One can dislike God’s answer to Job, but no one can argue that He never answered. God’s answer, which spans from chapter 38 to 41, flings the question back at Job’s face, saying: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy?” God’s meaning is clear: I am God, I can do what I want. Again, we question whether this kind of God could possibly be good.
To answer this we need to accurately define what goodness is. There is a pattern in Western thought that paints a rather defusing portrait of goodness. It paints the “good guys” as feeble, submissive, conformist, watery-eyed rule-followers who walk around in a blissful illusion, unconscious of the dark realities of the world. It venerates the “naughty” kind—the dark, brooding, unpredictable man of the streets or the sexy, self-confident woman who isn’t afraid to flaunt her sexuality. Goodness is boring, safe, and illusory; evil is dangerous, exciting, and refreshingly “real”.
However, I argue that the exact opposite is the case. Hitler was not in danger, but everyone who dared to oppose him was. In fact, one could argue that because Hitler was (in his context) the most evil, he was therefore the safest of them all. It was the good men who were tortured, the good men who knew “reality” and “adventure”, it was Hitler who lived in the illusion, who sat in a dull office and plotted facts and figures, detached from the real world. Goodness hurts like hell; evil is the heaven that protects us from it. Goodness is the real danger—it threatens to rip your soul apart, evil is the anesthetic that numbs the operation. Goodness is the unpredictable and elusive, it could emerge anywhere in any moment, evil is driven purely by the desire for power and self-indulgence.
I only say all this to disarm the assumption that we ought to know the intentions of a wholly good and powerful being. It is ridiculous to say “If God is good, He would do so-and-so” for goodness even in the observable world emerges in the most unlikely circumstances, and more often than not appears ugly and unpleasant. What instance can you point to where a father’s punishment was painless, where his love did not hurt? To say that God’s goodness would necessarily result in the world being one way rather than another is, in the end, an emotional argument. To say “If God is good, he would run the world this way” is really another way of saying “This is how I would run the world if I were God” which, if we are honest with ourselves, is not an really an argument in the first place. How can we say what a wholly good and omnipotent being would or should do when we are neither good nor omnipotent?
Of course, there is a counter-argument to this. The agnostic may say, “very well, we are depraved. If that is the case, we have no way of knowing what goodness is in the first place. If our faculties are so flawed, then anything could be goodness, no matter how horrendous it appears to us.” This is a valid thought, but ultimately we know very well that there is a distinct difference between the pain inflicted by love and the pain inflicted through cruelty. Children know this instinctively. When they are mad at their parents, it is easy for them to mutter all sorts of terrible things about them, to say that they are evil and cruel to revoke their television privileges or lock them in their room. Many of us may remember doing this in our own childhood. But when the anger had subsided and our minds were clear again, did we really believe all those things we uttered in our misery? We knew deep down inside that our parents did not do these things merely to torture us.
According to the Christian doctrine, the misery in this life does end. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Paul is certainly not belittling or marginalizing the presence of evil, stating in verse 22 that “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” Paul is saying that the goodness we will one day experience is so much greater that our present sufferings will seem like nothing. This is no testament to the insignificance of evil but of how much more significant the promised goodness will be.
The God of the Christian doctrine acknowledges that the evil in this world is very real and very terrible. In this sense we are in scenario B. However, the Christian God also promises a relief from that evil, a relief so great that the evil we experience now will seem inconsequential. In this sense we are in scenario A. The portrait of reality I wish to conclude with is certainly not easy to accept. It does not in any way leave suffering more bearable or God any less terrible. Lewis recognizes this in A Grief Observed, writing, “Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device which will make pain not be pain?” While our conclusion may be both beautiful and stinging, it is sound.