If I had wanted to start this article with a sickening story of abuse from local news, it would have been depressingly quick and easy to find one. I will spare you and myself. We know the world is full of evil. Sometimes on horrifyingly grand scales like genocide, and sometimes small-scale but still no less disturbing in the levels of depravity it can reach. There is also “natural evil,” things like earthquakes, famine, or disease, indiscriminate and seemingly random in the suffering they inflict.
The problem of evil is one of the great challenges to the Christian faith. The problem is that according to the biblical witness, God is both benevolent and omnipotent, yet the world is full of evil. These three facts are hard to reconcile. Evil is everywhere and is very real, yet we affirm that God has the power to stop it, and that he is good. This is a problem.
A Greater Good?
A common approach to the problem is to say that “evil” things are only evil when considered in isolation, but God allows them because they are part of a greater good.
This answer does have some biblical warrant. It is the appeal that Joseph made to his brothers, when he told them that their selling him into slavery was an evil on their part, but that God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20). So the “greater purpose” argument is not wrong. Still, this is not a complete or fully satisfying explanation of evil, for several reasons.
For one thing, retreating too quickly to the explanation that God allows evil for greater purposes—if offered as a complete and sufficient answer—runs the risk of validating an ethical theory of pragmatism, that we ourselves may do evil in the service of a “greater good.” Most would agree that in the human realm at least, doing evil that good may come is illegitimate.
Of course, it is true that God is always able to accomplish his purposes and we are not. But even so, secondly, the “greater good” argument leaves us with the disturbing question of whether we can actually conceive of any greater good that would warrant the worst kinds of evil—the torture of children, for example—or if we can even imagine wanting some great good at that cost. This is the issue raised in Dostoevksy’s The Brothers Karamazov, or in Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a short story which depicts a utopian city that depends for its complete and perpetual happiness on the inflicting of abusive misery on one small child. If we are honest, this does not sit right with us.
Third, this approach also does little to account for the genuinely evil and God-opposing character of sin, which God hates, and which involves real guilt and is an enemy to be overcome. That God allows evil for a greater purpose just tells us that God may use evil, but does not really explain it.
Fourth, there is all too much evil that appears random, gratuitous, and accomplishes no clear good that anyone (in this life anyway) ever knows. So the “greater good” argument is frequently unsatisfying on an emotional level.
That God allows evil for a greater purpose may be true as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. For reasons mentioned above it is not a complete or fully satisfying explanation. At best, it is only a very broad and overarching parameter that leaves many details of specific, awful experiences difficult to process.
So we have the problem of theodicy, the attempt to justify God’s allowance of evil if God really is good and omnipotent. We need to feel the weight of the problem. It is a problem to which biblical revelation gives no simple answer.
This is not to say that the Bible offers no light at all. In fact, it has much to say that is quite helpful, even if at the end of the day we must be content with a certain level of mystery. In this article, and with this overly long introduction, we will consider specifically what the book of Job has to tell us about the problem of evil and suffering in relation to God.
Job, Suffering, and Sin
Most Christians know the story of Job. Job is a righteous, pious, and exceptionally blessed man. He is wealthy and has a large family. God allows Satan to attack him, and taking full advantage of this allowance, Satan systematically destroys Job’s possessions, family, and bodily health. His wife turns against him, and his friends turn into adversaries. Most of Job’s 42 chapters consist of dialogue between Job and his friends, all trying to process what has happened to him and why. The story is unsparing in its stark framing of the problem, and it is important that we see it: Job is suffering unfairly.
This is a vital point, because it is common (for Reformed Christians especially) to say that Job’s suffering, and all suffering, is not really a problem since all of us sinners actually deserve worse. I even heard a preacher once say, “An inch north of hell is mercy.” But this is not how Job portrays things. His suffering at any rate was not because of sin, either his own or, apparently, because of human sinfulness in general.
