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50 Quick Questions

1.       What’s your favourite colour?

Red.

2.       What’s your favourite novel?

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas or The Plague by Albert Camus.

3.       How many brothers and sisters have you got?

One older sister.

4.       How many children do you have?

One son.

5.       On your census form what do you put down as your religion?

Presbyterian.

6.       Do you believe in God?

Yes.

7.       Do you believe in life after death?

Yes.

8.       Are human beings free?

In many things, yes.

9.       Who is your favour author?

Albert Camus

10.   What’s your favour movie?

Chariots of Fire.

11.   Who’s your favourite actor?

Jack Nicholson.

12.   Actress?

Judy Dench.

13.   What’s something you do for fun?

Cinema.

14.   What’s your favourite food?

Mushrooms…or maybe rice…rice with mushrooms!

15.   What height are you?

5 foot 10 inches.

16.   How much do you weigh?

168lbs at last weigh-in (3 days ago)

17.   Beard?

A fairly light one.

18.   Favourite video game?

Mario Kart.

19.   Best way to travel?

Train.

20.   Typical breakfast?

3 eggs (scrambled, boiled or fried), two rounds of wholemeal toast and a mug of coffee.

21.   Do you work out?

Three dumbbell sessions a week.

22.   Your house is burning down – what material possession do you save first?

My laptop.

23.   Ever been seriously ill?

Nothing life threatening, but periodic crippling anxiety.

24.   Ever had an operation?

Yes, a hernia repair just over 20 years ago.

25.   Have you ever taken an illegal drug?

No.

26.   What’s your favourite non-alcoholic drink?

Coke zero.

27.   Alcoholic drink?

Rum with ginger beer.

28.   The last movie you watched was?

Jurassic world.

29.   The last book you read?

The Oresteia

30.   Who is your favourite philosopher?

Plato.

31.   Which philosopher has been most influential for you?

Alvin Plantinga.

32.   What’s you favour holiday destination?

Paris…no, Edinburgh…no, Paris…hmm…..

33.   Where would you love to visit but haven’t yet?

Australia.

34.   What grooming products do you use?

Beyond a hair brush?

35.   What can’t you live without?

Besides oxygen, food, and water? My books.

36.   If you won 10 million pounds what would you do?

Quit work, buy a new house, visit Australia, and move to Paris…no Edinburgh…no Paris…hmm…

37.   What age are you?

40.

38.   What age do you wish you were?

17

39.   What part of your body do you like best?

My smouldering good looks, obviously.

40.   Which part of your body would you most like to change?

The shape of my head…seriously, what’s going on with it?

41.   Which famous person would you like to spend an evening with in the pub?

Micky Flanagan

42.   Star Wars or Star Trek?

Star Wars.

43.   Marvel or DC?

Marvel

44.   Do you play a sport?

Not presently. I used to play football and badminton.

45.   When you were younger what did you want to be when you grew up?

A fighter pilot in the RAF.

46.   Why didn’t you do that?

Apparently other plane try to shoot you down, who knew?!

47.   What household chore are you responsible for?

Dishes, ironing, bins, and anything requiring a power drill.

48.   Any hobbies?

I play drums, collect world percussion instruments, and read comic books (typically Thor).

49.   Quick death or time to prepare?

Go to bed and never wake up, isn’t that what we all want?

50.   Where would you like to be right now?

Having a stroll up the Royal Mile, Edinburgh.

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Forthcoming Articles

I have a number of articles currently on my “to write” list. Forthcoming articles include:

  1. What are skeptical theists skeptical about? In this article I want to summarize the sorts of things us skeptical theists are skeptical about and why I think that the prospects of anyone developing a persuasive intellectual argument from evil against the existence of God are not bright.
  2. One of the assumptions behind certain classical arguments from evil is that if God can create perfect beings who always choose the right thing then he should. I want to challenge this assumption.
  3. Abortion & Bodily Rights. Here I want to argue why I think pro-choice arguments based on the “right to bodily autonomy” are not terribly good.
  4. The Argument Pro-Lifers are Terrified Of! I will discuss one argument which apparently should terrify me. It doesn’t, and I will say why.
  5. Why I’m not a Compatibilist – Part (1) Philosophy. In this article I want to discuss the differences between libertarian approaches to freedom and compatibilist ones, and why I think compatibilism is ultimately incoherent.
  6. Why I’m not a Compatibilist – Part (2) Theology. Here I want to add theological reasons for my rejection of compatibilism – particularly in light of the problem of evil and the sufferings of the damned in Hell.
  7. Why all the cool kids are molinists. I think a statement of my view on molinism is long overdue. In this article I want to state what molinism actually is and defend it from certain criticisms.

 

That should keep me busy for a while, particularly since some of these articles might break up into several pieces!

I am also starting to answer questions on my blog (see my previous article), so if anyone has any question to raise feel free to ask and if I’m interested enough in the topic I might well reply.

Stephen J. Graham

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Ludwig Feuerbach versus Apophatic Theologians

Every so often I stumble upon a piece of writing that says exactly what I want to say only a million times better than I could ever say it. I would never have guessed that Ludwig Feuerbach – a 19th century German atheist philosopher – would have been one such person, but I recently read some of his work and came across a passage that is exactly what I want to say to a certain breed of apophatic theologian – the kind that thinks we can’t know or say anything about God.  We can’t, they claim, say anything meaningful about the nature of God, or we can only speak of God in terms of what He is not. I always found this sort of talk to be the height of theological tomfoolery (or perhaps a close second to those poor souls who say with the straight face that Jesus was in fact an atheist). It seems to me that the God of such theologians would be a non-entity. After all, if something exists then it has a nature or attributes of some kind that make it the kind of thing it is. I much prefer an honest atheist to such types of theologian.

