Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epicurus on God and Evil

Suffering, poverty, hunger, illness and death weigh heavy on my mind these days, and like Epicurus, who lived before the common era, it sets me to wondering....

"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?"

(born 341 B.C.E.)


I think this soldier may be asking some of those same questions too....  And you?  Do you ever doubt the existence of God?  If you do not doubt, how do you make sense of the continual suffering on the planet?

Please note that I am asking questions, as was Epicurus.  I respect everyone's right to their own beliefs and conclusions.  I just wanted to share what I am struggling with now and get your perspective.

**In Epicurus' quotation, I would replace the world 'evil' with the word 'suffering'.  While there is evil in the world, most of us have had more experience with suffering.

(Background courtesy of Jerry Jones at ShadowHouse Creations)


  1. i sometimes think of this and i am left wondering...there are some questions we may never know the answer to. if evil or suffering were eradicated, what would it take? eliminating all the bad people, taking away the bitterness from their hearts, the evil that lurks inside...not much different from a labotomy. i think we tried that once. would we remove our right to choose to do good or otherwise, dictating what must be done, what is good and proper...and in doing that what would be left of us but mindless automatans? what would we gain from the experience, yet what would be lose. in granting us that choice, is that not love, and if so does it spur us on to love others and provide? i duuno, just my rambling thoughts i figure out my part.

  2. Dearest, dearest Bonnie,

    My response to your beautiful, heart-wrenching, and authentic questions would be too long and complex to write would probably be a blog post in and of itself...Don't we all wrestle with this along the way? You have raised a biggie here, my dear friend...Perhaps, I will post something sometime in the next several months that expresses my thoughts regarding these age-old questions... But in the meantime, I would rather just sit here with you today... quietly...I give you huge hugs, and say simply: I love you. ~Janine XOXO

  3. P.S. Your photos, art, and thoughts blend so beautifully to touch the heart!! Love you! ~J.

  4. Oh my... where to begin. These are all the questions I struggle with as well, and part of that struggle is in trying to articulate some of these answers to my kids :)

    The only way right now I have it set in my mind is that, He is able, He is willing. He shows He is able and willing in the form of "miracles." But why doesn't He always intervene? Why don't miracles happen on a regular basis? I don't have an in depth and solid basis for this. I am not a huge bible verse quoter. But, I do believe He has a plan for us. I do believe in an order to everything.

    And I am truly hoping some of your commenters know so much more than I do and can expand those concepts... I have so much learn!!

  5. Bonnie, I have read the Bible through twice and study world religions, yet I cannot answer your questions. Who can know the mind of God? I think God gave us free will and if He/She interfered in the affairs of men/women, then we wouldn't have free will. I believe in a personal faith and accountability. I support our local food bank and try to give to world charities that feed children. I think if each and every individual held him/herself accountable for the world's problems...well, there wouldn't be nearly as many. Thought-provoking post. Blessings!

  6. It was just these types of questions that sent me on my spiritual journey. It took many years of study to come to my own view of what it's all about. I think that is what we all need to do. Figure out what God means to each of us. I'm not sure my answer would be meaningful to you because your journey may take you in a different direction.

  7. Brian: I appreciate your thoughtful ramblings. The aspect of free will is huge in arguing for the existence of God who gives us the right to choose - as we imperfect humans try to do for our children. I like how you add that that is an act of love to be allowed the choice. Totally makes sense to me.

    However, a lot of those who suffer have not been able to exercise their free will. Horrific acts have been imposed on them.

    I have come to the place where I think, 'okay, what is, is - and even though each generation asks the questions we do not know the answers - and that is the way of it and I must accept it.

    It is challenging being meaning-seeking creatures, and not be able to make meaningful sense of the world around us. Nature consoles and provides much meaning, as do all the earthly, relational connections that are possible.

    Thanks for opening up and connecting with me on this dicey topic!

  8. Janine: Yes these are age old questions....and there is much to be gained in wrestling with them. Sitting with not knowing, sitting with what is, especially with the type of unconditional acceptance you offer is beautiful, powerful, and much appreciated.

  9. Vicky - yes, our little ones ask the same questions. It is such a paradox that our minds struggle so with these concepts and questions.

    Thank you so much for your input. I am not looking for biblical expertise - been there, done that. Your heartfelt truths expressed here are real gifts.

  10. Here's the thing. God is the sum total. God is the good AND the bad. As compassionate beings we should try to relieve suffering when we come across it. But God cannot 'do' anything about evil or suffering since it is part of the sum total. The All That Is. And the all that is is the full range of existence. God is existence, from the smallest mite to the grandeur of the cosmos and everything in between. It is the black as well as the white.

  11. Marion: Yes, in spite of all our studies there is so much that is unknowable. And as mentionned before - if everything was 'perfect' but we didn't have free will, we would be wondering and (I would be) complaining about that! Personal responsibility is key too, whether you are a believer or not.

