The trilemmas of Epicurus and Lewis

An interesting dilemma that moderns face is the choice between theism and atheism. This is a legitimate dilemma; one must either affirm the existence of god(s) or not, there is no middle ground. However, many dilemmas that are presented are often false.

For example, consider the following as posed as dilemma: one must go north or one must go south. The problem with this dilemma is completely obvious, for under normal circumstances (and the argument does not stipulate otherwise) one can go west and east as one pleases. Among philosophers, this kind of fallacy is most commonly called the false dilemma. Sadly, often skilled rhetoricians can be deceptive and make a false dilemma appear as a real one.

An example of a modern false trilemma is the Christian apologetic employed by C.S. Lewis, as follows:

  1. Lunatic: Jesus was not God, but he mistakenly believed that he was.
  2. Liar: Jesus was not God, and he knew it, but he said so anyway.
  3. Lord: Jesus is God.

According to Lewis one of the above must be true to the exclusion of the others. So far, so good right?  seeing as they are mutually exclusive statements. The problem simply is that the list is not exhaustive. For example, one can easily imagine a 4th option: Jesus was fictional, or that he was misquoted and so on.

Epicurus has been credited with authoring a trilemma of his own. The Stoics upheld that God was good, but it was unthinkable to Epicurus that any god that is good could allow human suffering. David Hume reformulates his trilemma thus:

  1. if God is unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent
  2. if God is not willing to prevent evil, he is not good
  3. if God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil?

Epicurus (who was not an atheist) concludes that God does not prevent evil because he is in a state of ataraxia. Yet, like Lewis’ argument, one can again easily imagine a 4th option: God allows evil because he has morally sufficient reason to, or that evil is a privation and so on.

The key to determining if a dilemma is true is to remember that the possibilities listed must be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Plotinus’ thesis was largely psychological. Like Plotinus, Augustine was wrestling with the problem of evil (the problem of how a perfect god could create a world where evil exists). Augustine’s answer […]


  2. […] Most anti-theist arguments take the form, in one way or another, of the problem of evil. The classic example is Epicurus’ trilemma. […]


  3. […] logical problem of evil is nothing new – it dates back to Epicurus and probably beyond. However, I will credit the particular philosopher Plantinga was responding to, […]


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