Elihu and the Problem of Evil


I want to read the first few verses of Job 32 just to get us started this evening, not to expound these verses, but to use them to introduce my subject this evening.

It has been several weeks since we began our study of Job, so let me refresh your memory of what we have said so far. In introducing this great book of the Bible we spoke of its unique place in the literature of the world and all the more in the literature of the ancient Near East. There is nothing like Job for the grandeur of its prose or the depth of its treatment of human life. There is nothing really like a good many books of the Bible. As literature Holy Scripture stands far above and beyond the literature of its time and, as in the case of Job, often above and beyond the literature of all times. We said that it was a book of wisdom, a book whose purpose is to teach us to live artfully and skillfully in the world. If we didn’t gather that from everything else in the book, we have in chapter 28 a great poem about wisdom that reminds us in some ways of the opening chapters of Proverbs. Job is not, to be sure, a book of wisdom in the same sense that Proverbs is. Proverbs deals with many different subjects; Job concentrates on one dimension of life. But that is a dimension of great importance, proves a great temptation to most people, and, alas, a dimension of life of which a great many people make shipwreck. Job deals with the proper response to suffering, to great suffering, and of the way in which godly men and women should bear up under it, all the more given how little of the reasons for their suffering they may be able to decipher. In the New Testament, for example, we are told that Job teaches us the importance of patience and perseverance. To live a patient life, with all that means, is wisdom indeed!

We then looked at the book as a whole, its basic plot and structure. We pointed out that the long section from chapter 3 to chapter 27, the section that contains the speeches of Job’s friends and Job’s replies to each in turn, is repetitive and does not reveal in any obvious way a progression of thought. [Alden, 24]. The friends repeat their assertion that Job is suffering because of something he has done, and Job expresses again and again his confidence that he is not. The frustration of the reader builds as one speech follows another, but the position of the four men does not change. As it turns out, of course, Job is vindicated at the end of the book. He was correct; he was not being punished for his sins. His suffering had rather to do with Satan’s attempt to demonstrate certainly to God and perhaps to men that Job’s loyalty to God had been bought and paid for. Were his prosperity, health, and happiness to be taken from him, Job’s love for and commitment to God would evaporate and turn into open hostility. Satan was sure Job would curse God if only he were made to suffer. God allowed Satan to make the attempt and that was the cause of Job’s terrible suffering, something that, so far as we can tell from the book itself, Job never learned.

We will take up another time the positive teaching of Job in regard to suffering in human life and in believing life in particular.  Tonight I want to consider one further matter of introduction and then consider the large subject of human suffering as it has always been made and is made today an objection to our Christian faith. Job, of course, does not say everything that might be said about human suffering. Nor does the book give us nearly as comprehensive an answer to the question of human suffering as may be found in the Bible as a whole. So it is important, I think, to put Job’s teaching in its larger context, both in respect to the intellectual and emotional “problem” of human suffering and in respect to the Bible’s teaching about it. As we said last time, the Bible has a comprehensive doctrine of human suffering, provides a variety of different explanations for why people suffer as they do, and gives us a good deal of teaching about how we ought to think about our sorrows and how we ought to bear them. Job is but one piece of that biblical teaching, but it’s a particularly important piece.

But before we get to that, a word about Elihu, the fifth principal figure in the book. Elihu is never introduced in the book. We don’t read anything about him until he begins to speak in chapter 32. He is a younger man and deferred to Job’s friends as they spoke with Job, but when they were unable to bring Job to the recognition of the error of his ways, we read that Elihu “burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God” and “burned with anger also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job in the wrong.” [31:2-3] Elihu then speaks at length (chapters 31-37, the longest single speech or set of speeches in the book). But what it is precisely that Elihu says has long been a subject of debate.  In fact, most scholars don’t think that, notwithstanding his bluster, Elihu adds much of anything. Professor Bruce Waltke, whose judgment is one I hold in the very highest esteem, says this:

“Elihu’s four speeches represent the younger generation’s attempt to answer the question of theodicy [“theodicy” is a term to describe the defense of God’s wisdom and goodness in view of the existence of evil in the world] but in fact add little.” [Old Testament Theology, 929]

A standard evangelical introduction to the study of the Old Testament puts it still more harshly.

