Also referred to as the Question of Suffering, the Problem of Evil (PE/QS) is an axiom in philosophical and religious circles which claims the fact of evil existing in our world is incompatible with God as described by most Christians: a God that is at least all-powerful, all-loving and all-knowing, also described as omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient (o^3). Also referred to as the Epicurean Dilemma, the argument itself has been around a few millenia, advanced 2400 years ago by Epicurus (341 – 270 bce). Epicurus offers three options:
“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; Or he can, but does not want to; Or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how come evil is in the world?”
It’s an admittedly difficult proposition that a homeless mother can get raped and beaten to death in a dark alley when an allegedly all-powerful God exists. Something reasonably describable as sin or evil clearly exists in our world, but some believers claim their God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Wouldn’t such a God eradicate evil if truly all-powerful? Shouldn’t such a God have to eradicate evil if truly all-loving? Couldn’t such a God eradicate evil if truly all-knowing? I believe the answer to all of these things must be an emphatic yes, whether you are a believer or not, and I believe this should be the first mutual agreement of our little discussion here: That an o^3 God is obligated to remove evil and put an end to suffering.
One crucial reason atheists and theists rarely achieve common ground in the PE/QS dialog is due to differences in definition of the relevant terms. Discourse addressing the PE/QS can easily become an unfruitful exchange of strawman argumentation, with each side arguing misconstrued definitions against one another, thus ruling out any potential for common ground from the outset.
As we should ask in any professional argument, what are the appropriate definitions, and are there any given premises? In the PE/QS, what are the biblical foundations for the existence of evil? Where in the Bible does it say or reasonably imply that God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, or omniscient? I’ve seen dozens of papers addressing the PE/QS, and not a single one I’ve seen has ever listed the biblical precedents for both of these claims. After all, one might reasonably object to the o^3 depiction of God.
A) Biblical foundation for o^3 claim: So what is the biblical basis for the o^3 God? Regarding omnibenevolence, the closest thing I’ve found is the following verse from Romans which says, “God always works for the good of those who love him.” Regarding omnipotence, Jesus said with God all things are possible. Do these justify the o^3 claim as commonly argued? Are there other verses we might factor into our discussion?
B) So how might we reasonably define evil? In a related thread, one atheist said, “Anything that brings about human suffering is evil.” I think this definition is rather Homo-centric, don’t you? What about that which brings suffering in the animal kingdom? Are oil spills evil? Veal farms? Killing a flea? What about natural disasters? I am considering the question of whether natural disasters constitute evil a different discussion altogether, for the moment. Whether asserted by an atheist or a Christian, sans reasonable support, offering Isaiah 45:7 as scriptural support for the notion that God created evil gets no clearance here.
What do we mean when we use the word evil? To me, the best analogy is light and darkness. As darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of good. In the case of light and darkness, I think it’s fair to say that ‘light’ is in fact an arrangement of photons, things, a positive proposition. Thus, ‘darkness’ is a negative proposition, an absence of photons.
To be clear, as used in this post, evil is used as an adjective, loosely synonymous with the biblical sinful, and at a bare minimum refers to a human decision that results in suffering, which is used as a noun, and refers to any of the various states of sensory or psychological privation – physical pain, emotional sadness, psychological guilt, etc.
C) And what of the o^3 qualities themselves? How, for example, might we define omnipotence? Merely the power to do anything? Can an all-powerful God create a rock so heavy it cannot be lifted? Indeed, the idea of omnipotence is not easy to define. For the sake of a fair PE/QS discussion, omnipotence simply means that God at least retains the ability to end evil and suffering at any time through any suitable variety of employable means.
What, then, becomes of omnibenevolence? Can an all-loving God allow a being to become so evil it cannot be redeemed? Can an all-loving God render punishment without contradiction? Is tolerance of evil and/or suffering in any degree and for any duration incompatible with omnibenevolence?
Lastly, how should we define omniscience? Seriously. Please think about the inherent difficulties in defining omniscience.
How should we think of the prefix omni? As in, literal unlimited supply of some quality? As the ability to do anything that can be done? Can God do that which can’t be done? Does that which can’t be done exist? Or is the idea that God can do anything that can be done acceptable? I don’t mean to ramble like a buffoon there, just thinking of the many offshoot and related questions that might be at work here.
As used in this series, an o^3 God 1) Has the power to end suffering; 2) Desires an end to suffering; and 3) Knows how to end suffering. Proceeding from definitions and contexts as delineated above, I shall now attempt my case that in PE/QS vs. o^3 God, Epicurus’ argument contains free lunches and is a form of the either-or fallacy, which manifests in many forms but always forces the observer to make a choice based on limited options. I will support this claim by attempting to demonstrate that other viable options exist which do not violate logic or reason as we understand them, and I will consider this piece a success if one atheist concedes one or both of these points. Note that a success in this respect does not mean I’ve got things figured out, either.
1) GIVEN PREMISES, LATENT FALLACIES:
Nearly all arguments contain assumed premises, and Epicurus’ is no different.
