Monthly Archives: May 2014

God, Hell & Philosophical Zombies

Justin Schieber, co-host at Reasonable Doubts, has tentatively offered a rather novel argument against God recently (Schieber has informed me that the argument is not original to him. He heard it briefly mentioned in an unknown podcast a few years ago and it got him thinking about how to formalise it). Schieber hasn’t developed his argument at any length, but helpfully provided this quick summary:

“If God is omniscient, he knows which persons would freely reject him if he were to create them as well as which persons would freely choose him if he were to create them.

If God is omnipotent and morally perfect, he would surely have created those who he knows would freely choose Him. However, God could have created Philosophical Zombies (Characters who look and act in identical ways to free creatures but lacking souls/internal mental lives) to play the roles of those he knew would reject him had he actually created them.

If he did, Hell would contain no conscious torment of persons. Heaven would contain only those who God knew would freely choose him. Those who God knew would freely reject him would never have been created.

In such a story, Free Will and Perfect Justice are preserved.”

Preliminaries

The concept of a philosophical zombie might be a new and unusual one to some readers. Philosophical zombies are a famous part of philosophical thought experiments in the philosophy of mind. A philosophical zombie is exactly the same as a human being but lacks consciousness. They are not self-aware. They do not have thoughts, sensations, inner mental lives, or an awareness of personhood. However, they act just like any human does. They will form sentences, walk to work, sit at a computer, eat lunch, talk to taxi drivers, and tell jokes. They are effectively lumps of flesh acting a certain way but with no conscious life.

Now, not all philosophers believe the concept is a coherent one. I disagree with this and agree with comments made by Schieber in a Twitter conversation that it is easily within God’s power to make lumps of flesh look and act like humans whilst lacking any consciousness or inner mental life.

So, let’s unpack Schieber’s argument a bit further. Obviously his argument doesn’t apply to all brands of Christian theism. For instance, the open theist needn’t be much concerned by it since he or she will hold that God does not in fact know the future choices of free agents. Nor will the Christian pluralist – John Hick, for instance – be greatly disturbed since on his view God will eventually win everyone over to salvation. Furthermore, annihilationists – such as John Wenham or John Stott – will not be massively perturbed either since unbelievers will simply go out of existence.

Thus, Schieber’s argument need only concern Christians who believe (1) That God does in fact know the future choices of free agents; and (2), that unbelievers will live eternally outside of God’s presence – in Hell, however we choose to conceive of it.

In response to Schieber let’s grant:

1. God is omniscient and knows how any free person that He could create will act in any circumstances in which He might wish to create that person.

2. God is omnipotent and could have created as philosophical zombies those He knows will freely reject Him.

3. The ultimately unrepentant will live eternally outside of God’s presence.

Response to Schieber

It seems to me that there are certain assumptions underlying Schieber’s argument:

1. That in creating actual people God knows will reject salvation, God is in some way wronging them or doing them an injustice.

2. Sending ultimately impenitent unbelievers to Hell for eternity is unjust, and thus a bad thing.

3. A world with no Hell is better than a world with a Hell.

I don’t think Schieber’s argument works unless these assumptions – or others very much like them – are granted. I will argue that all are, in fact, false.

What the hell is Hell?

Let’s begin with the concept of Hell. Schieber refers to Hell as eternal conscious torment. At the popular level this idea raises images of people being burned in flames for all eternity, or perhaps tormented by demons as depicted in medieval art. However, this conception of Hell is not one which you’ll find frequently amongst theologians. Christian philosopher JP Moreland states categorically: “God doesn’t torture people in hell.” I have neither time nor space to explicate a full doctrine of Hell here. The precise nature of Hell is not spelled out in the Bible. Rather what we find are a number of different images and pictures pointing towards it rather than spelling out its precise nature. In the literature on Hell theologians tend to be in agreement on one thing: Hell is fundamentally a separation from God.

In orthodox Christianity God is the creator: a generous, loving being who wishes the best for his creatures. God’s purpose and will for us is that we should relate to and love Him. To this end God has created us with a degree of freedom – to seek, find and honour God, or to go our own way. How this pans out in each individual’s life is beyond my ability to say.

Now, I detect two differing understandings within orthodox Christian views of Hell as the eternal destiny of the unrepentant and I want to discuss both in light of Scheiber’s argument.

