This meme, which is an actual quote from Epicurus (at least we think it is. It doesn’t survive in any of his writings. We have it from a Christian theologian named Lactantius who brought up the point to dispute it) is certainly one of the most common verbal hammers brought down on the heads of theists everywhere. Of course, if the argument were really all that devastating one might wonder why religion still exists at all. Among militant atheists, the answer is invariably, “because theists are stupid.” The idea that people who disagree with you are too dumb to breathe is certainly one of the most popular in human history, and by no means limited to atheists.
Of course, to examine the statement at all it is necessary first to define what is evil. As this is Epicurus, it is a fairly easy definition to make, because Epicurus defined it most easily. To Epicurus, every pleasure was good, and every pain was evil. Therefore, we may surmise that by “evil,” Epicurus meant pain, or any action tending toward pain. As Epicurus was not an idiot, he was well aware that certain pleasures could result in greater pain, and that certain pleasures (e.g. becoming a star athlete) could only be purchased at the cost of pain. In such cases, Epicurus would have recommended the course that led to the greatest net pleasure.
I do not share Epicurus’ view that evil is nothing more nor less than suffering or causing pain, but since those who throw this meme about the internet do, let us meet Epicurus on his own ground and assume that evil is pain.
I have to wonder: was Epicurus a parent? Failing that, did Epicurus have parents? And did he ever explain this philosophy to them, because as a parent, my instinctive response to this is: “BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA (snort!) HAHAHA (cough, cough, splutter)!” Look, spend a day with my toddler and preschooler, and I will introduce you to the greatest sufferers in human history. They are in repeated, constant agony. The toddler didn’t get the raisin she wanted, and she wails like her teeth are being pulled out. The preschooler got the orange plate instead of the blue one, and she shrieks with all the terror of the damned.
And I, the God of raisins and of properly colored plates, do nothing to ease their pain. Thus, I am by Epicurus’ definition, evil. I am able to alleviate my children’s pain, but I am unwilling to do so.
I don’t have to explain this, of course, to anyone with an ounce of sense. I am denying my children these things because I want them to learn about their proper place in the human community. I want them to learn that screaming for things isn’t what good people do.
Now this is where my opponents put on their Righteous Outrage Masks and point out that
1) I am mocking everyone who suffers pain. And some people have suffered enormous amounts of pain, and how dare I blah, blah, blah, and FURTHER
2) Not all pain leads to, or even CAN lead to, learning to be better. Why, I must be one of those terrible people who blames victims for everything, including rape, murder, torture, and slavery!
I’m sorry. I’m not impressed by Righteous Outrage Masks. I grew up in the Baptist Church, and no one does Righteous Outrage better than a Baptist Ladies Society matron who’s trying to shame little boys out of playing with toy guns because JESUS!!
To take those objections seriously requires some discussion. Let’s begin with the first:
I am mocking everyone who suffers pain. I am not mocking everyone who suffers. I am mocking those who take their suffering for proof of God’s malevolence without the slightest awareness of the true depths of human suffering. I find it revealing that this “proof” God doesn’t exist has taken root in the richest, most comfortable societies that humanity has ever seen: Western Europe and its offshoots, the developed world. Atheism isn’t nearly as widespread in developing South America, Africa, or Southeast Asia. And yet far more suffering is there, by any measure. I suppose those people are just stupid? Because that doesn’t sound racist or classist at all. A much more probable explanation is that rich and powerful people can afford to forget and ignore God.
We judge the world by our experiences. We judge the severity of our pain by what we know. The sixteen year-old girl who didn’t get asked to prom isn’t lying, or even particularly dumb when she cries: “This is the worst I’ve ever hurt in my life. I don’t want to live any more!” It is, and she doesn’t. She is just acting her age, and she has no faith that things will (as an older person could tell her they will) get better. Her experience has told her that this is the worst it can possibly be. Just as she would roll her eyes and tell the toddler that crying over the green milk cup is ridiculous, so her mother rolls her eyes, comforting her daughter, while remembering her own foolish despair at that age.
From the perspective of an omnipotent, benevolent God, we are all that toddler. All that 16-year old. Nothing we have experienced is beyond His imagining. Nothing exists that He cannot fix. If Epicurus assumes that God cannot fix pain that has occurred, then he is begging the question and arguing dishonestly.
