Is God good? For the New Atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, the answer is a decided “no”. For billions of believers the answer is a resounding “yes”. One would assume, that those who are Biblical Theists, would have very little trouble joining the faithful throng. In the view of many, the Bible presents a safe and benevolent deity, who responds so positively that a bumper sticker reading, “God Bless America” is at once a both a prayer that one assumes will be answered and a statement of the perceived message of the Bible. It may surprise the reader of this blog, then, to hear that the Bible’s perspective if far less clear cut.
God is Great and Awesome
The Bible presents God, not as a simple safe and benevolent old man longing for the company of his creation, but rather as the awesome and unparalleled power behind all that is great: “What is man,” the Psalmist asks, “that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4).
This reflection follows the statement: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,” (Psalm 8:3). The question asked in verse four brings to mind the insignificance of a mere man, when compared to the awesome majesty of the Cosmos, and the Ultimate reality that lies behind it. The Sun, a single star puts forth every minute about 10,000 times the energy the whole of the human race has ever produced, and it is but one of trillions. The beauty of the cosmos, with its nebula and sparkling orbs, puts to shame every speck of human art. How could He who made those stars even notice, let alone care about you or me?
Great minds in philosophy have grappled with this perspective, as have many ordinary folks who have a moment to behold at a spectacular range of mountains, or peer over the precipice of the grand canyon, or gaze upon the Milky Way on a clear winters night. Does the Creator notice the Creature? Is the Unmoved mover affected by man’s acts? A mere glance at the universe tells us he is both great and awesome. Careful reflection should bring a tremor to the human heart and a reverence that is shocked when we read, “because of the great love with which he loved us”, God visited humanity with mercy and gave us life immortal with which to enjoy all of his blessings (Ephesians 2:4-7). But that is not the total picture.
God is Great and Awful
The simple awe of the Psalmist, at the realization that God has spoken in mercy and cares for His people is contrasted by the darker tones of a much more sober work. Patient Job, who beholds not mountains and canyons and cosmic displays, is confronted instead with the trauma of psychological, emotional and physical suffering the likes of which few have ever conceived, let alone seen. In that day, God was not “awesome”, but “awful”.
His beloved children, all dead, have left this father in mourning. Job’s life’s work, all gone, has left this proud man in poverty. His beloved companion and partner in life, his wife, has asked him to go to a quiet place and end his misery. His closest friends have assailed him with the un-compassionate refrain, that he brought all this upon his own head, “I have seen” one noted, “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble, reap the same” (Job 4:8).
In the “bitterness of [his] soul” (Job 7:11), the sufferer reflects in the Creator, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment?” (Job 7:17-18). While Psalm 8 has been the beloved memorized refrain of generations of believers, Job seven reads like a dark mirror, reflecting the joy of the Psalmist into darkened tones. Rather than a cause for praise, Job sees a cause for fear. Rather than care, Job sees trouble. For the Psalmist the visit of God is a cause for rejoicing, for Job it is a cause for grief.
This book, described by some as the ultimate expression of Biblical Humanism, demonstrates the balance and brilliance of the Bible. It is not a “pie in the sky” document for dreamers dis-associated with the pain of life. It is a book for the psychologically complex, intellectual agile and pragmatically surviving people who inhabit this world. Job deals very specifically with the question, “Is God good”, not from the perspective of quiet reflection, or from theological academia, but from the perspective of a man in a crises. From the depths of despair it presents both a sufferer reaching out and a Creator reaching down to deal with this really important question.
If God is not good, then it would be right and even heroic when facing such a Being to cry out in the words Milton put in the fallen angel’s mouth, “better to rule in hell then to serve in heaven”. Yet, if God is good, then only a fool would say in his heart through day to day life, “there is no God” (Psalm 51:1). As I reflect on the book of Job myself in the coming weeks, I would invite you to join me in reading this book, and follow along as I share my own reflections in this blog.