    I have just lost a friend who is - was - the same age as my daughter - both diagnosed with cancer. I think I am in the angry phase of the grieving process and want to scream "This is just not right!!!!!" Hence my post.

    Thank you for your honest response.

  12. Nancy: It is so true what you say. We can study, discuss, exchange, commiserate but in the end it is a very personal and individual and lonely journey.

    I have struggled with these issues for several decades - the issue resurfacing its head on different levels each time. I think the struggle itself is valuable and part of the individuation process. It is a spiritual process, of course, as well - whether one believes in a personal god or not.

    I appreciate your point of view Nancy - thanks for sharing it here.

  13. Ellen: How very Taoist of you! Taoism comes closest to providing me with the answers I am looking for...... I can sometimes see the possibility for good in is more difficult for me to see the possibility of god in evil.

    So, tell me, how did you and at what point did you arrive at this way of perceiving life and god?

  14. Hi Bonnie-

    first, your pictures are amazing - powerful, a life force of truth. I am so impressed and moved. And now of God, I go back and forth ALL the time. Just recently when I was yelling, "God-No!!!!!" when my Mom called to tell me my sister was being taken by ambulance - and then the opportunity for her to share with her hospital room-mate of her own loss of her son to help soothe the woman's anger, my own life - a jouruney of tragedy and triumph - and what of God - my son says - "No way- there is no God".....I say, then what is it I cling to or yell at or deny or acknowledge - I feel your challenging questions deep in my soul - let's all hang on together. If there is a God He or SHe would like that.

    Love Gail

  15. from the tender age of 13, I knew that traditional religion did not make sense to me.
    I became a deist, though I didn't know what to call it for many years. If you read "the Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine, he says it all so well.
    Yes, there is a God...look around could there be all this beauty without one.....but he doesn't interfere....he put us here, gave us what we need, and the rest is up to us.

  16. Gail: Beautifully expressed ... and much the same conclusions as I have at the moment. I do not want to close off my mind to the possibility....and there is certainly as much that suggests the existence of God as does not.

    Thanks you. I hope your sister is recuperating.

  17. Hilary: I have to agree. Though we seem to be hard-wired to look to a higher source to intervene and save seems to be a fruitless exercise. God, in spite of our pleading, does not intervene in human affairs. People seem to attribute it to him when there is an unexpected, miraculous outcome.....but he gets no blame when the outcome is disastrous.

  18. Ellen said it best. I think we, it all ..just are- Humans make the dualistic notion of good/evil. Beauty/ horrific. Humans interpret their existence judgementally, so of course they would invent a higher force to accomodate their tiny beliefs from tiny understandings. Why would there be a God, to what purpose? Why in this universe would one super entity dink around with humans? And what created that entity? It is all so silly.

  19. oh trust me, i know first hand the abuse of will exerted upon another. and i will never agree to leave it as is...i think there is falacy in expecting God to pull ou the broom and sweep up our mistakes. i think part of that free will is our ability to stand up and do something. have we figured out solutions? no. not to the big things. i dont know that one solution will be the answer, as opposed to little pockets of people taking the initiative to make it happen. this give God something to work through. actually i am really enjoying this conversation and will b back again to read more thoughts in the comments...

  20. Linda Sue: It can seem quite ridiculous that we think our little minds can understand it all. And I so agree that we try to understand it from our dualistic propensities and we project the little we know and the little we are onto the god that we create - especially the paternalistic, mysoginist, intolerant god of the Hebrew scriptures - a blatant creation of old men creating god in their image.

    God and worship are ways that we can avoid doing the hard work of growing up - recognizing we are ultimately alone, that we have to make our own meaning, that we are both free and responsible, and that we will not be saved from death. We have to be careful we do not allow religion to infantalize us - or infantalize ourselves clinging to archaic, paternalistic religious beliefs.

    From another side of the dualistic divide - I have noticed the strongest of impulses, when surrounded by beauty, to thank a higher power, a god, a that innate, or was it conditionned in me by a strict religious upbringing???

    Thanks for your provocative comments Linda Sue ... much appreciated. It is helpful to provoke ourselves to think out of our comfy, fur-lined, habitual, confining boxes of thought!

  21. Brian: Hmmmmm - good thinking.....makes me think - and that's what I need.

    I'm glad you are enjoying the conversation and coming back to participate again, as your thoughts and ideas develop. I hope more will do the same.

