Perhaps no one has put the problem of evil so succinctly as Archibald MacLeish in his play about Job, JB. In the story, the character who represents Satan taunts:
"If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God." <1>
What the character is saying is that if "God is God," if God is all powerful and can do anything, God must not be good. Surely a good God, so the argument goes, would do away with evil if powerful enough to do so.
By the same token, if "God is good," then presumably God would do away with evil if powerful enough to do so. The fact that God has not must then indicate that God is not all powerful, that "he is not God."
This is the problem of evil. Throughout history, any group that believed its gods were powerful and loved them has struggled with the question in the face of defeat or suffering.
It is no coincidence that MacLeish expressed this issue by way of the book of Job. Job is a righteous person who does everything that God requires of him. The book of Job explicitly tells us this fact about Job (e.g., 1:8). Indeed, it is exactly this point that Job's so called friends dispute. They believe that Job must have done something to bring such "judgment" on himself as he is experiencing (e.g., 4:7).
But when God shows up at the end, He rebukes Job's friends for their insistence that Job's sin has brought calamity on him (42:7). God affirms that no sin on Job's part has brought his sufferings. We, the audience of Job, know that Job was being tested by the Satan to see if he would be loyal to God. But Job never learns this fact in the book. One point of Job is that the righteous can suffer even though they have done nothing to deserve it.
We should not be too quick to dismiss the argument Job's comforters. Their logic is also found in parts of the Old Testament. When Israel loses in battle against the city of Ai, the explanation is the sin of someone in their company, a man named Achan (Josh. 7). Once the offender was stoned and purged, Israel would not be defeated again.
This approach to suffering is sometimes called "deuteronomistic theology," since it is expressed so well by the book of Deuteronomy, especially Deuteronomy 28. If Israel will keep God's commandments, it will be blessed. If it does not keep God's commandments, it will suffer. This theology of history permeates the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings, as well as other OT books. These books give us one side of the biblical equation.
Yet other parts of the Old Testament like Job wrestle with this theology, especially on an individual level. Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:2 both record a saying in Israel from the time of Jerusalem's destruction in 586BC:
"Our fathers ate sour grapes, but our teeth are set on edge."
The generation that went into captivity was punished, not for their own sins, but for the sins of their parents (cf. Psalm 44:17)! Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel argue that God will no longer punish in this manner. Rather, the person who actually does the sin is the one who will die (e.g., Ezek. 18:4).
Greek philosophers also wrestled with this issue. The philosopher Epicurus (300's BC) put the question this way:
“Are the gods willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then they are impotent. Are they able, but not willing? Then they are malevolent. Are they both able and willing? Then why is there evil?”
Christians wrestle with this issue more than most other religions because Christianity has such a heightened sense of God's love for the creation. Perhaps the first verse that any Christian learns is John 3:16:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life."
Christians also have a heightened sense of God's power and that God has already begun the process of taking care of evil by sending Jesus into the world to die for the sins of the world. Why then does evil still linger on so powerfully? Why do Holocausts and genocides continue to take place with no sign of abatement?
This is the "problem of evil," the topic of this chapter.