A great amount of ink is being spilled on the so called the problem of evil. Without doubt the problem of pain and suffering is the most essential, and probably the most influential, case against the providence of a benevolent God in mankind’s world. The burden of proof, in this article, is to show that the classical problem of pain and suffering should not be understood as a case against the existence of God(s) but against divinely providence in mankind’s world.
A case for the incompatibility of the gods’ divine providence and existence of pain and suffering in mankind’s world can be traced back to Epicureans who believed that the gods existed but did not take any interest in mankind’s affairs. Epicureans are among the first to contend, against Stoics, that the idea that mankind toil in the hostile and inhospitable world demonstrate that gods’ aeons of blissful tranquility is uninterrupted by mankind’s pain and suffering (Letter to Herodotus, D. L. 10.76¹).
It is inappropriate, according to Epicureans, to hold that this fragile and faulty mankind’s world was designed by beings that are enjoying the blissful aeons of existence. The existence of pain and suffering is, for Epicureans, a proof that the gods neither created mankind’s world nor concerned themselves with it. In De Rerum Natura Epicurean Lucretius poetically wrote (RN 5.195-199):
Quod si jam rerum ignorem primordial quae sint,
Hoc tamen ex ipsis caeli rationibus ausim
Confirmare aliisque ex rebus reddere multis,
Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse paratam
Naturam rerum; tanta stat praedita culpa.
Lactantius, a 4th century Christian theologian, was aware of Epicurean’s argument against philosophers who defended divine providence. He explained that philosophers were “almost driven against their will to admit that God takes no interest in anything, which Epicurus especially aims at.”(AG 13). Epicurus’ argument, according to Lactantius, unfold as follows:
God, he[Epicurus] says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does He not remove them?(ibid)
Philo, one of David Hume’s spokesperson in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779), reechoed Epicureans’ position that “the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity”(D 198) and reformulated Lactantius’ argument attributed to Epicurus. Philo contended,
Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he[God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil? (D 198)
Epicurean’s argument could be formulated as follows:
- The gods power and wisdom are infinite (thus whatever they will comes about and they know how to bring their will about).
- Neither mankind are happy nor is the world design for their felicity.
- Therefore gods neither will mankind’s happiness nor designed the world for their felicity.
The idea that the existence of pain and suffering leads to the conclusion that the god(s) did not exist would be foreign to Epicureans. Their argument was aimed to challenge the divinely providence in mankind’s world. It was not aimed to challenge the existence of gods. According to Epicurus’ admirer Lucretius and Epicurean spokesman in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods Epicurus strongly rejected atheism.
Epicurean paradox should, thus, be understood as a case against divinely providence in mankind’s world and not against the existence of God(s).
Lactantius, “A Treatise on the Anger of God” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol.7 (1886) Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, Loeb (1972) Classical Library, 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
 See also Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.45