Tale as Old as Time: The Problem of Evil and the Book of Job

job “Tale as old as time, true as it can be, true as it can be,” wrote Howard Ashman in the theme song from the musical “Beauty and the Beast.”[1] In another form the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is a tale as old as time: the battle between good and evil. Even at this writing the word is reeling from terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of good people. Scarcely into the Holy Bible the statement is made, “And God saw that the light was good” (Genesis 1:4 ESV[2]). It could be argued that for the ‘light’ to be called good, bad, evil, had to exist at the same time to provide the contrast. Throughout the scriptures the battle between good and evil occupies the pages. At one time the prophet Habakkuk asked of God, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise” (Habakkuk 1:3). The story of evil continues through the scriptures from the beginning unto its end in the Revelation. But nowhere does the problem of evil get addressed in the same way as it does in the book of Job; the entirety of the book is addressing this problem.

Most likely one of the earliest books of the Bible—probably from the time in around the patriarch Abraham—Job faces many catastrophes in the course of a few days. He has come to be remembered for his patience. He loses the measures of his wealth, his children, and lastly, he loses his health. Yet, through all of the character of Job remains faithful to God, in spite of being told to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). For Job it is the understanding that if people are given good then they should also expect bad (Job 2:10) and “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).

The question that arises from Job is why do good people suffer? Job is an “upright man.” He has wealth, measured by the goods he has as wells as the size of his family. He is “blameless.” Yet, being blameless does not exempt Job from trials and tribulation, all which seem to come at the same time giving validity to the old saying “when it rains it pours.”

If God is good, and most people will not argue that he is not, why does he not do something about the problem of evil? The reader of Job has information that Job does not have, the fact that God has allowed Job’s suffering. But, the question is still left unanswered.  And, with the righteousness of Job the bigger question, as Bullock puts it, “The most obvious issue in the book is the suffering of the righteous”[3] For McKenzie, “”We have no answer to the problem.”[4]

Accepting that there is no answer has not slowed the plethora of books and articles written on the subject. As well, for some, it has been this very issue that has caused some to renounce their faith in a good God, the God of the Bible, and take agnostic and atheistic positions. Kaufman has pointed out, and rightly so, that “the suffering of the righteous leads inevitably to the larger question of whether there is a moral order in the world at all.”[5]

Can the very existence of God, a good and benevolent God, rest on the problem of evil in the world? While Job’s friends do not proffer that there is no God, in modern times that argument has been put forth. As Geisler has noted many thinkers have come to the conclusion that evil must be co-existent with good, Augustine was a proponent of this theory.[6] And, while Geisler’s comment is correct, it does not argue against the existence of God, not that God is good. Geisler puts forth the following syllogisms:

  1. God created all things.
  2. Evil is a thing.
  3. Therefore God created evil.[7]

While there are fallacies in the preceding premise, Geisler also writes, “Evil is a real lack, privation, or corruption of a good thing. That is, evil does not exist in itself: evil exists only in a thing or substance – and all things God made are good. In short, there has to be some good thing in order for evil to exist in it as a lack, corruption, or privation of it.”[8] While in Job the main character does not turn evil, or even do evil, evil befalls him.

The problem of evil, theodicy, is as real today as it was during the time of Job, as it has been at least since Genesis chapter 3. And, while the explanation of it may never be fully understood, there are some points about evil and its use(s) that can be made on the positive side and not infringe on the fact that there is an all-powerful and benevolent God.

 

Retribution

 

Eliphaz comments to Job, “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). This seems to point forward to Galatians 6:7. But, can all evil be said to come from sowing evil? And, even at that, what about people who it is known sew evil and yet still seem to reap good? While Simundson writes, “Maybe it was the result of human sin, a rebellion against God’s commands,”[9] it has to be remember that the reader is given knowledge that Job is upright, staying away from evil. Yet, for Job and his less than comforting friends it has to be remembered that for the most part their belief was that Job’s problems came as Divine retribution for something Job had done. And as Simundson points out, “Most of the biblical efforts to explain suffering try not to blame God without abandoning belief in God’s power to control events.”[10]

Evil has been used by God to bring about his judgment. Throughout the scriptures God is seen using evil as a way to bring Israel back into rights. Habakkuk questioned God on how loing he would have to watch the sin of his own people, Israel. And God answers Habakkuk’s petion saying, “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own” (Habakkuk 1: 5-6). That God does get justice and that God does use the evil in the world to enact that justice and cannot and should not be argued against. Yet, this does not seem on face value to be the case in Job; even if the dialogue between Satan and God were totally omitted it would be hard to make the case that in Job’s case divine retribution was involved.

