Job and the Problem of Evil Versus the Tribunal of History

Introduction: Beyond the Tribunal of History—Beyond Is

For some, for many, maybe even most, it is difficult to shower history with the ethical compliments of “good,” “just,” “fair.” Not that the temptation does not exist: our own—often  momentary—well-being and prosperity, or the well-being and prosperity of our little group, often urges us to extrapolate such a contingency onto the face of history itself. We do so almost by reflex, and such an extrapolation probably represents our instinct to keep our life simple, evade the threat we peripherally sense. But even when we have reduced the scope of our vision to ourselves and/or immediate family and close friends one would have to be extremely fortunate not to come up against the shadowside of illness, death, malice, brokenness, incompleteness. Continuing to deny the reality of evil in general, undeserved suffering in particular, in the face of what encroaches in one’s own life betrays a hysteria to keep the world ordered at all cost. If there is trust here in pattern and meaning, this trust is evasive and histrionic.

There are other more reflective and more intellectual ways in which we can console ourselves “that all is well.” Outside the confines of interests, and even outside the confines of our personal biography, we can pretend that we can see the large pattern in history, and that this pattern is developmental and progressive. “I,” and “you,” and “we” are atoms or rather cells of a developing organism, our stories are functional elements of that large “story,” the macrobiography of human becoming. But as cells, as individual biographical units, we have no rights, no unassailable ethical point of view from which history might be judged or condemned. We “feed” history, are “digested” by it, and it is history who has the prerogative of laying waste and voiding us.

Progressive View: Dialectical View

There are more or less perspicuous, more or less subtle renditions of the view that in the large frame—if not in the small—in the macro—if not in the micro-biography—all is well. There is the unilinear model of historical development, which cheerily announces that not much bad has happened at all; that reports of evil and suffering are greatly exaggerated, that, looked at dispassionately, the sum of good greatly outweighs the sum of evil and suffering, indeed dwarfs it. Those who espy evil and suffering are being accused of lacking a full aesthetic perception of the whole, and of perspectival blindness. They see the part not the whole and thus their perception is destined to be faulty. We are enjoined to change our perspective, and stop being so needlessly doleful. (A glass of wine might be panacea for our ill-disposition and misanthropy).

For this view—this dis-enlightening view which sometimes goes under the name of Enlightenment—is convinced that attitude is all: Its motto is the one Shakespeare puts in the mouth of one of the most conspicuous pedants to grace the stage—Polonius, the father of Ophelia—(A mirror of who we are).

“Nothing is good or bad except thinking makes it so.”

There is, of course, another much more subtle view of historical development, i.e., the dialectical view. This view does not excise the negative from history. War, conflicts of all kinds, crime, viciousness, betrayal, oppression, repression, tyranny, are all looked at, looked in the face. And after looking it in the face, the judgment is pronounced that the negatives are the “sacrifices” that fuel development, that are necessary for development. From the point of view of the end of history all is justified, all is a means towards an end that is the destiny or fate of history. In the face of the inexorable, “ought” or “should” count for nothing. History is the scene of what is. What-is is what out to be. Fact has all the rights. Power has all the rights. It is almost redundant to name names here: the dialectical view is most often associated with Karl Marx but could equally be associated with Hegel. In any event this view in its own way evades the suffering of/within history by rationalizing it.

The two views of which we have just spoken are not, of course, specifically Christian views. They are modern Western views, now part of our cultural capital that we may or may not draw on, that we may resist or succumb to. Many Christians do manage to resist, and are enabled to do so by their consciousness that these views are “outside.” But the temptation without is perhaps not more but less great than within; the enemy within the expressly religious manifold, greater than that without. Jews and Christians are not innocent of evasion.

History: The Scene of God’s Justice

We sometimes see or pretend to see that history is nothing more than the scene of God’s generating the maximum positive good—variously interpreted—where there is only condescending recognition of the shadowside. And where the shadowside is acknowledged it is hallowed in ethical justification: unspeakable suffering to individual and to group is punishment for infraction from a God who would do us good, if only, if only we had not done those things which quite understandably provoked divine displeasure.

