Job and Skeptical Theism
December 17, 2010 — 18:19

Author: Jeremy Pierce  Category: Christian Theology Problem of Evil  Tags: , ,   Comments: 23

There are several people who hang around here who resist skeptical theism, that is the view that we should consider our conceptual resources and factual knowledge insufficient to render a judgment about whether God could be justified in allowing the evils apparent in the world.
I suspect most of these people accept the book of Job as divine revelation. Yet it seems to me that the point of the book of Job (or at least one of its main points) is something very close to what skeptical theists want to assert, namely that we aren’t in the sort of position to make judgments about why God must have done or allowed various things that happen.
I’m curious, therefore, how those who resist skeptical theism see the book of Job if it does not in fact make that point.

  • Richard Gale has argued for this reading of the Book of Job.
    1. I think weaker readings are possible. For instance, we could take the Book of Job as simply telling us that there exist cases of evils where we aren’t in a position to figure out why God had allowed them. This much is fairly uncontroversial–almost everybody agrees on this. What is controversial is the sceptical theist’s further claim that such cases aren’t evidence against the existence of God. I do not think the Book of Job is concerned with that question at all.
    2. A Christian might also think that the point applies only prior to Christ’s teaching, holding that given Christ’s teaching we have a deeper insight into God’s purposes. If so, then the Book of Job’s claim are time-indexed.

    December 17, 2010 — 18:43
  • Basil Wellington

    Jeremy Pierce,
    Elenore Stump gives a brief interpretation of Job. She argues it is a type of emotional counter to the emotional weight felt from the Problem of Evil. I believe she presented it in a speech for the Veritas Forum here:
    At any rate, it has changed my thinking about the book of Job since.

    December 18, 2010 — 0:24
  • The argument toward the end of the book seems to me to be that, since we weren’t there making the decisions and doing the crafting of various creatures and parts of creation, we’re not in a position to judge what the creator does subsequently. It seems much more general than Job’s particular case.

    December 18, 2010 — 6:40
  • Mike Almeida

    …we could take the Book of Job as simply telling us that there exist cases of evils where we aren’t in a position to figure out why God had allowed them. This much is fairly uncontroversial–almost everybody agrees on this. What is controversial is the sceptical theist’s further claim that such cases aren’t evidence against the existence of God.
    Suppose we agree that, in Job’s case, were there a point to Job’s suffering, he would not know about it. Skeptical theists I agree would urge that his failure to (broadly speaking) observe such a point to his suffering does not constitute evidence that there is no such point. But though the counterfactual is (let’s say) degenerate and true, it does not come close to supporting the non-evidence claim. The brief reason is that it does not follow from P []-> ~OP that P(~P|~OP) is not lower than P(~P). That is, not observing a point (~OP) might disconfirm the existence of a point, even if it is true that were there a point I wouldn’t observe it.

    December 18, 2010 — 8:33
  • John Alexander

    It seems to me that it is a hollow victory for the ST that it is beyond our ability to know why one of the defining and seemingly essential characteristics of human life as actually lived, or life itself for that matter, exists. We can understand most of everything else we set or minds too, but not this one crucial element. Leaves me to wonder what the pragmatic difference is between God having a reason that we cannot know and having no reason at all.

    December 18, 2010 — 10:18
  • Jeremy Pierce

    John, are you suggesting that Job could have looked at his situation and inferred that God must be making a point to Satan about how a righteous person might respond to suffering?

    December 18, 2010 — 10:43
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Mike, I’m not trying to debate the merits of the argument for skeptical theism here. I just want to think about what the argument in Job actually is. I don’t think it’s merely moving from the possibility of unknown reasons to the immorality of thinking there are none. There seems to be more going on there. But I think those things are also going on with skeptical theism.

