The Book of Job
One of the better commentaries on the Book of Job comes from Kyle Broflovski, lying in hospital with an infected hemorrhoid, angry with God for allowing evil to exist in the form of (a) the aforementioned hemorrhoid and (b) the happiness of Eric Cartman. In an attempt to justify the ways of God to Kyle, his parents read him the Book of Job. After Broflovski calls the Book of Job the most horrible story he’s ever heard, pointing out that God has allowed Job to suffer to prove a point to Satan, he concludes with, “I was right. Job has all his children killed, and Michael Bey gets to keep making movies. There isn’t a God.”
If the goal of the Book of Job is to justify the ways of God to men, it is not terribly good at it. God and Satan are the two villains of the story, colluding in heaping suffering on Job in order for each to prove a point to the other: God, to show Satan that Job will continue to praise His name; Satan, to show God that Job will not. When God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, he does not justify Job’s suffering; he goes with an argument from authority, asking Job where he was when God set the foundations of the earth. The speech out of the whirlwind, whatever one thinks of the argument it makes, is hardly lacking in literary power – “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?… Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?”
If there is no requirement that God be benevolent; if God is as arbitrary as the God of the Bible often is; if God is Zeus without competition, then His answer to Job is enough. The questions of Epicurus, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”* lose their force if God is allowed to be indifferent, or even malevolent; one stops at the second question, shrugs one’s shoulders, and moves on. God is bigger than you; power is its own justification.
The God of the Book of Job is not the kind of God described by Anselm, not “something than which nothing greater can be imagined”**, nor is He the kind of perfect God most Christians believe in. If God is expected to be benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, then Epicurus’ questions regain their force, and become unanswerable. God is omniscient and omnipotent; what God wants, God gets; the Holocaust, AIDS, cancer, Michael Bey movies, earthquakes, cyclones, etc. exist; God wants the Holocaust, AIDS, cancer, Michael Bey movies, earthquakes, cyclones, etc., q.e.d.
For a rather different conception of God, we turn to Spinoza, who describes Him thusly, “… Nature does not work with an end in view. For the eternal and infinite Being, which we call God or Nature, acts by the same necessity as that whereby it exists.”*** This is the opposite, one might think, of an arbitrary God. Spinoza’s God would not kill the servants of an upright man in order to prove a point to the Adversary. Spinoza’s God doesn’t really do anything at all, at least in the sense in which mad dogs and Englishmen do things and galaxies do not.
Spinoza discusses the problem of evil in Part I of his Ethics:
Many argue in this way. If all things follow from a necessity of the absolutely perfect nature of God, why are there so many imperfections in nature? such, for instance, as things corrupt to the point of putridity, loathsome deformity, confusion, evil, sin, etc. But these reasoners are, as I have said, easily confuted, for the perfection of things is to be reckoned only from their own nature and power; things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.
God or nature is, as Steven Nadler argues, the God of the atheists. When Einstein says God does not play dice with the Universe, he argues only that the regularities of the Universe are not probabilistic; when Hawking claims that knowing what happened in the first 10-43 seconds of the Universe would allow us to know the mind of God, he claims only that we would know a lot about the impersonal regularities of the Universe.
It would seem, then, that the God of Spinoza must be at the opposite end of the spectrum from a personal and arbitrary God like the God of the Book of Job and, in a way, He is. But both the God who allows the Adversary to inflict sore on Job and the impersonal forces of the universe which, via natural selection, produce a nasty species of bacterium which infects Job and covers him with sores have a certain resemblance, in the shape of an indifference towards Job’s pain which is more or less total.
The universe we find ourselves in could possibly be called perfect, but it is not perfect when judged by how much its contents “delight or offend human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.” It is a universe which is not safe, a universe which, if it is Designed with our existence in mind, is not designed with our well-being in mind. Those of us who are lucky enough to lead the privileged and almost safe lives led by middle-class and wealthy individuals in rich liberal democracies are able to do so only because of generations and generations of hard work; those who are not so lucky constitute the majority of the population of the world, many of whom still die of things like cholera and malnourishment.
This is not the kind of universe we would expect to find ourselves in if we were in the hands of a benevolent God; it is the kind of universe we would expect to find ourselves in if God is indifferent or absent.