An Atheist Reads The Book of Job: Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

One of the great questions of humanity is why do good things happen to bad people? Why is there war, famine and genocide? Why are rich and powerful people often dishonest and criminal? Why do innocent people suffer poverty and disease? Why are terrible injustices often unpunished? These are questions that have challenged humans throughout history and many religions and philosophers have struggled to answer. The Book of Job is dedicated to discussing this question and to my surprise it is actually entertaining.

The story begins when God calls all his sons together and Satan comes. Already we are hitting some big problems. Isn’t Christianity based on the idea that Jesus is the only son of God? Yet here the Bible clearly says that God has other children which seems like a clear contradiction. It also seems to imply that Satan is also the son of God, which surely would cause all sorts of theological problems? However, it’s worth noting that Satan isn’t the embodiment of evil, in the Old Testament the word Satan merely means adversary. It is strange how many common Christian beliefs don’t actually have any biblical basis.

Anyway, Satan says he was walking around the Earth (as you do) having a look at what people were up to. God boasts of the faith of Job, one of the richest men in the land, who has huge herds of sheep, camels, oxen and also “feared God.” Satan says this is merely because he is rich and successful, and argues that if terrible things happened to him, he would curse God. So God makes a bet with Satan and allows him to do whatever he wants to Job (short of killing him) in order to test Job’s faith.

Now just take a moment to fully appreciate what is happening here. God and Satan are making bets with the lives of humans. They are not doing this for any greater purpose but simply to show off and boast who is greater. God is willing to cause a lot of suffering merely to boost his ego. It reminds me of a Shakespeare quote from King Lear (which I had to study in school and hated every moment of) where Gloucester cries out in despair “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.” This is an incredibly cynical and bitter notion, spoken when he has hit absolute rock bottom. It is so bitter that it sounds like something only a tv caricature of a militant Atheist would say, not a real person. Yet, according to the Bible, this is what God does. God toys with us for his own amusement.

Back to the story. One day a servant of Job comes to him and tells him that raiders attacked his property, stole his oxen and killed his servants. It is strange that God is so concerned that Job is not killed yet he doesn’t seem to care about the lives of his servants. I guess even in the eyes of God, there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. While the servant is talking, a second servant comes and tells him that “a fire of God” came down burnt all his sheep and servants. Then bandits raid and steal all his camels. Then a wind blows down the house of his son and kills all his children. One by one Job loses everything he values and is left completely devastated. But Job does not curse God, he merely says that “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.”

So God boasts again of the faith of Job, but Satan goes a step further and curses Job with loathsome sores that cover his whole body. Job’s wife tells him bluntly to “Curse God and die.” Like most women in the Bible, she doesn’t have a name or matter to the story. No word is made of her grief or loss, she is merely there to add to Job’s suffering. In fact that one line is the only thing she does in the whole book, after this she disappears without any comment.

All the action in the book occurs in the first two chapters, after this it’s all speeches. The disaster has occurred, from here on the book focuses on how people explain and deal with this suffering. The next 40 or so chapters (Job is one of the longest books in the Bible) is mainly Job debating the nature of God and suffering with 3 friends.

Having lost everything, Job curses the day he was born:

Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
nor light shine upon it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds dwell upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
Let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Behold, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry enter it.
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none,
nor see the eyelids of the morning,
because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
nor hide trouble from my eyes.
“Why did I not die at birth,
come out from the womb and expire? (Job 3:3-11)

This is a shocking level of grief and for the first time reading the Bible, I am actually moved. This is the first time I actually care about what a character is going through and sympathise with their suffering. This is also the first time where the writing is actually good and worth quoting so I will quote large parts of this book.

