What can God do about evil? Unjust world, just God?


Evil, I argued, isn’t just a philosophical problem, but a practical one. By trying to ignore or belittle it, the Enlightenment tradition stands convicted of culpable arrogance, while the critique of the Enlightenment offered in postmodernity, important though it is, can’t offer any fresh solutions. I concluded by suggesting that Western democracy itself isn’t to be thought of as an automatic solution to the problem of global evil, and that we need to take seriously both the supra-human powers of evil and the fact that the line between good and evil runs not between ‘us’ and ‘them’ but through every individual and every society.
I deliberately didn’t begin to look at the Bible—apart from the initial imagery about the sea—principally because I wanted, as it were, to take a preliminary walk around the problem as it presents itself in today’s world, before asking what resources there are within the Jewish and Christian traditions for approaching it. But now I shall make up for this by diving straight into the biblical material and seeing what it has to offer. It will, however, be obvious that I cannot say everything that could be said in a single chapter on the Old Testament and a single one on the New. All we can do is to scratch the surface; but sometimes even scratches can provide vital clues.
The title of this chapter reflects my perception of one highly important feature of the Old Testament. What our Western philosophical tradition inclines us to expect, and indeed to ask for, is an answer to the question, what can God say about evil? We want an explanation. We want to know what evil really is, why it’s there in the first place (or at least in the second place), why it’s been allowed to continue, and how long this will go on for. Well, these questions are there in the Bible, but frustratingly they don’t receive very full answers, and certainly not the sort of answers that later philosophical traditions would consider adequate. Taking the questions in reverse order: the Psalms regularly ask how long this wretched state of affairs will go on for (13:1; 79:5, etc.); there are dark hints about wickedness being allowed to go on for a while so that, when God judges, that judgment will be seen to be just (e.g. Genesis 15:16; Daniel 8:23); there are fleeting glimpses in Genesis 3 and 6 of the place of evil as an intruder into God’s good creation, though this is never set out to our full satisfaction. The Old Testament oscillates to and fro between three things: evil seen as idolatry and consequent dehumanization; evil as what wicked people do, not least what they do to the righteous; and evil as the work of the ‘satan’ (a Hebrew word meaning ‘accuser’). None of these are exactly explanations. The Bible simply doesn’t appear to want to say what God can say about evil. That provides a powerful extra argument for the point I made in the last chapter, that at least one tradition within Christian thought has warned against our trying to explain it at all.
What the Old Testament does is to talk quite a lot, not about what God says about evil, but about what God can do, is doing and will do about it. It may be possible that we can work back from there to some account of what the Bible thinks evil is, and why it’s there, but that’s seldom if ever the primary focus. Insofar as the Old Testament offers a theodicy (an explanation of the justice of God in the face of counter-evidence), it isn’t couched in the terms of later philosophy, but in the narrative of God and the world, and particularly the story of God and Israel.
In fact—and this is crucial, I think, for understanding the Old Testament as a whole—what the Bible gives us is both much less and much more than a set of dogmas and ethics, much less and much more than a ‘progressive revelation’, a steady unfolding of who God is. The Old Testament isn’t written in order simply to ‘tell us about God’ in the abstract. It isn’t designed primarily to provide information, to satisfy the enquiring mind. It’s written to tell the story of what God has done, is doing and will do about evil. (This is true of most of the individual books as well as the canonically shaped Old Testament as we have it, both in the Hebrew order of books and in the English one.) This happens at several different levels, and we shall explore them presently; but we must grasp from the outset the fact that the underlying narrative logic of the whole Old Testament works on the assumption that this is what it’s about.
Let me map three levels in particular so we can see where we shall be going. First, the entire Old Testament as we have it hangs like an enormous door on a small hinge, namely the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. This, it appears, is intended by God the creator to address the problem evident in Genesis 3 (human rebellion and the expulsion from the garden), Genesis 6 and 7 (human wickedness, and the flood) and Genesis 11 (human arrogance, the tower of Babel, and the confusion of languages). Within that, we discover a second-order problem: Israel, the children of Abraham, may be the carriers of the promise, but they turn out to be part of the problem themselves. This unwinds through a massive and epic narrative, from the patriarchs to the Exodus, from Moses to David, through the twists and turns of the Israelite monarchy, ending finally with Israel in exile. Within that again, we discover a third level of the problem: it is not only the human race that has rebelled, not only Israel that has failed in its task, but as individuals humans in general and Israel within that find themselves to be sinful, idolatrous and hard-hearted.
The result of this is clear on page after page of the Old Testament. True, ‘the problem of evil’ often appears in the Old Testament in the familiar form of wicked pagan nations oppressing God’s poor and defenceless people. But again and again the historical and prophetic writings remind Israel that the problem goes deeper than ‘us’ and ‘them’. The problem of the individual, which in much Western thought has been made central to philosophical and theological understanding, is presented in the Bible as a subset of the larger problem of Israel, of humankind and of creation itself. If we learn to read the Old Testament in this way (which we often don’t when we work through it in small segments, whether in church or in private) we shall begin, I think, to glimpse the whole forest as well as the particular, and sometimes puzzling, trees.

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