Job and the Problem of Evil


Some thoughts on Jesus, the book of Job, and the Problem of Evil. I had originally intended these for Good Friday, but it didn't happen then. Easter should do.
"I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die"
~ I Wonder as I Wander (song), John Jacob Niles

The sentence structure is a bit awkward, but the underlying question is clear. Luckily, Christianity has a simple answer and we want everyone to know. In fact, John Jacob Niles wanted people to know so much that he put it in the next line:
"For poor on'ry people like you and like I"

to pay the penalty for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and live a new life with God. ("On'ry" is "ornery", which means short-tempered and unlikable.) The offer is open to everyone, cost-free (sort of), regardless of you past. "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)

But I am getting off-topic. Recently, I have been thinking about this, and there seems to be something unexplained. Lets assume that, for whatever inscrutable divine reason, the Crucifixion was the only possible way that the human race could have been redeemed. Let's also assume that the 3-ish years that Jesus spent wandering (out under the sky, of course) and teaching were important for some other reason. Probably as a way of giving His followers a crash course in what was to become Christian morality. By why did Jesus show up 30 years early?

To answer that, I am going to have to take a major detour through what I have found to be most controversial claim you can make in Christian circles.
"There ain't no justice" ~ Larry Niven

The verdict of the Bible here is mixed. If you want to argue that God rewards the righteous and punishes evildoers, you can support it (e.g. Proverbs 16:8). If you want to argue that He doesn't, you can support that too (e.g. Ecclesiastes 8:14). It's all very complicated.

And this isn't a new question. The Biblical book that set second longest ago (first is the Genesis 1-11) is probably Job. I have read that the current form was probably written c. 1000 BC, based on an older story from about c. 2000 BC (I think this was based on the people groups mentioned). For those of you who haven't read it, it's basically a debate on the Problem of Evil in poetic verse. Job, an innocent man, loses everything through what is obviously supernatural action. Then him and his friends try to figure out why. The three friends say that Job must have done something truly horrible to deserve that, while Job maintains that he didn't. When they argue each other to a standstill, a fourth friend lectures at them for doing it wrong, and eventually God shows up and shouts at everyone.

Job is also contains an example of a part of Judaism that didn't really make it into Christianity: People lecturing God about His unjust actions (or planned actions). The most famous example of this is probably Abraham pleading for Sodom (Genesis 18:23-32). Using this argument, he bargains God down to agree to spare the city if He can find ten righteous people, and, based on Jeremiah 5:1, it is entirely possible that Abraham stopped nine people too early.

Job's claim can be summarized something like this: God has never been human and, as such, cannot truly understand what it is like (Job 10:4-5). Yet He presumes to judge the world for injustice without defense (Job 9:32-35) or appeal (Job 23:8-9, 13), while He does not rule justly Himself (Job 27:2). In fact, in all the world there is not justice and, as God created all things, the ultimate responsibility is His (Job 9:22-24).

When, as mentioned above, God finally shows up, He makes an unexpected defense. He argues that, since Job has never been a god, he has no right to judge Him either (Job 40:8-14). Job accepts this and, as soon as he can get a word in edgewise, drops all charges (Job 42:3). God, in turn, responds by giving Job even more wealth than he lost, and everything is all right again. And that, more or less, is the end of the book.

But it's not the end of the issue. The questions are still out there, and silencing Job doesn't remove them. In fact, we later see God explicitly claiming responsibility for all the wrong in the world (Isaiah 45:6-7). And when we get to injustice in the world, gets weirder. You see, God, if anything, hates the injustice even more than we do (Isaiah 59:14-15). But, more than that, He almost seems surprised, as if he hadn't expected that. He only sets out to fix it when He realized that we hadn't (Isaiah 59:16-17).

Back at the beginning of Job, God is credited with rewarding His loyal follower. But then something unexpected happens. Satan shows up with a challenge: If God rewards Job's virtue, how does He know that Job is really virtuous? He could just be acting that way to curry favor. God, who knows everyone's true motives, presumably does know. But He agrees to put it to a test anyway, which is how Job gets into his mess. But again, the broader challenge remains: If right actions produce the best results, then virtue is a form of selfishness.

I suspect here this is part of the answer to the Problem of Evil. Virtue is only virtue if it isn't pragmatism. Doing right will cost you. Jesus agrees with me here, at least for some cases (Luke 16:8, John 15:18-19). Other times, who disaster strokes is essentially random (Luke 13:1-5, John 9:1-3). And virtue won't protect you either, with Jesus's crucifixion as merely the clearest example of the general trend (Acts 7:52). To look at it from another direction, Jesus tells us that in order to be godly, we be kind instead of acting justly (Matthew 5:33-38). "No one ever spoke like this man" (John 7:46).