New Testament scholar, and former Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright asserts that the struggle in Job is not between Job and God, only the readers can understand this point, but it is a struggle between Job and Satan. Wright writes, “Satan is trying to get Job in his power, to demonstrate that humans are not worth God’s trouble, while job for his part continues to insist both that God ought to be just and that he himself is in the right.”[11] While Wright points out that it was sin that led God to exile Israel, God using other nations—and evil, to bring about his purpose, he also points out that that is not the case in Job. “The whole point of the book of Job is that Job was innocent. The normal analysis of the exile was that Israel thoroughly deserved it; the whole point of Job is that Job didn’t.”[12] Wright asserts that “Satan is trying to get Job in his power, to demonstrate that humans are not worth God’s trouble, while job for his part continues to insist both that God ought to be just and that he himself is in the right.”[13]

While it has to be understood that all sin, and all have sinned, retribution seems to be ruled out in Job. If the evil visited upon Job was simply due to evil he had committed would the author have gone to such pains to make the case that Job was a good man? As well, God says to Satan, “Although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason” (Job 2:3, emphasis mine); and Job’s own comment, “For he crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause” (Job 9:17, emphasis mine), seems to totally rule out retribution. The text from Job’s point of view supports a non-retribution theory. Apart from Job’s point of view, the reader also understands that Job is not suffering a punishment for sins committed.

Neiman has argued that understanding the theodicy in Job has changed through the years. “Earlier writers identified with Job’s friends, the theodicy makers who found justification. Later ones identified with Job, who found none.”[14] But this does little to address the problem as the solution has to take both sides of this equation in to account. God’s side and the position of Job, as well as his friends, have to harmonize. The understanding of Job has taken different positions during different eras and does not solve the problem. In all eras God is God and in all eras bad things have happened to good people.

Many have suggested that Christianity is a religion where the people all prosper and do not suffer. Many take John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” as foundational that good things will not happen to good people. If this be the case then retribution could easily be argued. Yet, throughout the Bible good people suffer so the context of John 10:10 cannot apply to the situation of Job. Even then it would have to be asked, do we serve God for what he can do for us?

 

Serving God for God’s Sake

 

Mahn writes, “The question of whether Job serves God for naught comes back to haunt all Christians. Do we serve God for the rewards (that is, for our sake) or do we serve God for “nothing {that is, for the sake of God and the other). Can we worship God truly—that is, in Meister Eckharts phrase, without a why or a wherefore.”[15] Mahn makes the statement, “How do we know Job doesn’t fear God for the kickbacks involved—a fence around his house, productivity in work, increasing possessions (Job 1:8-10)?”[16] Do Christians serve God for the stuff or do they serve God simply for God’s sake?

It is hard to make a case that anyone serves God for the stuff. Job lost his stuff yet continued to serve God. And, in modern times it would be hard to make the case that people serve God simply for the stuff when terrorist groups such radical Islamic terrorists group ISIS is beheading Christians. Yet a look at many modern churches could lead to that opinion. Many present day churches are full of the so called stuff. Many church grounds look like Six Flags Over Heaven and have sanctuaries that could easily qualify to be the Taj Mah Jesus. Even in these churches though, bad things still happen to presumably good people: Recently in South Carolina several people were killed while having a Wednesday night Bible study.

In the book of Job God finally responds to Job’s petitions. It is here that the reader comes to believe God will clear up the problem. But as Burleson writes, “God speaks as a poet. One would think that since toe theodicy question had been raised, and this is the Bible’s opportunity to solve toe [sic] mystery, God would take the opportunity to clear things up. But God does not. It is not preacher, philosopher, politician that is given the microphone; God speaks as a poet.”[17] God not only speaks as a poet, he speaks in the form of rhetorical questions.

Carney writes, “In this familiar speech, God’s booming voice shouts a question that puts it all into perspective: who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”[18] Job has only knowledge of the earthly events that have transpired; he has no knowledge of the Heavenly dialogues. He has coupled the earthly events with the help—or lack thereof—of his friends. Job does not know/understand the ways of God. It may be as Mahn writes, “The God of the theodicists is one capable of some abstract attributes.”[19]

 

Faithfulness

 

The essence of the problems Job faces is will Job walk away from God?  Wright asserts, “[Satan] doesn’t exactly tempt job to sin, though perhaps part of the point is that he’s tempting him to curse God, and Job refuses.”[20] Job is even encouraged to curse God by his wife. This leads to the question of when someone is told to come to Christ and have life to the fullest are they being misled? Noted atheist Christopher Hitchens thinks so. Hitchens he insists that more deleterious to religious faith than its unfounded claims is the false consolation that it offers.[21] Yet, it seems if Christianity was ‘made up’ the founders would have made up a religion without the conundrum of evil having to be explained. But, the idea of making up God is not a foreign idea to philosophers. Voltaire believed if God did not exist it would have been necessary for man to create, make up, God. But would man not do a better job than making up a God full of pitfalls to have to explain? Yet, Voltaire concluded, “all nature cries out that he must exist.”[22]

.