Anyway, I’ll let Feuerback take it from here:

“A being without qualities is one which cannot become an object to the mind; and such a being is virtually non-existent. Where man deprives God of all qualities, God is no longer anything more to him than a negative being. To the truly religious man, God is not a being without qualities, because to him he is a positive, real being. The theory that God cannot be defined, and consequently cannot be known by man, is therefore the offspring of recent times, a product of modern unbelief. . . . On the ground that God is unknowable, man excuses himself to what is yet remaining of his religious conscience for his forgetfulness of God, his absorption in the world: he denies God practically by his conduct, – the world has possession of all his thoughts and inclinations, – but he does not deny him theoretically, he does not attack his existence; he lets that rest. But this existence does not affect or incommode him; it is a merely negative existence, an existence without existence, a self-contradictory existence, – a state of being, which, as to its effects, is not distinguishable from non-being. . . . The alleged religious horror of limiting God by positive predicates is only the irreligious wish to know nothing more of God, to banish God from the mind”

Stephen J. Graham

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Reflections on Faith & Unbelief in “Leaving My Father’s Faith”

Reflections on Faith & Unbelief
Leaving My Father’s Faith: A Review
Directed by John Wright

A sign in my local pub encourages the patrons to put down their mobile devices and actually converse face to face. There’s only one rule: “NO RELIGION!” It’s easy to see why there’s a perceived need for such a rule: religion is divisive. When religion rears its head the pinching and eye poking often swiftly follows. Religious-themed message boards and online discussion forums have become the Mos Eisley of the internet: you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Friends have parted over religious differences, and sometimes families have been torn asunder. Wright’s film thus fittingly asks: “Does a preacher lose his son when his son loses faith?” And it addresses it in the context of a wonderfully compelling personal story.

Tony Campolo – “one of the most important Christian evangelical preachers in the last 50 years,” according to the New York Times – is well-known, massively influential, and often controversial. His son Bart Campolo was for years a partner in his father’s ministry until announcing one Thanksgiving that he no longer believed. He’s now a Humanist chaplain. This film tells the story, doing what sadly is rare for movies these days: touching your heart and making you think. This engaging personal exchange raises questions of relationship, culture, sociology, philosophy, theology, and humanity. Wright – himself the son of a Presbyterian minister – has created space to allow all these issues to be addressed, but always in the context of this personal interaction that is funny, engaging, and deeply poignant. The audience in my screening laughed heartily and shed a few tears.

The film opens with a clever sequence showing a mash-up of the many occasions on which Tony told his famous “Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” story, giving a sense of just how massive this one time spiritual adviser to President Clinton is. We can only imagine what it must have been like for Bart to grow up in this world. In his own words, Bart tells us that even at the age of 52 “father looms large for me.” When we first see them side by side in conversation the rapport between them is fantastic. This is where the strength of this movie lies. Whilst many filmmakers would’ve found the temptation of turning the camera on themselves in a presenter role too much to resist, Wright has stayed largely out of the way, cleverly creating the impression that we’re eavesdropping on this moving and meaningful exchange between father and son, who might just be sitting next to us in our local pub, or at least one that doesn’t ban religious chat.

Many of us know the sad reality of how conversations between atheists and Christians often go: generating more heat than light, riddled with personal insults, and creating little to no real meeting of minds. That’s not the case here. Tony and Bart talk through their differences all the while smiling at fond reminiscences, sharing jokes, and even singing together! In asking Bart “do you think I’m stupid, lying or deluded?” Tony perhaps fears that Bart views him in a way that’s been quite typical of those inspired by the so-called “new atheists.” Bart assures him that he simply sees things differently and, interestingly, remarks that he and his Dad are still on the same team; not just that they are “two bald guys with bad posture,” but given the nature of the work they both have a heart for: helping people in the gritty reality of life. It’s a theme Tony will echo as the conversation progresses.

The centre of the story is, of course, Bart’s deconversion. As we listen to conversion and deconversion stories we quickly begin to see common themes, and Bart is no exception. His doubts are not spectacular or atypical: why doesn’t God, the omnipotent & omnibenevolent creator of the cosmos, do something to help impoverished kids? When we look at the world can we really say there’s such a being in charge of things? Can’t we just get the Bible to say what we want? And isn’t it just fundamentally a very human document? Are our gay friends really going to hell? Why does God never seem to intervene when we pray about important things? In a wonderful little touch Wright illustrates Bart’s faith as a Jenga tower: as each brick comes out the whole thing get more unstable, until…………

Crash. And that’s just what happened to Bart: he suffered a near fatal bicycle accident and in his recovery, he no longer felt the same. Bart seemed struck with a strong sense of mortality: feeling that had he died he would have ceased to exist. He found that he simply no longer believed and had better start living accordingly. I’ve read similar stories of people surviving such things to the opposite effect: believing they’ve been given a second chance, that Someone-Up-There still wants them around for some purpose, that they’ve been given a gift of life. Surprisingly, Bart tells us that he feels as if he has been given a gift: a gift of perspective. Whereas a popular apologetic argument tells us that life without God and immortality would be meaningless and purposeless, Bart will have none of it. He feels more awake to life given that it’s all we have. As he and Tony share a chorus of “This world is not my home,” Bart points out that he feels that this world matters – perhaps precisely because we’re doomed – and expresses the desire that, “I’d like to live until I die.”

