A surgeon friend of mine brought up the typical question he faces ten times a day from anguished parents: “Why does my child of five have to undergo brain surgery for this huge tumor, which may keep him paralyzed for life?” The problem of evil is one of the few topics which throw people off track regarding their understanding of who God is. In an asepticized society which shuns any sign of rot, whether in the kitchen, the buildings, or the parking lot, the average Joe cannot come to grips with the problem of evil. The problem of an effeminate civilization becomes virtually insoluble when it is compounded spiritually by an emasculated Church which purposely refuses to preach the full Gospel of Christ, with its shining light amidst dark crevasses. Christ certainly did not mince words about pardonable and unpardonable sins or about suffering—physical and moral, temporal and eternal—with fire and brimstone.
Among all references to the problem of evil, without a doubt, the book of Job holds the preeminence. Other scriptural passages allude to it in pointed ways, and we might as well go through them before delving into Job’s labyrinth-like dispute. Tobias’s book, for one, gives us a quasi New Testament reply to the sufferings undergone by Tobias senior. Though God fearing, he went through many setbacks before recovering his health and his family. It was then that the angel explained to him: “Because you were faithful, it was necessary that temptation assail you.”
Other interesting passages are found in the Psalter. Psalms 48 and 72 deal specifically with the issue of divine retribution with regards to man.
The latter psalm is particularly poignant in its narration, as it gives the viewpoint of the sacred writer, Asaph, assailed with doubts as he witnesses the sinner’s lot. How can we reconcile the prosperity of the wicked with the justice and goodness of God? Ready to confess some doubts which had risen formerly in his soul on the mysterious work of Providence, the psalmist needs to condemn them ahead of time with an act of love… After this, he can confess his old worries: I was scandalized and almost felt “my footing slip”—losing my faith—when I saw the tranquility of the wicked… This is the crucial temptation. But I soon understood this mystery when I entered the sanctuary of the Lord, when I saw the end He had prepared for the culprits. Asaph’s conclusion focuses on the perspective of the happy eternity, but he also plunges into God’s love which helps him bear joyfully all temporal sufferings. “How good is God to those of right heart.”
The author of the book of Job, writing sometime in the era of the first Temple (between 950 and 600 BC), is describing the viewpoint prevalent in the Old Testament, and very much alive among the Pharisees in Christ’s time. St. John (ch. 9) describing the cure of the man born blind, brings it to the forefront. This will serve as the perfect introduction to the topic of Job.
The question of evil is introduced by the apostles thus: “Rabbi, who hath sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?” The question of the disciples is based on the popular Jewish prejudice, that sickness is the punishment of sin. At first reading, it does seem odd to hear the apostles suggesting that a man born blind could have sinned before his sickness! But the same idea is taken again by the Pharisees when they curse the recently cured man: “Thou wast wholly born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out.” Both verses from the apostles and the Pharisees may be an implicit reference to original sin, from which all diseases fell upon us. In any case, the presupposition is clear: if someone suffers, it is because of some previous sin, either personal, parental or original.
At the outset, the viewpoint of the book of Job is also Jewish—pre-Christian—in character. God’s blessings are upon the just. They act primarily as witness and sign of sanctity. Next, they are the normal and just reward of virtue. Looking at it from the opposite side, the reason why one lives poor and wretched, it is the fruit of sin. His misery is the obvious sign that he is a sinner who, having abandoned God is abandoned by Him too, being paid in kind. In the Old Testament, all consolations promised by God were temporal, as He was dealing with the rude and sensual race of the Hebrews. Within this framework, there is hardly a place for spiritual rewards, the merits of souls in God’s grace, and not even for the sanctions of the soul after death. We are on the horizontal plane of “give and take”: give God His due by your obedience to His Law, and God returns the “favor” by showering his blessings, purely temporal at that.