 

 

God Uses Evil

 

As it has been alluded to earlier God has used evil as punitively for the disobedience of Israel. Israel is sent into exile due to the fact that it disobeyed God almost from the beginning. Yet, with the advent of Christ the exile is over. God has begun the process that sets the world back right. Christ fulfills what Israel cannot fulfill. Both Israel and Christ are called God’s son. God’s only begotten Son will do what God’s chosen son, Israel, did not do. But under the New Covenant it has to be ask is any country, in the same way as Israel was, God’s chosen country? Is any one nation of people God’s chosen people? Will God, no matter what Dr. Falwell or Pat Robertson have declared earlier, bring a nation—a nation never prophesied as being God’s chosen nation—back to the foil by using the evil that exists in the world? It would best be seen with the coming of the long awaited Messiah that Israel’s special place has given way to a special place for all under the New Covenant. If Israel still has a special place then all under the N.C. occupy that same space regardless of geographical habitation. Gentiles who confess the Christ are grafted into the same tree as Israel. So to argue that God is using evil to bring countries under control seems to be a weak response at best to the problem of evil in today’s world.

But even with the advent of the Messiah evil still exist. So, as Bullock writes, “The assumption of this [existential] mode is that the experience of Job is paradigmatic of what others, regardless of time in history, have suffered. They, therefore, find their experience in Job and identify with him.”[23] The experience of evil in today’s world is one in which the world can identify with Job and not the children of Israel. As Bullock asserts, “In Job the suffering saint has one with whom to identify.”[24] After a round of bad luck so to speak the author of Job writes, “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped” (Job 1:20, emphasis mine).  Could it be that the point of the Job is not why evil happens, but a better way to look at Job is a proper response to suffering? In Jobs words, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil” (Job 2:10)? Ngwa writes, “’ The Prologue explores the reality of disaster not primarily through the prism of human piety, but largely through the tripartite nexus of the causal theory of suffering (with an underlying ethical uncertainty), the reality of suffering (with its overt horror and ethical crisis), and the reception theory of suffering (with its perspectival ethics).”[25] Ngwa continues, “Curiously, it is not escape from suffering that distinguished the noble religious Job. Rather, it was Job’s ability to endure suffering, and this ability was referred to as ‘blessed’ (Jas 5.10-11). Apparently unaware of the text of Ezekiel or desirous of highlighting a different tradition about Job, the writer of James directed his audience to an oral tradition according to which Job endured suffering.”[26]

 

Conclusion

 

Evil has been around as long as man, and it seems it will continue to be around as long as man is around. Currently evil seems to rear its ugly head more days than not. While the problem of evil in Job does not answer the question of evil the book declares two things that can be stated with certainty. Everyone no matter of social status or state of righteousness will suffer at some time during their lives. Some it seems suffer more than others. The other point, and probably the main point, that should be taken from Job is that Job lets the reader know that it is okay to question God when happenings are not understood and Job also provides the reader with a proper response to evil: remain faithful to God no matter what situation one finds him/herself in.

 

Until next time may the Good Lord Bless and Keep You!

sign

 

[1] Howard Ashman, Beauty and the Beast, 1991.

 

[2] All verses Holy Bible English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[3] Hassell C. Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), Chpt 3, under The Central Issue of Job.

 

[4] John McKenzie, The Two Edged Sword (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2009), 237).

 

[5] Yahezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, trans. Moshe Greenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), 334.

 

[6] Norman Geisler, If God Why Evil? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 17.

[7] Geisler, 17-18.

 

[8] Geisler, 19.

[9] Daniel Simundson, “What Every Christian Should Know About Job,” Word and World 31, no. 4, (2011): 350.

 

[10] Simundson, 350.

[11] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 2006), Under Job.

 

[12] Wright, under Job.

 

[13] Wright, under Job.

 

[14]  Susan Neiman, Evil In Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002) 17.

[15] Jason Mahn, “Do Christians Serve God For Naught? Job and the Possibility of ‘Disinterested Faith,’” Word and World 31, no. 4 (2011): 389.

 

[16] Mahn, 390.

[17] Burt Burleson, ‘Out of the Storm,” DaySpring Baptist Church Website, 22 October, 2010, accessed 11 December, 2015, http://www.ourdayspring.org/documents/sermons/2006.10.22_Out_of_the_Stormpdf.

 

[18]Josh Carney, “Holding the faith: Lessons on suffering and transformation in the book of Job,” Review and Expositor 111, no. 3 (2014): 284.

 

[19] Mahn, 391.

 

[20] Wright, under Job.

 

[21] Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), 3-11.

[22] Voltaire quoted in John Dietrich, “Thoughts on God,” Relig Hum 23 (Summer 1989): 110.

 

 

[23] Bullock, Chapter 3.

[24] Bullock, chapter 3.

 

[25] Kenneth Ngwa, “Did Job Suffer for Nothing? The Ethics of Piety, Presumption and the Reception of Disaster in the Prologue of Job,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33, no. 3 (2009): 361.

 

[26] Ngwa, 370.

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