(1) The self-inflicted view, represented by Peter Kreeft and CS Lewis.

(2) The retributive view, represented by William Lane Craig.

Kreeft views Hell primarily in terms of a self-separation from God by the individual. He argues that the existence of Hell actually follows from the existence of Heaven and free will – as a place for those who freely reject heaven.

The central point made by Kreeft is best put in his own words: “. . . heaven and hell may be the very same objective place – namely God’s love, experienced oppositely by opposite souls. . . The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God’s truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness.” Kreeft appears to think that the damned could turn and be saved but they choose not to. They refuse God forever, and therefore – as Sartre once remarked – the door of Hell is locked from the inside. This same point is wonderfully made by CS Lewis in his allegorical story The Great Divorce. In this book he pictures people who live in Hell (depicted as a grey, colourless, and comparatively insubstantial world – not a fiery torture chamber) going on a journey to heaven, but hardly any of them choose to stay despite the pleadings of the saints. The core point is that God allows free creatures – out of respect for their autonomy and human dignity – to separate themselves from Him if they choose. Thus, the damned choose Hell, and Hell’s existence stands as a testimony to the dignity of human moral freedom.

William Lane Craig on the other hand sees hell primarily in terms of retributive punishment inflicted on the unrepentant by God because of their sin rather than primarily as a state the damned themselves choose to remain in. Responding to the argument that any sin only deserves a finite punishment Craig points out that the damned very likely continue to sin: “Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense then hell is self-perpetuating.” (I should point out that Craig disputes the notion that sin cannot rightly receive an infinite punishment. He argues that rejecting Christ is a sin of a different order altogether, one of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore believes the case can indeed be made for an infinite punishment for sin). The central point here is that if the punishment of obstinate, unrepentant sinners is just then the existence of Hell is just, and not therefore an evil.

Through Hell and Back

We return then to Schieber after our brief excursus through hell.

Take two possible worlds: Zombixia and EarthWorld. Zombixia is identical to EarthWorld in all respects except that those who God knows will reject him are created as philosophical zombies – not as real people – and thus will not go to Hell for eternity. Is Zombixia preferable?

I think our brief discussion of Hell allows us to see that Schieber’s argument does not show that Zombixia would be preferable or that EarthWorld is somehow defective by comparison to it. In fact I think a reasonable case can be made for why EarthWorld is to be preferred.

On both the Kreeft and Craig models of eternal Hell God wills the salvation of every single person and every single person is such that they have sufficient opportunity to accept salvation. All can be saved. On the molinist model that I suspect Scheiber has in mind when he offers this argument, whilst it is the case that God knows that some person X will not accept salvation, it is the case that X remains free to accept salvation or reject it. The circumstances are “freedom permitting,” even though God knows that X will freely reject him. But X has the opportunity to be saved, he really can be saved, but he chooses not to be. That he has this opportunity is a great good – one that would be missing from Zombixia.

On the Kreeft model X freely separates himself from God, and his eternal destiny is thus the upholding of his dignity as a free moral agent. In effect God respects X as a person and grants him his will. CS Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people: those who say to God “thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God therefore doesn’t wrong the unrepentant by creating them; he grants them dignity, respects their will, and upholds their personhood. These are goods pertaining to EarthWorld that are missing from Zombixia.

Alternatively, on the Craig model X is punished by God for his sin. But, this punishment is just, particularly if X continues sinning, continues in his God-rejecting unrepentant course. Now, are we to think this is bad? I don’t think so unless we are prepared to defend the notion that punishment is inherently bad. Sure, it might be bad for X but does that mean that God shouldn’t have made X as a real person? Why should God allow those who freely reject salvation to have some sort of veto power over his creative activity? He creates them as real persons, gives them real opportunity for salvation, but X squanders the opportunity. I don’t see an injustice here that Zombixia lacks by comparison. On Craig’s model no one will be in hell except by their own moral guilt and choice to reject salvation. In Zombixia God has effectively allowed the ultimately unrepentant veto power over his creative will, and to limit the number of people over which he can extend his love and offer of salvation.