Bart’s story illustrates beautifully the muddled reality of both faith and doubt. Neither is the purely intellectual exercise that certain philosophical rationalists would make out. Our life experiences are crucial. In fact, Tony appeals to sociological factors – rather than some of the more intellectual problems Bart points to – in explaining Bart’s loss of faith. Wright himself also enquires as to whether there might be deep psychological factors at play. Noticing that Bart moved to the other side of the country, Wright asks if perhaps Bart is trying to distance himself from his father, with one manifestation of this desire being his rejection of his father’s faith. Here’s the truth: they’re all hinting in the right direction. We simply aren’t the wholly rational agents we like to portray ourselves as. When we read The Gospel According to St Modern Atheist, to be religious is to be stupid or deluded. On the flip-side, St Big Bucks Christian Apologist’s Epistle to the faithful would have us believe that a fair hearing of the evidence should lead to conversion, and that arguments often don’t work because atheists deep down wickedly reject God. What this film does it force us to look at how all this plays out at a very human level far from the ivory tower. And we find that the reality is messier. It always is. Over 100 years ago the American Philosopher William James spoke of the importance of the will in belief formation. More recently we’ve come to appreciate the range of influences on our believing. Whilst we seek to rationally reflect on our beliefs and life experiences we must do so with emotional, psychological, sociological, and cultural baggage. We simply see things differently, as Bart says. That’s human. And it’s not due to deficiencies of intellect or to wickedness. Clearly Tony isn’t stupid, and Bart obviously isn’t just a bad guy.

As Bart and Tony recall that Thanksgiving Day when Bart first told his Dad of his deconversion the mood becomes more sombre immediately – the pain etched on Tony’s face lets us see that undoubtedly this still affects him deeply. There was real fear for their relationship. A lesser man might have rejected his son, but Tony sees a much bigger picture. Bart is still his beloved son; he’s still a good man. In fact, for Tony, Bart is “an anonymous Christian,” which I’m sure will be labelled by some evangelicals as nonsense, or at best a case of denial. But it gives us an insight into Tony’s faith. Tony Campolo was a trailblazer of the “evangelical left,” and helped to awaken a sense that the gospel of Christ is more than a preached messaged. There are social obligations too: to help the poor and oppressed. In his role as a Humanist chaplain, Bart fights for social justice and cares for the poor, and as Tony reminds us, “that’s Kingdom work.”

And with that Tony echoes Bart’s sentiments from earlier in the film and we end up marvelling at how different Tony’s and Bart’s worldviews are and yet how similar they remain. Bart is still Tony’s beloved son doing Kingdom business. Tony admits to having the occasional doubt. In this there is a real meeting of minds. Bart’s attitude is the foil to the kind of aggressive atheism that’s become all too familiar. Tony is the foil to an evangelical complacency about the social obligations of the gospel, as well as to a kind of dogmatic evangelical certainty.

The relationship between a father and a son is always a special one (just ask Jesus!). Our conversations with other people will rarely be as engaging and emotionally charged as this one. But whether you’re a Christian or an atheist and you’re looking for a primer as to how to conduct religious conversations, this is a great example to follow. Show it in your youth group. Take your humanist friends to see it. Better still – invite humanists to your church group and watch it together! Maybe some of the respectful honesty of this exchange will rub off and, who knows, maybe we might even convince my local pub finally to take down its prohibition.

Stephen J. Graham

You can find out more about the release of this film and where you can see it at:

https://campolofilm.com/

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Q & A, Mind Farts, & Brain Vomit: Solutions

I managed to catch the final lecture of William Lane Craig’s “Reasons for Hope” tour of Ireland. The venue was Assembly Buildings in Belfast city centre, home of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The event was managed by Christian Unions Ireland and attracted several hundred people. It wasn’t a debate or a hard-headed philosophical lecture. It was a popular level apologetics talk, pitched to interested lay-people. Still, Craig was engaging and easy to listen to. He’s undoubtedly a fantastic communicator, whatever you think of his philosophy. Sadly he only spoke for around 45 minutes of the event, the rest of the 1.25 hours being dedicated to Q & A. What a disaster.

Seriously. It was a train wreck. It was so bad that I confess I left half-way through and went home. Every Q & A cliché was on display. The guy who has a rambling speech to deliver. The guy who can’t quite turn his incoherent thoughts into a question. The guy who asks his simple question in such a convoluted way that no-one – not even Craig with two doctorates – can understand it. It’s maddening. Here we were with one of the most influential Christian philosophers at our disposal but instead we were having to listen to Joe Bullplop rambling about cosmic nihilism, or Jimmy Whattheheck trying to make some point about humans being pleasure seeking animals (or perhaps, as another attendee suggested, it was “pattern seeking,” I have no idea. The point is – it was about a clear as dirty dishwater).

I assume these people have come to this event because they have at least some interest in philosophy. Why, then, can they not ask a simple question? Why do they even struggle to form a coherent sentence? Don’t they know I’m not interested in their brain vomit? Is it stupidity? Arrogance? What inspires them to embarrass themselves with a mind fart in front of several hundred people? It’s painful to watch.

It’s utterly unnecessary too. It’s about time we clamped down on it. Far too many perfectly decent events are ruined by badly handled Q & A sessions. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Never have an “open mic.” If you do, there is no quality control at all. You’re leaving yourself open to every swivel-eyed loon who thinks he has something important to add to the debate.

2. Lots of well-meaning people can become unstuck and tongue-tied when they suddenly hear their voice magnified across an auditorium. Insist they write their question down and read it.

3. If you want to help the people above, have their question checked by an assistant before they ask it. If it doesn’t make sense to the assistant, it probably won’t make sense to others. Time to rethink and rewrite.

4. Even better – have questions written down and submitted beforehand. This way the best and most relevant questions can be picked out rather than prioritising questions based on who had the balls to get up in front of a microphone first.

5. Don’t be afraid to embarrass people publically. Yes, it might be cruel, but it’s time to stop tolerating incoherent babble. Cut people off if you have to. Tell them to take a seat to get their thoughts together and try again later. Tell them they have 10 seconds to get their question out or they lose the mic. Not only do you cut short their nonsense, you also put off others tempted to do the same.