    December 18, 2010 — 11:15
  • Mike Almeida

    I’m not sure who this question is directed to, Jeremy, but I’m saying that from the fact that Job would not observe the point to his suffering it does not follow that his failure to observe it is not evidence that there is no such point (or that God does not exist). It’s not hard to see why. Suppose your house is yellow and not blue. But suppose that the closest worlds in which your house is blue it appears yellow to you, since you suffer from an odd color-blindness in those worlds. It is true that your house appears non-blue and it is also true that were it blue it would appear non-blue anyway. ST’s want to say that, since it would appear non-blue were it blue, the fact that it appears non-blue is not evidence that it isn’t blue. Wrong. Your house is in fact yellow and it in fact appears non-blue. And that is very good evidence that it in fact isn’t blue.

    December 18, 2010 — 11:30
  • Mike Almeida

    Right, when applied to the Job case, I say Job’s response was perfectly reasonable on the evidence. The fact that there appears to be no point to his suffering is evidence that there is no point. And that’s true even if he would not observe the point were there one.

    December 18, 2010 — 11:34
  • John Alexander

    Jeremy: Yes, but that does not mean that Job will know the reason, only that God must have one. I think that Job, or anyone, can reasonably infer anything that is non-contradictory to what is previously asserted as being true. I accept a coherence theory of truth. It seems that Job’s understanding is consistent with what he believes to be the case. He believes that God exists and that He is perfect. Job knows that he is suffering. It is certainly consistent for Job to infer that if his two other beliefs are true then God must have a reason that he does not know, and may never know, that allows God to allow him to suffer. (A lot of allowing going on here:)) Job, if he is as righteous as he is portrayed, would, I think, stop others from experiencing similar forms of suffering if he were able, all things being equal. I infer that Job could infer that God would do so also if He is perfect, so if He allows suffering to continue,all things must not be equal and He must(out of moral necessity) have a reason the justifies Him in allowing suffering to continue. Job does not need to know what this reason is, only that there is such a reason in order for him to retain his previous beliefs regarding God.
    The problem I have with ST, which seems to be Job’s position, is while it is consistent with his other beliefs, so are beliefs in the non-existence of God, or the existence of a less then perfect God, or a completely evil God. Job is entitled to believe what he chooses to believe based on consistency and coherence, and I suppose what makes the most sense to him in terms of understanding the world he lives in, but this does not tell us anything about the way the world is (we would have to move from coherence to correspondence to accomplish this), only the way Job thinks the world is. Interestingly, this is what I think makes the problem of evil unsolvable; it is not that we do not know, or cannot know, the reason God has for allowing evil to exist, it is that ST is not the only consistent and coherent explanation.

    December 18, 2010 — 12:09
  • Luke Gelinas

    I think there’s a prior question about whether the book claims that God causes Job’s suffering for no good reason: “so you (the Satan/adversary) have incited Me (God) to destroy him (Job) for no good reason” (2.3, JPS Tanakh). If that’s straightforwardly true, Job definitely looks rational in his response! But it’s pretty disturbing with respect to God’s character.
    Maybe it’s also worth noting that some (most?) OT scholars think the prologue and the epilogue were later additions. I find Job interpretively treacherous (which might add to it’s fruitfulness)

    December 19, 2010 — 11:47
  • Jeremy,
    I read Job the same way you do, and for several years I’ve actually used it as my reading for skeptical theism with regard to the Problem of Evil, in the POE section of my Introduction to Philosophy class. (It’s worked well.) That said, here are two other readings of the text my students come up with pretty often:
    (1) Leaning on the concluding prose section, some students say that Job’s message is that, if you just keep faith in God through tough times, you’ll get rewarded in the end. After all, Job gets twice as many animals and an equal number of replacement children from Yahweh. So it all works out for him. (The “prosperity gospel” is pretty big in this area.)
    (2) Job doesn’t see it, but Satan is really the one responsible for his suffering, not Yahweh, although Yahweh’s allows him to suffer as a test of his faith.