Moreover, there appears to be something of very significant moral value lacking in Zombixia. Say Billy Bob is a philanthropist who spends large amounts of time and money helping turbulent Tom, destitute Dick and homeless Harry. But Tom, Dick & Harry are not in fact real people in Zombixia. They cannot truly appreciate Billy Bob’s actions; nor do those actions really accomplish anything of moral worth in the lives of Tom, Dick & Harry. Not so in EarthWorld. It seems to me that there is therefore a clear value and purpose inherent to moral actions in EarthWorld that is lacking in Zombixia.

So, it seems to me that whichever model we advocate (I prefer a modified form of Kreeft over Craig, with the hope that John Hick is right!), EarthWorld and Zombixia each preserve free will and perfect justice. However EarthWorld has values that Zombixia does not and, indeed, cannot have. EarthWorld is a real world, with real significance. There’s no pretense here. There are real choices to be made, and crucially real opportunities for every person to come to salvation. Human dignity and moral autonomy are respected in EarthWorld in a way that they aren’t in Zombixia. X truly can be saved in EarthWorld, but has no such opportunity in Zombixia. It therefore seems to me that God has reason to create the former over the latter.

Stephen J Graham

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Is Mark 16:8 an Apologetic Challenge? A Reply to SkepticismFirst

Fellow blogger/tweeter SkepticismFirst has written a short draft of an argument concerning Mark 16:8, which he invites us to poke holes in. The full text can be read here:

http://skeptischism.com/skepticismfirst/2014/05/07/mark-16-apologetics/

Mark 16:8 says: “And they [the women who visited Jesus tomb only to find it empty and receive instructions from a young man in a white robe to go and tell Jesus’ disciples about it] went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Now, SkepticismFirst (SF) sees a problem here and argues:

Either –

(1) Mark is mistaken about whether the women said anything.

or

(2) v1-8 are not recording an event that actually happened.

This strikes me as being a false dilemma, since (1) and (2) are not exhaustive of the possibilities. But before I consider alternatives it’s worth noting that even if it is the case that Mark made a mistake here little would follow from that fact, and yet SF seems to suggest that the entire story must then be rejected as unhistorical. But why? Ancient historians routinely have to deal with sources of mixed quality and varying reliability when they attempt to reconstruct past events, but they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting an entire account because there’s a possible minor discrepancy. Moreover this is a principle that we find all the time in the legal world: testimony does not need to be infallible before it can be accepted as reliable.

In any event, what SF presents us with here is a false dichotomy. Now, perhaps Joe Christian might claim that the events being narrated were revealed to Mark by God. That would certainly give us a third possibility, but I don’t think we need to call on divine help to solve this puzzle!

The phrase in Mark 16:8 seems to me to be most plausibly a figure of speech or a Markan literary device (Mark consistently uses the themes of fear and silence throughout his gospel to make theological points). Language is, after all, full of figures of speech, hyperbole, under-statement, irony, sarcasm, and all manner of other non-literal locutions. Take the following modern day example of a reporter in Belfast reporting on the ending of a court case in which a man was acquitted:

It took the jury just under an hour to acquit Brown who left the court room to cheers from his supporters. We tried to speak to Brown as he left the court complex, but he got into a passing car and refused to speak to anyone.” Now, are we to suppose Brown decided to remain mute for the rest of his natural life? Or that after his acquittal he really spoke to absolute no-one? Hardly! The report concerns events at a given time and in a particular context, using a certain form of words to make a point or paint a picture.

Or, last night my wife asked me: “did you phone your mum earlier?” “Yes” “What did she say?” “Oh, nothing really.” Is my wife to suppose that I phoned my mum, who picked up the receiver only to remain silent before setting it down a short time later?

To think so is to ignore the context and adopt a mono-dimensional approach to language.

SF asks: “if the women did talk about what happened, then why did [Mark] say they didn’t? This seems especially odd considering that he’s relating the very story he claims was never mentioned to anyone.” [emphasis mine].

Notice that this last comment is in fact not what Mark says! Mark never claims that the women never mentioned it to anyone. Do the following two statements contain identical propositions?

(1) They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
(2) They never mentioned this to anyone, for they were afraid.

Clearly not. One is absolute (SFs reading) and the other is not (what Mark actually said).