But again I have gotten rather side-tracked, so lets think back to Job. He only had 2 charges that matter here: God lacked the experience to judge men, and He acted unjustly. God had beaten the second by claiming that Job lacked the experience to judge God. The thing Job doesn't seemed to have realized, however, is that his other charge is still valid. In fact, God can't even theoretically answer it now, because any counter-argument would also erase His answer to the first charge. By His own words, He has caught Himself in a dilemma: Either He must give up the right to judge man, or He must allow man to judge Him.

And here, I think, Judaism and Christianity part company. Judaism takes the second option, and, as I said above, people are allowed to challenge God on His actions. This isn't just in Bible times either. Modern Jews famously put God on trial for allowing the Holocaust (from Auschwitz) and found Him guilty. If God is to be a worthy judge for the world, He must abide by His own laws (Genesis 18:25).

Christianity, in contrast takes the other option. God actually renounces His right to judge, and then goes on to win it back. Thus, enter Jesus. In the simplest formulation, a person is body that interacts with the world and a soul that controls the body. Jesus was different. He still had a body like normal, but instead of it being attached to a soul, it was controlled directly by God. Or rather, by part of God. Rather than get into the doctrine of the Trinity, which is still confusing after 2000 years of theological analysis, lets just leave it as "part of God". That's all we need here.

And so we have Jesus, who was God and yet experienced human life and a lot of its complexities. He had difficulties with His parents (Luke 2:41-50, John 2:1-8) and family (Mark 3:21,31-35; John 7:3-5). He seems to have a hard life, suffering sorrow (Isaiah 53:3, John 11:32-36) and injustice (Mark 27:22-23). He was betrayed to His death by a friend (Matthew 26:1-15,47-49). He practiced self-denial (Luke 4:1-12) and obedience (Matthew 26:39, 42), even at a horrible cost to Himself. And through all this, He acted as a person should act, in faith (Luke 23:46) and obedience (John 5:19,30; 8:28-29; 12:49) to God, and in love for everyone around Him (Luke 23:27-43).

And so God appoints Jesus (who is sort of Him, but not exactly) to judge the world (John 5:22,27; Acts 10:42, 17:31). Jesus has the right to judge because, unlike God the Father, He has experienced being human. He has the right to condemn the failure of others because, where they failed, He did not (Hebrews 4:14-15). He can be trusted judge justly, because He knows all things (John 21:17) and has no ulterior motive (John 5:30).

And yet, in certain key ways, Jesus is not human. He doesn't react like we do, and bears no grudges. God has promised that we will be like Him, in the end (1 John 3:2). But that is not today. Today, He calls each one to repent of his sinful ways, to believe in Him, and to live a new life (John 3:16). Today, forgiveness is offered freely for all sins. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts. Today is the day of salvation.


I got the following useful response:
I find the implicit assumption that selfishness is evil quite interesting. And how you say virtue is only virtue if it isn't pragmatism. Is virtue anything other than meta pragmatism bringing everything into gods grace?
My response to this was:
  1. By my understanding, the relationship between selfishness and evil is... complicated. For example, Judaism claims that people have a good nature and an evil nature. Except that (under the terminology) they mean a selfish nature and an altruistic nature, and they maintain that both are necessary and proper.

    In this context, my "selfishness" might have been better rendered "mere self-interest". I was trying to describe a circumstance where someone is only concerned with himself, he is just smarter. This is equivalent to the complete absence of love for others, which is unequivocally condemned by Christianity (Philippians 2:3-4, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

  2. What, exactly, virtue is is a matter of long and (to the best of my knowledge) unending debate. A consequentialist answer would be that virtuous actions are the ones that produce good outcomes, regardless of motivation. I don't like this idea; it seems so far from what we normally mean by virtue.

    Kant (I think it was) argued that only an action undertaken for the right motive was virtuous. To me, this seems better, although still fatally flawed. The problem is that motives are always mixed. This has been especially clear to me lately, as I have been trying to excise a particular motive from my behaviour in some circumstances. So far, it hasn't been going very well, because all my motives interpenetrate each other too much for me to figure out what I would have done without one.

    For some time now, I have been using a model of virtue that depends on (a person's belief of) of what is right and what in his best interest. It goes something like this:

      Right Wrong
    Beneficial Morally neutral Vicious
    Not Beneficial Virtuous Stupid

  3. I don't know what is meant by "bringing everything into God's grace".
Someone else also responded:
Maybe virtuous actions are only actual virtue if they are motivated by love, and not they are motivated by a selfish desire for gain. But if they help someone, they are good for them in any case.

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