The existence of evil is often cited by atheists as a reason to reject belief in God. But evil is not just a problem for unbelievers — what about Christians? How do we reconcile belief in a good God with the reality that many innocent people suffer everyday?
During the last seven years or so, the book of Job — the oldest book in the Bible — has been especially helpful to me while wrestling with this question. In this article, I will share four clues that Job provides. These clues don’t resolve the problem of evil, by any means. But they do, for me at least, provide some measure of understanding and comfort. I hope the same for you.
One lesser known fact about Job is that it is actually an epic poem, not merely a narrative. The prologue (chapters 1-2) and epilogue (chapter 42) of the book are written in a narrative style. But all of the dialogue in between (chapters 3-41) is Hebrew poetry.
Since the book can be properly categorized as poetry, it's not clear whether the original author ever intended it to be taken as literal history or not. That means the book’s historical legitimacy is not as important as the deeper truths it is trying to communicate. In other words, whether or not there ever was a real guy named Job (I’m not suggesting there wasn’t), the poem of Job still has important things to teach us about how to view God’s relationship to evil, if we are willing to listen. In fact, I believe the poem is a kind of interpretive key, or model, for how we should understand other passages in the Bible that appear to hold God responsible for evil.
For time and space purposes, I will assume readers are already familiar with the story of Job. If you need a quick refresher, here’s an excellent animated summary of Job from the guys at The Bible Project.
THE CLUES OF JOB
First, God is neither the originator nor perpetrator of evil — Satan is. Notice in the story that the idea to harm Job originates with Satan. God praises Job, calls him blameless, and expresses his love for him (1:8). Then Satan (a title which means Accuser) says that Job only loves God for the riches and blessings he’s getting from him, and suggests that, if God were to take that all away, Job would change his tune and curse God. So, the suffering in the story is originally Satan’s idea.
Notice also that it is Satan who carries out the harm on Job, not God. God says to Satan, “Behold, he [Job] is in your hand.” Then Satan goes out from the presence of God to wreak havoc in Job’s life. So, it is not God’s idea to harm Job (God expresses nothing but love for him), and it is not God who carries out the harm.
This first clue is important, because some Christians — often of the hyper-Calvinist persuasion — want to say that God is the one doing harm in the world. But not according to the story of Job. Any passages in the Bible that appear to hold God responsible for unjust harm or evil (including verses in Job itself — see 2:3-5 and 42:11) should be understood in light of this first clue Job gives us.
Second, no evil can happen without God’s permission — He is in complete control. Even though Satan is the originator and perpetrator of unjust harm on Job, Satan can do nothing without God’s permission first. God is in control over all that happens. Notice how God sets limits on what Satan can do: “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (1:12) Or, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” (2:6)
Satan could not have harmed Job at all, if God hadn’t first allowed it. This is probably the hardest part for Christians to accept. It feels like betrayal. Why would God let Satan do that? It’s a fair question, and a big focus of the book. After all, Job did not deserve any of what happened to him — God himself says so (see 1:8, 2:3).
This feeling of betrayal pushes some Christians in the opposite direction of the hyper-Calvinists, toward open theism or even deism, leading them to deny that God is in full control. Instead, they portray God as very “hands off,” and either unable or unwilling to manage the suffering in the world. While these same Christians may believe that God will eventually conquer evil, they portray the present as a time when God’s Creation has spiraled out of his control.
For me, the hyper-Calvinists and open theists both fail to nuance their views according to the full picture that Job gives. And neither view offers a comforting perspective of God. By making God the perpetrator of unjust harm, hyper-Calvinists portray God as a moral monster — someone whose nature we can’t trust to be completely good. And I find the typical “No one is really innocent and undeserving of harm, because we’re all sinners” response too simplistic — God himself said Job didn't deserve it (2:3).
On the other hand, by portraying God as not fully in control, those of the open theist/deist persuasion make God less powerful (or less involved) than traditionally thought, and unable to control all evil. He’s a God who cares, but can’t do much at the moment; he’s crying on the sidelines. That, or he is absent and unconcerned with the suffering of his children. Either way, it’s a God that does not inspire much confidence.
The third clue is that God gives Satan limited freedom, but only enough to subvert Satan’s end goals. Notice what Satan’s ultimate goal was: to get Job to curse God, and thereby show he didn’t really love God for who he is, only for what he was getting from him. But notice what the final outcome of the story is: Job loves and trusts God even more than he did before, despite all that happened to him, and despite never getting an explanation for why he suffered.
Even though we can’t know why God allowed Satan to harm Job, we can know that God did not allow Satan to succeed, and he never intended to. God gave Satan some limited freedom to cause calamity and pain, yes, but Satan got the opposite outcome that he wanted. In other words, God only gives Satan enough freedom to defeat himself, and he redeems the injustice done, making the end result even better than before.
The last clue from Job is this: if we are demanding to know why God allows us to suffer, then we are only loving God for what we will get from him. Notice that God never explains to Job why he let him suffer. He did not even tell him about his interactions with Satan. Instead, God shows Job all the amazing, beautiful, and wild parts of the universe he created. He shows Job that his human perspective is too limited to fully understand the whole picture, leaving Job with a sense of awe and humility.
At first, God’s non-explanation doesn’t make sense, and frankly seems unfair. But when one reflects on it within the context of the whole story, there is a take-away message for readers, especially readers who claim to love God, and it is this: true love cherishes someone for who they are, not for what they get from them.
Imagine a friend saying, “I’ll help you this once, as long as you can explain what I’m going to get out of this,” or a spouse saying, “I’ll love you during times of plenty and health, but not during sickness and poverty,” or a child saying to his parent, “I’ll obey you for now, but only if I get the reward I want.” In each case, we recognize a flaw of selfishness in the relationship that makes it fall short of genuine love. This is the challenge the book of Job poses to Christians: do you love God for who he is? Or merely for what you want from him?
The poem of Job gives us a rich and nuanced framework for how to think about God’s relationship to evil. It shows us a God that is neither a perpetrator of unjust harm, nor a hands-off, inept manager of the universe. Instead, it shows us a God who is entirely good, who is in complete control and infinitely wise, who will redeem the injustice in the world, and who loves us enough to challenge our most hidden reservoirs of selfishness.
I don't pretend for a moment that the book of Job answers all our questions or soothes all the pain, or even feels very helpful at first (after all, one of its “answers” is that we can't know the answer!). But it does give us clues to help us think about the problem in a more theologically robust and emotionally satisfying way than the alternatives.
May God grant us the same awe and humility of Job, but without as much heartache.