This brings me to one of the classical questions concerning Mark’s gospel, one which SF himself alludes to at the beginning of his article: Does Mark end at 16:8 or was there more? SF quite rightly points out that v9-20 almost certainly were not part of Mark’s original gospel but were added some time later. Scholars are divided on the question. Some claim that Mark simply ended his account with v8. Others claim that the ending was lost, probably very early on.

This isn’t a dispute I can go into here, but I’ll consider the “what ifs” of each. It seems to me, for a whole host of reasons, that the most plausible theory is that Mark’s original ending has been lost. Now if so this is highly significant because it means that part of the context of v8 is missing. And it seems to me not remotely implausible to suggest that the silence of the women was indeed only temporary (just as Brown’s silence was temporary after his acquittal), and of course there are other sources which agree with this. After all, it would be folly to suggest that these women simply remained mute for the rest of their natural lives, and I hardly think that Mark intended to have us believe that. It is quite consistent with 16:8 to posit subsequent verses where the women – perhaps after their initial fear has subsided – go on to do as they were instructed and tell his disciples. After all, part of the context of their silence is their fear, which could very easily have subsided some time later. Alternatively, it’s plausible that Mark was saying that the women told no-one else until they got to the disciples. In fact he uses a similar phrase in chapter 1 when he gives the account of the leper who was not to speak to anyone else except the priest. In any event if – as I think likely – there was more after v8, it is fairly easy to think of contexts for these words which allow for the later testimony of the women to the disciples without any inconsistency.

But what if Mark did indeed end at v8? I don’t see how this is anymore of a problem, except if we approach the text in an unduly wooden way. I’ve already alluded to the possibility of figure of speech, but that isn’t the only possible explanation. Remember that ancient writers wrote differently from modern historians. Not only do ancient writers wish to convey history, they also have a point to make while they do it. Mark – writing for a certain audience who, remember, already believed in the resurrection – may have had a didactic purpose for ending his gospel in this way. For instance, some theologians think his point was to challenge his readers about spreading the good news of Christ’s resurrection: “will you stay silent or will you speak out?” Others allude to the Markan literary devices of fear and silence to explain his ending on this note.

In any event whatever the merits of these or other theories about the ending of Mark, I don’t think we need to know exactly why Mark ended his gospel this way (if he did, of course) in order to see that an argument of the sort made by SF is unconvincing. There are, of course, troubling passages and verses amongst the resurrection narratives; this verse, however, simply isn’t one of them.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Horrors of Creation

I remember sitting in a church men’s meeting I had been invited to watching images of the universe on a screen while a song played asking “how can you say there is no God!” The images were all of stunning beauty and natural wonder, and only a cold emotionless being could fail to be moved by them.

All these dazzling images before me were taken by the Hubble space telescope, which opened up the heavens to us in a way that wasn’t available to previous generations. Anyone with an internet connection can marvel at the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, or the rather splendid Sombrero galaxy.

When people think of creation, often it’s the beautiful things they have in mind. It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of experiencing God through a majestic sun-set, or in the grandeur of a mountain range, or the vast expanse of the oceans. There is certainly no shortage of natural wonders; beauty is not in short supply. We see it in the night sky when we gaze at the stars; we see it through phenomena like rainbows or the northern lights. On one occasion I remember seeing a toucan at a bird park on a family holiday in Spain and welling up, so moved was I at how beautiful it was. Seriously. A toucan. It’s easy to see the hand of God in such things.

I also remember a song that used to be sung when I was in primary school:

“All things bright and beautiful;
All creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful;
The Lord God made them all.”

Indeed. The verses of the song go on to cite example after example of the wonderful beauty of the natural world. How loving is God to give us such a wonderful and beautiful world to live in!

Alas, the world isn’t all rainbows and toucans. Needless to say my old primary school song doesn’t tell the whole story: about parasitic worms that infect and feed on human eyeballs, causing blindness; swarms of hornets that attack beehives and tear the heads off all the bees; hyenas that begin to eat their prey before it’s even dead; various animal species that reject the young if their parents die. The Lord God made all these too, presumably. Creation might indeed be stunningly beautiful, but it’s often an incredibly fearful place too: bloody, cold, cruel, dangerous, and merciless. Most of the earth isn’t safe. The earth is wild. Beautiful, yes – but so very wild.

And what are we to make of the wildness, the danger and the sheer bloody cruelty of it all?