History, therefore, with a little help from God is a tribunal of justice. How things are, how things have turned out to be, is sanctified. It is, was, and will be enough to say “yes.” And those who say “no,” who said “no,” sometimes in their writing, sometimes in their speech, and sometimes in their silence, they are exiles not admitted to the center of our attention, concern, or our communal memory. Not only the bourgeois comfortable, or the Enlightenment man, or Marxist ideologue are willing to sacrifice on the altar of history; we Christians, founded upon Judaism, upon the prophetic tradition, and the tradition of Job, are often equally as willing to make the sacrifice. We Christians also look on history as prosecutor but affirm the rightness of the rigged trial: it is okay for history not merely to be prosecutor but to be judge and executioner as well. History will not allow someone to put it in the wrong. The great French phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty, who unlike Jean-Paul Sartre had a genuine sense of the “tragic,” what history does, put it well. To paraphrase: History never censures its dramas, abbreviates its moments to make sense.

History never confesses.

Within the Script of History

Yet it is within the script of history, a script always urging towards sense, and always “interrupted” that we live, hope, and die, in which we suffer, others suffer, in which we are victimizers and/or victims, the subjects and/or object of oppression, malice, will-to-power. And it is within this history that Christians find spokespersons, more “paradigms,” of those who confess meaning not because of but in spite of (cf. Paul Ricoeur) the script of history, who imply a “story” in spite of history which is always threatening to be a “non-story,” “nonsense,” “sound and fury signifying nothing.” It is within the script of history that we locate paradigms of faith, persons who are witnesses, and confess for us, and their confession is against history, against fact, against what is. They witness and confess for us in the name of what ought to be, an ought-to-be that is a promise, a hope, and perhaps the “secret” story in the script within which we live. Of course, Jesus Christ is for us Christians the ultimate witness and confessor, as his person is the promise, the hope, and the “secret” story. There are others: Abraham who sees a line and pattern in apparent chaos and patternlessness of human affairs, rather who does not see such a line, but believes it, trusts in it on the basis of the word of God, is the quintessential Old Testament paradigm. Today I wish to look at another paradigm: the paradigm of Job.


There are a number of iconographies of Job in the Christian tradition. There is the Job of the Prologue (perhaps Epilogue), that is, the patient pious Job, God’s resilient, supposedly unquestioning donkey for whom no burden is excessive. There is the Romantic Job, Job the rebel like Prometheus debating with a God bordering on the malevolent Zeus, a champion of humankind, of the ethical point of view, someone who if he has not the power to overcome a despotic God, can still put God in the “wrong.” This iconography bases itself upon the Poetic Dialogue which constitutes the bulk of the sapiential text. Both interpretations, both iconographies, tend to found themselves upon repressing certain sections of the text as a whole (and certain attitudes pervasive within the text).

The iconography of the pious Job is deaf to the Poetic Dialogue in which we hear the complaint of Job, his asking for justice and validation, his questioning of an inscrutably transcendent God who appears either as mercilessly indifferent (Job 9:22) or deliberately malevolent (Job 7:17-21; 9:23; 14:6) and not merely towards Job—though Job does start out being anxious to plead his own case—but by extension all suffering humanity.[1]

The iconography of the rebellious Job ignores the Prose framing altogether in which faith is seen starkly at work, just as it ignores the evidences in the text that Job never denounces God outright, and that his accusations are hypothetical rather than categorical. On this view Job’s “repentance” represents the “cop-out” of an author who needs to stay within the presumption of the tribe. Job’s “leap of faith” lacks any verisimilitude whatsoever.

