Have you ever gotten an answer that just didn’t cut it, just didn’t really get to the heart of the matter for you? I can remember being in school from the time I was a small child all the way through seminary and having certain classes where the answers – at least the ones I was looking for – were not there. I think it is a byproduct of never getting over my toddler-like predilection to ask why over and over but nonetheless, I sought and still seek answers that I sometimes cannot get.
I remember one time, we were having a discussion in one of my undergraduate religion classes at Mercer University. The discussion between a middle-aged Baptist minister and a twenty something was getting cranked up about whether homosexuality was acceptable according to the Bible and neither was interesting in giving any ground. He quoted all the supposed ‘knock-out’ verses that should have ended the conversation and she responded with research about Greek and Hebrew language, cultural shifts and changes, and other assorted linguistic/anthropological evidences.
The two went at each other for the better part of fifteen or twenty minutes. Toward the end, it was apparent that things were going from arguing the point to arguing the person and what had been an academic discussion was now on the verge of being an honest to goodness fight. Before they could come to blows however, our fearless professor, Dr. Harris, stepped into the ring and advocated that cooler heads should prevail.
Stephen, the Baptist minister, was fit to be tied. Having been worked up by the discussion – and worse yet, that a mere woman, little more than a child, would have the audacity to disagree openly with him about such an obvious thing – Stephen sought the wisdom of our elder and asked the professor to elaborate on the matter. Essentially, he asked Dr. Harris, “Which one of us is right?”
I will never forget the wisdom of his answer, though I have had many disagree when I tell this story. Dr. Harris, scholar of biblical literature and church history said quite simply, “I don’t know.” After a moment of surprised expressions from students, he went on something like this. “There are some issues in the Bible and some in life that require us to wrestle not with each other but within our consciences. This is one of those issues that can be argued from several angles and all of them come out logically right. I know what I think and how I feel, but as a teacher I can’t honestly say I absolutely know 100% for certain what the answer is.”
The answer didn’t exactly cut it with the class but as I have gotten older, taken on the role of Biblical teacher, and stepped into his shoes so to speak, I found the wisdom and freedom of being able to say, “I don’t know.” As an answer, it doesn’t always make people happy, but as a truth, it can be more than enough as I hope we will see going forward.
The great question behind the problem of evil is “Why?” When people are experiencing suffering and pain the discussion of philosophy is the farthest thing from their minds. Yet, even in this suffering we are often offering theological, philosophical, and cultural reasons and arguments for and against these ideas and the greater problem itself. We say things like:
- “It’s not fair” (meaning there should be a just way to deal with the situation though that is not how it seems to be being dealt with.)
- “Why is God doing this?” (meaning there is a divine origin to the problem and the God behind it is unjust for doing or allowing this)
- “What did I do to deserve this?” (meaning I’m a good person, one who should not be suffering this trail/pain since I have done nothing wrong)
When it comes to finding answers to the problem of evil that we see in the story of Job, there is no shortage of candidates. As a reminder, the problem is set up this way:
- If God exists, God is omniscient, or all-knowing.
- If God exists, God is all-powerful.
- If God exists, God is morally good and loving.
- Evil and suffering exist in the world.
There are several approaches to answering this challenge. One is a defense which is an attempt to show that the way someone expresses the problem of evil doesn’t create inconsistencies in believing in God. In other words, they seek to show that the person questioning God is asking the wrong question. Another is a theodicy, which seeks to develop a true and reasonable theistic response of why God allows evil.
The Soul-Making Theodicy says that God designed the universe to be a place where our souls would be developed into their mature, perfected state. The idea here follows the logic that if this life is designed as a place to grow and develop spiritually, it must take many tools and many methods to round off the rough edges and polish the raw material of our being into a finished product. This means that sometimes, we must deal with some pain and suffering as the means or tools which, over time and through perseverance, make us better souls.
