The Epicurean Paradox: Why is there evil?

A reader wanted me to tackle the Epicurean Paradox, as it’s called. Yeah, why not.

Epicurus of Athens (341–270BC) was the founder of “the Garden,” a philosophy school. He’s a materialist and empiricist; he believed the gods didn’t involve themselves in human affairs; he believed the purpose of philosophy was to promote peace and tranquility and alleviate suffering. Over the centuries “epicurean” evolved into a synonym for “foodie,” which is weird ’cause Epicurus preferred simple meals. He wrote more than 300 works on all sorts of subjects, but we only have three books and various random quotes.

The Epicurean Paradox is one of those quotes. For all we know Epicurus didn’t even come up with it; it was a popular ancient meme with his name attached, much like the Prayer of St. Francis. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it predates Epicurus; somebody had to have thought of it before him.

In any event Christian philosopher Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (ca. 250–325) quotes the paradox in his book De ira Dei/“On God’s Wrath,” in which he critiqued the non-foodie Epicureans of his day. My translation:

Epicurus said God either wants to eliminate evil and can’t; or can, but doesn’t want to; or neither can nor wants to; or can and wants to. If he wants to and can’t, he’s weak—which fails to describe God. If he can but doesn’t want to, he’s jealous—which is equally alien to God. If he neither can nor wants to, he’s jealous and weak—therefore not God. If he can and wants to, which is the only proper conclusion… God, where are you? Lactantius 13.20-21

It’s obviously not an exact quote, ’cause Lactantius’s comments—“which fails to describe God,” “which is equally alien to God”—wouldn’t be part of the meme. Anyway, the gist of it worked its way down to Scottish philosopher David Hume, who put it this way in his 1779 book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion—placed in the mouth of his character Philo.

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? Hume 10

Clearly Hume never read the source of the Epicurean Paradox, ’cause Lactantius actually does answer the old question. Which I’m now gonna quote from the Ante-Nicene Fathers translation, “A Treatise on the Anger of God Addressed to Donatus,” ’cause I don’t feel like translating the whole of it.

For God is able to do whatever he wishes, and there is no weakness or envy in God. He is able, therefore, to take away evils; but he does not wish to do so, and yet he is not on that account envious. For on this account he does not take them away, because he at the same time gives wisdom, as I have shown; and there is more of goodness and pleasure in wisdom than of annoyance in evils. For wisdom causes us even to know God, and by that knowledge to attain to immortality, which is the chief good. Therefore, unless we first know evil, we shall be unable to know good. But Epicurus did not see this, nor did any other, that if evils are taken away, wisdom is in like manner taken away; and that no traces of virtue remain in man, the nature of which consists in enduring and overcoming the bitterness of evils. And thus, for the sake of a slight gain in the taking away of evils, we should be deprived of a good, which is very great, and true, and peculiar to us. It is plain, therefore, that all things are proposed for the sake of man, as well evils as also goods. Lactantius 13

So for Lactantius, God can but doesn’t want to, not because he’s evil, but because he’s gonna teach us to fight evil alongside him, and that’s good. I like his answer. It’s not my answer, but it’s a darned good one.

But it’s an answer which won’t work at all for people who don’t believe in God, like Hume. Or who don’t think a relationship with God is even possible, like Epicurus. Or don’t even want such a relationship with God, like many pagans. They just want evil and suffering to stop already; they don’t wanna fight it; and they’ll preemptively dismiss any answer to the problem of evil and pain which involves God at all. My answer definitely won’t work for ’em.

Additions to the paradox.

So there’s this meme of the Epicurean Paradox on the internet, in which someone turned it into a flowchart. I don’t care for its design, ’cause I’m a graphic artist and I can definitely make it easier to read and follow. Looks like yea:


A redditor’s version of the Epicurean Paradox. Reddit

Like Hume, the person who created it doesn’t appear to have read the source of the paradox, ’cause it doesn’t end with “God, where are you?” It adds a few more steps.