Job’s first friend argues that he must have done something wrong to deserve this punishment, after all, no one is innocent before God. This is a common theme of the Bible, that misfortune is punishment from God. He says God does not punish the innocent, so if Job is innocent then God will restore him to his former success. This argument has fallen out of fashion in modern times. The Church (generally) doesn’t argue that wealth is a reward from God while poverty is punishment. Nor is it possible to argue that only the sinful are struck with sickness and disease, there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Job is drowning in self-pity and wishes only to die. It is heart breaking to read his despair and although he is not a real person, plenty of real people have suffered and despaired as he does.

“For the arrows of the Almighty are in me;

my spirit drinks their poison;

the terrors of God are arrayed against me . . .

Oh that I might have my request,

and that God would fulfill my hope,

that it would please God to crush me,

that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!” (Job 6:4-9 ESV)

Job argues that he is tiny compared to God and cannot do anything even though he is innocent. He then gives a harsh condemnation of God worthy of an unbeliever. He describes God as a tyrant who crushes the innocent like bugs. Is this not condemnation of God? Does this not forfeit the bet? Where is God and Satan during this debate? What do they think?

How then can I answer him, choosing my words with him?

Though I am in the right, I cannot answer him;

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.

If I summoned him and he answered me,

I would not believe that he was listening to my voice.

For he crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause;

he will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness.

If it is a contest of strength, behold, he is mighty!

If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?

Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me;

though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.

I am blameless; I regard not myself; I loathe my life.

It is all one; therefore I say, ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’

When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.

The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;

he covers the faces of its judges— if it is not he, who then is it? (Job 9:14-24 ESV)

His friends claim that Job cannot know the mind of God or what his plan is. All of this could be happening for a reason that Job doesn’t know. This is a common argument and in a sense they are right, however, the divine plan is not for the benefit of humanity but just so that God can win a bet with Satan. As is common in the Bible, the friends talk down to Job, blaming him for even considering that he could ask anything of God. He is small and insignificant compared to the glory of God, his concerns are worthless in the general scheme of things. They repeatedly state that no one born of a woman can be pure as if women are inherently filthy and nothing related to them can be clean.

Job lists the terrible things that God has done to him, he says God must be worn out from ruining his life. He has driven away his friends, reduced him to skin and bone, torn him, gnashed his teeth at him, made men gasp and stare at him and gang up against him, cast him into the hands of godless and wicked (who are apparently the same people), God seized him by the neck and dashed him to pieces, slashed open his kidneys, his armies attacked him and his eyes are red from weeping. His spirit is broken and he longs for the graveyard. He will embrace the darkness of Sheol like his parents. In the midst of this all, he again wonders what he could have possible have done to deserve this? He claims he was a good man, why is God letting him suffer while people who do bad things are left to prosper?

His friends argue to the contrary that terrible things do happen to the sinful. They claim that the light of the sinful is put out and they stumble in darkness, they are surrounded by terrors, they are starved, their skin is ravished by disease, their memory perishes from the earth, their name is forgotten and they have no descendants. This is certainly poetic and evocative, but it’s not really true. There are many people who steal, rape and murder without facing consequence, dictators and war criminals often die in opulence at an old age, many escape justice. The claim that evil people don’t have descendants and their names are forgotten is completely untrue, often they are remembered but their victims are not.

Job again proclaims his innocence and declares that if he only knew where God was then he argue his case before him. Yet God is nowhere to be found, he has abandoned Job. Job demands to know where God is when people are suffering? He then gives a powerful speech about the suffering of the poor and demands to know why God lets it happen.

“Why are not times of judgment kept by the Almighty,

and why do those who know him never see his days?

Some move landmarks; they seize flocks and pasture them.

They drive away the donkey of the fatherless;

they take the widow’s ox for a pledge.

They thrust the poor off the road;

the poor of the earth all hide themselves.

Behold, like wild donkeys in the desert the poor go out to their toil,

seeking game; the wasteland yields food for their children.

They gather their fodder in the field,

and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man.

They lie all night naked, without clothing,

and have no covering in the cold.

They are wet with the rain of the mountains

and cling to the rock for lack of shelter.