    December 19, 2010 — 11:48
  • David Warwick

    “Job could have looked at his situation and inferred that God must be making a point to Satan about how a righteous person might respond to suffering?”
    ‘Infer’ is a really interesting word, here.
    Surely while Job’s trials are underway, God is *not* communicating with Job. God destroys Job’s property, but can’t encode within that action a hidden message, the *implication* this serves the divine purpose. [I’m not sure God is capable of implying, given that it’s an imperfect form of communication].
    Job has to infer. It has to be a one-way process – a man concluding independently that his trials serve the divine purpose.
    Clearly, Job would be right to believe that there is divine purpose behind his circumstances (because that proposition is true in this specific case, even if not generally). In Job’s specific case, the reader learns that there is ‘a real reason’ and it’s strikingly concrete, immediate, personal and understandable in human terms. It’s not hidden from us, merely from Job himself. It’s *understandable*, not some long game operating on an alien scale.
    But if Job’s inference matches ‘the real reason’, given God’s lack of communication, it’s essentially a coincidence. He can be right about the reason, but can’t ever ‘know’ it’s the reason. God does not communicate (at first) to congratulate him on getting the right answer. And, clearly, Job can infer things that are incorrect or incomplete – he could infer Satan’s involvement, but fail to infer that of the Sons of God.
    The question, surely, is one of how we would understand when we’ve correctly inferred a knowable divine purpose. Divine revelation would settle it. But are there any other ways?

    December 19, 2010 — 13:28
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Mike, so are you saying that God’s response to Job is therefore unreasonable? After all, Job’s response was evil, and God condemns him for it. Or are you interpreting God’s response differently?

    December 20, 2010 — 21:02
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Luke, I think there’s a scope problem in “you incited me to destroy him without reason”:
    1. You, without reason, incited me to destroy him.
    2. You incited me to destroy him without my having a reason to destroy him.
    But even 2 is ambiguous between:
    2a. You incited me to destroy him without my having a prior reason to destroy him.
    2b. You incited me to destroy him without my having a reason to destroy him, even given your incitement and my reasoned response to it.
    I don’t think 2b is meant. I think 2a is meant. But for all I know the Hebrew is compatible with 1.
    What I think is going on here is that Satan gives God a reason to allow the suffering, not the reason Satan intends but a different reason that God intends (knowing that a key premise of Satan’s reasoning is false).
    As for the preface and conclusion issue, it’s certainly possible that someone added the preface and conclusion to an already existing dialogue. I don’t take that view myself. But I have a lot of skepticism toward the thesis that a complete moron who totally misunderstood the book came along and loved it despite having no understanding of it and then wrote an introduction and conclusion that were flat-out inconsistent with it. That’s the view the scholars you’re referring to seem to me to be assuming, and it seems so amazingly unlikely to me that we should look for some reason why the final editor must have thought this intro and conclusion would fit with the book. There have been more than a couple millenia of interpreters who have been pretty good at finding ways to put them together, and that’s pretty good reason not to assume the Moronic Editor theory of composition that’s so rampant in biblical studies.

    December 20, 2010 — 21:03
  • Jeremy Pierce

    I’m curious how prosperity gospel types will find much support in Job. He suffered pretty tremendously despite being righteous (which presumably involves having plenty of faith). Yet he wasn’t “rewarded” until he berated God and displayed quite a serious lack of faith in God’s ability to judge his character and was subsequently reprimanded by God for it. The whole point seems to be that it’s not about reward. Job never even discovers the point, but it’s that the inverse of the Ring of Gyges thesis is false. Someone can be righteous and, when they can’t get any benefit from their righteousness, might still be righteous in the most important respect (not cursing God).
    As for the suffering God allows, I’m not sure how that’s incompatible with anything I’ve said. Surely the book does teach that Satan is more directly responsible for the suffering, but the book is also clear that God establishes the limits to which Satan can go, and he sets them pretty high with full knowledge that Satan will go as far as possible. I’m not sure why there has to be one point of the book. It just seems to me that one clear point seems at least in broad strokes very much along the lines of skeptical theism.