  22. Something about these posts, dear Bonnie. You have (once again) hit a tender spot in the hearts and minds of so many commenters here. I, for one, seem to be continually standing at the Gates of Hell regarding God and His purposes here. It's a good thing you can't see my journal (hopefully it will burn in a fire after I'm gone), but I just get furious at the way things are around here. Sometimes, a lot of the time, all the time. Kind of like Jonah sitting under that fig tree, pissed off that God didn't destroy Nineveh when that's what was supposed to happen. Hmm. I wonder what is really supposed to happen, after all. You are the best, Bonnie. EFH

  23. I think that God is asking the same questions of us. Why do we allow suffering...

  24. Expat: It is a universal and seemingly perpetual struggle...makes one wonder if it's 'supposed to be'. As I read your comments it made me think how wonderful it is that we not only have free will to act, but also to think, and to question. While being in the limbo of not knowing, it is vital that we be able to express our doubts, our needs, our anger, our questions.......

    There is so much wisdom available to us in this blogging medium - I am so grateful to you Expat and all our other cohorts for being willing to share their hard-won 'knowings' or their hard-to-live-with questions.

    What's that Rilke value and live with the questions and then one day you may live your way into the answers.... I hold to that because I have way more questions than I do answers.

    Thanks dear friend.

  25. Missy: Well there you plunk down a few little words and turn the discussion on its head.

    So, this is a bit like what Brian has been saying, have we (I) asked of myself what I am asking or expecting of God....... In some ways, I would answer in the affirmative, but I need to explore my responsibility a little more deeply......

    In the abstract your suggestions really appeals to the more specific circumstances of infants/children be raped or tortured, for example, I have trouble with excusing God for allowing it. But as Brian intimated, how exactly would God stop it and still allow us free will? It is such a a cosmic conundrum....

    I can hear Linda Sue screaming in the ether....

  26. Oh Bonnie, you've hit on a big one here. As you know, I have struggled with faith for some time now, and I have pondered these same questions relentlessly without finding any answers good enough to satisfy me as to what God is. Or isn't.

    But I have seen enough evidence to convince me that there is "something" more to this universe than we know. Whether it's the traditional image of a loving and personal God, or just a some kind of overarching universal truth that defies our comprehension, there is "something" more. I believe that because I have witnessed miracles with my own eyes, and I have seen too many pieces that fit together in ways that couldn't possibly be coincidental.

    So whether God exists as a single entity, or whether all of us collectively form a part of some larger whole, I am convinced that there is more to this life and to this universe than what we know.

    The question I've pondered most recently goes something like this: "If there is a God, and he loves me and wants me to believe in him, why doesn't he just do something to prove to me that he exists?" The obvious answer is that the lack of proof in itself disproves the existence of such a God; however, one could also argue that for God to prove that he exists would remove all doubt, and to remove all doubt would be to deny me the free will to not believe. Free will cannot exist without a choice, just as good cannot exist without evil, joy without sorrow, or comfort without suffering.

    Sometimes, for some reason, God (whatever that means) does intervene. And sometimes he doesn't. I don't know why. And I wish I did.

  27. Jeff: Beautifully expressed. If I remember correctly, you teach physics - do the laws of physics add to your inclination to believe in God? The order and magnificence of the universe certainly make me want to believe in a creative power.

    I have come to think that perhaps God is pure energy and all that might encompass (love, light, order, power, transformation). And perhaps nature and our physical bodies are a small glimpse (mirror) into what God is. Perhaps each of us is one small cell in the body of energy/God. Perhaps, if we are a small part of what is what we call God - that is why we long for him/her/it. Perhaps that is why we have the impulse to communicate with it. Perhaps that is why we want to believe we never die, because truly energy does not. But we get this mixed up with our personalities . . . .

    Thanks Jeff for sharing your thinking here.

  28. Some people believe that you can't think like a scientist and believe in God at the same time, because science requires proof, and faith and proof cannot coexist.

    I guess I've always sort of reconciled my belief in God with my logical, scientific-leaning mind by accepting that if the laws of physics exist (and they do), then "something" must have created them. At the most elementary level, why do protons and electrons behave the way they do? There are thousands of different forces (that we know of) involved in the seemingly simple process of a single electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom - and if any one of those forces didn't exist, or any one of those forces acted differently, then the atom as we know it couldn't exist, which would change the very nature of all matter in the universe, or make it impossible for matter to exist at all. With all the physical laws and properties required just to create a single atomic particle of matter, the odds of those laws occurring by random chance are infinitesimally small.

    And then extend that thought process to larger and more complex collections of atoms, to strands of DNA, to living cells, to collections of living cells that form living organisms, and so on and so on. Evolution aside, the odds of even the first strand of DNA occurring by pure random chance are something like 1 in a gazillion. So "something" more intelligent than us must have created the laws of physics that make all of that possible (unless you go with a parallel universe theory, in which all possible outcomes occur simultaneously in an infinite number of parallel universes). And if that's true, then everything we think we know about the universe is wrong, and I'm not prepared to accept that yet.

