John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a popular agnostic philosopher and religious skeptic. He argued, “If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, there could be no evil,” which meant that he essentially believed that an all-powerful, all-knowing and genuinely-good God would not allow the evils that are quite apparent in our world today to exist. Though, both Judaism and Christianity have well-developed arguments as to why God allows bad things to happen to good people.
The Book of Job
According to Wikipedia, the Book of Job is a book in the Ketuvim (“Writings”) section of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), and the first poetic book in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. It is heavily referenced with regard to the issue of theodicy – the examination of the justice of God in light of human suffering. The entire biblical story can be found here, and I highly recommend a quick glance before continuing to read this post in order to have some good context.
The Book of Job’s true author is unknown. It is included in both Judaic and Christian texts for the truths that it conveys. It was most likely written in the 7th-5th centuries BCE. In brief, Job was a very pious man with children and many blessings from God. Satan asked permission from God to tempt him because he doubted Job’s sincerity, and God allowed it as long as he did not kill Job. Thus, Job experiences affliction after affliction, of which are both physical and psychological tortures. He loses his family, and he experiences so many horrors that even his wife pleads for him to curse God to end his suffering (2:9). Job, however, does not give-in to Satan.
Three of Job’s friends come to console him after he complains about his suffering. They sit with him for 7 days, saying nothing and allowing him to grieve. Job eventually cries out, questioning why God allowed for Him to suffer and why he was even born. They insist that Job did something wrong to displease God, and his tortures are a call for repentance, even though Job knew he had done nothing wrong. Though, Job has lengthy responses to counter each of his friends’ rationales. In chapter 32, a fourth man approaches Job who was mad that the other 3 friends had condemned Job without reason that Job could refute. He re-emphasizes the 3 friends belief that Job has no place to say “he is in the right,” for God punishes the wicked. He claims that Job’s wrongdoings are between Him and God, but God is just, not Job.
The author makes sure to emphasize that Job had not done anything to displease God. Nonetheless, Job asks God Himself to respond and reveal to him any sins he was unaware of and the reasons for his suffering, and in chapter 38, God does not give Job an explicit answer. Rather, God emphasizes that Job does not have full-knowledge of the inner-workings of the universe. God reveals the complexity of the wonders of creation to Job, and Job describes his new-understanding, quoted below. In the epilogue (Job 42:7-17), God chastises Job’s friends for lacking a full understanding of Him. He asks Job to pray for his friends, and then God restores Job’s fortune, blessing him with an even fuller life than he had before.
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know”Job 42:3
The Jewish interpretation of Job is very mixed, though nearly all arguments deny the notion of theodicy. One perspective is that the story is not one intending to convey God’s Justice, but it’s message is intended to help those be content with the unknown. God is a God of unlimited knowledge, and as human beings, we cannot possibly know everything he has planned.
Another Jewish scholar by the name of Matitiahu Tsevat agrees with the notion above, and he additionally proposes that the universe “does not operate according to a built‑in principle of moral retribution.” Things like natural disasters and nature itself are morally neutral, for “the sun rises on the righteous and sinner alike” (28:13, 15). Human beings have free-will, and they are given the choice whether or not to carry-out His commandments. God does not deny a man free-will.
A third perspective, which allows for the popular notion of theodicy, is that of the famous Jewish philosopher, Maimonides. Maimonides argues that Job, although he had not committed any sin, experienced suffering as a form of justice from God. He experienced suffering because his mind was limited by the Earthly world and his Earthly goods, and thus he could not experience divine providence. Though, once he intellectually had reached an understanding of God’s infinite and omniscient nature– God’s plans being beyond worldly understanding– Job found favor with God (See more on Maimonides and Divine Providence).
“Christians of the first centuries said, ‘The world was created for the sake of the Church.’ God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the ‘convocation’ of men in Christ, and this ‘convocation’ is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things, and God permitted such painful upheavals as the angels’ fall and man’s sin only as occasions and means for displaying all the power of his arm and the whole measure of the love he wanted to give the world: Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church.'”CCC 760
Catholics interpret the Book of Job more concretely with their teachings rooted in both Scripture and Tradition. They agree fully with the Jewish understanding that only God has full-knowledge of the inner-workings of the universe, and as a result, one may never know exactly why something bad happens. It is still up to the readers of Job to reach their own understandings of suffering, which is in itself a great mystery, because not all cases are identical. One official Church teaching, nonetheless, remains: God allows suffering to exist in order for the existence of a greater good.
In short, human beings have free-will, and as a result, they can choose to cause one another great harm. God may choose to intervene and save some, though He may just as well choose to not save others. Divine intervention, the allowance of evil, and suffering are all taught as necessary to bring about greater goods.