The Epicurean Paradox part begins with the premise, “Evil Exists,” then asks, “Can God Prevent Evil?”, “Does God know about all the Evil?”, and “Does God want to prevent Evil?” These are not quite Epicurus’s questions; neither in Lactantius nor Hume’s versions. Not sure where the flowchart-maker got ’em. But after asking these three questions, it goes to “Then why is there Evil?” Which isn’t the question we put at the conclusion; it’s the very question we’re tackling. It goes up top!

I studied logic, and of course we learned to make flowcharts. Proper flowcharts reduce questions to binaries: They’re questions which can only be answered with a yes or no, a true or false, or otherwise only two options. (And not false binaries, where there’s actually a third option, but we neglected to include it ’cause we’re either being sloppy… or deceptive.) “Why is there evil?” is far from binary. The flowchart-maker only provides us three options, and there are way more than just the three. And when you have a question with dozens of possible answers, you don’t use a flowchart! You use a brainstorming chart.

Epicurus’s conclusion wasn’t “Why is there evil?” but “God, where are you?” And that’s where the flowchart goes all the way away from Epicurus. Now we get into its maker’s three rejected theories as to why evil exists:

  1. IT’S A TEST. To which the maker objects an all-knowing God shouldn’t have to test anything, since he already knows the answers.
  2. IT’S SATAN’S FAULT. To which the maker objects an almighty God should destroy Satan.
  3. ANY OTHER REASON. To which the maker objects an almighty God should’ve dealt with those reasons too.

And the maker also threw in some arrows so we can just go round in circles with these questions all the live-long day, till frustrated.

Y’know, all these additions to the paradox were actually dealt with by the paradox. Dealt with better and more efficiently.

My answer.

But enough with leaving you hanging, ’cause you probably want to know how I’d answer Epicurus.

And if I were answering Epicurus directly, I’d have to deal with some other things first. Namely that Epicurus was deist: He believed in God (or, being an ancient Greek, gods), but believed they didn’t interact with humanity. Evil exists because God might want to vanquish it, and be able to vanquish it… but he simply doesn’t intervene. He stays out of things and leaves us be. Functionally it’s the same as nontheism.

So the paradox isn’t really a paradox. I mean, it appears to be when you believe God is good, God is mighty, and God intervenes: If that’s so, why isn’t he intervening? But if you don’t believe God intervenes, or if you don’t think there’s any God there to intervene, the “paradox” simply explains the way the world works: God’s not part of the equation, so stop dwelling on it (or, for that matter, religion) and live your life.

To answer Epicurus, first I gotta show him God does so intervene. Otherwise he’s gonna look at my every potential answer as me, sputtering out inadequate arguments because the world clearly doesn’t work like my religion teaches me.

But to answer Christians who wanna know why evil exists in a good God’s universe, here y’go: God wants to eliminate evil, and can. And is.

Our problem, and the skeptics’ problem, is God isn’t eliminating it like we’d eliminate it, were we God. We’d do it faster. We’d smite evildoers harder. We’d be a lot more wrathful, a lot less subtle, a lot less gracious. We wouldn’t bother to try to save every human we possibly can first; we’d figure they weren’t worth saving. Like the dark Christians love to point out, everybody deserves hell, and we’d happily, recklessly throw them all into it so we could get our way. Much like the ancient Romans would indiscriminately crucify everybody till they finally got peace.

In eliminating evil, we’d do all sorts of evil. And because we think we have a handle on God (and we don’t really) we project a lot of our motives and means upon him, and want him to get all wrathful and smitey like we would, and fret when he doesn’t. Doesn’t he care about evil like we do?

Of course he does. But the way he’s chosen to defeat it is through love. And because we humans suck at love, we assume love is too passive for our tastes. We much prefer vengeance.

At the very end of God’s process, evil will be gone. Everything evil did, will be undone. Death will be undone. Tears will be wiped away. All things will become new. Those of us who trust him, know this era is coming. Those of us who don’t, are trying to create it already (and inadequately) through laws and peer pressure… and any other means than love. Or they’ve given up and presume God’s left the building, or isn’t there.

And they’re probably not gonna like my answer either. Oh well.