6. Here’s a rule I recommend you announce to the audience: if you can’t ask your question in a single short sentence don’t get to your feet until you can. If your question takes a paragraph of explanation, then this Q & A isn’t for you.

7. It might be cheating, but it’s not always a bad idea to have a few audience “plants.” These are people who have been primed with questions to ask beforehand. It helps get the Q & A off to a good start and sets the tone.

8. Insist – with no exceptions – that the questions relate to the topic of the evening. If they don’t, cut the person off and move on.

9. Normally during a Q & A there is a chairperson controlling the event. This role is absolutely crucial – not only for 1-8 above, but also to save a dying Q & A session. If it’s falling flat he or she should intervene to ask a few questions in and around the topic, turning the Q & A into an interview for a brief time.

10. Don’t think the Q & A time is a time when the hard work is done and you can just sit back and relax. Q & A can make the difference between an audience member staying and praising your event or going home and writing a disgruntled blog post about it.

Stephen J Graham

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Theodicy Revisited

The wonderful folks at On Religion magazine have published ny most recent article “Theodicy Revisited,” a follow up to my earlier article, “The Drama of Evil.”

Stephen J. Graham

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In my previous article (see Issue 13 of On Religion) I discussed one version of the problem of evil and I contended that one of the premises of this argument – “gratuitous evil exists” – is not one which the theist is obliged to accept. In fact, arguably this premise is only true if it is the case that God does not exist; but this is precisely what is at issue. Moreover, the chances of the atheist demonstrating that any particular evil is in fact gratuitous are not very good given our cognitive limitations.

In response, one critic opined that saying “God moves in mysterious ways” simply “doesn’t cut it.” However, nowhere did I suggest that the solution to the problem of evil is simply “God moves in mysterious ways.” I was merely offering a defence against one particular argument from evil. Just because I wasn’t offering a full-blown theodicy – an attempt to provide positive reasons why God causes or permits evil to exist – does not mean I think the problem of evil can be settled by saying “God moves in mysterious ways.” In fact, I think there are several positive things we can say about evil.

Now, when we offer a theodicy it shouldn’t be taken as an explanation of God’s actual reasons for allowing evil or as an exhaustive list of all the reasons God could have. Moreover, a theodicy isn’t a failure if it only addresses certain evils but not others. All a theodicy needs to do to help weaken the argument from evil is to provide plausible reasons which God might or could have for causing or permitting certain evils.

As there isn’t space in a short article to give a fully developed theodicy, I wish simply to outline some of the main themes that emerge in the various theodicies on offer.

1. Free Will

Most theodicies rely on the notion of free will at some stage and to some degree. God has endowed us with free will as an important part of being creatures made in his image with significant choices to make in this world. Without free will our moral life would be impossible, in fact life itself would be reduced to something of a farce. However, our life and our choices really do matter. We are not automatons; God has made something much more valuable and significant than that. Philosophers of religion such as Alvin Plantinga have developed this use of the concept of free will in relation to the problem of evil, such that it seems to many to be an effective response at least to the evils that result from the abuse of free will by human agents. Other philosophers go even further than this and extend the use of the notion of free will to the existence of natural evils – earthquakes, tornadoes, or tsunamis, for example – seeing them as the result of the free actions of demonic agents. However, there is another way of applying free will to such things, which brings me to the second theme.

2. The Fall

The most common way to view the evils of nature – inspired greatly by Saint Augustine – is to regard them as the consequences of the Fall. So, philosopher of religion Peter Van Inwagen writes: “All evil is the result of the primordial act of turning away from God; there is no source of evil other than creaturely rebellion.” In this turning away from God human beings caused the corruption not only of their own nature, but also of the created order. We are now living with the consequences of that act. Christian theologians add that it was to reverse this act of rebellion and its disastrous consequences that God became flesh to atone for sin, making salvation possible. God is now in the business of bringing creation to its ultimate purpose: where everything will be made new and all sin and suffering will be dealt
with.

Now, it isn’t the case that all the pain and suffering a person faces are regarded as punishment for their own sins. It is no part of Christian teaching that when bad things happen to a person then there must be sin in his or her life which has brought them suffering and pain. The Old Testament book of Job is a decisive refutation of such theology, as is the life and crucifixion of Christ. However, there is a strand of biblical thought – most explicit in the book of Judges – that shows us that there are occasions when suffering and pain is caused either by sin itself or in the form of punishment for sin. Moreover, sometimes in the natural world there are certain consequences that go along with certain actions. For instance, those who are sexually promiscuous are far more likely to suffer sexually transmitted diseases. This suffering is not “punishment,” but is a likely consequence of certain forms of behaviour.

Again, it must be stressed that this should not lead us to a theology of retribution where every instance of suffering is interpreted as the result of a person’s sin: it clearly isn’t. Pain and suffering is, on this view, simply the result of living in a fallen world, a result which will in time be remedied.

3. Soul Making

There is a minority tradition in Christendom that doesn’t accept this interpretation of human beginnings. This tradition is actually older than the Augustinian approach but it never achieved the same systematic development. This alternative view is often associated with Irenaeus.

Irenaeus made the distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity, corresponding to two stages of creation. The former concerns our basic 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. Irenaeus argued that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” (the first stage of creation) we are not perfected in God’s “likeness,” (the second stage of creation). 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. Ireneaus argued that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the direct creation of a perfect finite being because 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.

