The Book of Job: God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil

A. The Enigma of Evil

1. The following four propositions appear to constitute an intractable contradiction:

a. God exists as a concrete being distinct from the cosmos.

b. Evil exists, i.e., God does not eliminate evil.

c. God is all-loving (and therefore would eliminate evil).

d. God is all-powerful (and therefore could eliminate evil).

2. The latter three propositions (evil exists, God is all-loving, God is all-powerful) is commonly known as the inconsistent triad because they are often thought to pose an intractable contradiction. In fact, this is how “the problem of evil” is often defined.

3. Logically, one must either deny one of the above four propositions or find some way of affirming all of them; i.e., one must adopt one of the following views:

a. God does not exist (atheism).

b. Evil does not exist (monism, e.g., in Buddhism).

c. God is not all-loving (dualism, e.g., in Taoism).

d. God is not all-powerful (finite godism, e.g., in liberal Judaism).

e. God exists, is all-powerful and all-loving, and evil also exists (theism).

4. The last-named option appears self-contradictory; resolving this apparent contradiction is the task of theodicy (Greek theos, God, and dikaois, just).

B. Non-Theistic Explanations of Evil. These explanations solve the problem by denying one of the four propositions (see A.1.).

Worldview Advocates Insights Problems
Atheism: God does not exist (and of course is thus neither all-loving nor all-powerful) Bertrand Russell
Jean-Paul Sartre
# Secular humanism Evil is real
# Human beings ought to resist evil
# Some evil defies human explanation as to God’s purposes for allowing it
# If there is no God, there is no objective standard by which to judge anything as “evil”
# There are good reasons to believe in God (the creation of the universe, the transcendent orientation of human beings, his revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, and other reasons)
# Atheism assumes that anything understandable to God should be understandable to us
Monism: Evil does not exist Pantheists
Christian Scientists
# Many New Agers Evil is not a “thing”
# Evil is never absolute, is temporal
# Evil is real, not an illusion
# Where does nonbeing come from?
Dualism: God is not all-loving Zoroastrianism
# Taoism (in some forms) Both good and evil occurs
# Even that which is evil has some good
# If good cannot overcome evil, dualism collapses logically to either finite godism (Zoriastrianism) or monism (Taoism)
Finite godism: God is not all-powerful Rabbi Harold Kushner
# Process theology Evil is real
# God is not to be blamed for evil
# Evil is real
# Denies God’s omnipotence
# A God that is not all-powerful cannot be the Creator (perhaps merely the Organizer or the Energizer)

Since the finite god position is the most common view taken by those within Judaism and Christianity who reject orthodox theism, we will consider two influential examples of this approach below as we begin our study of the Book of Job.

C. Unorthodox Approaches to the Book of Job

1. Liberal Jewish View: God’s Power Is Limited (e.g., Rabbi Harold Kushner)1

a. Kushner summarizes the dilemma that the Book of Job addresses as involving three statements, one of which evidently must be false:

(1) “God is all-powerful…”

(2) “God is just and fair…”

(3) “Job is a good person.”2

b. Kushner rightly observes that Job’s friends reason that since the first two statements are true, the third must be false. They conclude that Job must have done something wrong. On the other hand, “Job is absolutely sure that he is not a bad person” and so concludes that God is not really just–that “God is so powerful that He is not limited by considerations of fairness and justice.”3

c. In Kushner’s view, God’s answer to Job amounts to denying the first proposition above, that God is all-powerful. He takes God’s words in Job 40:9-14 to mean “if you think it is so easy to keep the world straight and true, to keep unfair things from happening to people, you try it.” God is good, argues Kushner, but “it is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims. But could man, without God, do better?”4

d. The significance of this conclusion for Kushner is that it relieves God of the responsibility to answer for the Holocaust and similar evils suffered by the Jews.5

e. Problems with Kushner’s view

(1) On Kushner’s view, God is not merely somewhat less than omnipotent. Rather, God appears to be impotent. He has time to talk to Job out of the whirlwind, but he doesn’t have the power to relieve him of his afflictions. He doesn’t have the power to stop the Holocaust.

(2) In Job 40:9-14, God does not challenge Job to stop bad things from happening to good people. Rather, he challenges Job to punish all of the wicked–in effect, to make bad things happen to bad people!

(3) Job’s reply to God is the intended conclusion–“I know that you can do all things” (42:2). This is an explicit statement of omnipotence.