The traditional answer in Christian circles, even in countries which typically boast a high degree of scientific sophistication, is that creation used to be perfect but has been adversely affected by the sin and fall of humankind. So, God made all things perfect, but when the first humans rebelled against God certain consequences followed – not only for humankind but also for the created order. The sin of the first humans corrupted the earth, leaving pain, suffering, death and misery in its wake.

Regrettably this rather tidy explanation is utterly untenable given what we now know of natural history. If we go back in time prior to the appearance of homo sapiens we won’t find lions lying down with lambs. Polar bears did not eat snow-cones prior to the appearance of the first humans and the first sin. Nature was just as red in tooth and claw as it is today. Animals ate other animals. Even some plants ate animals! The suggestion that the natural world got ugly as a result of the sin of the first humans was OK for Saint Augustine but it’s unbelievable these days.

In any event it isn’t at all demanded by the biblical narrative itself. In the primitive simplicity of the Genesis account there is no indication that the natural world was perfect and then completely corrupted with the first sin. According to the Genesis story Adam was not created in some paradisal state, but rather he was created in an earthly garden which he has to tend. When we compare the relative simplicity of the actual biblical account with the later theological developments – mainly via Saint Augustine – we see really how massively overstated these theological developments were, both in terms of exaggerating the heights from which creation fell as well as the depths to which it fell.

Of course it’s not just the empirical problems with the traditional – Augustinian – account of sin and suffering in the world that make it implausible, there are weighty theological considerations against it too. One crucial problem is that the traditional account doesn’t shed any light on suffering and evil by pointing back to the fall of man or a prior fall in the angelic realm. This theology presents us with a paradox: man (or angels) created as finitely perfect in a perfect environment and then somehow engaging in evil. As John Hick points out this doctrine of the “self-creation of evil ex nihilo” is difficult to make sense of, if indeed it isn’t downright incoherent. Hick puts it: “To say that an unqualifiedly good (though finite) being gratuitously sins is to say that he was not unqualifiedly good in the first place.” Moreover, it raises massive problems for the doctrine of heaven: if perfect humans in a perfect environment fell once why could it not happen again? And of course this entire theology was made all the more bewilderingly incoherent once Calvin came along with his doctrine of strong divine determinism.

And thus I think it’s time for Christian thought to explore other avenues with regards to the nature of the world and the suffering it contains. To this end I want to briefly sketch another Christian approach, one which is actually older than the Augustinian approach but which never achieved the same systematic organisation and development and thus was largely ignored by the Western church in its obsession with Augustine.

We see hints of this different theodicy very early in Christian thought. Tatian argued that God did not make human beings perfectly good but in such a way and in such an environment (not an idyllic paradise) as they could become perfectly good through obedience to God. In a similar vein Theophilus speculated that Adam and Eve were created as children – immature – and were placed in the garden of Eden to grow in maturity and obedience.

These tentative themes were developed further by the church father Irenaeus. Irenaeus made the (exegetically dubious, but ideologically useful) distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity. The former concerns our nature as rational agents capable of relating to God; the latter refers to our final perfecting by the Spirit, a goal which we must ourselves cooperate with.

This distinction then allows Irenaeus to argue that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” we are not perfected in God’s “likeness.” We must use our moral and rational faculties to grow towards this perfect nature, a nature which must be freely chosen and developed, and which will be rejected by some. Under this scheme, therefore, Adam was only potentially perfect, not actually perfect. All human beings are in the same spiritual boat: presently only potentially the perfected beings God seeks to make. In fact Ireneaus also argues that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the creation of a perfect finite being. The argument is that it’s good to grow and develop in moral knowledge; it’s good even to experience failure and suffering because through them we experience the great goods of forgiveness and mercy and have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace, since, in the teaching of Christ, “[for] he to whom more is forgiven loveth more.” As part of this scheme Irenaeus also stresses the epistemic distance between God and man, which makes a degree of cognitive freedom possible and allows us to move towards or totally ignore God as we see fit.

What is required, given God’s purposes for his creatures, is an appropriate environment in which these purposes can be realised. The world, then, was never an idyllic paradise but is intended – (at least partially since God may well have other purposes in creation besides humanity) – as an appropriate environment to develop those made in God’s image into the likeness of God. The world, according to this view, then naturally contains good and evil, suffering and pleasure, which God uses to teach his creatures lessons and values, and ultimately build them into the type of creatures he desires. The world was never a paradise with no suffering or physical death, but rather has always been a place with suffering, but this suffering has a divine purpose.