One assumed premise the Epicurean Dilemma contains is that the conclusion God has not abolished evil flows from the existence of evil in this universe. In other words, I do not think that the existence of evil and suffering in the universe means God did not make a decision to abolish it, or that God in fact did not already abolish it. Evil existing is not necessarily tantamount to lack of decision or action on God’s behalf.
The idea is admittedly counter-intuitive, as I’ve already conceded that evil does in fact exist in the world. Is existence of a quality sufficient evidence said quality has not been abolished? I argue that the existence of a quality is not necessarily synonymous with it being allowed to exist. But an omnipotent God wouldn’t have to allow anything, right? So if evil exists in the world, on what grounds might one claim God may have already abolished it?
If I might entertain an admittedly human example that I do not offer as a valid analogy, but proffer simply to illustrate a principle, let’s say we call the act of sleeping in excess of seven hours ‘evil.’ When the leader of a state’s affairs issues an official decree abolishing sleep in excess of seven hours for all the peoples in all the states and provinces, at that moment, the leader has abolished evil in his kingdom. No definition of ‘abolish’ I’ve found to date includes instantly as a criteria, and one definition offered ‘to decay little by little.’ That our leader abolishes sleep in excess of seven hours, and that all sleeping over seven hours automatically ceases, are not both instantaneous processes. Also note that in our example, our leader has in fact taken a stand against said offense, and declared it an abomination to the people, demonstrating a correct sense of moral responsibility.
Of course, the obvious difference is that in our example, our human leader is not o^3. If an o^3 God desires to abolish evil, it must be instantaneous, so critics say. Why? If God’s abolition of evil is not instantaneous, does that render God less than omnipotent?
This leads me to a second free lunch in the Epicurean Dilemma, namely that the alleviation of suffering is God’s direct responsibility. Now I’ve already said God is obligated to remove evil, so no allegations of contradiction, please. God can be rightfully obligated to remove evil, and I believe God is, but such does not mean that God must roll up the sleeves, descend upon the Earth and pull some Samuel L. Jackson acts. Again, I have agreed that yes, in theory, an o^3 God would be obligated to alleviate evil and suffering, but what if said God has decreed it humanity’s duty to both detect and abolish negative, evil behavior? Would such justify God’s alleged failure to intervene?
What about hidden fallacies? Are there any latent fallacies we must commit to have this discussion? I believe that by default the discussion is entailed by one of the most foolish fallacies of all, the Fallacy of Human Omniscience, which occurs whenever an individual presumes to have sufficient knowledge from which to reason what God should or should not do in a given situation. Put simply, actions are influenced by information, and we cannot always properly judge an action without knowledge of all the information that influenced it.
This occurred to me the other day while watching one of those “Most Shocking Bedlam, Brawls, and Mayhem” shows. In the episode, we’re shown a security camera POV focused on a line in a small check-cashing facility, packed with people. A white guy on his cell phone makes a comment to his receiving party that infuriates a nearby woman, who chews the guy out, slaps him and then calls her 300-pound boyfriend in. The boyfriend proceeds to beat the guy senselessly, close to death, and of over ten people present, nobody did a thing (admittedly the offender was an over 300 pound beast, and I would have probably hesitated as well). My initial reaction was to question why everybody let this guy get beat to the point of convulsion.
The inherent problem is that my lack of complete information obscures an accurate moral judgment. Though the argument exists that nobody deserves such a beating, it is quite possible that the guy who received it asked for it. There are simply too many unknowable variables: What if these folks had prior history? What if the comments made against the woman were in reference to the woman’s ethnicity or weight? Still, one might rightly argue such a severe beatdown is wrong, but my point is to advance the idea that nearly any set of variables can justify an apparently wrong act.
As such, we should be cautious in attempts to judge others, especially God. How are we of limited intelligence supposed to wholly grasp the workings of an allegedly all-knowing, all-powerful God, unless of course that all-knowing, all-powerful God makes them clearly known? Veterans to the discussion should note that in saying this, I am not going to cop out of the argument by relying on the “God’s mysterious ways” trope.
2) WAS EVIL NECESSARY?
The question must be raised: Is existence a predicate to abolition? I think it is. We can’t abolish something that never existed. The existence of evil is a precursor to its abolition. One logical implication to this is that evil was necessary, but does that then imply God had no way around creating evil? I believe it does, and I think that would create a very big problem for the case of God’s omnipotence, but, we’re not taking into account God’s omnibenevolence, the definition of which is all-loving. Is there any possible scenario under which an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would be forced to allow evil to exist? And does that scenario contradict any of the qualities in question?
We also can’t fairly abolish evil without some sort of persuasive case that evil is in fact detrimental to life, and thus worthy of abolition. Some raise issue about the concept of predestination, and I don’t wish to digress into arguments over predestination and free will. Some say, “Well..if God knows everything, he would know which people would choose good and which would choose evil, so why not spare everyone the trouble of going through it all in the first place?”
Well, that’s a logical question, and I can only reply with another: Would an omnibenevolent God be justified in allowing eternal separation from himself without letting somebody manifest their own destiny?