“…Elihu steps in. Whereas the three friends represented the wisdom of the elders… Elihu instead is the brash young man who thinks he has all the answers. … In essence, he sets himself up as still another wise man. But in spite of his claim that he has something new to say…he comes back to the same old theology of retribution: Job suffers because he has sinned.” [Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the OT, 204]

In other words Elihu is a typical young man, a whippersnapper who thinks he knows a lot more than he does. Most commentators take this view of Elihu and argue that his speeches are important only as providing an interlude before the Lord himself begins to speak. Most do not think Elihu has anything knew to say. The fact that when he begins to speak the Lord mentions Job’s friends but does not mention Elihu, who had spoken most recently, suggests to them that Elihu is being ignored as insignificant, something that would be particularly galling to a brash young man who thought he knew better than his elders! The general view is that Elihu’s speeches simply prove that human wisdom has run out of answers, the old have nothing to say, the young can do no better, and that it is time for God himself to take the stage. As Derek Kidner tartly puts it, the fact that God ignores Elihu’s words implies

“that God has already heard more than enough of our well-meaning arguments, even before Elihu offers his opinions, and that any further contributions are simply not invited, from us or from anyone else.” [The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, 70]

That is not, however, the universal opinion. There are some commentators who think Elihu has something new and important to offer and that, in fact, it is this young man who breaks the deadlock and prepares for the Lord’s reply to Job and his three friends. William Henry Green, the celebrated professor of Old Testament in “old” Princeton Seminary, that is when Princeton  was still a bastion of orthodox theology, published a commentary in 1874 in which he argued that Elihu in fact points the way to the solution of the problem of suffering, a way then confirmed by the Lord’s following speech. There are a few modern voices arguing for the same more positive view of Elihu’s contribution (cf. A.E. Steinman in VT 46:1 (1996) 85-100, cited in Collins’ Syllabus on the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, 104).

According to this way of thinking Elihu acknowledges that God may use suffering for other purposes than retribution, indeed may have other purposes of which we are not aware and that, whatever sorrow we must endure, God has ordered it in his wisdom and goodness for important reasons. We may not know its reasons but God does and that should be enough for us. Perhaps.  The problem with the more positive view of Elihu’s teaching is that it is not at all obvious. Most scholars and most careful readers of Job in English translation find it difficult to tell precisely where his viewpoint diverges from that of the three friends. If his view is really different why can’t so many who have carefully studied his words find the difference? And, if indeed, he is breaking new ground and offering some true insight that had so far escaped both Job and his friends, it is the more curious that God doesn’t refer to it when he begins to speak. You’ll have to read Elihu’s four speeches and decide for yourself whether you find something new there that you have not found in chapters 3-27. I’m not sure I do.

So now to the great problem, the problem of evil, what Peter Kreeft calls “the problem of problems.” [Three Philosophies of Life, 63] Why did God allow Job to suffer as he did to prove to God something that God already knew? He could have forbad Satan from harming Job and he could and can today prevent any evil from occurring. And when I say “evil,” I mean both the wrong that men do and the harm that befalls them. Sometimes evil is what we call human behavior that is harmful to others: the boyfriend who beats the two or three year old child of his girlfriend to death, the serial child abuser, the inner city gang that rapes and murders as a rite of initiation, the thief who takes what he can with no thought to the misery he is visiting upon others, the tyrant who systematically imprisons and murders to strengthen his position or to accomplish his grand program (sometimes murders by the hundreds of thousands and millions), the men who take slaves for profit. There are perhaps today more people living in literal slavery than at any time in the history of mankind.

Elie Weisel in his historical novel Night describes his time as a boy in the Nazi death camps. He recalls a Jewish child hung for a petty infraction. But the child’s weight was insufficient to snap his neck quickly and so the boy dangled in mid-air, half-alive and half-dead for several hours. Why did God allow that? Just a few years ago in Denver an Indonesian woman was liberated from a life of slavery to a Saudi man. She had been taken years before from Saudi Arabia when a teenager; she slept on a mattress in his basement which was always locked, was required to do manual labor in this man’s home, and was his slave sexually. Why? A poor woman’s life ruined for what purpose? [D. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 614] Or think of those who take pleasure in or are simply indifferent to cruelty that human beings visit upon animals. Evil has a thousand faces and it always has. Julius Caesar in the first century B.C. did to the Gauls what Pol Pot did to the Cambodians in our own time and what the Muslim Sudanese are doing to the Christian Sudanese at this very moment. Think of 9-11, but also of the suffering and starvation in Somalia and in North Korea, of ethnic cleansing in Armenia, in the Balkans and Rwanda, and the systematic murder of men women and children in many places all over the world. And in every case these criminals justified their evil as good, making it even worse. Death camps, terrorism, racism, ethnic cleansing, genocide: these are all terms with which we are all too familiar. And even when no criminal act is committed, there is a world of hatred, deceit, cruelty, and venality that people face in their daily life. The human race has from the beginning been marked by behavior that is cruel, violent, inhuman, disgusting, and utterly selfish. That is certainly evil.