(There are those who snatch the fatherless child from the breast,

and they take a pledge against the poor.)

They go about naked, without clothing;

hungry, they carry the sheaves;

among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil;

they tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst.

From out of the city the dying groan,

and the soul of the wounded cries for help;

yet God charges no one with wrong.

There are those who rebel against the light,

who are not acquainted with its ways,

and do not stay in its paths.

The murderer rises before it is light, that he may kill the poor and needy,

and in the night he is like a thief. (Job 24:1-15 ESV)

It is unclear whose side we are supposed to take. Religious people would say that Job is wrong for blaming God, because God would never punish the innocent. Yet in this story, that’s exactly what God is doing. Therefore it seems that all the bitter complaints of Job are correct and the defences of his friends are wrong. So what does this tell us? Why do good people suffer? Is it because they are being tested by God like Job? But what sort of cruel psychopath would inflict horrendous suffering on people just to see if they continued to love him? Why do people suffer from poverty without help from God? Why are so many innocent people killed in war and why does God not save them?

It seems the Bible cannot answer these questions.

For the rest of the series, see here


Filed under Religion

10 responses to “An Atheist Reads The Book of Job: Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

  1. Pingback: An Atheist Reads The Bible | Whistling In The Wind

  2. AwokenSoul

    Yahweh is Sid from Toy Story. Just a brat mishandling his toys.

  3. You left out the best part. After Yahweh “restores” Job’s health and wealth and family (but not his sanity), he blows him off with soliloquies of how just and powerful He is and what a worm Job is. What an asshole!

    It is shocking that this “book” made it into some definition of holy scripture. What is the point of the book? In the Hebrew Bible it is the last book and explains to them why God has stepped away from intimate interactions with humans, marking the end of the Age of Miracles as it were. For Christians, did they need a reason to reject the OT (but not Genesis or the Ten Commandments or … anything else they wanted to cherry-pick out)?

    And, why, oh why, does a being that can create a universe of 100+ galaxies, each containing 100+ billion stars, need “sons” and “helpers” in the form of Angels and demons and Cherubim and guards with flaming swords? How is it an all-powerful god has to create helpers to do things that … what? … He doesn’t have time to do?

    I love what you are doing here … taking a step back and asking obvious questions that if you had “faith” you would be allowed.

  4. The reason for the inclusion of this book is I imagine as you´ve realised, that it is first rate drama and poetry and a reflection of the all too common tragedy of undeserved human suffering, and our eternal struggles to comprehend it. It probably has no more place within theology than King Lear though.

  5. Pingback: 04 July 2016 Atheism – Religion News, Commentary | Evangelically Atheist

  6. “Religious people would say that Job is wrong for blaming God, because God would never punish the innocent. ”

    No, that’s not what religious people would say. Nice strawman.

    “It seems the Bible cannot answer these questions.”

    Or maybe you don’t understand the story. Job is punished because of his hubris. He believes that he has earned all his good fortune by being a good person. He believes God owes him a good life and he is entitled to it. God attempts to demonstrate that is not how things work.

    • Joseph Musgrave

      “Job is punished because of his hubris. He believes that he has earned all his good fortune by being a good person. He believes God owes him a good life and he is entitled to it.”

      Do you have a biblical reference for this?

  7. Hello Robert🙂
    I must say I like your article topics. I believe I could bring a lot of clarity to your questions, I’ve read some of your posts o Dr the past two years. I think we could both benefit for the exchange of ideas.
    This is my first time using this site; I’d like to talk about some of the things you’ve discussed but this stuff can get super deep(like quantum physics is a easy compared to this stuff, I study both with a passion) and its much better if the conversation is live and transparent, allowing for quick coverage of concepts and ideas. If there is a way we can do that on this site, let me know. If not we can discuss over emails(I constantly check email and get immediate reminders on my phone.)
    I want to commend your searching. The law of reeling and sowing is still in play. But there is one thing you need. We can talk about that later. Look forward to hearing from you🙂

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