Fully respecting tensions within the text, I wish to propose the third view, that Job is a man of faith, “knight of faith” in Kierkegaard’s language, but that faith does not exclude a moment of protest, a moment of rebellion. If Abraham is the man of “simple,” sublimely indifferent faith, Job clearly is not. Job’s faith is in movement, a narrative of three stages in which the first stage is faith as received, as tradition inexperienced and unappropriated, very close to ideology and bordering on idolatry; the second stage is question, protest and witness; the third is the affirmation of God and meaning in the universe in spite of the horror and senselessness.

And it is faith, not knowledge, we are talking about. Job does not gain a rational explanation of why there is so much suffering in the world, of why the innocent are suffering. He does not achieve such a point of view, no more than Fr. Paneloux in The Plague by Albert Camus. No explanation is granted whereby the agonizing paradox of suffering and the existence of the good and just God is “resolved.” Faith will mean saying no to history while not saying not to God who relates to us in history. In short, the book of Job provides no theodicy.

Job Ideology: Breaker of Convention

If Job is an exclamation mark, an assertive disturbance, he is above all else a question mark. It is this defining characteristic that gradually alienates him from his “friends,” his would-be comforters, who would stick with convention, live in the assured world of answer, exemplify its autocracy. As that assumed world of answer has it: history is the secured and secure cosmos of sense: all suffering is punishment for sin or evil, prosperity and well-being, of course, are God’s reward for virtue.

The equation of well-being with virtue and evil with punishment names God’s interaction with us in history, indeed constitutes the very nature of human history which is always and everywhere related to God. Whatever the modesty of the conventional view it is not beyond the arrogance of thinking and saying it has grasped the meaning of the relationality between God and human being in time, and even the nature of the divine itself, since much of what we suggest of God is a function of God’s interaction and relationality with us.

As is typical of a presupposition, the equation is not asserted right up front. To do so would be to implicitly subject presupposition to negotiation, and it is of the very nature of presupposition—what goes without saying—to restrict negotiation. Whereas in the beginning the comforters are all empathy, gradually the complaint, questioning and accusation of Job forces them to assert the equation in the most trenchant way. The presupposition is non-negotiable, an idée fixe. Yet it does seem to show certain power of adaptability in the face of Job’s experience and in the face of other instances of unearned suffering: e.g. orphan, widow, poor. Presupposition will be allowed to persist, by emendation, by revision. In the face of palpable fact that the evils do not always get punished and lord it over the good, the comforters can add the qualifier that the future generation of the evil-doer will be punished. Here the notion of “corporate responsibility” as a sub-principle is being invoked to stabilize and prevent criticism of a presupposition which cannot really count for what is the case.

Job confronts the comforters as the bearers of this equation who think they have the mandate of tradition and wisdom (for them wisdom and tradition are interchangeable). In their struggle it is clear how the comforters will proceed. Though all will agree on Job’s “innocence” or “integrity” (Tam) and “honesty” (Yashar) in the beginning, they will eventually be forced to revoke this and accuse Job of crimes of which they pronounced him innocent (Job 11:5; 11:51; 15:7 [E]; 18:5 [B]). If the equation is right, Job must be guilty.[2] In the verbal struggle the task for Job is to remain in the same place by stubbornly insisting time and time again on his innocence (or his relative innocence, i.e., nothing he has ever done ethically warrants the evil done to him as proportionate punishment). The task for the comforters is also perhaps to stay in the same place: but they stay in the same place by moving, i.e., by explicating the syllogism: suffering or evil is punishment for sin; Job is suffering: ergo Job is being punished for sin. The comforters move also—though the movement is spurious—through the tactics of emendation, revision and argumentum ad hominem.

The journey of the comforters is the journey of ideology, that makes the facts fit the picture, here the “traditional” picture that has been uncritically accepted, the picture that makes you acceptable, the picture that makes you one with the tribe, the group, the collective, not-other, not the outsider, no just like all the rest, the good, even better for that reason. Here we have bent logic—we are superior precisely because we do not pretend to have anything other than “the fixities of innocence” to use W.S. Merwin’s words. With regard to these fixities, no scrutiny will be permitted.

