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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Quote of the Day (27)

It was Epicurus who first posed this famous paradox around 350 BC:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
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?”

At least we think it was Epicurus. Some believe the lines were misattributed to him by later philosophers like David Hume. But it hardly matters who said them and when: the fact is that men have struggled to explain suffering as long as men have been thinking about their place in the universe, and this particular formulation is one of the ways they have attempted to deal with the question.

Epicurean Evil

Now, the thing Epicurus describes with the word “evil” here is close to what Richard Dawkins calls the “pitiless indifference” of the universe. Suffering. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Cancer, tsunamis, predatory animals and grotesque mutations. Epicurus didn’t believe in supernatural evil. Dawkins says he doesn’t either, though he can’t seem to restrain himself from describing the universe as “pitiless”, a quality which is quite personal and not the least bit natural.

Natural suffering is an unnecessary limitation on the word “evil”, I think. I am inclined, just for the sake of argument, to extend the Epicurean concept of evil to include not just the negative fallout from the apparent randomness of the universe but the malign intentions of man and other intelligences within it as well.

The Worst Thing Ever

Either way, notice this: the questions Epicurus poses can only be asked ingenuously by a materialist, by someone who discounts all supernatural or spiritual explanations for life. They can only be asked by someone already wholly convinced that earthly suffering is the very worst bad, Bad, BAD thing that could ever be envisioned.

The possibility that earthly suffering might not be the worst conceivable evil in the universe is something Epicurus does not entertain. Look at the second of his four questions:
“Is [God] able, but not willing [to prevent suffering]? Then he is malevolent.”
This doesn’t follow at all. Malevolence is only one of many possible motives for non-interference in the natural course of events.

An Illustration

When you teach your little girl to ride a bike, you are certainly able to prevent every possible negative outcome — provided you run alongside her for the rest of her life, holding firmly on to the handlebars to prevent her from tipping over and steering her away from every possible obstacle with which she might inadvertently collide.

But what parent — or what child, for that matter — views that kind of obsessive micromanagement as desirable? Pain could be absolutely prevented, certainly, but at the cost of your daughter’s maturity, knowledge and autonomy, not to mention the joy in sharing a common experience with her parents, siblings and friends, and the satisfaction and confidence she would derive from her efforts — or even something as basic as the joy of feeling the wind blowing through her hair as she flies down a hill.

God could certainly deal with us like that if he wished, but we would be different beings entirely as a result, and not better ones.

Adding Eternity to the Picture

The Paradox presupposes a material universe and a finite human lifespan. Mortality then imposes its average four-score-and-ten year limitation on both pleasure and pain. In such a scenario, human pleasure then becomes the very best thing in the world; human pain the very worst.

But add eternity to the picture and all these assumptions fly out the window. If God made man to know, love him and be loved by him throughout endless ages, how do we measure a few moments of temporal suffering then? What weight should we give death when it may be overturned by divine fiat as easily as a mother puts a Band-Aid on a little girl’s injured knee? If the God of the Bible exists, then the stakes have been raised by orders of magnitude never envisioned by Epicurus.

Suppose, for a moment, that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”? What then would we do with Epicurus’ naturalistic assumptions?

Beyond Imaginable Suffering and Pleasure

If some possible bad outcome exists that is infinitely worse than the immediate and temporary sensations of pain and loss experienced by mortal beings — like, say, eternal separation from one’s Creator — then there is no paradox. Oddly, this is precisely what the Bible tells us.

Moreover, if some possible greater good exists worth living a life that includes pain — say, perhaps, an eternity of blissful fellowship with God and everyone and everything worth loving — again, no paradox exists. This too is what we find in the pages of holy writ.

In either event, the Epicurean Paradox tells us nothing useful or conclusive about the character or attributes of God. It only tells us poor old Epicurus wore spiritual blinkers.

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