The Book of Job: Covering for a godless world

24 January 2010

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ZJ: Why do bad things happen to good people? Throughout history, this issue has been a constant fixture of human existence, and in times like these, the question is more pressing than ever. But the answer is actually quite simple: There is no "universal register" keeping track of who is good and who is bad, and doling out the appropriate consequences.

The cosmos does not have a sense of fairness. It is not merciful, nor is it hostile. It is merely indifferent. Sometimes things just happen, for better or worse, and they happen without any correlation to what people may deserve. There's no point to asking why, because there is no reason why.

The Bible, however, offers a somewhat different answer.

The Book of Job, in the Old Testament, is the story of a man who has it all. He's prosperous, he has a loving family, he's morally upright, and he's also very devoted to God. But Satan suspects that he wouldn't be so faithful if it weren't for his good fortune, so God and Satan make a deal to destroy Job's life and see what happens.

He loses everything: his property, his family, even his health. And he wants to know why. His friends tell him he must have done something wrong and God is punishing him, but he insists he didn't do anything to deserve this.

Eventually, God shows up and tells them they've been arguing based on the wrong premises. As it turns out, none of this has anything to do with what Job did, or what he deserves. According to God, the real issue is that they thought they could understand why God does what he does. But they can't, because they have no idea what it's like to be God, and in any case, it's not up to humans to decide what is and isn't fair. Yet again, the first rule of Project Yahweh is: you do not ask questions.

That is the best the Bible can do at trying to resolve the persistent issue of why the world seems so unfair when there's supposedly a just, loving and all-powerful God. It doesn't matter if you're good or bad, and it doesn't matter what you think you deserve. God's just going to do whatever, and there's no point to asking why.

Now, doesn't that sound familiar?

The story of Job seems less like an explanation, and more like an excuse—an attempt at developing a version of God that's compatible with an obviously unfair world. But why do we need to shoehorn God into a reality that would be just the same without him? The universe can be utterly chaotic on its own; we don't need God to make it so. In the absence of God, there are already bad things happening to good people, and vice versa. But according to the Bible, the presence of God wouldn't change a thing—that is, aside from making him the one responsible for all this chaos. Which really just makes it even worse.

It's not enough for disaster to strike out of sheer misfortune; now, God is there to add intention. So not only did something terrible happen, it happened because someone decided it should. If you're suffering, that's not just bad luck. There's a reason for it, and the reason is that someone wants you to suffer. When fate stabs you in the back, God is there to twist the knife.

This is how the Bible tries to introduce an unnecessary god, and it is God who comes out looking the worse for it. The Book of Job presents a vision of a God that is not just superfluous, but cruel. As if to say, "Yes, the world is a brutal, senseless, and unfair place. But that's because it's God's will!" How reassuring: a god that takes responsibility for mayhem, and consciously chooses to improve nothing. Now that's a god we can truly do without.

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