Musings on Atheism, Religion and God – Refuting Epicurus’ Argument
by Philip Jonkers
Continued from The Religious Aspects of Atheism.
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?” – Epicurus
It is not at all my intention through this article to try to diminish the accomplishments of Epicurus as a philosopher and meritorious contributor to humanity. However, what do want to do is to point that Epicurus’ paradox or trilemma can be resolved consistent with the nature of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God.
Postulating the Personality of God
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:8
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear. 1 John 4:18
Apart from having accepted God’s existence, it is furthermore my firm belief that the nature of God is purely benevolent. I know however that this contention clashes with the biblical rendition of a god who is both loving and hateful. But I do not think that such a portrayal is accurately representative of God. Therefore I do admit to cherry-pick scriptural passages that back up my belief while disregarding conflicting passages for the present purpose.
I assert the following scripturally supported postulate about the nature of God:
God is a god of love (1 John 4:8; John 3:16; Romans 5:8), grace (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8; 1 Peter 5:10) and mercy (Ephesians 1:4-7; Deuteronomy 4:31; Psalm 103:8-17; Daniel 9:9; Hebrews 2:17). (G)
By inverting the three-pronged meaning of G, we obtain what God would be not: a god of fear, control/intolerance and vengeance/vindictiveness. In other words, consistent with the G postulate, God is not to be presumed to be a de facto dictatorial tyrant.
I will try to show that it is possible to refute both Epicurus’ and Heinlein’s atheistic argument (see next part) with logical argumentation combined with the assumption of G.
Why would love rather than fear be definitional to God? What are the fundamental differences of fear and love in their respective impact on the maintenance of life? Let’s have a comparative look.
An atmosphere of love sustains life as it enables and promotes growth and prosperity. On the other hand, an atmosphere of fear stifles life as it encourages the application of life’s available energy into the building of defences against potential threats (think for instance of the fashionable global political hype called Terrorism™). Love is the great agent of reconciliation and fosters harmony, unity, symbiosis and cooperation. Fear is the great agent of alienation and promotes chaos, division, parasitism and rivalry. Love graciously and freely gives and shares. Fear wants to seize and hoard. Indeed from love naturally derives other divine virtues: grace (patience) and mercy (forgiveness). Fear breeds impatience and vengeful vindictiveness. Love affords the patience needed to foster wisdom and rationality. Fear, by necessity, is too much in a hurry and so cannot hope to escape irrationality.
I could probably go on comparing the attributes of love and fear for a while, but you probably get my drift.
It should have become clear, that whereas fear is the currency of destruction, love is the currency of construction. As the supreme overlord of creation, how then can God be anything but an agent of love? In this article I will further argue that indeed God not only is a god of love, but a god untainted by fear and anger, a god of pure love.
“Whence cometh evil?” – The Cause of Evil
I suggest that the existence of evil is predicated on the existence of free will: God’s great–arguably, greatest– gift to humanity. Why did God gave us free will? Well, conformal to G, it is only fair to assume that God wants us to love him and to love each-other. This notion is also repeatedly confirmed by scripture, see e.g. Mark 12:28-31; Matthew 5:43-48; John 13:34-35; 1 John 4:9-11, 19; 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8. The manifestation of love however, cannot happen if we do not have free will, i.e. free choice, at our disposal. If we do not choose to love God based on our free and unguided volition, but rather are forced to do so, then the kind of associated “love” cannot be genuine as it is ultimately rooted in fear, the polar opposite of love. In addition, if hypothetically we would be incapable of experiencing fear, i.e. by not being sufficiently conscious (of our own existence as beings and the environment we thrive in), and also are forced to “love” God then that “love” would even be less genuine. In effect, we would then be oblivious to our servitude and in a way merely programmed to love God, similar to how robots are programmed to fearlessly and unconsciously and therefore blindly “obey” the commands of their programmer or “master.”
Since God –by his nature, as the embodiment of love— does not desire to coerce us into fostering false love, nor does he want us to act as unconscious automatons, he endowed us with the possibility of free choice. And that is what genuine love is all about: to love without compulsion and regardless of conditions, whether those conditions are good or bad. In other words, God desires our true love. He desires us to love him for better or for worse.
