The Problem of Evil Through the Prism of Job

David Cowles

Apr 7, 2022

A famous paradox runs like this: “Is it good because it is God’s will, or is it God’s will because it is good?” In other words, is God subject to universal ethical standards or are those standards universal merely because God wills them?

A famous paradox runs like this: “Is it good because it is God’s will, or is it God’s will because it is good?” In other words, is God subject to universal ethical standards or are those standards universal merely because God wills them?


The Old Testament Book of Job is supposedly a treatise on the “The Problem of Evil: Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” (Rabbi Harold Kushner, 1981). This is perhaps the central objection that Western theology has had to contend with: simply put, why would a God who is all good and all powerful allow such obvious injustice and even cruelty to infect his creation? Numerous theories have been suggested—some reasonable, some not; yet this remains the number one argument of non-believers. Even the great 20th century British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, relied on this argument in his Why I Am Not a Christian.


The problem of evil is often seen through the prism of Job. Understandably so! In the Job-poem (3:1 – 42:6), 95% of the total text is one of the world’s greatest epics. Even in translation, the language is dazzling. But more importantly for our purposes, the poem catalogs a blizzard of proposed solutions to the problem of evil.


But there is a problem: the poem debunks every one of the proposed solutions (yes, even God’s) but it proposes no solution of its own. Odd! It is customary in philosophical writing to critique those who came before, but it is also customary to propose a solution of your own. But in the case of the Job-poem, after 40 chapters, nothing! From earliest times, commentators have attempted, unsuccessfully in my view, to tease an answer from the text…but there is none!

How can that be? The answer is simple. Job is not about the problem of evil at all. That is just its ‘narrative skin’, not its real content. You have to look beneath the skin. Understanding Job as a reflection on the problem of evil is roughly equivalent to understanding James Joyce’s Ulysses as a Dublin travelogue.


No, Job is not about ‘the problem of evil’ at all, it is all about ‘the problem of good’—specifically the nature and origin of good: is it good because it is God’s will, or is it God’s will because it is good? To this question, Job gives a clear and unequivocal answer: God is too subject to objective values!

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