2. Word-Faith View: Man Brings Evil on Himself (e.g., Kenneth Copeland)6

a. In relation to the three propositions set forth by Kushner (God’s power, God’s goodness, and Job’s goodness), the Word-Faith position answers that the third proposition cannot be sustained. Job sinned, bringing his suffering on himself. Moreover, in a sense the Word-Faith view denies God’s omnipotence. God’s power does not include the power to prevent people from sinning or the power to prevent evil consequences of their sin. Thus, with respect to the four propositions with which we began, the Word-Faith view denies that God is all-powerful.

b. According to Copeland and other Word-Faith teachers, Job brought his suffering on himself by uttering a “negative confession,” implied by his complaint, “What I greatly feared has happened to me” (3:25).

c. Copeland argues that Job held to an erroneous doctrine–that evil, suffering, and adversity come from God (1:21-22; 2:10). The Lord gives, but he does not take away; we do receive good from God, but not bad. If anyone other than Job was involved, it was Satan, not God (1:6-12; 2:1-7), although in Copeland’s view Satan got a foothold in Job’s life only because Job let him. Job’s false statements impugned God’s good character, thus necessitating his repentance (42:6).

d. Copeland concludes that God told Job to stop feeling sorry for himself and put on good clothes befitting his privileged position as a covenant partner with God (40:6-7, 10). When Job did so, his fortunes were restored (42:10).

e. Problems with the Word-Faith view

(1) After Job says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” and “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not adversity?”, we are told that Job did not sin in anything he had said (1:21-22; 2:10). This proves two things:

(a) Job 3:25 cannot mean that Job suffered because of a negative confession.

(b) Job was not impugning God’s character when he attributed his misfortune to the will of God.

(2) It is true that Job repented of the arrogance he displayed after his friends had tried to explain his suffering (40:3-5; 42:1-6). But then God told Job’s friends that they had not spoken of him what was right as Job had (42:7). Since Job’s friends had argued that Job had brought his suffering on himself because of his sin (see below), again that idea is proved false.

(3) It is true that Satan inflicted the sufferings on Job. But when God answers Job out of the whirlwind, nothing is said about Satan, and he is not mentioned in the prologue (42:7-17). Moreover, Satan was limited in his actions against Job by parameters set down by God (1:12; 2:6).

(4) God did not tell Job to solve his own problem by taking his stand on the covenant. There are several reasons why this theory is wrong:

(a) Job was not Jewish; he was a Gentile living in “the land of Uz” (1:1). He was therefore not part of the covenant people.

(b) Nothing is said anywhere by God in Job 38-42 about the divine covenant.

(c) In 40:6-13 God was speaking in irony, challenging Job to clothe himself with divine majesty and lay low the proud to prove his superior judgment.

(5) James does not agree with the claim that Job is an example of unbelief. Job is an example of the endurance (5:11) that is the mark of true faith (1:3-4). Nor is it true that persons living by faith may experience “sufferings” but not “sicknesses,” since Job’s sickness was part of his “sufferings” (5:10-11).

D. The Prologue: God, Satan, and Human Agency

1. In the prologue of the Book of Job, we see clearly that God is ultimately in control of the world and of all creatures.

a. Satan must obtain permission to do evil, and then he is limited to what God allows (1:12; 2:6).

b. Job attributes his sufferings to God, and did not sin in saying so (1:21-22; 2:10).

2. Yet God does not himself do evil; creatures are responsible for their actions.

a. Satan is in some more direct sense responsible for Job’s sufferings (note esp. 2:7).

b. The Sabeans and the Chaldeans were responsible for their actions (1:15, 17).

c. The reference in 1:16 to “the fire of God from heaven” (lightning?) probably does not attribute the effect directly to God (the phrase is probably an idiomatic use of the expression “of God” to mean “great”). Elsewhere in Scripture when fire from heaven is attributed to God that is made explicit (Num. 11:1-3; 16:35; 26:10; 1Kings 18:38; 2 Kings 1:10-14). Alternatively, the expression could reflect the messenger’s (uninspired) opinion.

The Structure of the Book of Job
Prologue: Job’s Suffering (chs. 1-2)
Job’s Lament (ch. 3)
Job’s Accusers (chs. 4-28)
Job’s Complaint (chs. 29-31)
God’s Defender (chs. 32-37)
God’s Answer (chs. 38-42:6)
Epilogue: Job’s Restoration (42:7-17)

3. The careful balance of this account eliminates certain erroneous solutions to the problem of evil.

a. Dualism as an “easy” explanation for evil is eliminated. Satan, representing evil, is not equally powerful or ultimate in relation to God, but is merely one of the creatures appearing before the throne of God (1:6; 2:1). Dualism is an unsatisfying view in any case, since it entails that evil will always be with us.

b. Fatalism is another “easy” explanation is also found wanting. How Job responds to his suffering–whether he curses God or not–is a factor in how the drama of his life plays out (2:9-10). (Fatalism is not to be confused with the biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty or predestination.) Fatalism is an unsatisfying philosophy, since it implies that how we live our life has no ultimate significance.