    So I'm going with the existence of a "something" larger and more intelligent than ourselves. Until science can prove otherwise. And I'm not holding my breath.

  29. What amazes me is that these questions were posed by Epicrus over 2000 years ago and here we are still struggling to find an answer.

    I just finished reading The Shack whose plot revolves around God's helping a father find the answer to these questions after (danger spoiler alert) the father's daughter has been kidnapped and murdered.

    I wasn't satisfied with the books resolution which was neither novel nor profound, but at least it was a serious attempt to address the issue.

  30. Bonnie, I'm so sorry about your friend's demise.

    For many of my childhood/adolescent years I wondered why God hated me so much that he had put me in such a hopeless situation. I carried on that hopeless situation all on my own well into my adulthood and wondered why God made me live such a sad life. Now I'm happy...reasonably so...for a reasonably large part of the time. The change was accepting what is.

    People die. I'm not sure death and suffering are evil, if I take a long enough view. Death might be just what organized religion says it is: a doorway to a more enlightened purely joyful existence. It might be, from the view of the person at death's doorstep, a great relief. I suspect that's often the case.

    Suffering is an opportunity for me to ask for help. Asking for help gives others the chance to be more loving and giving.

    I don't pretend that this is as well thought out or as well expressed as so many other comments. It's more off the top of my head.

  31. Jeff - thank you for responding to my question. The matter of creation, its order and precision do not seem random and inspire awe and the belief in something greater. While the acts of creation (earthquakes, pestilence, famine) do...and can make one feeling like one exists in a brutal and uncaring universe.

    I envy your knowledge of atoms, molecules, cells, etc. and the laws of physics - they must seem irrefutable proof in the existence of a creative intelligence.

  32. Barry: Yes, and that would make one think that the creation is not meant to fully understand the whys, hows, and wherefores of it all.

    Perhaps, as my daughter said to me in an email this afternoon, the thing is to accept that we don't know, love life as it manifests and get on with the work of exercising our freedom and will to make a difference for the good while we the now. She says she does not agonize over the whys and hows of the past nor indulge in musings about the 'ifs' of the future...that she tries to live in the now and bring peace and love to that moment....which is all anyone can do.

    So nice to have a daughter who is my teacher.

  33. June: You make some important points from 'off the top of your head'. You sound very Byron Katie-esque - which ultimately is very Taoist. The positions you describe really do eliminate so much angst - simply accepting life and it presents itself, as you work at the same time to make it better. Surrender and acceptance......

  34. Hi Bonnie,
    I wasn't raised to believe or not believe. We didn't attend church or pray, but we followed the holiday traditions of my lapsed Anglican/United parents. Christianity "Lite" with Santa and the Easter Bunny. I don't believe in heaven nor hell as after-death destinations. I can't reconcile the suffering of innocents with the existence of an all-powerful being. However, I do believe that I don't have any proof either way, and I do believe that I could have had a totally different point of view had I been born into a family of practising believers. I do think I would try to believe, in dire circumstances. As my best friend, a confirmed atheist who is helping her daughter battle terminal cancer, quotes, "There are no atheists in foxholes". For some of us, God is a last resort, and I mean no disrespect to those out there who do believe. I have many friends who do believe, and I envy their faith.

  35. I had read that quote before and liked it. I have a quotation document – here are a couple from it – from Seneca the Younger (4? B.C. - 65 A.D.) “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” And here is another: “It is not disbelief that is dangerous to our society; it is belief.” By George Bernard Shaw and a last one: “It will not do to investigate the subject of religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to infidelity." Abraham Lincoln. What an interesting subject.

  36. Hello Bonnie

    twice I attempted to respond to your post using my iphone and both times I lost it...

    But briefly two things jumped out for me:

    One, what is God? That is the first thing we need to consider...

    and secondly, someone perhaps Thomas Moore, said
    Questions are the keys that unlock the secret doors to the psyche...

    I think that the answers to these big questions are not as important as the asking of the questions...

    happy days

  37. Your response to my response(!) made me smile.
    "Sober School" has left its mark on me with that surrender and acceptance!

  38. Great post and wonderful thoughtful comments.

    The god I worship does not judge the ways of nature, including human nature. The god I worship can wrap "his" arms around the kinds of experiences that we can barely deal with.

    The god I worship has no form or personality.

    One of our signature traits, as a species, is our caring about each other. It always blows my mind how compassionate we can be.

  39. This is an area in which I struggle as well. I don't know that I believe there is a god; I can imagine that this world just wonderfully evolved; certainly I can't put my mind around a creator as in a fatherly figure putting this all together.

    The thoughts by your readers are very thought provoking and I believe are helpful. Peace be with you.

  40. thanks i have been go althrogh this..thanku so much for nice info...and hope very soon u ll provide some more info...


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