Is God a Cosmic Jerk?: God, Satan, and the Problem of Evil
Is God a Cosmic Jerk?
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That’s how I ask the question, but professional theologians use the term theodicy. It comes from two Greek words: theo, which means “God,” and dike, which means “justice.” Theodicy asks, “If God is good and just, then why is there so much evil in the world?” There are many answers to this question. Some claim that God causes evil. In which case, my question becomes relevant – Is God a Cosmic Jerk?
Let’s first examine the word “evil.” Theologian Joe Jones succinctly defines evil in his book A Grammar of Christian Faith “as the harm to some creature’s good” (280). Jones distinguishes between two categories of evil that harms a creatures good. First, there is moral evil – the harm humans inflict upon one another through violence, injustice, and oppression. The second category is natural evil – the harm caused by cancer, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural events.
The Bible mainly explores moral evil, but one book, called Job, explores both categories. Job was a good and righteous man, who always turned away from inflicting moral evil upon others. He was rich, prosperous, and had everything that anyone in his society desired. Yet everything fell apart for Job. He suffered the moral evil of people stealing his property and killing some of his servants. He suffered the natural evil of a windstorm that killed his children, the “fire of God” that burned up his sheep and killed his other servants, and a skin disease that tormented his body and his soul.
Why did this evil befall Job? The first chapter of Job claims that God is a Cosmic Jerk. Well, not explicitly, but it does claim that God made a deal with Satan – and that’s a total jerk move in my book. It’s important to note that in Hebrew the word “Satan” means “Accuser.” Satan was part of God’s divine council and his role was to roam the earth and report to God about the moral evil humans were causing. One day, God asked Satan if he had encountered Job. God bragged about Job’s righteousness, but Satan accused Job, stating that he was righteous only because God had blessed Job with an abundance of wealth and a large family. “Stretch out your hand,” Satan asserted, “and strike everything he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Satan influenced God to play his evil game of harming Job. “Very well,” God replied. “Everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself, do not lay a finger.”
That makes God into a Cosmic Jerk. I mean, if God is good, does God really play Satan’s evil game that harms Job? I’m gonna say no. Job starts with an unhelpful and false view of God, but I think its view of Satan is helpful. Satan, you’ll remember, roams the earth as the Accuser. Satan is the principle of accusation. Everyone in the book of Job, including God, participates in Satan’s accusations.
For example, Job has three friends who visit him. At first, they don’t accuse him. Instead, they met Job in his suffering. “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (2:11). This is what pastors call “the ministry of presence.” In the face of suffering caused by the harm of moral or natural evil, sometimes words just get in the way. Sometimes intellectual and religious explanations of evil aren’t helpful. The ministry of presence doesn’t demand answers to the harm caused by evil. Rather, it meets people in their suffering. The only thing the ministry of presence says with certainty is, “You are not alone.”
But then Job’s friends search for answers and their answers come in the form of accusation. To paraphrase, each friend says to Job, “You’ve committed a sin! God has turned against you. Just admit it, confess, and God will restore everything to you.” Notice that in their accusation, Job’s friends move from participating in the ministry of presence to participating in the satanic principle of accusation. Answers to moral and natural evil that come in the form of accusation are satanic and it makes God into a Cosmic Jerk. The friends blame Job and they even blame God for causing Job’s suffering. Job also blames God when he asks a rhetorical question to his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
Job asserts his innocence in the face of these accusations. He contends that he doesn’t deserve this harm from God. Yet he thinks that God is a capricious divinity who randomly blesses and randomly curses, and that we should accept both. Is that what God is like?
We struggle with the same question. When natural evil strikes, like the harm caused last week by hurricane Sandy, many look for someone or something to blame. Some religious people claimed that God caused Sandy’s harmful destruction because people living on the east coast are sinful. And when moral evil strikes, like the evil that infects our broken political system, each side accuses the other of causing our political problems. The more one side accuses the other, the more the other side feels justified in answering with accusations of their own. Many have stated that we just experienced the most hostile and negative presidential campaign in the modern era. It’s a satanic cycle of harmful accusations that infects out culture. We can easily become captivated by the spirit of accusation in our lives at home, at work, in our neighborhoods, and in our houses of worship.
Job demanded to meet with the Cosmic Jerk of chapter 1. But when Job meets with God in chapter 38, we discover that this is a different God. This God is not distant, uncaring, and fickle. Instead, this God meets Job in his suffering. God comes to Job, but God doesn’t explicitly answer Job’s questions about evil. Rather, God has some questions for Job. God takes Job on a tour of creation and asks Job questions about the mysteries of the universe – about the night sky, about the power of the oceans, and about the enigmas of the animal kingdom. Then God says to Job, “Let him who accuses God answer!” (40:2).
There’s that word – “accuse.” Job was caught up in satanic accusations against God. Those accusations blinded Job, and they blind us, from seeing what God is actually doing in the world. God’s questions to Job provide him with a new perspective on God’s role in the universe. Job answered God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know … My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (42:3-5).
What didn’t Job understand? What are the things too wonderful for Job to know? And now that Job sees God, what does God look like? What is God actually doing in the world?
The story ends with Job receiving everything that he lost. In fact, we are told that “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.” This begs more questions: Did God bless Job because he repented from his accusations against God? Was Satan right all along – that God only blesses us when we are blameless and righteous, and that God curses us when we are unrighteous? Is God really caught up in Satan’s game of accusations?
Job leaves it to us to answer those questions. The early Christians, though, had a more direct answer. They explored the problem of evil through their experience with Jesus. Paul answered the problem of evil by stating that God is not a Cosmic Jerk. Well, that’s not exactly how he put it, but he did say that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Much of the moral evil in the world is caused because we participate in satanic accusations against one another. We hold sins against one another, but God doesn’t hold our sins against us. God does not play Satan’s game of accusations; rather, God’s desire is for reconciliation.
What I love about Job is that while he accused God, he never accused his accusers. In fact, in the end, he prayed for his accusers. He imitated the God who is “reconciling the world to himself … not counting their trespasses against them.” And in doing so, Job participated in the ministry of reconciliation with his accusers. Job threw a party and “everyone who had known him before came and eat with him in his house” (42:11).
And so when we witness the suffering in the world that is cause by natural or moral evil, the answer of faith is not found in accusations against one another or against God. We should seek answers to the problems of harmful structures in our society and seek to change those structures, but answering those questions through accusations against one another only promotes the spirit of satanic accusations. Let’s stop the accusations against God and one another. There is a better way. The best answer to evil is to participate in the ministry of presence and in God’s reconciliation of the world.