People have always asked why God allows evil and suffering. It is such a common question that it has a special name, ‘theodicy’. Couldn’t God have created a better world?
I am doing a series of three Sundays at St Brides Liverpool on this topic. The first was last Sunday. The parish administrator played with technology so you can hear it on YouTube.
This one focuses on one of the best known texts on the question, the biblical book of Job. Why do the innocent suffer?
The next looks at what happens if you decide that, because of the evil and suffering, there cannot be a god at all.
In the third I’ll describe the traditional Christian defences of God.
The Book of Job is in the Old Testament. The date is uncertain but may be around 400 BCE. Before then the ancient Mesopotamians believed the gods had created humans to look after the temples, statues and sacrifices. There were also moral codes, but they did not think the gods concerned themselves with those. It was the temples, statues and sacrifices that affected the gods, and inadequate service would be punished with floods, plagues and defeat in battle.
Individual pain and suffering were caused by a variety of invisible beings who were generally bad-tempered. Modern scholars describe them as demons. If you were ill, and could afford to hire a doctor, there were two different types. One worked on what we would call medical cures. The other knew how to get rid of demons. The demon might have got in because the patient had committed a sin. The sin needed to be identified and then it was a matter of finding out which demon had got in, and which actions and words would exorcise it.
Over time people questioned these beliefs. If illness is caused by demons, why do the gods allow the demons to do it? If illness is caused by disobeying the gods, perhaps we all need to be very scrupulous about performing all the sacrifices. But then, people kept finding, they still got ill.
So many people concluded that the gods were arbitrary. It was impossible to understand how the world works. People just had to patiently endure whatever happened. If you believe that, you become fatalistic.
The biblical Book of Job is in this tradition but gives a Jewish adaptation. The Jews came to believe there is only one God, who is good. That made it even harder to explain why God allowed suffering.
Some time earlier, while leading Jews were in exile in Babylon, some of the prophets had foretold a day when God would let them return home and from then on everybody would live contented lives so long as they obeyed God’s laws.
They did return home. If the prophets were right, that meant that every illness was caused by not obeying God’s laws. It seems that some Jews believed this was really the case. The classic text is Psalm 37:25:
I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
In that case, people who do wrong should suffer more than good people. The trouble was, they didn’t. Most scholars think the book of Job is about why God allows good people to suffer, but they disagree about what answer it gives and some scholars conclude that it’s badly written and inconsistent. I shall follow the line taken by Peggy Day, which is more positive.
Most of the book is poetic speeches, but at the beginning and the end there are short prose sections which give us the plot. Job is an ideal upright law-abiding person, exactly the kind of person who ought never to suffer. He’s rich and happy.
We are then taken to heaven where God is surrounded by the other heavenly beings, one of whom is the adversary. The word for ‘adversary’ is ‘satan’, but this character is not the Satan Christians later came to believe in. He’s just an obedient servant of God up there in the heavenly court, whose special job is to point out people’s faults.
So the adversary, the satan, points out to God that it suits Job very well to be upright and law-abiding. After all, God is rewarding him by making him rich and happy. He persuades God to take away all Job’s benefits. As a result Job loses his possessions, his children get killed, and he becomes horribly ill.
That’s the Prologue, the first prose section. Then we get the long poetic sections. Job laments his misfortunes and his three friends insist that because all these tragedies have happened God must be punishing him for some sins. Chapter 28 is a famous hymn to wisdom, and after that another character, Elihu, takes the line that we cannot know God’s ways. He denounces Job for even questioning God’s wisdom.
Then God makes speeches. God simply claims superiority and asks how Job can presume to understand how the world operates. Job repents and submits. God approves. At the very end we get another short prose section, the Epilogue. Just as the Prologue had described how God took away Job’s health and wealth, the Epilogue tells us that God restored it.
Peggy Day’s interpretation is that the book is written for people who really believe that God rewards good law-abiding people and sends illness and poverty as punishments for sin as in the psalm. The author of Job doesn’t believe it, and challenges it by juxtaposing fantasy and reality so as to make people reflect on what really happens.
So let’s imagine what it would be like. Imagine all believe that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked, so anybody who is poor or ill must be a sinner. Let’s think ourselves into that mindset, and follow the story of Job.
We begin with a classic stereotypical good person, just the sort of person we approve of, rich and happy. Then, up in heaven, the adversary persuades God to change the rules and make Job poor and ill. According to our beliefs, that never happens to a good person. So the story is a fantasy. Nobody really persuades God to let good people suffer.
We’ve entered a fantasy world where the impossible happens: good people suffer. Now we’re going to imagine what the people in this fantasy world would say about it. Job insists on his innocence, his friends argue that he must have sinned. As the speeches go on, we notice that the arguments in the speeches are not very original. They are exactly the arguments people use in the real world. The fantasy world is beginning to sound like the real world.
And then, right at the end, we get to the Epilogue. Job has repented, God forgives him and restores him to health and wealth. Happy ending. We are back to the way things should be.
But – oh! Where are we back to the way things should be? Back in the prose narrative that describes a fantasy world where the impossible happens.
This impossible figure, the righteous man driven to poverty and illness, sounds just like lots of ordinary people. His restoration to health and wealth is a fantasy. Reality and fantasy have swapped places.
So the book challenges the reader. What sort of world do we really live in? The righteous do get poor and ill, and the wicked do often get rich and happy.
It does more. Suppose the righteous did always prosper, and the wicked did always get punished. That adversary in heaven would have been right. Being good would always pay. All those long poetic speeches by Job’s friends, telling him over and over again that his poverty and ill health must be the result of some sins he has committed – they would have been right. The speeches are dreadfully patronising.