Metro State Atheists

Promoting Science, Reason, and Secular Values

Epicurus: The Problem of Evil

Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?

– Epicurus, according to Lactantius in The Wrath of God

Problem of Evil


October 9, 2008 - Posted by | god, philosophy, Qoutes, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Epicurus misses a third possibility.
    If the world is not static, but changeable (and this is must be granted before there is any talk of changing anything), then such change may be in either past, present, or future.
    The fact that evil now exists rules out only one of those temporal possibilities. If God wishes to abolish evil, and is competent to do so, that abolition may be either in the future, referred to throughout the old testament as “the day of the Lord,” or it may now be in process. The Christian view is of just such an in-process time.
    One can dislike each of these views for esthetic reasons, or because we think it would be better to have evil simply obliterated in the blink of an eye. But the idea that God must not be able to do something because it has not already been completed is rather illogical.

    Whatever one thinks of the Judeo/Christian story, the possibility must be acknowledged that God could intend another method for the elimination of evil, than simply obliterating it. My own interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood is exactly to that point: If God took the course of destroying evil every time it occurred, He would be no closer to a perfected world. Almost the first story out of the arc has evil picking right up and continuing. Simple removal of evil elements changes nothing. Perhaps humans should be made incapable of evil intentions. Great. Rocks are incapable of evil thoughts. Assuming God intends something with more autonomy, that won’t do. Perhaps all consequences of evil actions should be countered and rendered ineffective? Is that likely to improve the condition of my will, or just raise my frustration level?

    I think it likely that assuming the conditions Epicurus did, the existence of a God and of evil, the resolution of human evil involves process, not executive fiat. If so, some time must be within that process. There is no logical reason to reject the idea that that time is now.

    Comment by R. Eric Sawyer | October 9, 2008

  2. I’ll have to give that some thought

    Comment by metrostateatheists | October 9, 2008

  3. Isn’t there also a meta level consideration to this question which lies outside of the parameters of Epicurus or the Christian apologists? Couldn’t it also be true that, in creating the universe, the impetus/creator did not imbue a distinction of morality governing it? One need only research the multitude of court cases tried in this country to see that a prevalent standpoint of many a defense case is that a person’s actions are a direct result of their surroundings and physical make-up. ‘Evil,’ ultimately, is a human concept and may be as trivial and temporal as our own brief lives and to assign any responsibility for the creation, propagation or destruction of it to a conscious personality is a very sloppy kind of anthropomorphism.

    Comment by Nicholas | October 11, 2008

  4. Nicholas,

    Given my opinion that the concept of evil is a product of human imagination, I would have to agree with you. However, the argument does seem to apply to at least some concepts of God, such as the Christian God, even though it has no baring on the existence of the many others.

    – Chalmer

    Comment by metrostateatheists | October 11, 2008

  5. “If the world is not static, but changeable (and this is must be granted before there is any talk of changing anything), then such change may be in either past, present, or future.”

    actually Epicurus doesn’t miss the point. You need to get better acquainted with the sources. It’s hard to judge Epicureanism from just one quote (and a misquote at that – Epicurus didn’t write of God, rather of God*s* … plural).

    First off, Epicurus wasn’t an atheist. He believed the gods lived perfect lives in the intermundia, beyond our world. And that you were to aspire to be like the gods, so you were to hold them in your mind as perfect and immovable, living in perfect harmony and tranquillity.

    You have to read the problem of evil in that context, in the context of Epicurus’ theology.

    Comment by Hypatia Callisto | October 16, 2008

  6. Thanks for the corrective! I have very little true knowledge of the Greek theology, although what I do know is rather fascinating. My comment was intended to be limited in scope to the idea put in Epicurus’ mouth, not to whether it was an accurate depiction of what he actually thought.
    As I read the basic post, two assumptions are made:
    1) the existence of God (or Gods, but for this point, the difference is irrelevant)
    2) the existence of evil.
    Given the existence of both evil and God, it is claimed that God must either not desire to end evil, or that he is not able to do so.
    My principal point, which is not so much addressed to Epicurus as to those who quote him with this meaning, is that this conclusion is only mandatory if we also assume an infinite past, in which all possible changes have occurred, and a static present with no ongoing or anticipated changes. I think we have very little reason to make that assumption.
    There are 4 responses to the dilemma as framed:
    1) Anticipation of a future correction, a “day of the Lord” as in ancient Judaism;
    2) A present and ongoing change, culminating in full relief to come. This I presented as the classic Christian view.
    3) Denying the initial conditions by suggesting that evil is illusory. I understand that to be Nicholas’ opinion above.
    4) Denying the initial condition that there is a God, at least one who is both good and powerful. I think this is the most common intent when this quote is trotted out.
    We are free to choose which of the four fits the observable facts best, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion. (I expect there is little doubt that I rather lean to option 2)

    Comment by R. Eric Sawyer | October 17, 2008

  7. GOD what is GOD? GOD it is just the name of divine spirit of love.. EVIL what it EVIL? it just th name of a inferior illusional things in our minds… is this the truth? only if it works for you, those 2 forces create life, evil is here beacuse u need to understand to balance in order to create fearless love

    Comment by Rafael Pavlovic | September 17, 2009

  8. ” those 2 forces create life, evil is here beacuse u need to understand to balance in order to create fearless love”

    Prove this.


    Comment by Metro State Atheists | September 18, 2009

  9. Rafael,
    What is incoherent, meaningless, vague, unsupported, and nonsensical banter? Oh wait, you already answered that.

    Comment by Metro State Atheists | September 18, 2009

  10. look in your mind, look in your thougths you will find 2 diferent natures(faces)either u chosse the loving positive constructive divine or the illusional egocentric deconstructive, it depends on your reason, feelings and belifs, the problem of Epicurus is lost in abstract thoughts about God and Evil seen like deities.
    hope this helps remember the search is inside.

    Comment by Rafael Pavlovic | September 22, 2009

  11. Rafael
    Look to your reason, and you will find that people who pose false dichotomies with no justification should be laughed at and then ignored.

    Comment by Metro State Atheists | September 22, 2009

  12. dont be dull im not going to post all the philosophical background, look for that in psicology, budhisim, poetry, misticism but only knowledge in thyself will be relevant.
    the distinction between the self and the universe is a false dichotomy.

    Comment by Rafael Pavlovic | September 23, 2009

  13. Rafael,
    Don’t be a troll, and stop being lazy. If you’re going to make a claim you want to be taken seriously you’ll have to back it up.

    Comment by Metro State Atheists | September 26, 2009

  14. […] the problem of evil (290 BC ?) A beautifully succinct statement by Epicurus, as quoted in Lucretius’ On The […]

    Pingback by » Introduction to Philosophy 2 – What Can We Know? | March 30, 2010

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