But we also use “evil” to describe the seemingly pointless death of the person struck and killed by a drunk driver, the little child born with a terrible physical defect, the early onset of terminal illness that steals a young mother from her husband and children, the blight of human life that comes from mental disease (think of the five dead in Seattle this past Wednesday apparently because of a man’s mental illness), the terrible burden of depression with which vast multitudes of people suffer every day, the death and destruction visited upon whole populations by plague, tornadoes and hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and fire. Or think of the perfectly innocent mistakes that can be made in medical treatment that lead to horrible results. And, of course, for all of us, there is the prospect of death: death by disease (often very painful as well as fearful), or a slow death that overtakes the mind before it kills the body, or sudden death by accident or what used to be called an “act of God.”  Stalin may have killed some 40 million of his fellow citizens, but perhaps as much as a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century died from the Black Death. That too is evil! Job faced both kinds of evil. Though some of his misery was inflicted by men who attacked and killed his servants, his children were killed when the house they were in collapsed in a storm.

Add the two forms of evil together and there is, as there has always been, a universe of suffering, pain, and heartbreak in this world. No one is exempt. No one escapes. It is not for nothing that the Bible calls this world a “vale of tears.” The presence of all this evil in the world has long been thought to be by some a virtually insurmountable argument against the existence of the Christian God. We believe that God is infinitely good and infinitely powerful. If so, why on earth would he cause or allow such terrible evil? If he loves his children, why would he permit them to suffer? You parents love your children and you hate to see them suffer? You take steps to make sure they do not suffer and, if they must suffer, to end their suffering as quickly as you can. If the Christian God exists, a God of perfect love and goodness, surely there would not be such evil everywhere we look since the Christian God has both the power and the desire to stop it. Is this not precisely Job’s attitude: he maintained against his friends that there was something unjust in what had happened to him, there was something wrong about his suffering, and he couldn’t understand why God allowed it and why he did not stop it. He was offended by what had happened to him. What on earth was God doing?

It is not too much to say that the problem of evil is in our day the principal objection to the Christian faith. It is regularly raised by the new atheists, whether people who were once Christians, such as Bart Ehrman, or people who were never Christians such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Alvin Plantinga, one of America’s greatest philosophers and certainly the dean of American Christian philosophers — for twenty years Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, and more recently holding the same title at Notre Dame — I say, Plantinga argues that of all the arguments philosophers and others especially in our elite culture raise against the existence of the Christian God, the argument from evil is the only one that deserves to be taken seriously. [K.J. Clark (ed.), Philosophers Who Believe, 72]

But then Plantinga goes on to make two points that are immensely important for Christians to remember in thinking themselves and in speaking to others about the problem of suffering and evil. He isn’t the only one to make them, to be sure, but he makes them particularly well as you might expect a world-renown philosopher to do.

The first is that without God there is no evil and can be no problem of evil. The skeptic who argues that the existence of so much evil in the world disproves the existence of a good and holy God is, in fact, guilty of an intellectual slight-of-hand. It is a cheap argument and one not really worthy of respect. People trot it out thinking that it is unanswerable, when in fact the argument itself proves the very point they are seeking to deny. Let Professor Plantinga explain.

“…I…believe, paradoxically enough, that there is a theistic argument from evil, and it is at least as strong as the antitheistic argument from evil. [In other words, he is saying that the problem of evil is as much an argument for the existence of the Christian God as it is an argument against it!] … What is so deeply disturbing about horrifying kinds of evil? The most appalling kinds of evil involve human cruelty and wickedness: Stalin and Pol Pot, Hitler and his henchmen, and the thousands of small vignettes of evil that make up such a whole. What is genuinely abhorrent is the callousness and perversion and cruelty of the concentration camp guard taking pleasure in the sufferings of others; what is really odious is taking advantage of one’s position of trust (as a parent or counselor, perhaps) in order to betray and corrupt someone. What is genuinely appalling, in other words, is not really human suffering as such so much as human wickedness. This wickedness strikes us as deeply perverse, wholly wrong, warranting not just quarantine and the attempt to overcome it, but blame and punishment.

