“And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.” – Job 42:10-11
The term “theodicy” is used to designate the arguments posed by philosophers and theologians that attempt to justify or reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil. These “attempts” have been made for millennia and in every culture, ancient or modern, by persons both famous and anonymous. Probably the most ancient form these arguments take is that of story.
For instance, there is the Babylonian poem I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom in which a righteous sufferer complains bitterly to his god out of his inability to understand why a deity who rules the world would allow a faithful servant to suffer. Another Babylonian poem known as The Babylonian Theodicy contains the conversations of a sufferer and his friends as they debate the nature, source, and purpose of the misery being experienced by the sufferer.
In both of these poems from ancient history, the conclusions reached offer nothing to the one suffering that provides any hope. Both focus on mankind’s weakness in the face of the capricious and arbitrary actions of deity and, therefore, his potential to be mistreated by the gods. The only advice left to the sufferer is to ask the gods to not mistreat them anymore and, if they don’t comply, to accept their fate. There is no meaning for evil. It just is.
Of course, the most famous of these “theodicy stories” is that of Job. Obviously his story* has much in common with the mythic Babylonian poems I’ve summarized very briefly. But it is a fundamentally different story at its core. Job’s trial comes as the result of a satanic challenge to God’s worth. Satan believes that mankind worships God because we hope to gain something from Him, be it wealth or health or status. But, Satan reasons, if God were to remove the possibility of material, physical, and societal blessing from man, no one in general (and Job in particular) would continue to worship God. So a test in the lab of human experience is set in motion and its subject is Job. Of course, Job must remain oblivious to this challenge lest the outcome of the test be tainted. So he undergoes enormous suffering with absolutely no clue as to why.
There is one issue, however, that neither he nor his friends nor (after the trial had ended) his family questioned: God was behind all of this. Yes, we know that the circumstances of the suffering were from Satan’s hand. But the experience of the suffering itself was the result of divine will; it happened because God ordained it. Early on in his valley of suffering, Job proved he could accept this. When challenged by his wife to curse God (which Satan had told God man would do if there were nothing material or physical or societal to gain from faithfulness to Him), Job famously says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 1:21 ESV).
But as the suffering drags on, Job begins to ponder what all thoughtful people consider and he attempts to reconcile the existence of God with the existence of evil. He even loudly demands that God explain His actions. Acting like a lawyer, Job issues a summons for God to appear in the court of public opinion. The reader can’t help but cheer Job on. We, too, want to know the answer. Why MUST we accept both evil and good from God? And doesn’t the presence of evil mean that God can’t truly be good, or at least not fully able to manage the world He has created? Job’s friends refuse to think as deeply about the issue as Job does and want to chalk up everything that has happened to some hidden sin in Job’s life. But the reader knows what Job knows; that no sin has brought this disaster upon him and that he has the question right.
So what is the answer? How can we believe in a good, all-knowing, sovereign God AND accept the presence of evil in the world he governs absolutely? In the book of Job, man speaks until the limits of his understanding permit him to go no further, then God himself provides the answer we all long to hear.
In God’s speech to Job, he repeatedly points to his supreme ability to govern the universe by citing examples of his absolute sovereignty over the created world and spiritual world. Repeatedly, he asks Job if he is capable of exercising such oversight. Quietly, Job confesses that he is not. And then God leaves.
What a minute? That’s it?
Yes, that’s it. But it is enough.
The book of Job teaches that there is much about the world that we will never understand and that includes the existence of evil. But it also teaches that there is a God who governs it all and who is infinitely glorious; a God whose purposes and ways are frequently impossible for mortal man to understand. And it challenges mortal man, in the face of the painful and unknowable, to trust God anyway.
Here’s what Job never knew: He never knew that had proven the intrinsic worth of God by remaining faithful to him in spite of trials and suffering. Job’s trial ends and his fortunes are restored with no explanation given by God or anyone else. But here is the timeless lesson he learned: The God who governs all things can be trusted, even when He can’t be understood.
And that, ultimately, is how you reconcile the existence of God and the existence of evil. You have to acknowledge the existence of a God big enough to handle it; so big that even what is evil serves the purposes of His Glory.
So: is your God big enough?
*By using the word “story,” I do not mean to imply that I believe Job is a mythical figure. Though the Book of Job doesn’t require the reader to believe in his historical existence to gain from its wisdom, I believe it is best to accept Job as a real person. The book bears the markers of history (names of real places, etc…) and the New Testament writers speak of him as a real person (James 5:11).