Presupposition as ideology will stretch first by emendation, revision, and if it has to it will “lie”—alter the facts it set out to explain. Nothing counts against the ideology. If crimes have to be invented to keep ideology intact so be it. The Stalinist mockery of due process, where crimes are invented to condition the sentences which are already written out, merely illustrates the logic of Job’s three comforters who would invent his crimes so that the equation is preserved, cause and effect kept intact.

At a limit ideology which is impervious to experience, and allergic in general to any individual and social experience that might falsify it, has the audacity to suggest that it is the voice of experience. This attempt at appropriation and neutralization is expressed in the earliest part of the text: Eliphaz blithely (if rhetorically) asks Job:

Can you recall anyone guiltless who perished.
Where then have the honest been wiped out?
I speak from experience: those who plough
injustice and saw disaster reap that (Job 4:7-8).

Job, of course, quickly reveals that we are not dealing with experience here, but the fixities of communal, and traditionally mediated innocence. We are dealing with a prioris assumed, assimilated and become second-nature.

Degenerate Innocence of Job

But Job too, we are led to infer, commenced also in the “fixity of innocence.” The initial friendly empathy and ultimate hostility of the comforters towards Job is predicated upon their perception that he is one of them. And the tendentiousness of Job’s question seems to suggest a crisis, a rite of passage from a previous frame of assumption, to a horizon which is all anxious question, no answer. Put another way, the text entitles us to believe that Job inhabited the comfortable, consoling world of assumption that exonerated history from judgement and confession: all that is is as it should be, all that has happened should have happened—happiness in life signals divine approval; pain, misery, divine disapproval. This is a received article of faith or better on article of received faith. Other, supporting articles of faith include that individual’s cognitive limits with respect to the divine, the function of which seems to be the immunization of received articles of faith—which are regarded as known—from criticism. Given such a debarring of investigation and criticism, all investigation and criticism becomes by definition an irreligious act, an act of impiety. Yet this “fixity of innocence” defines the faith with which Job begins, the faith that is ruptured by crisis.

Crisis is the second stage, the trial of faith in which we question, dare to comprehend suffering and evil in the face of the good God. This trial is at once protest and experiment, protest against the existence of innocent suffering, and experiment with radical, horizontal, and ultimately unacceptable solutions such as: a.) we are on our own, God is not present to us, “with us” in history, but is indifferent to us, good and evil alike (the existentialist solution: Camus, The Plague; Sartre, The Devil and the Good Lord); b.) God is malevolent, the powerful one who enjoys the horrifying spectacle of us pathetic human beings, our self-destructive desires, frustrated hopes, unenlightened actions (the Gnostic solution in which the creator laughs at our efforts . . . no paternal chuckle but a shrill laughter of a demon—the kenospoudos God). No one has summed up this playful, amoral God, more powerfully than Shakespeare in the figure of King Lear, “another unaccommodated man” like Job:

“As flies to wanton boys are we are to gods, they kill us for their sport.”

Here indifference turns malevolence, insouciance and boredom turns diabolic.

There is a universal aspect to Job’s protest and conjectures. Job protests not only his own suffering but the suffering of many (Job 24), of the poor, hireling, the orphan, widow and outsider. Speaking the language of “I” Job stands proxy for all innocent sufferers, just as speaking the language of “you” Christ stands proxy for all sufferers innocent and guilty alike. What Job seeks on the most obvious level is the termination of “undeserved” suffering, but over and beyond that he seeks ethical vindication . . . that is if suffering will not be removed, he wishes to confess his integrity in the face of it, to challenge the adjective “just” that the comforters would give it. Job who is deprived of all well-being makes his last stand—indicates perhaps the last resource of a human being—the refusal to legitimate misery and dehumanization as the exercise of God’s retributive justice. Job’s refusal, Job’s “NO” is, however, also the act whereby he avoids having to accept a monstrous God.