For this second stage of creation to be realised we require a certain type of environment, and in particular one allowing us a significant level of freedom from God. In order to possess any kind of significant autonomy in relation to God, humankind must be set at epistemic distance from God. This means the reality and presence of God is not impressed upon human beings in the coercive way in which the natural world forces itself upon our attention. To some extent then the world must appear as if there is no God. God will be a hidden deity, veiled by creation, and knowable only by a mode of knowledge which requires a free personal response on the part of each individual person. This context will secure for humankind the necessary cognitive freedom, from which we may either be aware or unaware of our Maker. So, the hiddenness of God – so often used as an argument in favour of atheism – is actually to be expected. It guarantees our cognitive freedom, and makes it possible for us to ignore God if we wish and live as if He were not there. On the
other hand creation remains fit to mediate the presence of God for those who choose to step towards Him. As Pascal put it: There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”

When we consider the kind of character the world must have so as to give humans freedom vis-a-vis God it seems that a world of the kind we occupy is a fitting environment to this end. In our world we do not dwell in the direct and unmistakable presence of God, but rather in a context in which we may freely welcome the knowledge and presence of God or hold it at bay. Our world can be experienced and interpreted in religious or atheistic terms. The state of the world is then a necessary condition for the realisation of an incredibly great good: the perfection of beings which comes through redemption.

4. Greater Goods

This highlights another popular theme in theodicy – the idea that God causes or permits evil and suffering because by doing so He brings about goods that weren’t otherwise possible. If we judge the world on the extent to which it promotes pleasure to all, then it fails. However, in Christianity – and virtually all other major world religions – the purpose of life is not hedonism or worldly pleasures. The purpose of life is the knowledge of God, which brings ultimate human fulfillment. Knowing God – the creator of the universe, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the locus of infinite goodness and love – is an incomparable good, the fulfilment of our existence. The evils we find in the world are pointless in so far as creating a nice environment for promoting our own desired pleasures, but not necessarily with respect to achieving the kinds of goods God desires for us. For instance, innocent human suffering could lead to deeper reliance and trust in God (though of course whether this purpose is achieved will depend on a person’s free response), or perhaps moral and natural evils are often the means God uses to draw people to Himself. Not every evil we face is obviously connected with a greater good, but many evils are at least plausibly connected to greater goods. When so many evils are at least plausibly connected with greater goods we can perhaps have hope when faced with evils for which no greater good can be presently conceived that even they too are not gratuitous.

5. Eternity

For the Christian, God’s purposes extend beyond this life and into eternity. If earthly life is a grain of sand, eternity is the Sahara. Many who bear suffering and sorrow in this life will receive heavenly joy and recompense beyond earthly comprehension. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. The sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon.

There is much more to say, but ultimately the Christian’s response to evil rests on his or her hope in the sovereignty, love and justice of God. There is no evil outside of God’s control; no evil that doesn’t serve a divine purpose; no evil that won’t be dealt with in the fullness of time.

Stephen J Graham

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The Drama of Evil

This article was published in On Religion Magazine.

The argument looks at the so-called problem of gratuitous evil and in arguing that this argument is unsuccessful I discuss how atheists and Christians have very different approaches to the problem.

The article is written for a popular audience, not an academic one.

Stephen J. Graham

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Amongst the various arguments against the existence of God the problem of evil is the most recalcitrant, with a history stretching back millennia. The problem is responsible for the spilling of rivers of ink from the pens of theists (particularly Christians) and atheists alike; the former trying to explain it, or at least reconcile it with the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God, while the latter use it as evidence against the existence of such a being.

Throughout the history of philosophical thought the problem has come in various versions. Some thinkers have held that the mere existence of evil is flat-out logically incompatible with the existence of God. Others make the more modest claim that the sheer amount of evil we find in the world makes the existence of God improbable. These arguments have been unsuccessful. With respect to the former, very few atheist philosophers would offer the problem of evil as a strict logical problem. Largely thanks to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga it is generally agreed that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. With respect to the latter – what has been called the “probabilistic problem of evil” – not only is it incredibly difficult to establish the improbability of God on evil; but in any event, even if we grant that the existence of God is improbable with respect to the evil in the world it might still be incredibly probable once we take into account the total evidence, perhaps various arguments for the existence of God, or our own sense of the divine – the “sensus divinitatis” as John Calvin called it.

And so in recent times we see the argument cast in yet another guise: focusing on the alleged existence of seemingly gratuitous evil. Gratuitous evil is evil that doesn’t serve any purpose, has no point, and lacks any justifying reason whatsoever. The atheist might grant that some evils exist as necessary to some greater good or purpose, however, he reckons, an all-powerful and all-loving God surely wouldn’t allow gratuitous evil. Therefore, the existence of gratuitous evil, it is claimed, is strong evidence against the existence of God. We might cast the argument in formal terms like so:

1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist. 2. Gratuitous evil does exist. 3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Granted, if premises 1 and 2 are true then the conclusion logically follows, but do we have any reason to grant premises 1 and 2? It seems to me that both are questionable, but in this article I want to focus only on premise 2.

What reason do we have for supposing that premise 2 is correct, that gratuitous evil does, in fact, exist? Since this argument is the atheist’s argument it is he who bears the burden of proof for its premises. Unfortunately for the atheist this premise is incredibly difficult to establish. The chief reason for this difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are finite – limited in space, time, insight and intelligence – and thus not in any intellectual position to make such judgments. Certainly we can grant that some evils look gratuitous, but how do we know they actually are? Some seemingly gratuitous evil could in time lead to some great good – perhaps even decades later and in a very different socio-cultural context than the one in which the evil occurred. In the world in which we live things are intricately interconnected in such a way that even very small events can turn out to have massive unforeseen consequences. A beautiful illustration of this principle can be found in the film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The narrator of the scene, Benjamin Button, tells us the story of all the events leading up Daisy being knocked down by a taxi. All the events are seemingly insignificant: a woman forgetting her coat, a taxi driver stopping to get a coffee, the taxi having to stop for a man rushing to work because he forgot to set his alarm, the taxi
being blocked by a delivery truck, Daisy’s waiting behind for a friend who had broken her shoelace, and so on. He observes:

“And if only one thing had happened differently: if that shoelace hadn’t broken; or that delivery truck had moved moments earlier; or that package had been wrapped and ready, because the girl hadn’t broken up with her boyfriend; or that man had set his alarm and got up five minutes earlier; or that taxi driver hadn’t stopped for a cup of coffee; or that woman had remembered her coat, and got into an earlier cab, Daisy and her friend would’ve crossed the street, and the taxi would’ve driven by. But life being what it is – a series of intersecting lives and incidents, out of anyone’s control – that taxi did not go by, and that driver was momentarily distracted, and that taxi hit Daisy, and her leg was crushed.”

