The Mystery of Evil and Suffering

If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and if God is good, how can he allow evil and suffering to exist? Scholars know this question’s answer by the four-syllable name theodicy. The ancient Hebrews, those who wrote the Hebrew Bible and those who wrote the Gospels, could see perfectly well that whatever God’s purposes, they did not include assuring justice in this life. Those who think as I do would say that the existence of senseless evil and suffering show that the supposed properties of God—omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness—cannot exist without contradiction.

In life it’s unlikely that we can ever truly know why bad things happen or evil exists, but in literature it is sometimes possible to know. I take as my text the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job. In this great literary work, we know the answer.

God has proposed Job to Satan as a model human: “Have you considered my servant Job? You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears God and sets his face against wrongdoing.”

Satan needles God: “Has not Job good reason to be God-fearing? Have you not hedged him round on every side with your protection, him and his family and all his possessions? Whatever he does you have blessed, and his herds have increased beyond measure. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and then he will curse you to your face.”

Evidently, God is a gambler and agrees to the vicious test that Satan has proposed. If Job responds to the torments that Satan has in mind by cursing God, Satan wins. If Job does not, God wins. (Why someone would think of betting against an omniscient opponent I don’t know.)

With God’s permission, Satan arranges for all of Job’s oxen and asses to be stolen and for the herdsmen to be killed. Then “God’s fire” burns up Job’s sheep and their shepherds. Three groups of bandits steal Job’s camels and kill their drivers. Finally, a whirlwind knocks the eldest son’s house onto Job’s seven sons and three daughters, killing them. Even as Job mourns these disasters, he doesn’t curse God so, with God’s permission, Satan covers Job’s body with running sores. Still Job does not blaspheme even though his wife encourages him to do so.

Any modern hospital or university ethics committee reviewing a proposal for an experiment involving humans would never approve such a test, but no one thought to criticize God in biblical times. This is because moral values differ from one society to another and change through time. They aren’t absolute. Although many of our moral thoughts trace their roots to the ideas of these ancients, we have learned much since that distant time. Some of their moral ideas were good and others were bad. The biblical text, for example, gives many rules regulating slavery but, as far as I know, does not condemn it as wrong. Here are the first three verses of Job, for example:

There lived in the land of Uz a man of blameless and upright life named Job, who feared God and set his face against wrongdoing. He had seven sons and three daughters; and he owned seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred asses, with a large number of slaves. Thus Job was the greatest man in all the East.

We are embarrassed that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner. No ancient Hebrew was embarrassed that Job was a slave owner. They thought it a sign of God’s favor to have many slaves. Of course, we have as much trouble today upholding our values as did our ancestors, but standards today are higher than they were then. No ancient commentary on the suffering of Job’s wife, his slaves and herdsman, or his children has come down to us. Modern readers, however, feel sympathy and empathy for their suffering. Our values today have advanced and improved.

Job’s friends, shocked at the terrible events that have afflicted him, tell Job that he or his relatives must have sinned to deserve the punishments. Job confidently tells his friends that he and his family are innocent. His friends try to comfort Job by telling him that God’s purposes are hard to understand, but they must be good. Just as we would, Job finds this explanation hard to accept. But, even though he asks God for an explanation, Job never criticizes him. God wins the bet.

Job is one of world literature’s great examples of literary irony, the device by which readers know things that characters do not. What we know is that Job’s sufferings have nothing to do with great and inscrutable cosmic purposes but rather result from the idle small talk of careless and cruel personalities. And we know that Job is innocent. We also know that the discussion between Job and his friends is interesting but irrelevant; God has allowed the devastation of Job’s life to settle what is little more than a barroom bet. As God says to Satan, “You incited me to ruin him without a cause.”

Is God ashamed by the suffering that he’s allowed? No, he isn’t. When he finally appears to Job, does he tell him the truth? He does not. He could very easily say to Job: “I’m sorry about the damage and suffering that I allowed to happen to you, your family, your servants, your flocks and herds. It was essential to my plan for the world. There was no other way. Because of your response, all humans now have a shining example of how to bear inevitable, undeserved suffering. Thank you for your help. I am proud of you. Your name and example will live forever.”

Instead God evades the issue with bombast and misdirection. Setting up a straw man, he asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” He incorrectly implies that Job’s suffering had some great cosmic purpose too complicated for Job to understand. Conceding defeat, Job responds, “But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know.”

Many believe that a caring, personal God has their welfare in mind, but the literary evidence provides little to support this view. Even if there is a God, his inscrutable purposes may be far beyond us, or he may be playing with us, or he may be tormenting us. I would say that the universe has no purpose and that we humans have to sort out what matters. Purpose and meaning are not properties of the universe in the way that mass and energy are. Rather, purpose and meaning are human creations, our glory and our tragedy.

Here is what I believe: Each of us is responsible for the private and the public meanings of our own lives, as far as we can control our fate and foresee the consequences of our actions. To confront human evil, to respond to human suffering—our own or others—and to cope with natural disasters, we’re on our own. We must deal with these afflictions individually and collectively. We can’t rely on supernatural powers to help us.

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