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
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!