by Jeff McInnis*
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?
There's an interesting phenomenon regarding quotes and sayings. If a quote or saying can be reduced to a short sound byte, then it somehow gains credibility. If it can be reduced to a couplet that rolls of the tongue, then it must be true. If it is in the form of a nice little riddle, it can't possibly be false. If it can be made to rhyme, then it has risen to the point of untouchable. An example is in order.
There is wisdom in this saying: "Preventative maintenance is often better than repair because repair requires much more time and effort than preventative maintenance would have had it been employed at the proper time." While there may be wisdom in that saying, it is much easier to recognize the wisdom in this saying: "A stitch in time saves nine." This saying, you see, is brief, to the point, and it even rhymes (almost). While the two sayings may be identical in meaning, the snappy delivery of the latter makes it seem many times wiser than the former.
The subject quote by Epicurus, looking very much like a poem, has almost reached untouchable status. When quoted, it takes the form of a compact and succinct little riddle. It can be a very damaging weapon in the hands of an Atheist, particularly when quoted to an immature Christian. It is also fairly complete in its attempt to summarize the problem of evil in the world. It attempts to cut us off from every possible route to which we may attempt to flee when facing that question. Imagine the effect it would have if it rhymed.
Well, take heart - there is a response to this riddle. However, it is not a nice little couplet, nor a sound byte, and it certainly doesn't rhyme. What it is is some basic, biblical theology. I know that it is at this point where I will lose many readers - they don't have time for something more than a sound byte. For those with more of an attention span, read on.
In general, we all have a very immature view of who God is. We, all of us, have been guilty of believing the Hallmark view of God instead of the scriptural one. The Hallmark view of God is well known - God is kind. God is loving. God just wants the best for us. He wants us to go to college. He wants us to make a lot of money. He wants us to get a lot of sleep and drink 8 glasses of water a day. He wants us to find our soul mate, even if that means wrecking a few lives along the way. He is really just there to see that we are happy He's like our grandma, always rooting for us and believing the best about us.
Is God just our heavenly grandparent? As Epicurus's quote would indicate, does He mean to be a kind Grandma but instead fails us in the attempt? Let's look closer.
In this quote, Epicurus started with two basic level assumptions about evil that he neglected to state. The assumptions underlying this quote are that evil is 2 things: 1)Evil is autonomous and 2)Evil is useless. Let me explain.
First, Epicurus assumes that evil is autonomous; that it controls itself and cannot be controlled. This means, in summary, that evil is an independent force that makes up its own mind about where its efforts will be spent, whom it will plague, and the outcome. Evil, in Epicurus's mind, is its own boss. He betrays this assumption when, in his first 4 stanzas, he explains that God either can't stop evil or won't stop it. If evil must be actively stopped, then it certainly must have started by some method outside of God. Epicurus doesn't leave room for the thought that God allows evil inside of His predefined boundaries and uses evil as a tool that is not autonomous but subservient to Him.
Second, Epicurus assumes that evil is useless. Evil, according to Epicurus, cannot possibly satisfy any larger goals. It has no point other than causing people pain. He reveals this assumption in his 5th and 6th stanzas, when he questions if God is both willing and able to stop evil. The assumption is revealed in the 6th line where he jumps to the conclusion that if God were both willing and able, He would absolutely stop it. No room is left for the possibility that God chooses not to stop it because it serves His purpose.
When Jesus was on earth, He warned the Jews with some very strong language that they needed to repent of their wickedness or face judgment. Many ignored Jesus, and judgment came in the form of something we would definitely term evil. The Roman armies delivered the promised and prophesied punishment to the Jews by tearing down the temple in Jerusalem and putting unrepentant Jews to the sword. All those who were followers of Jesus's had been warned and had fled Jerusalem prior to the siege. An evil, the triumph of the Jewish people by an outside agent, is actually a prophesied and controlled delivery of punishment to God's chosen people.
In the book of Job, God grants Satan his evil plans against Job, which God used to teach Job and followers ever since a valuable lesson about the sovereignty of God - God alone decides outcomes. Again, an evil that is completely within God's sovereignty.
Does this somehow mean that God himself is evil? By no means. First, recall that evil is a matter of perspective. To the Allied forces, the Axis forces were evil, and to the Axis forces, the Allied forces were evil. Read "All quiet on the Western Front," a novel about WWI from a German soldier's point of view. In the book you will sympathize with the soldier and even begin to hate his enemy. Of course, we (the U.S) were one of the enemies of the Germans in WWI. None of us ever think we are evil, it is always the outside forces acting on us that is evil. But those outside forces bring about, through the sovereignty of God, the world we have before us. To us, the trouble that comes our way may be best termed evil, at least in our perspective, but it is through that trouble that the best lessons are often learned. That "evil" isn't so much evil as it is punishment, a warning, or many other possible good outcomes.
What of vile, horrid evil. What of the child-molester, the wife-beater, the man who kept a women captive in his home for a decade, or the miscellaneous, senseless evil? What good can we possibly be talking about that could come out of those situations. To that question, I'll answer a hardy "I don't know," but I do know that our story doesn't end at our own physical death, it carries on into eternity. The stories of horrible lives take on special horror when we view our lives as an 80-year duration. When a large percentage of that life duration is spent in a horrible situation, an unbearable situation gets to the point of breaking our heart. However, when our lives are viewed in light of eternity, and the duration of our horror continues to get smaller and smaller in light of our never-ending days, many things that were once unbearable get forgotten, and only the good that God brought about by the horror remains.
God is in full control of evil. It is allowed out of its cage when it serves God's purpose and, when released, operates fully and completely within the boundaries set by God to accomplish His purposes.
How do we make the truth of God's sovereignty stick? Let's try to put it into a snappy little saying, just like Epicurus did:
Is God able to bridle evil but sometimes chooses not to?
That's why we call Him sovereign.
Can God call on and control evil for His purpose?
That's why we call Him God.
Is most of what God allows to happen not evil but good?
That's why we call Him Father.
*Jeff McInnis is a contributor to The Poached Egg and author of Everyman’s Apologetic (now only $0.99!)