“But could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness if naturalism were true [that is, if there were not a living and true God, holy and just, who created all things, who published a law and judges all mankind according to it]? I don’t see how. A naturalistic way of looking at the world, so it seems to me, has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort; a fortiori, then, it has no place for such a category as horrifying wickedness. It is hard enough, from a naturalistic perspective, to see how it could be that we human beings can be so related to propositions (contents) that we believe them; and harder yet…to explain how that content could enter into a causal explanation of someone’s actions. [Don’t worry about that last bit; that is the analytic philosopher talking!] But these difficulties are as nothing compared with seeing how, in a naturalistic universe, there could be such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. There can be such a thing only if there is a way rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live; and the force of that normativity — its strength, so to speak — is such that the appalling and horrifying nature of genuine wickedness is its inverse. [He’s saying there is something good in human behavior that is offended by something so bad.] But naturalism cannot make room for that kind of normativity; that requires a divine lawgiver, one whose very nature it is to abhor wickedness. Naturalism can perhaps accommodate foolishness and irrationality, acting contrary to what are or what you to take to be your own interests; it can’t accommodate appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (that our sense that there is, is not a mere illusion of some sort)…you have a powerful theistic argument from evil.” [72-73]

You get his point. We are offended, deeply offended by the things that men do. We think that rape and murder and theft and a thousand other cruel and selfish things are wrong, deeply wrong! But “wrong” is only a word without the Christian God. Without God “wrong” is nothing but a personal preference. Without God there can be no right and wrong, only one behavior or another. We do not think it is morally wrong when a lion takes down a wildebeest on the Serengeti. It is just what lions do. The wildebeest doesn’t approve, I’m sure, but too bad for him. No one is going to condemn the lion or weep for the wildebeest, not in any way that matters to either one of them.

But we think there is something very wrong about one human being murdering another, or stealing from another, or visiting some other cruelty upon another. We think it wicked to abuse children, or to starve the poor. We cannot help but think in moral terms about such behavior which is why we call it evil, a profoundly moral term. But there is and can be no immorality if there is not first a moral standard; there can be no moral standard unless someone not only has laid it down for everyone to observe but promises to judge us according to that standard and enforce his judgment by his own power. If there is no God our moral standards that are so offended by the evil that men do are really just illusions. They are not real things. We aren’t to kill other human beings? Says who? Stalin died in his bed after murdering millions. Mother Teresa died in hers after spending her life caring for the poorest of the poor. What difference is there between them and between their behaviors if, in fact, they are both rotting in the ground, their existence extinguished, neither subject to reward or punishment? One isn’t better than the other; they are simply different. One was more the lion and the other more the wildebeest. But, finally, who should care and why should we as we hurry to our own grave? It can certainly be argued that Stalin had a much more comfortable life, a much more imposing life, a much more consequential life than Mother Teresa had.

Do you see? You need God for human behavior to matter, for there to be such a thing as right or wrong, and for any complaint about the injustice of human evil to be at all meaningful. So don’t allow anyone to say that the existence of evil proves that the Christian God doesn’t exist. Without God there is no evil and can be no complaint about evil or its injustice. What is is what is; what people do is what they do. Period! No right; no wrong; no crime; no punishment; no evil; and no problem of evil. Just shut up and get on with your life and hope for the best. You can be sad that some lion is eating you or someone you love for dinner; but you cannot argue that what he is doing is wrong; not if there is no God to say that it is wrong and to punish the wrong. What people do is simply natural, not moral or immoral, if, indeed, there is no God of justice and goodness. Or to put it another way, for evil to exist, good, real good, must exist as well. But what is good if there is no God, no standard to which all human beings are measured, no judgment, and no future? Good is simply what I happen to like. Hardly enough to sustain the existence of true evil, which then would be nothing but what I happen not to like. There can be no perversion unless there is behavior that is recognized as right and proper and necessary for everyone.

