But is he really? Last time I checked, any evil I’ve ever witnessed (or yes, engaged in) came not from God, but from … uhhh … us … humans … uhh … me … ouch. So if I’m to believe the Epicurean premise, evil is the responsibility of God; because he’s the one whose power, will, or very existence is questioned in the face of evil … evil which he neither created, nor engaged in. The paradox seems to me to rest upon the suggestion that it’s God’s responsibility (perhaps even his very purpose) to prevent evil. But is it? There seems to me to be a fatal flaw in the original question itself. And that is that it completely absolves us (humans) of our very significant role in the entire process; mainly, that it is us who willingly and knowingly choose to engage in all of the evil in question. I suppose it is easier to make that logical exclusion and pin it all on God, than to simply own it and admit that we could really use a little (or a lot of) help down here as we struggle with our own nature … one in which we wage a daily minute-by-minute battle with a nagging ever-present impulse toward wickedness that lurks just beneath the surface, relentlessly tormenting us to near insanity. I suppose that God could ultimately prevent this evil. All he’d have to do is hook us all up to that huge celestial Shop-Vac in the sky and suck our brains out of our heads (and our precious freedom of will right along with it); thus transforming us all into a pack of empty-eyed, lobotomized, mind-numbed, robotic zombies. I’m pretty sure that would do the trick.
But maybe there’s a better way. Maybe there are some better questions we can ask ourselves as we wrestle with a very real dilemma.
I contend that God is not responsible for evil, because he himself has not committed it … nor willed it. But we certainly have. And one amazing fact about God is that he loves us, the creators and purveyors of evil, so much that he did voluntarily intervene and take it upon himself … even into himself … literally … to pay the very high price for it … even to the extent of offering his own son as payment. (Apparently this evil deal (or sin, as it’s also called) is a pretty big deal to this ostensibly aloof, incapable, impotent, unwilling, and malevolent God). For not only did he take it upon himself to pay for sin … the Bible clearly indicates that he did so even while we were still engaging in it (i.e. while we were still thumbing our collective nose at a loving God … before we ever thought it might be a good idea to alter the reckless, self-destructive … and yes, evil course which we chose (and so often continue to choose) to follow with all the abandon of a runaway train) (Rom. 5:8). And we want to pin it on God???
If you, like me, are one who wrestles with this apparent paradox, I’d like to re-center this question by placing it in the hands of those of us who actually are guilty. Here are a few better questions to consider:
1. Are we willing to prevent evil by abstaining from engaging in any behavior that violates God’s law (or if you’re not a God follower, your own moral compass)? Need an example of violating your own moral compass? How about this one? Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone against your own better judgment and used another person for temporary sexual gratification … (if not just in your mind) … despite the fact that your heart and motives were not pure? Anyone? Just me … really?
2. Are we willing to never indulge ourselves in even a single fleeting moment of envy, gossip, rage, vulgarity, lust, imposition of our will over a weaker brother, selfishness, dishonesty, etc.) … ever? If we really wish to eradicate evil from the face of the earth, this is what it would take.
3. Are we able (and willing) to prevent evil (or at least address the results of it) by extending ourselves, our time, our finances, our energy to express grace, love, and healing to the victims of man’s evil (i.e. the hungry, abandoned, lonely, sick, orphaned, homeless, naked, enslaved, etc.)?
4. Are we neither able nor willing to extend grace and mercy to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45)? Then why call us human?
5. Why do we, the creators and purveyors of evil, seem so hell-bent upon pinning our own moral refuse on a God who neither wished for, nor participated in, the evil that we now expect him to clean up and prevent? In the end there’s a monumental irony here, and that is the fact that God did voluntarily take it upon himself to inject himself directly … personally into this boiling cauldron of wickedness that we call our world … our life, thereby taking the responsibility for all of it upon himself … even though he was not required to do so. And in doing so, he willingly provided the very blueprint … the perfect model of true humanity … the best example that we ever have or will see. And did he stop there? Not this God. No, this God took it a step further and willingly chose to pay … and pay dearly … out of his own pocket … with his own blood, for our chosen, intentional, seemingly infinite capacity for evil. And what’s more; he chose to do so BEFORE we ever even thought to stop and ask him for help … while we were still hopelessly floundering in the throws of our own self-inflicted addiction to self and mutual spiritual mutilation! (I know this language sounds a bit dramatic, but the question itself poses a very dramatic and far-reaching dilemma).
6. Lastly, and this may be the most compelling question of all: WHY would this omnipotent, eminently willing, infinitely benevolent God, incapable of telling a lie, and whose mind imagines NO evil whatsoever … CHOOSE to love me (and you) enough to gladly do all of this on my behalf … in light of all the myriad varieties of evil that I myself have intentionally imagined and enthusiastically engaged in? Now there’s a question worth pondering.
In defense of Epicurus, he was no doubt a brilliant man. And he did live about 300 years before the revolutionary divine earthly intervention of Jesus Christ, so I’m going to cut him some major slack on that point. But unlike the former very compelling paradox that bears his name, producing primarily despair and doubt; this most compelling of all questions (#6), if honestly pondered and believed, yields only hope. And that for me is a very good reason to call him God.