The opening chapters emphasize Job’s godliness: he is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). This characterization is acknowledged by God himself, twice (Job 1:8; 2:3). In the midst of Satan’s attacks, God even says, astonishingly, that this suffering is “without reason” (Job 2:3). Job’s three friends assume he is suffering for sin and make continual accusations that he cannot be innocent (4:7; 8:4; 11:6), one of them in particular (Eliphaz) even making up crimes he imagines Job to have committed (22:5-11). But Job’s friends are rebuked in the end (42:7). Their accusations were wrong. All of this suggests that when we are dealing with the problem of suffering and evil in the world, saying that it is “all because of sin” is inadequate.
To brush off the problem of evil by saying that all of us deserve judgment anyway does not really get at the heart of the problem that Job wrestles with, and being on the side of Job’s comforters does not seem wise.
But what light does the story of Job shed on the question of suffering? At least five things can be said.
(1) It is important that Job did not know about God and Satan’s interactions in chs. 1-2, and he was never told about them.
Beyond Job’s perception, in a dimension to which he had no access, things were happening of which he was simply unaware. We must understand that we do not have the full picture. We are not omniscient. This seems obvious enough, but it is a crucial point. Our perception is limited, and our mental capacity itself is limited. For there to be something we do not know—like why God ultimately allows evil—is only to be expected. This is not a cop-out either. It is simply acknowledgement of the reality of our human finitude. The story of Job reminds us that there are whole dimensions of reality to which we are not privy, and just because something makes no sense to us does not mean that there cannot be information that, if we possessed it, would make things clear. In one of his speeches, Job recounts some of God’s activity and then says, “Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him!” (26:14). In chapter 28, Job actually seems to connect God’s wisdom to the fact that he has full and complete perception of all reality (28:20-27). We do not. This, incidentally, is why for us wisdom is begins with the fear of the Lord, not with prying into every secret thing that God has chosen not to reveal (28:28).
(2) We should not feel pressure to “get God off the hook” or explain away evil and suffering in the world.
Job’s three friends continually highlight God’s power and his overwhelming judgment. They keep trying to make the point that what has happened to Job is God’s doing. They are wasting their breath, because Job knows all this:
I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Who does not know such things as these? . . . Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you . . . Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? (12:3-9).
Job vents his frustrations. He vocalizes his despair and honestly expresses everything he is thinking and feeling. Sometimes he seems to go overboard and verge on accusing God of injustice (e.g. 9:22). At times Job was presumptuous (40:8), but he was perfectly correct to assume that God was sovereign over all that had happened to him.
Do not miss this point. Job’s friends erred not in seeing God behind Job’s suffering, but in assuming a causal connection between it and Job’s (supposed) sin. Job knew no sin in himself that would warrant such profound suffering (6:24), and while he acknowledges that there may be sin in him of which he is unaware and does not doubt that God would be able to show him lots of it (9:3, 20), Job is unwilling to assume that he can read God’s providence and know why he suffers as he does. Indeed, when God finally does speak to Job at the end of the book, he never does explain anything. Instead, he simply asserts his own sovereign authority.
At one point, Job rebukes his three friends’ presumption in thinking to speak on God’s behalf, trying to defend him as if they had all the answers and knew what they were talking about:
But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God. As for you, you whitewash with lies; worthless physicians are you all. Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom! . . .Will you speak falsely for God and speak deceitfully for him? Will you plead the case for God? (13:3-7).
Job maintains his hope that God can indeed speak for himself and does not need human speculation and ingenuity to justify his ways. Job was right to shun simplistic answers or to imagine that he knew precisely what God was up to, and we would be wise to do the same.
(3) In the end, God does restore and bless Job (42:10).
Some have thought the ending of the story, in which Job’s prosperity is restored, undermines its punch. But what it does is remind us that God does indeed ultimately vindicate the righteous. This does not answer the problem of evil broadly considered, but it at least provides hope that appeal to God for vindication is not a pointless exercise, and that God is not blind to injustice. God is not a blind force. He may be transcendent, inaccessible, invisible, incomprehensible, high above us in power—all realities that Job and his friends recognize. But he is not blind and deaf, and in his own time he will act. The end of Job guards keeps us from concluding that God is simply malicious (James 5:11).
(4) Looking back post-Christ, some of the hopes that Job expresses are astonishing.
