Reading Time: 5 minutes A fishing boat sits atop a house in Aceh, Indonesia, after a massive tsunami from an earthquake blasted the coastal city in 2004. (AusAID, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)
Reading Time: 5 minutes
god evil disaster christianity epicurus atheism
A fishing boat sits atop a house in Aceh, Indonesia, after a massive tsunami from an earthquake blasted the coastal city in 2004. (AusAID, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

“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.”

The logic appears “iconclad” in this famous aphorism above attributed to Greek skeptic philosopher Epicurus, who died in 341 B.C., as James A. Haught phrased it in his recent Daylight Atheism blog post titled “Why would God drown children?”

Haught was referring in his post’s title to the many, many children among 228,000 innocents who perished in an Indonesian earthquake-spawned tsunami in 2004, the day after Christmas.

The aphorism linked to Epicurus is called “the Epicurean paradox,” and reflects the very long-running argument among philosophers and lesser mortals about the so-called “problem of evil” in Christianity, where “evil” and its co-conspirators clearly cause incalculable global misery, despite the existence of a supposedly omnipotent and all-merciful creator deity who presumably could “disappear” such suffering in an instant.

Nonbelievers, doubtlessly, see the wisdom in Epicurus’ argument as self-evident. If only others were so inclined.

The theistic arguments against this critical view of a proclaimed God are maddeningly circular. “God is exempt,” is the believers’ answer to every charge of divine hypocrisy. How convenient. As Haught writes:

“In the 24 centuries since [Epicurus’ death], no clergyman has been able to refute his ironclad logic. Instead, divines usually duck the question by saying, ‘We can’t know God’s will.’ — although they claim to know his will on all other matters. (God’s will usually matches the prejudices of the holy man proclaiming it.)”

Epicurus’ prescient ideas look very American in a 21st-century context. He believed personal happiness was the essential good and best derived from a simple life marked by friendship, kindness and equality (and good food). Although it was controversial in his day, he openly allowed women and slaves to study at his philosophical school. His innovative theory of justice involved a social contract to not harm others and to be protected from harm yourself, with the only just laws being those directed to that end.

Relative to this nonreligious blog, Epicurus was a kind of skeptical Deist (as were many of America’s founders), who viewed God as a remote force uninvolved in human affairs. He thus taught that people should behave ethically not for fear of godly punishment but because it ensured the most practical benefits of living together in an orderly and peaceful society.

Reasonable, right?

Not for true believers, who recoil at any assertion that God is not personally involved in the lives of everyone in existence (although no evidence supports that), or that his biblical persona might exhibit monstrous moral and ethical issues that cry out for unpacking (for which an avalanche of evidence does exist).

As I was doing research for this post, I ran across an extremely disingenuous article on the Sound of Heaven Church website supposedly fairly examining “the Epicurean paradox.”

It’s just one Christian website, but it raises many of the familiar bogus arguments letting God off the hook for the gigantic suffering of living beings in the world over countless millennia.

One particularly galling argument is that God generously created people with free will so they could have the freedom to decide for themselves independently of God whether or not to be evil during their lives. Jason D’Ambrosio, writer of the Sound of Heaven article, titled “Epicurus: God, Good, and Evil,” rhetorically asks:

Are you willing to sign up for God controlling every word, move, decision, and step? Would you even be truly living an independent life at that point?”

Sure I’d sign up if it if (1) an omnipotent, all-merciful deity actually existed, and, most essentially, could be proven, and (2) that deity would guarantee a constantly wonderful, misery-free life for everyone and zero chance of endless suffering in some afterlife.

If I have to rely on other people to ensure the wonderful part, I’d rather be an atheist relying on rule of law to govern my life.

D’Ambrosio is convinced it’s a good thing that God has given us free will to avoid evil:

“Why would God create a system with free will in it? It is because in this system we have the freedom to choose, and with that gift, we can be most in like Him. Without free will, we are puppets incapable of true feelings, personal achievements, and most importantly… love. With free will, we can live an independent life where we (collectively and individually) can grow and yes, truly love God and other people. The only way that you can have a real, genuine, relationship with the Creator is if you have the freedom to decide to participate.  With this freedom comes great responsibility.

“Every decision has a consequence. To remove the ability to do evil, would be to violate the system that God created. Any God that would at His own whim change His mind, or dare I say, change His standards to appease us imperfect humans is not an omnipotent and omniscient (all-knowing) God. Instead, consider that in this universe, good things and bad things can happen many of which will be at the hands of humanity operating in that freedom. This makes way for a much greater existence in that we can have a deeper independent understanding of how things work and enjoy the power to be creators to some degree ourselves. We can grasp the deep concepts of ethics, mathematics, and science, which certainly separates us from the rest of creation. Lastly, but most importantly, our freedom to choose actually allows a more meaningful relationship with God.”

I have no idea what that passage is trying to do, to be honest, except distract from the real question: Why would a true God create an existence with so many dire problems when He could easily create a wholly problem-free environment? Of course, He might have had some reason for murdering thousands of innocent kids on Indonesian islands and elsewhere in a sudden tsunami, but I doubt it. Nature, as they say, is red in tooth and claw. Even a redeemer can’t redeem it.

If I were going to embrace a deity (fat chance), I’d want one that would create all humans with an inborn inability to commit evil or even mild unpleasantness, as well as bequeath to each all necessary knowledge of their environment. That’s what omnipotent means, in my view — the potency to make everything perfect. Not the power, say, to kill every living thing on Earth in 40-day planet-drowning deluges (which would actually take longer. Much longer.) because God’s displeased with his creation.

In my view, a “God” who can somehow be forgiven for drowning 228,000 unwitting people in an Indian Ocean tsunami is not a deity to be worshipped but a dangerous fantasy to be scorned.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...