The photo essay that I posted a week ago (Look Around You) was, essentially, a reflection on the logical impossibility of an almighty and benevolent deity in a world where such suffering occurs. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.

The Ancient Greeks had an explanation: that we are at the mercy of petty Gods who fight amongst themselves and we are but pawns in their games. It wasn’t a very good explanation overall though, and the earliest philosophers had a lot of fun debunking it. What the Neoplatonists claimed though is that the Plato and Aristotle settled upon the conclusion that a single almighty God was more likely. It’s not at all clear that that is what Plato and Aristotle postulated, but that didn’t keep the early Christians from using the Neoplatonic interpretation as a faux philosophical basis for their evangelism.

And other schools of Greek philosophy had strong criticisms of the concept of an almighty God, including the Epicureans. One of the most common (translated) quotes of the Epicureans, attributed to Epicurus himself, is in my opinion one of the most potent pre-scientific criticisms of the monotheistic deity. Given the world we live in, such a God must necessarily be either malevolent or indifferent to the goings-on here on Earth.

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

All of this brings me to Job. I’m not a scholar of the Hellenistic Period, but there are historians who’ve studied the earliest version of Job’s story, and one that I think is particularly well-done is Jennifer Michael Hecht’s in Doubt: A History. I think if I shared this section in full, it might be very helpful to understand the Judeo-Christian God better.

"We do not know the date of the Book of Job either, but we can get closer. Many scholars believe it to have been written between 600 and 400 BCE; some think a little later, i.e., in the early part of the Hellenistic Period. Whatever the date of the biblical book, the folk story of Job as a good man who suffered, kept his faith, and was rewarded had been around for a long time. We are by no means certain that the folk story was of Jewish origin, or that Job himself, if he existed, was a Jew. Someone, somewhere, wrote a poetic masterpiece that took that Job story, a story of faith, and reimagined it as a philosophical question — as a moment of truth. This, then, came to be included in the Hebrew Bible. The biblical Job is a story of faith, but a faith that is pushed past its limits, into fury, revolt, and doubt.

"The biblical Job was a “perfect and upright man.” He was pious, generous, and kind, and as a result he was extremely prosperous. He had a great household: a good wife, seven songs and three daughters, many serving hands, and so much land and cattle that he was “the greatest of all the men of the east.” He fed the hungry, looked after the fatherless, welcomed the stranger, and was honored for it. He was so righteous that every day he made extra burnt offerings to God just in case his sons ever “cursed God in their hearts.” The drama begins when, gazing upon Job, God bragged to the devil of the good man’s piety. The devil made light of it, telling God that it was Job’s prosperity that kept him pious. God insisted that Job would stay righteous even without all his blessings, and the two embarked upon an awful experiment.

"In one of the most brutal and crafted scenes in the Bible, God sends a messenger to Job reporting that the Sabeans have stolen his oxen and ass and have slit the throats of his servants in the field. “While he was yet speaking,” another messenger shows up and says that Job’s sheep, and those tending them, have been burned to death by fire from the sky. Another messenger arrives, again while the last is still speaking, this time announcing that the Chaldeans have stolen the camels and killed the remainder of his working hands. Finally, and once again before the last messenger has finished speaking, another messenger appears. This one tells Job that a fierce wind has blown out of the mountains, knocking down the house in which his entire brood of children, all adults, where feasting. All are dead. Job’s response to this is to rip his clothes, shave his head, and fall on his knees, saying “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job bore his sorrow and trusted God.”

…the tale goes on like that for a bit. Hecht continues:

“The philosophical end of the matter was not so easily borne by grit and determination. As the story continues, three of Job’s prosperous, pious friends come to counsel him and help him through his grief. When they see him they can hardly recognize the man they knew. They rip their clothes at the sight of him and put dust on their own heads in sympathy and sadness. Job’s sorrow is so great, his loss so inestimable, that for seven days and seven nights they sit with him in silence.

"Finally, Job speask to them and, in beautiful verse, wishes that he had never been born or that he would die now. “Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” As his friends try to answer the lament, they upset Job so keenly that it produces a new kind of doubt. It is here that the biblical Job pulls away from the folktale. In the folktale, Job suffers, but waits faithfully for decades upon decades until God shows up and gives him riches, new loved ones, and long life. The biblical Job does not wait in silence for long, and it is because here is an attempt at rational conversation and it leads quickly to a paradox. The friends attempt to help Job make sense of what has happened to him. The first friend argues that, despite the calamity, the world is still a good and just place, worth living for, and that God is great and wise. In fact, he suggests, Job must have deserved this punishment, since it was happening, so it must be all for the best. “Behold,” offers the first friend, “happy is the man whom God correcteth.”

"It is not the worst take on one’s own suffering, especially if you have a sin or weakness for which you wish to repent. It is a bit unkind when offered from one friend to another, in a time of need. But worse, Job’s suffering was too extreme to fit the model. He had not been overtly sinful, and there’s no way ambient misdeeds or vague bad thoughts could possibly account for the horror his life has become. Job knows his own innocence and, given his level of pain, he cannot tolerate the suggestion that he brought this upon himself — it doesn’t make emotional or intellectual sense. Job’s other two friends, and then a “young man” (scholars think the young man’s part was added later), each deliver a speech attempting to rationalize Job’s misfortune. None questions that God has the power to create or prevent all these circumstances. All insist that God is good and just and deals honorably. It is in reaction to this defense of providence that Job’s critique of God begins to escalate.

"After each of the visitors’ speeches, Job let’s fly a torrent of accusations and challenges. God is described as wildly powerful but inanely capricious. He is not only unjust, he is uncaring: “behold, I cry out of wrong but I am not heard: I cry aloud, but there is no judgment. He hath fenced up my way that I cannot pass, and he hath set darkness in my paths.” Not only is God ignoring Job and failing to deliver justice, he’s an actively nasty, aggressive power: He hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone: and mine hope hath he removed like a tree. He hath also kindled his wrath against me, and he counteth me unto him as one of his enemies…. My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken, and become loathsome.” God is deliberately and gratuitously vicious.”

This is an emotional tale. But it is also a rational one, coming to recognize that the Judeo-Christian God is an unjust god. People may rationalize why this deity is at best indifferent to justice, but rationalizations do not change the fact. Others have sought to accept injustice in the world and do something about such injustices as they come across them in their own lives. This latter approach is no different to the atheist approach: injustice exists, and it is down to us as individuals to do something (or not) about the injustices that we meet. Because no god, should any exist, will come to the aid of good people befallen by tragedy.

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Tags: Christianity, Doubt, Epicurus, Job

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