In this course the story, Job expresses certain hopes that together make a pretty compelling case that whatever rational solution to the problem of evil we may or may not come up with, God is indeed doing something about it. Consider:
In 7:17-21, Job raises the question of why God concerns himself with humans at all. In Psalm 8, the psalmist raises the same question: “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” The psalmist asks this in worship. Job asks it in despair: “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning, and test him every moment? . . . If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind?” Think about it. Do we concern ourselves with the doings of insects? Yet God is higher above us than we are above them. Why does he care what we do? Why does he care if we sin? Job wonders why, if he is being punished for something, God even bothers. Then he says, “Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:21). Job wishes that God would just pardon any sin he may have and be done with it.
Then, in 9:32-25, Job despairs over the lack of a mediator between God and himself. “There is no arbiter between us, who might his hand on us both” (9:33). How can Job face God and make his case, in court or otherwise, without a mediator? To Job’s knowledge, there is no such person. This thought is intensified in 10:4-5, where Job questions God’s ability to sympathize with Job’s suffering and weakness: “Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees? Are your days as the days of man, or your years as man’s years?” Job wants a mediator, and he wants a God who knows what weakness means and who sympathizes with a human perspective.
Finally, in 14:7-17, Job wishes that there was such thing as resurrection from death. He considers trees: “There is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease.” Cut down, it may bud again “at the scent of water” (14:9). This is unlike man, who dies and then that is it (14:10, 12). What is amazing is that Job suggests that IF he could be assured of resurrection, of being “hidden in Sheol” (14:13) for a time until God’s judgment passes over, he could be patient and wait out this suffering. Job does not know of resurrection. As far as he is concerned, it is wishful thinking. But if it were real, his suffering would be more endurable.
Perhaps you have picked up on the fact that Job’s desires, which he utters in apparent despair—forgiveness of sin, a mediator, God incarnate in human flesh, and resurrection from death—are precisely the desires that God meets in the gospel of Christ. Full atonement and forgiveness of sin, and with it the knowledge that whatever suffering we face, especially as believers, whatever else it may be, it is not punishment for sins either known or unknown. A mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5), a mediator who in fact is God incarnate in human flesh, one who can sympathize with our weakness and who did have eyes of flesh and saw as man sees (Hebrews 4:15). And in Christ’s resurrection we have the guarantee of our own (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
Job was a godly man, and his desires were godly. They were in line with God’s purposes, even if Job knew that only vaguely or not at all. In God’s time, these desires would be met.
(5) In God’s response to Job at the end of the book (chs. 38-41), Job and us are reminded that we are not the center of the universe.
We wonder about the problem of evil, but perhaps we should consider that not everything is about us and our wonderings to begin with. God does not explain to Job why he suffered. He tells him nothing of Satan or his allowing Satan to sift him. Instead, God asks Job if he was present at creation (38:4), if he has been to the bottom of the ocean (38:16), if he can play with stars (38:31-33), if he can send rain or lighting (38:34-35), if he observes the life cycle of mountain goats high in the hills (39:1) or tells eagles when to take off (39:27), and so on.
The effect is to remind Job that he is only one part, and a very small part, of creation. His suffering and his questions and concerns cannot place him at center stage or change the reality that much of creation and what God does with it simply exists for God’s own sake, and has nothing to do with man. Connecting this to point one above, and Satan’s role in Job’s story, much of the creation may in fact be not for our sake at all but for the sake of (for example) the angels in heaven who are watching. Paul seems to think precisely this in 1 Corinthians 3:9, “For I think that Christ has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.” He says something similar in Ephesians 3:10.
Neither the book of Job nor the rest of the Bible explain why God allows evil in the world and how it is ultimately consistent with his goodness and power. It certainly does not explain it in any simple or complete way. But Job at least reminds us that we do not know everything, that God is not blind to evil and is doing much in response to it, that at the end of the day it may not even be about us, and we will have to trust him with that reality. Moreover, he does not expect us to explain away or rationalize suffering and evil.
The story of Job is not concerned so much to tell us that God is just, and it is not so concerned to provide a rational explanation for the existence of evil and suffering. What it is concerned to tell us is that God is God, and we are not, and that Job was not wrong to trust in him.