The Free Will Theodicy says that God did not create evil, but rather, humans chose to do what is morally wrong, therefore their free will allowed evil to exist. Many theologians believe that evil does not exist on its own. Evil is a choice that people make or an act they perform. So, God did not create evil and evil is in the world because humans chose and continue to choose it. All the suffering and evil of this life, in this world is a direct result of humans’ choosing evil. Another way of arguing for free will is to say God allowed humans to have free will because without free will, the good things in life would not actually be good. You cannot truly love if you are forced to love. Theologians and philosophers who believe this argue that having free will is necessary and if humans had no free choice they would be little more than robots.
Theologians have also attempted to answer this question outside the formal, philosophical realm In his classic book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People, the Rabbi Harold Kushner, writing from a Jewish perspective, says basically, “some things happen for no reason.” He says that there is simply a certain amount of randomness to the universe that God has created, and God does not police all of it. Kushner believes that some people would rather blame God, the Devil, or themselves rather than accept that anything in a universe God created was not controlled directly, constantly, and with intent by God personally.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, took a different tack. He writes in his sermon, “God’s Love to Fallen Man”,
The entrance of evil into the world became the cause of suffering, yet, what are called “afflictions” in the language of men are, in the thought of God, blessings. If there had been no suffering, then one of the most excellent parts of our religion would have been missing. It bequeaths the noblest of all Christian graces, love enduring all things, the ground of resignation to God. The sight worthy of God is to see a man struggling with adversity, and superior to it. By affliction our faith is tried, made acceptable to God.
By the coming of evil we cultivate the quieter virtues: patience, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering; otherwise, there would have been no returning good for evil. Adam’s fall gave all posterity the opportunity of exercising the passive virtues and doing good in numberless instances, for, the more good we do the happier we will be.
In other words, Wesley sees pain, suffering, affliction as he calls it, to be a form of ‘blessing’ as it develops the ‘quieter virtues’ in us which lead us to happiness in the end.
All of this brings us back to the answer that God gives Job in the text today: God is beyond understanding therefore, who am I to question His ways? From the whirlwind, God asks Job questions regarding the creation of the universe, the things on and in the earth. Job is asked in essence; can you be God and do the things God does? Job’s answer sees God as a living, powerful, wise, just, autonomous being whose ways are higher than ours and thoughts are higher than ours. In the end, it is nothing more than God chose to allow it, it’s His universe he can do what he wants to with it.
But is that the end of the discussion? If we look back at last week and consider the kind of literature that Job is, we find that it is, according to the Jews, wisdom literature. As I said last week, I see Job as a metaphor, a way of using a story to illustrate a greater point in much the same way Jesus used parables in the New Testament. Is the greater point to dwell, not on the suffering, the pain, the damage being done but on God whose presence can heal those wounds? In the end, I go back to the statement of a wise professor who said, “I don’t know for sure.”
What I do know in this story is that even though all this God watched over Job. God limited the Accuser’s power. God, even though He let Job suffer, did not abandon Job, contrary to what Job thought at times. God, for Job and for us, is love. Love during the worst that life may throw at us; love in the face of our affliction and adversity; love that is restorative to our souls as they hold on in the storms of life.
And maybe that’s the answer, that no matter what, God loves us.
The One Point: Things, stuff, life happens to all of us. What makes those things or that stuff good or bad is our perspective. No matter what, God loves us.
Atkinson, David. The Message of Job. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1991.
Evans, C. Stephen. Philosophy of Religion: Thing About Faith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982.
Greene, Joel B., and William H. Willimon, . The Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.
Hubbartt, G.F. “The Theodicy of John Wesley.” The Asbury Seminarian 12, no. 2 (1958): 15-18.
Kushner, Harold. Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Anchor Books, 1981.
Mohn, Elizabeth. The Problem of Evil. 2017. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=03ed9c6a-c807-4de4-a590-d3ef65e25688%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=87995384&db=ers (accessed October 10, 2018).
Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Phiolosophy of Religion. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Wesley, John. The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons Indexed by Number, Title and Scriptural Reference. Sarnac Lake, NY: Cedar Eden Books, 2014.
 (Mohn 2017)
 (Peterson, et al. 1991, 100-101)
 (Evans 1982, 134-135)
 (Mohn 2017)
 (Kushner 1981, 53)
 (Hubbartt 1958, 16)
 (Atkinson 1991, 154)