This model was perfectly illustrated by Job’s early life, with his immense patriarchal fortune, living just east of present day Israel, with his thousand of camels, and oxen, and large family. He was successful and prosperous because he was a man blameless and upright, fearing God. Later on, we hear him defend his innocence: “I made a covenant with my eyes, how then could I look upon a virgin? What would my portion be from God above, or my inheritance from the Almighty on high? Does not calamity befall the wicked and misery those who work iniquity?”
This question runs through the excruciating debates between Job and his friends who, knowing of his sickness, had come to pay him a visit, but became absolutely dumbfounded by grief when they saw the sorry state of their former colleague. Job reasons things based on the testimony of his good conscience: “I am without sin, and therefore, I deserve God’s blessings, and not his curse.” But his friends take the other side and prove him wrong since his sorry state is so acute. The two camps are well entrenched and make no advances. Even when a fourth person enters the arena to debate with Job about God’s mysterious workings of Providence, the lines are not moving much. Suffering and calamity are the punishment which sin inflicts on one, although, sometimes, God may also allow one to suffer as a remedy against further sin. All in all, the connection between sin and suffering is that of cause and effect. Where suffering is, there must be hiding some ugly sin.
If Job and his friends, butting heads for thirty long chapters, are at a loss to find out the solution of their deadlock, the reader however is in a better position as he has the perspective from on High. Before entering the maze of the long and passionate debates, he is warned by the anonymous writer of the divine decree concerning the fate of Job. Satan came and asked God, who had only praise for his faithful servant, to be permitted to temp Job. “Doth Job fear God in vain? Hast not thou made a fence for him and his house, and all his substance round about, blessed the works of his hands and his possession hath increased on the earth? But stretch forth thy hand a little, and touch all that he hath, and see if he blesseth [i.e. curseth] thee not to thy face.”
We are all familiar with the series of misfortunes which took away all his substance. Job cursed not God but, on the contrary, showed his patience saying: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord.” Satan came back charging again and asked for Job’s skin. Job was then afflicted with an ugly ulcer and lived lying on his dunghill, and his own wife asked him to curse God and kill himself rather than “continue in thy simplicity” blessing God.
The patience of Job had been tried once and twice by Satan tempting him in his own flesh and then again, by his foolish wife, and he had come out victorious. But, when his three “comforters” silently saw the horrid spectacle of their old friend turned so much like his dunghill, they were appalled and mute. After a long week of such silent staring, Job could not resist and cursed the day he was born (ch. 3), before his friends came to the attack defending God’s Providence, just and holy, against Job whose soul had to be filled with a sore similar to that of his body. We know of Job’s repeated answer up to the last moment, protesting his utter innocence and requesting that God Himself come to vindicate his cause. In the thick of his refutation, he makes his stirring appeal to God as the blood avenger of old (ch. 19): “For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God. Whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another: this my hope is laid up in my bosom.”
The last chapters of the book bring out God’s manifestation to all protagonists. Job, who had requested God’s witness, sees his prayers answered. Out of the majestic whirlwind comes God who simply gives proof after proof of his unfathomable mysteries of nature. If man cannot understand God’s working in his creation, how much less can he fathom the decrees of Providence towards man. Job could only answer in words of humble surrender: “I know that Thou canst do all things, and no thought is hid from Thee. Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have spoken unwisely, and things that above measure exceeded my knowledge… therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.”
Applying His sentence, God shows Himself most lenient towards Job, happy enough to see him humbled before His designs, but very upset with the three friends who passed judgment without knowledge of Job’s case. Job has to intercede and offer sacrifices to obtain the pardon of their faults. Job is restored in his wealth and large family life which he enjoyed till the fourth generation. The book concludes thus on this happy note.
And, after all is said and done, we the readers, as well as Job, have learned a goodly lesson from the suffering undergone by innocent souls. They are a test imposed by God to try his holy ones and turn them into pure gold. But, above all, it is important to never question the hidden purpose of God who remains all knowing, all merciful, even if His hand is heavy upon us. Lastly, we Christians, after all the questioning Jobs of earth, should not forget that the mystery of suffering has its ultimate answer under the shadow of the Cross of the Innocent One.