In 1755 a major earthquake hit
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There are, in the Bible, certain works of fiction, not intended to be taken literally by their authors, but stories written to make a particular theological point. These are a part of what Biblical scholars call wisdom literature. The story of Job is one of these. It also includes some of the most sublime poetry in the English language. It was a marvelous triumph of translation. One of my younger colleagues wrote to the ministers’ email list to say that she was planning to preach about Job and wondered if any of the rest of us had ever done that. Several people wrote in to give the answer that had immediately occurred to me, “Only all the time.” It deals with the most vexing of theological questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Those of us who haven’t read the story at least know that Job was noted for his patience and his suffering. They also tend to know that his nadir was reached as he sat upon a dung heap, his body covered with boils. They’ve also heard of Job’s comforters and know that they weren’t very comforting. They were also — and this is not necessarily common knowledge — badly mistaken.
The story of Job begins when Satan returns to heaven after having gone to and fro and up and down upon the earth, and Yahweh asks him to tell him how things are going. Satan says that they’re about as usual, he sees sin and corruption everywhere he looks. God asks, “Have you considered my servant, Job, a perfect and upright man?” His perfection seems to lie primarily in his assiduous attention to prayers and sacrifice, but after all, this is Yahweh talking. Satan says, “Of course he loves you and is grateful to you. He’s rich and healthy and has a fine family, flocks of sheep and cattle, everything he could possibly wish. If he had a little bad luck you’d see how fast he would turn away from you.” Yahweh denies it and tells Satan to do anything he wants to Job and is certain that Job will remain faithful. Essentially they make a bet. You know what happened. Job’s crops failed, his herd died, his flocks died, his family died, he lost his house and property and his body was covered with boils. At last he was naked on a dung heap. That’s when his comforters came by and told him to search his conscience because he must have done something dreadful for God to be punishing him like this. He denies it utterly. He has done nothing to make Yahweh angry with him. He has, nevertheless, reached the ultimate in degradation and even his wife tells him that there is nothing left for him to do but curse God and die. She was probably feeling a little upset with the death of her last child.
Job finally makes his complaint to Yahweh, reminding him that he had been faithful in worship and broken none of his commandments, and asking for an explanation of his suffering. Yahweh answers him out of the whirlwind, asking him how in his puny mortality he dares to try to hold God accountable for what has happened to him. “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth,” he asks, “when the morning stars sang together and all the children of God shouted for joy.” He describes the wonders of creation and asks Job if he could do such things, or even knew how they were done. To the question of suffering the answer that the book of Job gives is that one hasn’t even the right to ask why in our littleness and insignificance. Job was far more satisfied with that answer than I would be. His ultimate decision: “Though he slay me, yet will I worship him.” Yahweh wins his bet.
In a later addition to the story, at that point all that he has lost is restored to him, though I have always contended that no matter how many children you may have, nothing will ever replace a child. However, the person who wrote the addition was so literarily tone deaf he or she was probably also unaware that children are qualitatively different from lost property. Even I, addicted as I am to happy endings, feel that the addendum weakens the impact and even the point of the story. That point, of course, is that it is not for us, little and finite as we are, to question the ways of God. I do not agree. When Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she gained for the human race the right to question and to judge. However, it tells a powerful truth, one that those like Pat Robertson who agree with Job’s comforters have yet to learn, and that is that loss and grief and pain are not predicated on our behavior. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Earthquakes, hurricanes, natural disasters of all kinds are not punishment for sin, and health, security and happiness are not rewards for virtue. There is a whole universe out there and it impinges upon us beyond our will or our control.
The story of Job has one answer to the question of why — why are little children allowed to suffer? Why can we never guarantee by our forethought or our virtue that nothing bad will happen to us? Why am I ill, grieving, suffering through no fault of my own — through no one’s fault? That is probably the most common answer. Who are we in our finite lives and little understanding to question the ways of God? Surely there must be a good reason or we would never be subjected to all this pain. We don’t understand it, but surely God must. I don’t find this answer even slightly satisfying. You can say what you like but a world in which an innocent child is crushed under tons of masonry or left orphaned and starving is not one that if I were God I would be willing to take responsibility for. There can be no justification. What, then, if that is not an acceptable answer to the question can we believe about God? Or can we believe anything at all.
For many people creator and God are synonymous. If there is no creator, there is no God. That is the God that the new wave of atheists doesn’t believe in. If you do believe that somehow there must have been some kind of creator it is also the God that must be justified.
Voltaire’s answer, the deists answer, makes more sense than most, given the reality of unmerited suffering. It is still accepted by many people, particularly the ones who accept the theory of evolution (the only scientific explanation for the development of the various species of life on earth), but need an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover, as it has been described. That god doesn’t need to be personal, cannot be contacted either for praise or blame, but simply created the universe with its immutable laws. One might ask the reason for such a creation, or question the experience or competence of the creator, but those are also personal qualities that might be irrelevant. The fact that nature is as nature is might be enough, and whether it is hostile or benign makes no difference.
In fact, of course, for us at least it is mostly benign. We have developed in adaptation to it, and therefore the way it is is the way that suits us — or rather that we are suited to — rare natural disasters aside. There is no guarantee that it will remain that way. Species which have previously been successful reach a point where they can no longer adapt to their environment and become extinct. Over two thousand species become extinct each year without our even noticing that they were once here or that they are gone. Although many deists give their god a mighty and beneficent will this speaks more clearly, it seems to me, of the indifference of nature to the wellbeing of its own creations.
More people believe in a personal creator god, one who not only made the universe and particularly our own world, but is still involved in its vicissitudes, intervening in the action of its natural laws, and in human history. It seems to me that if you believe in such a god you have to choose whether its primary quality is power or benevolence. It cannot be both omnipotent loving to its creations, unless you accept the argument of Job that we cannot understand the motivation, we must only assume that it is good and remain faithful. Actually in the story of Job Yahweh’s motivations were almost frighteningly petty, but you can still make the argument, however little evidence there is to support it that if we knew as much as god does we would understand that unmerited suffering is really a good and loving thing. I think I’ve made it clear that I can’t and won’t go there. Just one suffering innocent is enough for me to refuse. Therefore we must return to the proposition that if we are to worship a personal god we must worship a god either of power or beneficence, but not both. Too many people still believe in a hating, jealous, vengeful god who is concerned only with obedience and worship and when he is angry with anyone doesn’t care how many innocents get caught in the crossfire. The other god is powerless to keep volcanoes from erupting, hurricanes from hitting vulnerable places, earthquakes from destroying whole cities, cancers from destroying our bodies, but suffers with our suffering and strengthens us in our pain and grief, and rejoices with us in our joys.
At General Assembly last June I attended the theology module at UU University. The presenter told us about his Mennonite mother who said that she could not live if she could not believe in some presence that somehow cared about her and for her, to whom she could turn in sorrow and in need and also in gratitude for the joys and wonders of her life. I would not try to interfere with such a belief or prove it mistaken, but I always wonder how when something like the disaster in