Epicurean Paradox (Mis)understood


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:

  1. The gods power and wisdom are infinite (thus whatever they will comes about and they know how to bring their will about).
  2. Neither mankind are happy nor is the world design for their felicity.
  3. 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

[1] See also Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.45

Sensus Divinitatis


“Is there any human being who has not entered on the first day of his life with an idea of that Great Head?” rhetorically inquired Arnobius of Sicca. Arnobius further inquired: “In whom has it not been implanted by nature, on whom has it not been impressed, aye, stamped almost in his mother’s womb even, in whom is there not a native instinct, that He is King and Lord, the ruler of all things that be?”(Aga. Hea. 33)

Arnobius echoed the idea that could be traced back to Cicero(Cic. Leg. I. 8) and beyond that human have an implanted knowledge of God(s) which when left to its natural function tends to direct them to acknowledge the existence of God(s).  This innate knowledge, which is also called the sense of divinity, is for Tertullian of Carthage, “the crowning guilt of men, that they will not recognize One, of whom they cannot possibly be ignorant”(1 Apo 17)

Even though God is ineffable and incomprehensible, John of Damascus resounded a similar understanding that “God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance. For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature.”(De Fide Orth. 1.1) The denial of the existence of God emerges from human’s fallen nature (1.3)

Noting John of Damascus’ work, Thomas Aquinas also argued that “[t]o know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.”(Sum. The. A richer development of this view is found in the works of  John Calvin. Calvin contended,

That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. (Inst. 1.3.1)

Calvin went further,

All men of sound judgment will therefore hold, that a sense of Deity is indelibly engraven on the human heart. And that this belief is naturally engendered in all, and thoroughly fixed as it were in our very bones, is strikingly attested by the contumacy of the wicked, who, though they struggle furiously, are unable to extricate themselves from the fear of God. (1.3.3)

The reason that there never has been any society on earth that did not hold to kinds of beliefs in deities[and I will add life after physical death], according to Calvin, is due to the fact that sensus divinitatis is naturally inscribed on every human’s heart.

Cognitive science of religion is bringing in more reasons and evidence, for the first time as far as I understand, showing that it is true that humans are endowed with cognitive faculties that naturally stimulate sensus divinitatis. (Atran 2002, Bering 2002, Bloom 2007, Kelemen 2007 )

Further Readings

Atran, Scott (2002) In Gods We Trust. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bering, Jesse (2002) “Intuitive Conceptions of Dead Agents’ Minds: The Natural Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs as Phenomological Boundary.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 2:263–308.

Bloom, Paul (2007) “Religion Is Natural.” Developmental Science 10: 147–151.

Kelemen, Deborah (2007) “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists?’ Reasoning about Purpose and Design in Nature.” Psychological Science 15:295–301.

Paintings: Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino(Header) + Victor Mottez(Cover)