    December 20, 2010 — 21:09
  • Jeremy Pierce

    David, I want to make sure we have the context of that comment right. John sounded to me as if he was suggesting something that would require Job to know the hidden transaction between Satan and God for God to be justified in allowing the evil, and I was responding to that. He sounded to me as if he was saying it’s no practical use for there to be a good reason that we don’t know. I was resisting the suggestion that Job would or should have a clue what the reason of his suffering was.
    I’d also resist the claim that a possible explanation does not good practically. It does the good of motivating God to allow the evil that’s better off being there (or God wouldn’t allow it). Not every good reason for allowing something requires us to know what that reason is. In fact, sometimes we’re better off not knowing the reason, for various reasons (our own faith, how it affects our choices, and so on).

    December 20, 2010 — 21:17
  • Luke Gelinas

    I agree there’s a scope question. My point was that it’s a real question.
    One reason to think that the book on-balance supports the claim that God is at least jointly co-actively responsible for Job’s suffering is that this is how Job understands what’s happening. In this connection cf. also God’s claim in 42.7f that Job, in contrast to Job’s friends, has spoken what is right of God. There’s another ambiguity here–exactly in what has Job spoken rightly? But I think there’s a plausible reading of the book on which, to oversimplify, Job is basically the voice of truth throughout, exploding the assumptions of his ‘friends’. I think we need to be open to the possibility that the book situates Job in the tradition of righteously calling God to account, as Abraham at Sodom and Moses at Sinai before.
    As for the stuff about moronic editors, I don’t see why an editor would have to love a book to be motivated to add something to it. There could be lots of political reasons for unscrupulous folks to emend influential texts. In particular it has seemed to some (myself included at times) that the abrupt happy ending to the book is a bit forced, given the rest of the text.

    December 20, 2010 — 22:25
  • John Alexander

    Jeremy and David: I was looking at the question of the pragmatic difference from the outside, not from Job’s perspective. If we are trying to decide if God exists, or if He does, if He cares for and loves us then it seems to me to be of little value if I cannot come up with a reason why God, if He exists, would allow (so much) suffering to exist. Given the fact that suffering exists, the existence of suffering is consistent with many inconsistent propositions, i.e., God exists and is completely good, God exists and is completely evil, God exists and is good, but not completely good, etc. One cannot accept all of these propositions as being true, even though we know that one must be. My contention regarding ST is that this position, while consistent with traditional theistic beliefs, is only going to work for someone who is already committed to some religious perspective; they have another reason (possibly only their faith) that there exists a God as defined along theistic lines. Job seems to be in this position. However, the mere fact that we suffer, taken by itself, cannot provide any overriding reason for thinking that there is a God anymore then it can give us a reason for thinking there is no God as defined by the theist. The evidential problem of evil is a non-starter. The possible solutions cancel each other out so we are left alone with our suffering.
    If we turn to God, or retain our belief in God, it is not simply because we suffer, but because we can make sense of our suffering better thinking there is a God then thinking there is not one. As William James points out we do want to make sense of our lives and our place in the scheme of things. A person dying of cancer knows that they have cancer, what they seem to want to know is why. The fact that they smoked, or had a biological predisposition to getting cancer is not the answer they want – it does not provide solace. Science seems to many to be empty in providing meaning to suffering at the existential level of our existence. But, to me, to move to the idea that God must have a reason that justifies our suffering that we do not know, and may never know, seems to be a completely subjective epistemic commitment that we make – a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, if you will. I have known many people, as I am sure you have also, that have found in their suffering the means to reinforce a previous belief that they have regarding God and His relationship to them. Those that have a strong faith in God (along theistic lines) see their suffering as part of God’s plan for their lives and that there must be some good attached to their suffering that maybe they do not completely understand but accept because they believe in God as they do and that God is looking out for what is best for them in the long haul. It is in many ways a beautiful picture, but it is one that I refuse to accept – along similarly subjective lines I am sure.