The Existence of Evil
Despite popular belief, the Church’s official teaching is that God did not create evil. Rather, evil itself is a term used to describe the absence or deprivation of good. Everything God creates He sees as good (Genesis 1:31). This is also a very Judaic understanding of the world. Christians simply further elaborate upon this understanding when describing the continued existence of Satan, his fallen angels, and hell: their existence is merciful. Because in addition to good, God also created free-will, or the freedom of choice whether or not one desires to live with Him in eternity. He allowed for his angels to chose to leave Him in pursuit of their selfishness, yet He did not wish to vanquish them, for this would undermine the notion of everything He created being good in and of itself. God created the world out of love, not out of necessity. Both Jews and Christians hold creation with the uttermost dignity that if God were to stop thinking of anyone or anything for even a fraction of a second, it would cease to exist.
A God of Love
Christians view the bible as a love story, and they view the Trinitarian God as the uttermost perfection of love, or agape love. The sacrament of marriage on Earth is viewed as the closest glimpse of this unconditional love of a heavenly God on Earth. Though, the doctrine of the Church teaches that marriage is not going to fulfill all human desires, for there are spiritual desires only God can fulfill. At the end of times, the Church teaches that spouses on Earth will no longer be married (“til death do us part”) in heaven. Rather, in heaven, each will have a unique, unfailing relationship with his Creator that fully encompasses the love of God.
Why did God give man free-will knowing they could disobey him?
Simplest answer: because love that isn’t freely given, is not perfect love. If the notion of God is that of a loving Creator who created out of love and not necessity and who created human beings as unique creatures made in His image and likeness, then He could have just as easily created creatures who were forced to abide to His every will. But He didn’t. Even from a human perspective, we can wrap our minds around this idea. We are all aware that forced-love is not genuine love. Heck, dozens of Hollywood movies convey this idea through pre-arranged marriages or through forbidden love. There’s something innately human that is just as innately liberating about the idea of seeking a love that is both genuine and one’s own conscious choice. This is what the Christian notion of God desires each of person to seek in Him.
Salvation and Suffering
“We gather, there is triple reason for suffering. It cleans up the tarnished image of the Father and of Christ in us; it helps us grow to spiritual maturity to be fully ready to enter His house; it helps give the Father the pleasure of being able to give to other, deficient children.
What was known of this beautiful picture at the tome of Job? As we said, many, such as Job’s so-called friends, insisted that all suffering comes from sin. The book makes it finally clear that not always does suffering come from sin. But clearly, Job did not see the full expanses of the splendid picture we have just unfolded.”Fr. William Most
In the SoundCloud lecture regarding “Innocence, Sin, and Redemption,” Fr. Gregory Pine explores the concepts of original innocence and consequences of original sin. He gives examples of people who welcomed suffering on Earth as well as rationales for why one should not be afraid to suffer by refraining from Earthly desires during the Catholic penitential season of Lent as well as throughout one’s everyday life. I highly recommend giving it a listen because I think it does an excellent job portraying these ideas (Also, I attended this particular one in-person, so I can attest to it being worth an hour of your time. It’s quite fascinating.)
Some people who welcomed suffering are recognized in the Catholic Church. Two I think that are particularly relevant are St. John Vianney and Blessed Jacinta of Fatima. They were some of the many individuals who have asked God to suffer on behalf of those who did not know God and would otherwise face the torments of hell, which is also known as redemptive suffering.
“My God, grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please thee to lay upon me; yes, even for a hundred years I am prepared to endure the sharpest pains, only let my people be converted.”St. John Vianney
Vianney was not born a strong student, but with God’s help, he made it through seminary and priesthood. He experienced many physical, spiritual, and mental sufferings throughout his life, yet he viewed suffering as a beautiful thing:
“The poor infidels, who have not the happiness of knowing God and His infinite loveliness, have the same crosses that we have; but they have not the same consolations. You say it is hard? No, it is easy, it is consoling, it is sweet; it is happiness. Only we must love while we suffer, and suffer while we love… On the Way of the Cross, you see, my children, only the first step is painful. Our greatest cross is the fear of crosses..”St. John Vianney
Jacinta’s conviction to suffer on behalf of souls that would be damned without conversion is discussed in her cousin, Sister Lucy’s memoirs. Both were 2 of the 3 children who experienced the Marian apparition in Fatima and also experienced visions of hell. I highly recommend reviewing the documents/articles I have linked here if you haven’t already. Jacinta was truly a beautiful soul who would even skip meals as a child and offer it up to God so that He would have mercy on sinners. After seeing glimpses hell, she did not want anyone to ever choose to go there by choosing to sin and freely disobey God.
In the SoundCloud lecture “Evil and the Goodness of God,” the Thomistic Institute furthers my discussion of suffering. The lecturer summarizes a lot of the points I made earlier regarding suffering as a primary argument against God’s existence. It investigates theologian Thomas Aquinas’ arguments in particular to counter this popular atheistic argument. It outlines that suffering and God can coexist, such that God allows for it to happen in order to allow for an even greater good, which does not have to be an Earthly good. Often, suffering is a necessary trial to help guide individuals to heaven, challenging them or those around them, to grow spiritually.
- The Book of Job by Fr. William Most
- Catholic Article: “If God, Why Evil?”
- A Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides
- Born Good or Evil?
- Hell is for Real
- An exploration of free-will
- Love (and?) Sex