Beyond Crisis: The Narrative of Faith

But Job does not remain in crisis. Job moves beyond the protest of “no” and experiments of accusation to affirmation of God, and becomes a “man of faith,” “a knight of faith,” thought one quite distinct from Abraham. If “faith” can be spoken of with respect to Job, it is not faith uninterrupted but faith interrupted, almost but never quite dispersed. Job is faith repaired, or faith reintegrated. A major question may be asked about this repair and its warrants. The “Theophany” of Job 38 while reinforcing the “Hymn of Wisdom” of Job 28, and thus indicative of God’s presence in the universe, is also a highly stylized piece of bluff in which little substantive is said, and certainly no answer is provided Job’s agonizing question: “why?” In the “Theophany” God speaks the language of power rather than justice, of right to dispose rather than mercy. Capitulation to such express discourse lacks verisimilitude, and in this the advocates of the Romantic Job are perhaps correct.

But what does Job hear in the noise of the whirlwind? And what does hear through the vortex of divine rambling which says, “who are you, do you know who I am!” Job does not get a clear answer, and he is rightly upbraided from demanding such answer, for he in his own way would repeat what the comforters were doing, i.e., making God the subject of an equation. Though all pay lip service to the transcendence and unknowability of God (Job 23:8-14), it is difficult to resist the temptation of saying that one knows the unknown. But perhaps more than an answer to an anomaly generated by experience, Job is looking for a religious solution and a religious solution can sustain the paradox of a good God and innocent suffering—perhaps barely, but it can. And it can, perhaps, because what it is sought by Job throughout is as much the experience of God as the guarantee of a solution, rather than the solution. The real issue, therefore, is not theodicy as rational solution, but the presence or absence of God, a point made poignantly by Elie Wiesel, above all in Night. Is God, however obscurely, “with us”? Is God, however hidden, present to us? Or is God absent? Presence or absence, rather than success or failure at rational solution is the real issue.

What is Job trying to hear through the whirlwind and the noise? Is he not trying to hear the whisper or even the silence—the non-deaf silence—which vouchsafes the communication of a God whom we fear in the nightmare and terror of history is incommunicado. Is God Logos? His question is Wiesel’s question, but so also in a different way it is Auden’s and Kafka’s. Auden spoke of the telephone line in which we dial God to be met by static. If there is a voice there it is inaudible. Kafka in The Castle spoke of dialing the abode of power and decision to be met by silence, wrong number, garbled answer, and the comedy or farce of trying to establish who rung and why.

Whereas many of the modern answers are negative, Job’s is positive, and it does not lack verisimilitude for Job’s questioning and his journey are not dismissed. The way is an essential element of the result, and it is the way that is affirmed when God reproves the comforters and suggests that Job was right. Job may not have been right in every respect and his conjectures were bordering on experiments in blasphemy. But the issue is not about statements, the issue is about experiencing the riddle of existence and history, and sensing in the obscurity the presence of God. The comforters “lied” not propositionally so much as existentially. They did not travel the journey of faith which is vertical. They revolved in the circuit of assumption, presupposition. Any journeying here is horizontal, as it is circular.

The faith of which Job is a paradigm, a faith indistinguishable from hope, is a faith of movement and journey—a movement:

  • From faith given and received,

  • Through question and interrogation,

  • To affirmation that does not edit out question, protest.

Concretely, it is the movement towards faith critically held, to affirmation of sense and meaning in history in spite of suffering and senselessness, to affirmation of the good God who is more not less than justice, who has the inner story to what does not appear on the surface to be a story at all. Faith is learned ignorance or innocence regained in the face of a tragic situation.

[1] Gutierrez, On Job (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), 34

[2] Ibid., 22.

Featured Image: Georges de La Tour, Job Mocked by His Wife, c. 1650; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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