A consequence of having obtained free will however, is the power to do evil — which basically is the ability to do the opposite of good, the latter which would be preferential to God. By virtue of having free will, one has been granted the freedom to act in very opposition of God and so to freely engage in the pursuit of evil. Nonetheless, those who chose to antagonise God, by violating any of his commandments, should also be prepared to take responsibility for their actions.
Is God to blame for the existence and proliferation of evil? No, an emphatic no, because we ourselves choose to commit acts that are counter to the will of God. Therefore human evil exists because we ourselves choose to create it, not God. To hold God responsible for actions we ourselves choose to do, is like always blaming car factories every time a car accident happens. Assuming for sake of argument, that factory-errors are negligibly influential, it makes much more sense to focus on the driving errors committed by the car drivers rather than it is to seek the blame at car factories. Indeed, it’s simply irresponsible for car drivers to shift the blame onto the car factories when they really should be pointing the finger at the man in the mirror.
And so the proliferation of evil could be understood as the consequence of the possession of free will combined with a lack of ethical sensibility or maturity of being. Nonetheless it should be admitted that –by virtue of his omniscience– God is perfectly and intimately aware of the existence of evil in all of its dimensions (motive, execution, victims, culprits etc.)but through his gracious gift of free will– he generally maintains a policy of non-intervention as–I dare say–evil has a function, a purpose.
“Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.” – The Purpose of Evil
“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” ~ Aeschylus
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana
“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” ~ Plato
Is it true that God would be malevolent by choosing to not actively prevent evil from taking place? No, not all all. In fact, it’s arguably God’s greatest gift to us to let us act freely and to truly freely live and learn from life as we go. Only a guardian who truly loves us would grant and trust us with complete freedom.
If God were to noticeably intervene in our affairs without us asking for it, even if the nature of his interventions were such that direct injustice would be prevented from taking place, then he would likely be regarded as a guardian who’s worthy of our fears as he gathered a reputation for being intolerant and even tyrannical; having an approving heart only when our intentions are good and a prohibitive heart when we intend to do bad.
This may sound surprising, so allow me to explain myself.
Concretely, let’s say that God would actively thwart human beings from committing the worst acts of evil, e.g. murder and rape. Consequently, by not being able to engage in evil acts, the nature of the most grotesque forms of evil always remain abstract and theoretical to us. Therefore, by having been denied to know the effects of the worst kinds of evil, we would never truly know what it’s like to inflict maximum harm to our fellow human being. We would never truly know what it’s like to inflict raw and uncensored suffering.
For example, the husband who wants to kill his wife because she committed adultery, is now obstructed from accomplishing his lust for vengeance. Besides possibly having some vague theoretical idea of the potential experience, he will thus never really get to know the full first-hand experience of inflicting horrific pain and suffering on his fellow human being. Or, as another example, the wife who wants to kill her husband for deserting her for another woman and it so happens that she now is stuck not only with a broken heart but also a multitude of hungry mouths to feed. Through God’s precrime policing enforcement, she now too cannot follow her vengeful intentions through. She will thus never truly know what it’s like to overrule evil with evil; to repay evil in kind. She too will be denied the possibility from ever truly grasping what it’s like to inflict the most grotesque forms of suffering on fellow human beings.
But the denial of the realisation of evil retributive plans does not automatically take away the desire for doing so. The hearts of the people who have been thwarted–unless they come to their senses on their own–will remain vindictive and likely grow bitter. They will likely learn to fear and hate their then demonstrably oppressive God. Since God is a god of grace–at least, that’s my conviction– there is a contradiction here and this alone speaks in disfavour of the idea that God would have a tyrannical streak.
It would thus seem that it’s necessary for us to experience evil in its most unrepressed and uncensored guise; so that we can learn–literally through bloody trial and bloody error–to foster a closing and complete love for our fellow human being. A love that rises the better we understand the full scope and impact of what it is like to inflict harm on other human beings, and more importantly getting hurt by reprisal. By understanding the fabric of evil in its most intimate gory detail, we will learn to measure the effect of evil acts on other people by our own experiences, i.e. when we ourselves were the victims of evil. After having learned what it’s like to be on the receiving end of evil, we are thence able to build uncoerced sympathy and empathy for our fellow human being.
If however, we were to be censored from bringing the full ugly gamut of evil into fruition then–beyond mere speculation and theorising–there is no practical or experiential means available for its true discovery and understanding. One may even wonder if we would then be able to foster a genuine sympathetic relationship to fellow human beings beyond the circle of family and friends.