The contrast with Augustine is clear. Whereas Augustine looks back to a time when man was supposedly created finitely perfect and then somehow (inexplicably) fell from this state and plunged the entire human race into catastrophe and the natural order into death, suffering and cruelty; Irenaeus sees man as created immature and placed into an appropriate environment and thus looks forward to a time when humanity and the created order will be perfected.

Insofar as we can claim the world is “perfect” we can only mean a functional perfection – the suitability of the created order to accomplish the divine purposes, which includes what Irenaeus called the “likeness” of God, and what Schleiermacher later referred to as the “God consciousness” of human beings which can be awakened and challenged by pain and pleasure alike. This type of perfection is one which exists now – always was and always will – but it doesn’t – contra Augustine – refer to some primordial and long lost condition of perfect human virtue and its accompanying natural paradise.

It seems to me quite clear that the dominant Augustinian notions of an “original righteousness” of humankind and “original perfection” of the environment are empirically false and theologically dubious. The way forward for theodicy and an understanding of sin, evil and suffering lies elsewhere: in the notions of our human propensity to respond to God and share in his work and purposes – or not – and the conception of the goodness of the created order as lying in its being an appropriate environment for the outworking of God’s plan for his creatures.

Stephen J Graham

*****
These ideas will be fleshed out in forthcoming articles.
*****

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Theodicy & The Book of Job

With its belief in the omnipotence and perfect goodness of God the problem of evil is particularly acute for Christian theism, and it therefore makes sense to inquire what resources might be found within that tradition for dealing with this problem. In this article I want to look at the Bible, and specifically at the book of Job. The book of Job is the sort of book that must be read in its entirety. Proof-text from Job at your peril!

The first thing to notice is that Job is not a work of analytic philosophy. It’s a story. It doesn’t give us 5 point deductive argument defending the existence of God in the face of evil and suffering. Instead Job is a narrative, cleverly woven together to give us a lens through which to view the evils and sufferings we face.

The story is of a righteous man who suffers, and, in his own eyes, suffers unjustly. The main portion of the book is taken up by cycles of debate between Job and his three friends – Eliphaz, Zophur, and Bildad (and later on Elihu). The theological background of the book is vital. Israelites believed that God was almighty and perfectly just; and no one was wholly innocent in His eyes. The prevailing theodicy was simple: our suffering is a measure of our guilt before God. If you were righteous you enjoyed God’s blessing. If you were not, you didn’t; you suffered to some extent in accordance with your unrighteousness. This theology undergirds numerous utterances of the various characters. Thus, for example, we find Eliphas saying, “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? Who being innocent has ever perished?”[Job 4:6].

But the book of Job throws up a problem: Job was righteous (though not without sin) and yet suffered greatly. The orthodox theology has broken down. For Job’s friends the theology holds true, and they therefore conclude that Job’s sin before God must be great. Job, who also adheres to this theology, believes he is righteous and therefore holds out for God to vindicate him. Theology has collided with human experience, and God has become an enigma in the eyes on the suffering righteous.

Some theologians believe that one of the purposes of Job is to refute this theology, but that is inaccurate. The purpose is to show that while it may be true that God often rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (see the cycles of sin-punishment-repentance-deliverance in the book of Judges for an illustration of this theology at work), this isn’t always or necessarily the case. Of course, it could be the case – and could even generally be the case – that this is how God operates, but the theology is not universal: sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The world is not such that you always reap what you sow.

Elihu, who is introduced later in the book, has a slightly different take on things. While he holds to the traditional theology he takes it in a slightly different direction. Job is a sinner, like everyone else. However, rather than his suffering being a punishment for wrong Elihu seems to see the suffering as a warning of future judgment. Suffering, for Elihu, becomes God’s way to attract Job’s attention towards the sin in his life that needs to be dealt with in order to save his soul. Thus conceived the suffering of Job is actually a part of God’s love and redemptive plan. Christian theism certainly contains a theme to this effect, a theme which was highlighted by CS Lewis when he referred to pain as “[God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But, as with the aforementioned theology, we know that while this may well be true on many occasions, it isn’t the case with Job’s situation here.