If, on the other hand, Epicurus is arguing that God is morally required to prevent some pain from occurring, then he is obligated to tell us how much. How much pain must God prevent to be called “Good?” Usually, when I ask this question, I’m met with an indignant, “Well, why can’t God stop earthquakes? Or genocide? Or pandemics?”
Do you notice no one ever turns this around to use it as an excuse to be grateful? No one ever says, “Thank God that there aren’t any dragons that carry people off and eat them! Thank God for preventing a nuclear war between 1960 and 1991! Thank God that there’s no such thing as immortal sorceror-kings ruling over us!”
So how much pain is God required to prevent? We seem to arbitrarily feel that it’s terribly unreasonable of God to allow us to suffer for ten years, but ten minutes is okay. Even though, from the perspective of eternity (hell, even from the perspective of, say, a million-year lifespan) those times would be nearly identical. The only reasonable conclusion, is that God must be required to prevent all pain, however small, from ever occurring, or be called evil.
The problem with this is, that pain is not merely physical. It’s mental. It’s emotional. And we tend to regard the worst pain we know as the worst ever. So for God to be good, there can’t be games. Losing a game hurts. For God to be good, there can’t be disagreement, ever. Disagreement hurts. For God to be good, there can’t be learning. Because learning implies that you were ignorant before you learned, and you might fail to learn the first time you were presented with a new concept, and failure hurts.
For God to be good, He must leave Himself nothing to be good to. Except, perhaps, another good God. There can be no creation, no development, no incompletion. Because all of those imply the potential for pain.
Not all pain leads to, or even CAN lead to, learning to be better. If by “being better” we mean, “correcting our faults,” then this is true. I’ll speak very plainly: The rape victim is not to blame for being raped, the cancer victim is not (usually, and I’m thinking of smokers, here) to blame for having cancer, and the torture victim is not to blame for being tortured. Nevertheless, the pain of these events may teach the survivors things. (And before you tell me I’m a complete asshole for even saying that, I am a survivor of two of those things myself. So you may do me the courtesy of considering that I may know what the hell I’m talking about. If you won’t, the problem is you). If nothing else, the pain may teach them how strong and resilient they can be. To anyone who can’t understand why that’s not the same thing as victim-blaming, I have nothing to say to you except that we live on different worlds, and yours is not the real one by any experience of mine.
Now I imagine some of my readers are at this point preparing to say, “Okay, so to a young mother who just saw her child die in a car crash, you’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that. God will reunite you in about seventy years, and in the meantime, you’ll learn how strong you are?'”
Of course not. It would be unspeakably cruel to say it right then, while she is in the midst of her grief and shock. You don’t dismiss people in the midst of grief. To her, I could only offer sympathy and any aid within my poor power. To her, we can only give the example of Jesus, weeping over his dead friend Lazarus, even though he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. That we should die was never God’s plan. That He should save us from death, and make it a temporary horror rather than utter destruction, was always His plan.
The purpose of the argument is only to show that it is quite rational to believe in a God that is able to prevent pain, but is unwilling to do so right now, so that we, His creation, may experience, well… experience. To be alive in the universe at all not only permits but requires a certain level of pain. God teaches us this way not because He is limited, but because we are, as any created being must be. Our limits imply growth and choice, which together imply, at least on a certain level, pain. Therefore, some of the pain does come from God. But it is a pain designed to lead us to good. However, it is obvious that there is much pain left over that is not designed for out good. Therefore, with Epicurus, we may ask, “Whence cometh (this) evil?”
Well, the obvious answer to that is, overwhelmingly from us. From human greed and selfishness and sadism and spite and fear. We are the source of that evil and pain, not God. He can hardly be held responsible for preventing them. Unless we are simultaneously ready to admit that we are so evil and uncontrolled that we desperately need a God to order our behavior. That we cannot be trusted to do what is right. If we can be so trusted, then we must turn the dreaded “whence cometh evil” accusation upon ourselves. A curious paradox.
The pains we experience apart from human evil are painful precisely insofar as we do not trust God to remedy them by His power. The God of the Bible, in which I place my faith, promises further that he is indeed willing and able to prevent evil and pain, but that He has not yet done so. It is this forbearance in which we must trust. Because the forbearance that allows evil to exist, also allows the evil person to repent. Allows mercy. Allows forgiveness. Allows restitution, and reparation, which I need as badly as any person does who ever wronged me and made me suffer.
And that is why I call Him God.
From Somewhere In Orbit.