It would thus seem that an unadulterated catharsis of evil is a necessary condition for us–as free but inexperienced beings–to able to learn to clean up the messy products of evil that we ourselves choose to spill; and so to be able to finally learn to prefer doing good over evil or, as Jesus said in Romans 12:21, to overcome evil with good.
Evil can thus be understood to be our cruel but self-invited and thus vitally needed faceless teacher. It is thus important to not only not ignore evil but to also learn from it, especially when we fall victim to it; to scrutinise its character and motive, so that we can finally learn to overrule it and trade it for proper. The function of evil could thus be understood as a stimulant for us to learn to wanting to do good, based on free volition and experiential background, rather than having to do good, facilitated by mechanical coercion and possibly robotic ignorance.
What about Rooting out Evil with Violence?
Hypothetically, would it be consistent with the personality of God– as represented by postulate G— for any of his agents to seek to rid the world of a body of established or organised evil through violent annihilation?
This is what I argued in a previous article:
Suppose that out of the entire human global population evil is decided to be confined to a subgroup of people who engage in acts of evil. By the fact that human beings are social beings, it’s only fair to assume that those evil people have family members and friends who may not be considered to be evil, i.e. people who do not engage in patently evil acts. If an exterminator were to go ahead and kill all the evil people, then a new group of victimized people would be catalyzed into existence whose members would naturally resent the exterminator. Consequently, that new group now in all likelihood grows to hate the exterminator.
If a representative of God were to be the exterminator, then he would rather understandably be received as someone who uses deadly violence as a means to restore peace and harmony. In other words, he would be interpreted as a tyrant who’s not afraid to inflict death unto people who meet the classification for evil. In addition, it’s to be expected that the new group is to become the new evil as its members become motivated to actively seek opposition to a God they perceive as being a tyrannical god of death. Therefore, the people of this new group probably will grow to hate God.
Now compare the actions of that representative of God with the God is Love principle of 1 John 4:8, only to find a contradiction. If indeed God is Love then it’s proper to assume that God wants to be loved rather than hated. In fact, the Bible is replete with encouragements to do just that.
Therefore maintaining the peace with the proverbial sword and at the same time abide to the divine attribute as mentioned in 1 John 4:8 is simply impossible. In addition, there is no such thing as a clean and permanent extraction of evil with violent means. Hence, the only reasonable alternative to overcome evil, one which is compatible with 1 John 4:8, is to resort to grace instead of coercion, mercy instead of revenge and the extension of love rather than the imposition of fear-driven violence.
Or, in the words of Jesus:
17Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. Romans 12:17
21Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21
Human life as such can be understood to be a life-long educational experience, a school if you will, albeit unmistakeably also a school of brutal hard knocks. In this school, which no-one can escape, the study of the law of cause and effect is fundamental. How well you do on this school depends on how well you grasp this law. Of particular curricular interest is the discipline to learn by observation from the cause and effect of acts that can be termed evil and the cause and effect of acts that are good. Observation can be done whether you are a spectator or an actor, in the latter case observation becomes introspection.
If your actions have a cause in fear, then suffering and misery is the likely effect. Alternatively if your actions are borne out by love then prosperity is likely to follow. If you are good to your fellow human beings, they will likely return the favour.
Learning to accept to take responsibility for your actions rather than pinning them on others or on God is a fundamental element in getting to truly master the law of cause and effect and to use it to become a better and more righteous person.
It is perhaps somewhat ironic that it was Epicurus himself who also understood the virtue of analysis in order to better them. The abstinence from inflicting harm on fellow human beings was pivotal in his teachings:
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing “neither to harm nor be harmed“), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.
Therefore, in addition to spending most of the time with one’s friends as being crucial for experiencing happiness, Epicurus very well understood the virtue of treating the people whom one interacts with on a basis of respect and love. In fact, he proved to advocate the type of moral compass that was very much akin to the kind Jesus years later would also come to preach about:
28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a]30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c]There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31
The way of doing good is the way of love and so is the constructive way of God. And to those in denial of its merit, choosing to swerve onto the destructive path of doing evil, the path of fear, ought to induce a painful and unpleasant reminder for the need to return to the former again.
Continued with Refuting Robert A. Heinlein’s Argument