Towards the end of the book Yahweh finally makes an appearance. We might at this point expect an explanation from God but He never actually gives one. Yahweh appeals simply to his omniscience, suggesting that Job’s complaints are made from a position of ignorance: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?. . . Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!”[Job 38: 2, 4-6]. And on and on Yahweh peppers Job with such questions. Yahweh’s speeches imply that Job should trust God to do the right thing. In other words, if Job knows God is almighty, just and omniscient then Job should accept that God knows what he is doing and is doing the right thing, even though Job has no idea what is going on. Job comes to accept this divine chastening: “I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”[Job 42:2-3]

Notice that Yahweh never actually tells Job what the reader knows. In this instance God has been challenged by “the satan” – “the accuser” – and this challenge has massive ramifications for the God-man relationship, a relationship which the satan seeks to destroy. God delights in Job and boasts of Job’s righteousness. In response the satan makes his challenge: Job’s righteousness is in fact evil and purely self-serving; he is righteous and loyal only because he enjoys the blessings of God. God takes delight in Job’s righteousness but the satan challenges that Job’s righteousness is really devoid of all integrity, and that if God would let him break the link between righteousness and blessing then Job will be exposed as the sinner he is and God will be shown as a fool for delighting in Job. There is a lot at stake: if the satan is right then he will have succeeded in driving a wedge between God and man Elmer Smick writes, “It is the adversary’s ultimate challenge. For if the godliness of the righteous man in whom God delights can be shown to be the worst of all sins, then a chasm of alienation stands between them that cannot be bridged.”

God then steps up to the challenge so as He and Job may be vindicated and the satan silenced. The lesson seems to be that the righteousness of man is of such importance that God values it above all else, and thus suffering in this case has deep meaning and value. Job has to endure because God is interested in freely given love and loyalty and to prove that people would still love and be loyal no matter what happened to them. God perhaps desires to prove that He is worthy of love and loyalty in Himself and not because of the positive rewards He gives.

But God never explains any of this to Job, and we could only speculate as to why that is. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Job remained righteous and loyal and, in the end, needed no explanation. As a righteous man God’s presence was all Job needed – not a theological or philosophical answer. Or perhaps the point is that God is not under some obligation to explain his dealings with us. But whatever the answer is there is a more general point to make, since the reason for Job’s suffering is not intended to be an explanation for why everyone suffers.

The more general point of the book is to show that from our perspective as we live our lives – like Job and his friends – we have a severely limited view of reality. Job and his friends have simply a man’s eye view of things. But the reader of the book is given a God’s eye view from the start. Job and his friends are “inside” the story; the reader is “outside,” and privy to information that is hidden from the main characters in the dispute. We get to see a glimpse of a person struggling to understand their suffering, while also knowing the reason why they are suffering. With a God’s eye view we know that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than any character realizes. From a man’s eye view God is an enigma and it’s easy to feel injustice, or sense a lack of purpose behind our suffering, or even offer crass explanations why such and such happens. But, with a God’s eye view there is a clear purpose and reason that often isn’t clear.

The book of Job is written primarily for the people of God who are suffering. It’s a reminder that suffering isn’t necessarily tied to sin (thus suffering need not be compounded by guilt). Further, it’s a reminder that for those who believe in the greatness and goodness of God there is no suffering over which God is not in control. Most crucially it’s a reminder that we only see a small piece of reality and thus it’s difficult to draw conclusions such as “some evil in the world is gratuitous,” or “there is no reason for much pain and suffering that occurs,” or “an omnipotent and perfectly good God would not allow such suffering to happen.” To confidently draw these conclusions we need precisely what we do not have: A God’s eye view. How do we know – indeed, how could we know – that some level of suffering is the threshold beyond which a perfectly good God would step in? How does our lack of knowledge about the purposes of some instance of suffering justify a leap to the conclusion that it has no purpose?

And, indeed, those who trust that God is perfectly good and all powerful have grounds to hold that whilst we may not see any good purpose there must ultimately be one if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists. That, it seems to me, is the underlying message of the Book of Job.

Stephen J. Graham

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This is an article that I had originally intended to send for publication, but I just don’t like it enough yet! Any comments or suggestions for improvements will be welcomed!
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