E. Job’s Accusers: Proverbial Wisdom Gone Awry

1. In chapters 4-28, Job’s three friends respond to Job’s lament (ch. 3) by accusing him of failing to recognize that his sufferings must be his fault. The three men take turns presenting their arguments, with Job rebutting. This dialogue goes on for three rounds, at the end of which Job’s friends are silenced (Zophar doesn’t even have anything to say in the third round).7

Job’s Accusers and Job’s Replies
(chapters 4-28)
First Round
(chs. 4-14) Second Round
(chs. 15-21) Third Round
(chs. 22-28)
Eliphaz (4-5) Eliphaz (15) Eliphaz (22)
Job (6-7) Job (16-17) Job (23-24)
Bildad (8) Bildad (18) Bildad (25)
Job (9-10) Job (19) Job (26-28)
Zophar (11) Zophar (20)
Job (12-14) Job (21)

2. The essence of the three friends’ arguments is this: Job must have done something wrong to deserve his suffering (4:7). His children likewise must have brought their fate on themselves by their sin (8:4). If he were innocent, God would answer his prayer (8:5-7).

3. The arguments of the three accusers is based in large part on proverbial wisdom about God and his ways with humanity. In some cases their statements parallel texts in Proverbs. Note especially the following parallels:

Job Proverbs
“those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it” (4:8) “He who sows iniquity will reap vanity” (22:8)
“do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (5:17) “do not reject the discipline of the Lord” (3:11)
“Indeed, the light of the wicked goes out” (18:5) “the lamp of the wicked goes out” (Prov. 13:9; cf. 24:20)

4. Since these and other statements paralleled in Proverbs are inspired and true, it is their use by Job’s three friends that is wrong.

5. Job also draws upon proverbial wisdom, but he turns it against his accusers, arguing that God’s monopoly on power and wisdom allow him to do whatever he wants, to act without regard for what we would regard as justice:

“Counsel is mine and sound wisdom;
I am understanding, power is mine.
By me kings reign,
And rulers decree justice.
By me princes rule, and nobles…”
(Prov. 8:14-16) “With Him are wisdom and might;
To Him belong counsel and understanding…
With Him are strength and sound wisdom…
He loosens the bonds of kings…
He pours contempt on nobles…”
(Job 12:13-21)

6. Evidently Job’s friends have misconstrued the proverbial wisdom about God that they know as teaching immutable, simplistic laws. Good behavior will always and immediately be rewarded; suffering and death are inflicted immediately and automatically on the wicked, and only on the wicked. This is not what the inspired Proverbs mean; they are generalizations, descriptions of what generally or eventually or ultimately results from good and evil conduct.

F. God’s Defender: The Speech of Elihu

1. After Job answers his three friends turned accusers, he offers a long speech, ending with a detailed denial of any wrongdoing (ch. 31) and a direct challenge to God to answer him (31:35-37).

2. When his three friends are unable to answer Job, a young man named Elihu8 decides to speak. The author introduces Elihu’s speech by saying that Job “was righteous in his own eyes”; Elihu was angry with Job “because he justified himself before God,” and was angry with the three friends because they had condemned Job despite having no answer to his argument (32:1-3).

3. Elihu’s approach differs from Job’s three friends, though the difference is subtle. Rather than insist that Job must have committed some sin that brought his sufferings on himself, Elihu concentrates on showing that Job is wrong to question God’s justice (33:8-12). God uses dreams and physical sufferings, not necessarily as a direct punishment for sin, but in some cases to keep people from falling into sin (33:13-22). Whatever God does, he is perfectly just; as the Creator, he unites both power and justice (34:10-20). Job is wrong to make his sense of justice the standard, or to think that his righteousness in any way obligates God (35:1-8). Elihu closes his speech by pointing to the greatness of God in his sovereign rule over nature as proof that Job is in no position to challenge God and ought not to be “wise of heart” (36:24-37:24).

G. God’s Answer: What Do You Know?

1. Elihu’s description of God as Creator and Sustainer of the world prepares the way for God to appear to Job and answer him.

