The Epicurean Paradox

Sally Oakes's picture

About 300 BC, there was a Greek philosopher who posed this question: “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?”

This is called The Riddle of Epicurus or The Epicurean Paradox. Despite the fancy name, it is basically a simple question: If there is an all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving God, why is there suffering and pain? Why would God allow evil?

We hear tell almost daily about a baby or little kid being abused to death either because of direct abuse, neglect, or because, as in the case of a 9-year-old girl several years ago, the parents thought she had a demon and had to get the demon out. The news is filled with people committing heinous crimes.

But then there are other evil things that cause suffering in the world: the tsunami in Indonesia several years ago, Hurricane Katrina, and tornadoes create devastation and vast human suffering. And these natural disasters hit both the righteous and the sinner equally.

Accidents might be considered evil — such as the bus of college baseball players from Ohio that overturned here in Atlanta a couple years ago. There is still outrage that that confusing intersection hasn’t been improved.

And people even refer to diseases as evil. A woman I know watched her sister die a long, painful death from cancer and never did quite come to grips with it. Her sister had been such a devout Christian and very involved in the church and this woman considered it very cruel of God to let her sister get cancer and suffer so badly after her sister had been so devoted to him. Why should she get cancer when she didn’t have any of those bad habits that cause it?

When we are going through the fire, going through the roughest times of our lives, we have very real, very reasonable questions of God. Why would God allow evil? Often what we mean is why evil is visited on good people. When bad things happen to bad people, we usually presume they had it coming in some way. (Hindus call it karma.)

But when you or someone you love is on the receiving end, you can’t help but wonder, “why?”

A frequent response to the question of why is that it was God’s plan. I don’t dispute that God is in control, but I have to dispute that God plans bad things for his children, or that he would cause harm to advance his plan.

For example, just before I turned 19, I wiped out while downhill skiing and injured my knee. I was supposed to move back into my college dormitory that very day but I waited so I could ski (it had been too warm to snow until that day, when it got cold enough for them to make snow). Maybe it was the fake snow, maybe it was the bindings on the ski being too tight, or maybe it was my practicing a new kind of turn, but I fell and my knee took the force. I ended up having surgery that week and missing over a week of school. I don’t believe for a heartbeat that there was some divine plan for my returning late to school, and thus God caused a skiing accident to prevent me from going.

God didn’t cause the accident, but God allowed it to happen. I knew my bindings were too tight and I chose not to re-set them. I knew that manufactured snow isn’t the best. I also made the decision to move back to school a day late, since classes didn’t start for another two days. I also don’t believe my accident was a punishment for bad choices: there were plenty of other people skiing on the same kind of snow, with bad bindings who didn’t get hurt. Rather, God allows us to live our lives. We’ll make mistakes and fall down and sometimes get injured in the process.

If God did not do this, it would mean that God was like a little child playing with dolls, moving them about and controlling every move. Instead, he has perfect love for us and desires nothing more than for us to return that love and we cannot return love without the choice to do so. God allows life to happen and evil — sometimes unthinkable evil — is a part of life. Earthquakes still happen in the ocean, creating tsunamis. Nations are still warring against each other. People are still getting addicted to drugs and alcohol.

It is when we are going through the darkest valleys, however, that we still can rely on God’s promise that even as we go through them, God is with us comforting us and guiding us. It is through the suffering on the cross, the death of Christ, and his resurrection that we find victory. In a way, our lives mirror that pattern over and over. We will suffer, something will change, and then, through God’s faithfulness, we’ll be raised up victorious. Even in the darkest valley, we have the assurance of God’s comfort and the hope of victory.

Sally Oakes is pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church, 607 Rivers Road, Fayetteville, GA 30214. Phone: 770-964-6999 or 770-964-6992, or e-mail

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