And if you argue that human beings can make up their own morality and make things right or wrong by their own decision, then admit the obvious: in that case, so long as Stalin was on top, what he said was right or wrong was precisely that; and the terrorists of 9-11 have just as much right to make up an ethic for themselves as we do; and so do the sexual libertines and the pedophiles and the gang-bangers and the financial gurus who loot the assets of their unsuspecting investors. They may have made up their morality, but, without God, that’s all anyone does or can do.

That is the first thing that we need to remember about the problem of evil, so-called. The problem is more punishing for the unbeliever than it is for the believer in God. We at least can continue to believe that our intuitions good and evil are not illusions, but are true and important,  that there really is such a thing as right and wrong, and that terrible wickedness is just that: terrible wickedness. No human being has ever lived that has not believed certain things to be genuinely evil – not just sad or inconvenient – evil. But to say that is, in effect, to believe in God.

Before Plantinga, C.S. Lewis made the same argument speaking of his days as an unbeliever, he wrote:

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’? … What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a primitive idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too — for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies … Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.” [Mere Christianity, 31]

So, to sum up Plantinga’s first point: it’s all very well to say that evil disproves God, but a little bit of thought turns the tables on that argument. In fact, evil proves God or disproves itself. There is either God or no evil. And, frankly, most human beings can’t believe there is no such thing as right and wrong, good and evil. I’m not sure there has ever been a human being who really believed that.

Plantinga’s second argument is that God has made himself a sufferer with us. Evil, both of the human and the natural type, seems so senseless, so pointless — even if we can sometimes see great good that has come from some evil act or event, more often we cannot — but obviously we do not know what God knows. We cannot tell what the infinite, holy God intends to accomplish, not only in this world but in the world to come, by what he permits to happen in this world. We see through a glass darkly; we know so little of what God knows.

But, into the midst of that confusion and ignorance comes a God who proves himself willing to suffer with us, alongside of us, and for us.

God does not stand idly by, coolly observing his creatures endure unspeakable torture and despair. He shares their suffering. As we read in Isaiah, speaking of the troubles and sorrows through which Israel passed, “in all their affliction he was afflicted.” [Isa 63:9] And in Lamentations 3:33: “for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” And in the New Testament we are taught that Christ’s suffering — and he suffered very greatly — has made him as the God-Man perfectly sympathetic with his people in their suffering.

But more than that, God has given himself over to the cruelest suffering for his people’s redemption and salvation. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all suffer for our sake throughout the course of the accomplishment of our redemption. The cross uncovers several vitally important facts, as if somehow the granite substructure of the Bible’s whole theory and whole doctrine of human suffering penetrated the surface of the ground at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ: 1) that suffering can be necessary; 2) that it can produce the greatest conceivable good; and 3) that God knows personally both the bitterness of it and need for it.

This may not, it is true, answer all our questions about why terrible things happen as they do in the world, but it gives us very powerful reasons to trust our heavenly father and to believe that he is not doing anything or allowing anything that is not ultimately in the service of the highest good. And, if we add the resurrection to the cross, we have a very powerful reason to be confident that suffering — for the one who has faith in Christ — is not the end but only the beginning of his or her life story. We have hope that the miseries of this life will open eventually on the perpetual joys of the next.

The Bible never treats the evil in this world superficially or cavalierly. It is always sympathetic. God feels our pain; he weeps with those who weep. In this world there must be pain and sorrow and trial. The Bible is relentlessly honest about that. In this world there must be much that we do not and cannot understand. The Bible says that as well times without number and we will return to that point next time.

But human suffering — inexplicable as it may be — the suffering that is the subject of the great book of Job, is itself both the demonstration of the existence of a person who has made us to feel the terrible burden of suffering and the context in which the living God reveals himself to us as the God with wounds, the suffering God. In the final analysis, the final and most complete answer to the problem of suffering is this: Job suffered nothing that his God and Savior didn’t suffer for him. Evil may exist, but as Job will teach us as we study the book further, it does not have the last word!

As many have pointed out, the best defense is a good offense. This applies here as well. The atheist argues that the existence of evil defeats the idea of God. We reply the existence of evil assumes the reality of God. Without him there is neither evil nor a problem of evil. The conscience of man is often better than his thinking! And while evil may be terrible in many ways beyond our power to grasp or to express, God is so far from being indifferent to it, that he has made himself subject to it for our sakes. We can say more than that, and will; but that is a good place to begin!