2. Note what God does not say to Job anywhere in these chapters:

a. That Job’s suffering was a direct result of some sin on his part

b. That Job’s suffering was merely the work of Satan (thus, God does not beg off responsibility for allowing Job to suffer)

c. That God was unable to prevent Job’s suffering

First Speech Second Speech
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (38:1) “Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm” (40:6)
“Who is this who darkens counsel…?” (38:2) “Now gird up your loins like a man; I will ask you, and you instruct me” (40:7)
“Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct me” (38:3) “Will you really annul my judgment?” (40:8)
The argument (38:4-39:30) The argument (40:15-41:34)
“Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40:1-2)
“Then Job answered the Lord and said” that he would not say any more (40:3-5) “Then Job answered the Lord and said” that he repents (42:1-6)

3. God’s answer to Job offers no explanation per se for evil and suffering, but implicit in his speeches are the following lessons:

a. Job simply does not know what he is talking about when he criticizes God. This is arguably the main point (note especially 38:2-4; 40:7; 42:3-4).

b. Not everything God does is necessarily for man’s benefit (cf. 38:26; 39:5-10, 13-18; 40:15, 19); the world is God’s, and man is in one sense just one of God’s creatures (nothing is even said by God here about the creation of man).

c. God is sovereignly responsible for all aspects of nature, even those involving suffering: carnivorous animals like the lion (38:39-40), the labor pains of animals (39:1-3), the apparent lack of maternal concern of a mother ostrich (39:13-17), the bloodsucking young of the eagle (39:27-30). The hypersensitive attitude that all suffering is intrinsically evil betrays ignorance of God’s creative works.

d. Whatever good Job ever had was a gift, not something owed by God; the Lord is under no obligation to any of his creatures (40:2, 8; 41:11, 33-34). The implication is that, while the wicked are indeed guaranteed to suffer (though not, evidently, right away), the righteous are not guaranteed a life free from suffering.

e. If all you have are words about God, it might seem possible to question God; but to see God manifest his presence is to know this is a mistake (42:5-6)!

H. Relating Job’s Message to the Problem of Evil

1. Here again is Kushner’s form of the inconsistent triad:

2. The Book of Job makes the following truths clear:

a. One cannot resolve the paradox by denying God’s power (Kushner’s solution).

b. One cannot resolve the paradox by separating God’s power from what happens to the righteous (Copeland’s solution).

c. One cannot resolve the paradox by denying God’s justice (the solution which Job was entertaining).

d. One cannot resolve the paradox by denying that the righteous suffer–even though it is true that human beings are not perfectly righteous (Eliphaz’s explanation).

3. The only solution left open to the reader is to revise our notion of what God’s justice should entail.

a. God’s justice does not mean a karma-like law of moral cause and effect.

b. God’s justice does not obligate God to shield innocent creatures from all pain.

c. God’s justice is one aspect of his nature, to be correlated with God’s mercy.

d. God’s justice does not make God accountable to human beings.

4. What the Book of Job does not explain

a. How God’s justice will be completely realized with regard to Satan and other evil beings.

b. How God’s justice can be satisfied yet sinners shown mercy. (The sacrifices mentioned offer a hint, but that is all.)

For Further Study

On the Book of Job

Hartley, John E. The Book of Job. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. Currently the best verse-by-verse commentary on Job.

Kidner, Derek. The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985. Excellent shorter commentary.

Zuck, Roy B., ed. Sitting with Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992. Very helpful collection of articles and excerpts from commentaries.

On the Problem of Evil

Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. Philosophically astute defense of a Calvinistic view.

Geisler, Norman L. The Roots of Evil. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978. More popular treatment than is found in his Philosophy of Religion. Includes an appendix critiquing Kushner.

________, and Winfried Corduan. Philosophy of Religion. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988. Part Four offers a rigorous presentation of Geisler’s “best-way” approach to the problem of evil and a critique of nontheistic approaches.

Hick, John. Evil and the Love of God. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Important treatment by a liberal theologian.

Kreeft, Peter. Making Sense Out of Suffering. Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1986. Very helpful discussion by a Roman Catholic philosopher.

Yancey, Philip. Where Is God When It Hurts? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977. Practical, popular level treatment by an evangelical writer.
1Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon, 1981). The book received glowing endorsements from Catholic author Andrew Greeley, positive thinking patriarch Norman Vincent Peale, and numerous newspaper and magazine reviews.
2Ibid., 37.
3Ibid., 40.
4Ibid., 43.
5Ibid., 81-86.
6Kenneth Copeland, “God’s Covenants with Man I,” tape 01-4403, in The Blood Covenant: A Kenneth Copeland Ministries Study Series (Fort Worth: Kenneth Copeland Ministries, 1982), sides 1 and 2.
7Scholars differ in how they analyze the speeches of Job in chapters 26-31. I have taken chapters 26-28 to be Job’s reply to Bildad, and chapters 29-31 to be a formal complaint directed to God.
8He is described as “the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram” (32:2). According to Genesis 22:20-21, Buz and Uz were both sons of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. This suggests that Elihu, along with Job and his friends, were non-Israelites but related to Abraham and perhaps for this reason knew about the Lord God Almighty.
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