Intellectually limited as we are, humans can’t possibly know or predict the long-term effects of even seemingly trivial events. Without such knowledge it is difficult to claim that any given evil is in fact gratuitous.

In fact, it seems that unless one is already committed to atheism there is no reason to accept premise (2). Those of us who believe in God might counter-argue as follows:

4. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist. 5. God exists. 6. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

So, if God exists no evil is gratuitous; it all has a purpose in God’s providential ordering of the cosmos. This means that one’s judgment concerning this version of the problem of evil is not independent of one’s prior commitment – or lack thereof – to the existence of God. The atheist’s argument need not therefore have any appeal to theists. Whether or not gratuitous evil exists depends on whether or not God exists.

This exposes a problem in this form of the problem of evil. Atheists often present it as an argument against belief in God, one they reckon should convince theists. However, they tend to ignore the fact that theists in general – and Christians in particular – approach the problem from a very different perspective. (I here address the problem as a Christian – member of other faiths to whom the problem of evil is pertinent will have to rely on whatever resources their own tradition provides). Christians already believe in God. Whilst the intellectual credentials of Christian belief are (in my judgment) good, most of us probably believe in God because we experience God as a living reality. Our God is not just the God of the philosophers, the conclusion of a deductive argument. Rather our God is the living God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who took on human flesh and pitched his tent amongst us; the God whose Spirit dwells within us. He is a God of history, working out his redemptive plan day after day and year after year.

An illustration will hopefully help to show the difference between the atheist and the Christian outlook. The atheist position views the world with its evils like a picture with blemishes and ugly stains all over it. But, a picture is static, it doesn’t change: a picture is only a snapshot in time, not the whole story. In contrast, the Christian view is that the world with its evils is more like a drama. A drama moves across time, it changes. Horrors from an earlier scene can find their meaning and redemption in the end. If we focus on one scene – perhaps where the hero is imprisoned, the villain imposing his will, and little hope in sight – we may well despair. But of course the meaning of a drama isn’t found in any one scene. The meaning of a drama is often only revealed at the end when the drama reaches resolution. The end puts earlier scenes in a new light. We often get glimpses into this sort of
thing in our own lives. How often do we look back on something and see it in a different light? Hindsight can be a wonderfully illuminating thing.

We see glimpses of this principle in scripture. The apostle Paul was able to write in the midst of his hardships: “So we do not lose heart. . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to things that are seen, but to things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” [2 Cor 4:16-18]. Paul understood that the Christian lives in the light of eternity. This life is not the end of the story. Earthly life is infinitesimal in comparison with the eternal life awaiting us. As we live in this eternity, the sufferings of our present life will shrink towards an infinitesimal moment, a speck on the horizon. Even though there may be evils serving little or no good (from an earthly human viewpoint), they may well be permitted by God for some purpose which has yet to become clear.

Easter has just passed, and as the centrepiece of Christianity it provides resources for reflection on the “drama” of evil. Imagine standing as one of Christ’s disciples watching his crucifixion. The one you followed as Lord, Messiah, healer, preacher, and friend, is nailed to a cross. It’s over. All your hopes are crushed. This was the death of one cursed. This was not meant to happen to the Messiah. For the disciples it was an evil that brought their world to an end. Frozen in time the events of the cross might appear gratuitous, useless, and purposeless; it looks like evil has triumphed. But we know that the story didn’t end here. There’s the resurrection, the Great Commission, Pentecost: in short, there’s redemption. Evil is defeated. Good has triumphed. God is not dead. The drama of redemptive history continues.

No one can rightly condemn or adversely judge an artist on the basis of an unfinished piece. Whilst the atheist may rest content to judge God on the here and now, the Christian need not be so inclined. Our God is one who turns crucifixion to resurrection; fall to salvation; sin to redemption. And whilst we may freely acknowledge that we can’t comprehend all the evils we see and experience, we also know that the Director is still at work, and the curtain has not yet fallen…….

Stephen J. Graham

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Books in 2016

I have made a rather modest challenge to myself of reading 30 books in 2016. I thought I’d keep a list here of all my books, more for myself than anything else, but some folks might be interested in what literary offerings float my boat. I’m not recording essays (unless I read an entire book of them) or articles here, just books and perhaps a note as to whether they were worth reading. I’ll add to this list as the year goes on and I finish each book.

FINISHED:

1. History of Ancient Greece – Nathaniel Harris.

A fantastic introduction to the life, literature, philosophy, culture and art of ancient Greece – one of the few books I’ve read with pictures!

2. Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown

Recommended reading for anyone who wants an insight into how various psychic/supernatural charlatans operate and the tricks they use.

3. The Plague – Albert Camus

I don’t read a lot of novels these days, this one is – not surprisingly – excellent. My love for Camus continues.

4. Religions of Ancient China – HA Giles

Published in 1905 this is a charming little book, but doesn’t read terribly well. But it helped fill a small gap in my knowledge of religions.

