The Mystery of Evil and Suffering

By Leikind, Bernard | The Humanist, May-June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Mystery of Evil and Suffering


Leikind, Bernard, The Humanist


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.

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