5. Is The Atheist My Neighbor? – Randal Rauser

Rauser does an excellent job of squeezing so much worthwhile content into such a short book, challenging a very common Christian assumption that atheists really deep down know there’s a God.

6. In Search of the Trojan War – Michael Wood

Although a little bit dated it’s a great read for anyone in love with Homer’s the Iliad who wants to discover the link between the myth and the real world.

7. Discourse on Method & The Meditations – Rene Descartes

Not the first time I’ve read this philosophical classic, and probably not the last time either. This is a must read for any budding philosopher.

8. The War of The Worlds – HG Wells

Short book, short chapters – perfect holiday reading! Of course it’s a classic so well worth reading if you haven’t whether you’re on holiday or not. Martians attack the earth, what more can you ask for?

9. Four Tragedies & Octavia – Seneca, translated by EF Watling

Seneca is one of those classical authors I have managed to avoid all these years. This volume contains his versions of several Greek classics: Thyestes, Phaedra, The Trojan Women, and Oedipus. Seneca is no Sophocles, but if you love the stories of ancient Greece it’s a good read nevertheless.

10. The Greeks, Kenneth Dover

In the author’s words: “This book is a handful of pebbles picked up from a long, bright beach and arranged in a sequence of my own choose.” The book was a but haphazard to me and I would have chosen different pebbles and arranged them differently. Still, it’s not a bad overview of certain aspects of “The Greeks.”

11. Church in Hard Places, Mez McConnell & Mike NcKinley

I read very little popular Christian books, but this one was worth reading and has some interesting, and counter-intuitive, things to say about how churches can best help those in “hard places.”

12. A History of Philosophy – Volume 2 Part 2 – Frederick Copleston (SJ)

This is only one volume of a massive multi-volume work. In this volume Copleston considers the philosophy of several medieval philosophers, giving most of his attention to Aquinas and Scotus. Reading Copleston on Aquinas is a delight, and the book is worth it for those chapters alone. My only beef is that Copleston constantly throws out Latin phrases when he doesn’t need to, and with no translation. It got a bit tiresome, particularly during the treatment of Scotus. That said this book was excellent, and I wouldn’t mind collecting the remaining volumes.

13. The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers, Ted Honderich et al

Pretty much what the title suggests. Each essay is written by a different author and gives a very brief overview of the life and work of one particular philosopher. There are some philosophers I wouldn’t have included, and some missing I would have. Generally the essays do the job well, but a few are poorly written, leaving the novice no more wiser than when he began.

14. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis

I rarely read devotional books and had this one lying around for a few years. I didn’t read it “devotionally” but it’s structured perfectly for that, and is rightly considered a classic. At times Kempis is just a tad too anti-intellectual for my tastes, but that’s a very minor criticism of an overall very enjoyable and thought-provoking text.

15. Greece and Rome: Myths and Legends, HA Guerber

This was a brilliant collection (and retelling) of the myths of Greece and Rome, with the added bonus of a final chapter that gives an interesting (though not to me persuasive) account of the origin of the myths from an analysis of linguistics. The stories told in the book are interspersed with small sections of poetry from a massive array of poets through the ages, showing just how influential these myths have been. Well worth reading.

16. Moral Philosophy, DD Raphael

This is a relatively short and very readable guide to moral philosophy. It’s recommended for those new to moral philosophy – students or the legendary general reader. It has particularly useful chapters on utilitarianism, justice, and liberty.

17. The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas

I’d read a kids version of this classic when I was about 10, but never Dumas’ original. I loved it from start to finish. I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in years. It ended too quickly!

18. The Will to Believe & Other Essays, William James

As with any collection of essays this contains a few duds that didn’t particularly interest me. But, there are gems here, not least of all the title essay which is one my favourite pieces of philosophy. James is one of the most influential philosophers on my own approach. If nothing else you must admire any man who, in an effort to refute Hegel, gets himself intoxicated with nitrous oxide!

19. The 39 Steps, John Buchan

A short and enjoyable thriller. It was a bit loose in parts but was a decent yarn worth a read.

20. Miracles and Idolatry, Voltaire

This is basically a collection of short essays – enlightenment blog posts, if you will. The book is very readable, and I particularly enjoyed his rather surprising discussion of atheism and his sarcasm soaked lampooning of church councils. Voltaire’s message is always simple: learn to think well, and then think for yourself.

21. Augustine, Henry Chadwick

This short book is part of OUP’s “Past Masters” series, which is excellent as an introduction to many historical thinkers. During my university days modules in church history were my least favourite, and Chadwick almost single-handedly got me through them. This book is a good introduction to Augustine, with my only minor criticism being that the structure of the book isn’t in any particular logical or historical order (that I could discern), but I unhesitatingly recommend OUP’s entire series.

22. The Religious Experience of Mankind, Ninian Smart

I read parts of this as a student but never start to finish, and what a rollicking romp across time and space it is as Smart documents the ideas and growth of religious traditions, ideas and experiences all over the world over thousands of years. A must-read for theologians and philosophers of religion, or anyone else wanting to learn something about world religions.

23. Philebus, Plato.

What constitutes the good life? Pleasure? Reason? Some mix of the two? You’ll have to read it for Plato’s answer. Not my favourite of Plato’s dialogues, but still, it’s Plato and it’s a dialogue – a form of writing philosophy whose resurrection is long overdue.

24. Judge Not, Todd Friel

Friel is a staunchly conservative Christian. He’s like marmite: love him or hate him. My wife can’t stand him, I like him despite his views being closer to hers than mine. He’s snarky, sarcastic, and often funny – rare traits in conservative Christians. In this book he basically has a go at all the things that drives him a bit nuts in evangelicalism. Some chapters deserve to be torn from the book and burned, but he speaks a fair bit of sense in others, and entertains along the way.

25. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

To my shame I have never read this classic before now. It’s a weighty tome and I confess after 100 pages I was a bit concerned it was going to be a bust, but ultimately Dostevsky didn’t disappoint. Although the main plot doesn’t really begin until 400 pages in, even before this there are flashes of literally brilliance. The book maybe didn’t need to be so long, but it’s well worth the effort. Read it before you turn 38!

26. God: A Guide for the Persplexed, Keith Ward

A very readable book discussing the many approaches to who and what God is. Ward adopts a quasi-agnostic via negativa approach, which I don’t much care for, but cautioning the religious against metaphysical certainties and grand assured systems is to be welcomed.

27. The Norse Myths, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland

I’ve read other versions of Norse myths, but this one is the best, both in terms of how the stories are told as well as the way they are arranged to tell a longer saga. As a lover of myth I thoroughly recommend this volume.

28. Descartes, Anthony Kenny

Anthony Kenny has seen many a philosophy student safely through their studies, and it’s easy to see why. In this book it’s obvious that Kenny has the utmost respect for Rene Descartes. He lays out Descartes philosophy carefully, and critiques it with fairness and clarity. Make sure you read Descartes works first, though!

29. The Oresteian Trilogy, Aeschylus

I read this one not for the first time and not for the last time. Aeschylus was a master of Greek Tragedy and this volume should appeal to lovers of literature, mythology, and philosophy. I’d love to see it performed live!

30. Mythology of the Celtic People, Charles Squire

This book discusses the two main branches of Celtic mythology: Gaelic and British. The first part – Gaelic – is better written, more coherent, and far more interesting. The second part got a bit boring. I would have rather had more stories than explanation. But, anyone interested in Gaelic mythology could do worse than Part 1.

Bonus Track – “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens

I’ve seen several movie versions but never read the original story. It was amazingly good…delightful…meaningful…and a brilliant way to finish off my 2016 book challenge.

Stephen J Graham

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Christianity: A Cold-House for Philosophers & Lesbians

This week the Christian singer-songwriter turned religious commentator Vicky Beeching has “come out.” The Independent printed a fascinating interview with her here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/vicky-beeching-star-of-the-christian-rock-scene-im-gay-god-loves-me-just-the-way-i-am-9667566.html

I’ve read the article and have been fascinated by some of the comments flying around cyberspace. From what I can gather most of the Twitterverse has rallied round, and I’m sure Beeching has been buoyed by the reception she has received. Of course, as is patently clear in her interview, Beeching knows all too well the suspicion and downright religious hatred that is often directed towards homosexuals by Christians generally and Evangelicals in particular. She was quite rightly nervous about how the news of her sexuality would be received.

Thus far, from what I can tell, she’s done well. Most of the reaction has been supportive, and many people were moved by the interview (if you haven’t read it stop reading my ramblings and read it), with some claiming to have shed tears at what she has struggled through from a very early age. I can’t claim to have shed any tears myself, but one particular episode she recounts had me almost shaking with rage (I’m from Belfast, we don’t cry, we just get mad!). At age 16 she attended a large rally, seemingly the kind of charismatic shindig where people are told that Jesus has the power to deliver you from all sorts of bondage. Being confused and guilt-ridden from feeling same-sex attraction and trying to live within a conservative faith community which condemns it, Beeching went forward for prayer only to find herself surrounded by horribly overzealous charismatics praying in tongues and trying to cast evil spirits out of her. This maddened me so much I was almost swearing in tongues.

When you read the interview you are struck by just how harmful and abusive certain forms of Christianity can be. And the question was inevitably raised in several comments: why on earth would you stay true to a church or a faith that has wounded you as much as this?

I have often pondered the same question in my own case. I’m not gay, but I’ve seen and been victim of my own fair share of ecclesiastical abuses. I spent 10 years in the horribly abusive charismatic movement, I’ve witnessed enough church abuses to last me a lifetime from manipulative, greedy preachers to the cultish behaviour of certain faithful church members. In my own case I’ve experienced rejection and alienation simply because I’m not an “easy believer.” Being a philosopher can be a difficult business when it comes to church. The kind of questioning and critical nature of the average philosopher isn’t often welcomed in churches. To a great extent I’ve lived in isolation from Christian culture, feeling I don’t fit in. I even deleted my Facebook account a few months ago largely because I was growing weary of other Christians I know. I was weary of having my faith constantly called into question because I didn’t sign up to the party-line on some given issue, or because I questioned the public comments of some fundamentalist preacher. More than that I felt many of these Christians were embarrassing themselves in front of my non-Christian friends with downright idiotic comments. In fact, one of my closer non-Christian friends remarked to me: “Do you not think you’re on the wrong side?”

And thus the question comes back: why bother with an institution or with a faith that has wounded you so much, that has caused so much grief to you?

Beeching has stated that she wants to be an agent for change in the church, and that she remains a passionate Christian believer. And that’s exactly the right answer, I think. In my own case I remain a Christian because I believe the central tenets of Christianity are true. It’s not about how it makes you feel, or about how the behaviour of other adherents affects you. At rock bottom the best (only?) reason to hold to any belief is if you are convinced of its truth. Some of the adherents of Christianity can be rotten, blinkered, petty-minded, bigoted, intolerant and about as much fun to be around as a grizzly bear with a migraine. In fairness, there are many also who are kind-hearted, compassionate, hard-working, helpful, fair-minded and self-sacrificing. But we’re not Christians because some Christians are nice. Nor should we abandon faith because others are nasty. Christianity – like any worldview or faith system – stands or falls on the grounds of truth. Insofar as Beeching is convinced of the truth of her faith she is quite right not to abandon it despite the horrendous suffering she has endured at the hands of those who really should have done better.

Stephen J. Graham

Stephen J. Graham

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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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