    December 21, 2010 — 9:45
  • David Warwick

    ‘Clue’ is, again, an interesting word. If God leaves a clue, he presumably does so deliberately. God can’t leave a clue or imply or otherwise tip Job the wink without voiding the bet.
    I think a natural reading of Job is to see it as a parable with the message that we should be more like Job or suffer the consequences.
    If you read it that way, it makes no sense. Job *does* suffer the consequences, solely because he *is* Job.
    Job is selected for the experiment because he already has an apparently unshakable belief that everything happens to serve the divine purpose. The experiment is basically to give him the most vigorous possible shake.
    Job is extraordinary. He’s the last person who’d bend, not some sort of everyman. Literally every other human being, including relatives who’d previously agreed with Job, one by one lose their faith.
    So this isn’t a test of ‘ordinary people’. And I don’t think we’re meant to understand that every time anyone suffers, this is what happens. If you get cancer, it’s not because God and Satan don’t agree on how you’ll react to the news. This is something that happened once.
    So it’s not a parable about how we should be more like Job.
    The original post defines skeptical theism as saying: ‘we should consider our conceptual resources and factual knowledge insufficient to render a judgment about whether God could be justified in allowing the evils apparent in the world’.
    This exactly describes the character Job.
    It certainly doesn’t apply to the *reader* of the Book of Job.
    We get all the “conceptual resources and factual knowledge” we need. We are told God’s purpose.
    I think it’s significant that it features a very anthropomorphic God, even by Old Testament standards.
    God could be living in Olympus – other beings stride in and challenge him, he takes the bet, we see him looking down. Satan clearly thinks he’s in with a chance of winning. God certainly seems to initiate new actions to set the bet in motion. Then he comes down at the end and tells everyone off. This isn’t some unknowable, abstract entity watching a divine plan unfurl over aeons, this is Zeus toying with clay figures of men.
    It also seems very avoidable – couldn’t God have shown Satan a divine revelation of what would happen? Or, for that matter, have told him to get lost?
    It presents a very man-like God acting in a way that, if this was a story about a man, not a god, would be about a king who punishes his *most* loyal subject not just to the extent of his power, but then allows his arch-rival to punish the man, too.
    So I don’t think this can be a story about Job and his faith. I think the question the story is addressing is ‘why isn’t God a sadistic tyrant, even though he acts just like one?’

    December 21, 2010 — 13:02
  • David Warwick

    “that’s pretty good reason not to assume the Moronic Editor theory of composition that’s so rampant in biblical studies”
    Hear, hear.
    I think there are places in the Old Testament where no one argues that *originally* it was a story about Baal or whatever, but it’s been attributed to Yahweh for three thousand years. It’s a bit late to call shenanigans.
    And, of course, most amendments over the years were the exact opposite – clever men trying to make sense of it, or respond to criticism. One of the most interesting things about the New Testament is watching the later books trying to conform more closely to prophecy and have Jesus say things that answered objections we know that early Christians had and faced.
    I think the way the Bible moves around like that, represents points in a debate, is one of its great strengths.

    December 21, 2010 — 13:59
  • Mike Almeida

    Mike, so are you saying that God’s response to Job is therefore unreasonable? After all, Job’s response was evil, and God condemns him for it. Or are you interpreting God’s response differently?
    In the Job case, if Job were wondering whether God existed (or there were a point to his suffering) then his response would have been perfectly reasonable. But Job is sure that God exists, and assuming he believes that God is a perfect beings, there is little reason to deny that there is a point to his suffering. I think he can legitimately complaint that the point was not made clear to him, however.
    I also think Job has as much evidence that God is less than perfect (assuming he is not apriori perfect) as he does that God’s purposes are beyond his ken. That is, if God exists and there is no clear point to his permitting Job to suffer, then either (i) God is perfect and the point is not one Job should expect to be aware of OR (ii) there is no good point and God is less than perfect.

    December 22, 2010 — 14:09
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Sorry for the belatedness, but I’ve just had a chance to check in, and I’ve enabled all the comments that had been held for approval.
    David, I don’t see things the same way you do. It strikes me that what’s going on in the first couple chapters is more like a Ring of Gyges test. Satan is Thrasymachus, and he argues that Job is basically a mercenary, giving devotion to God only because it benefits him to do so, rich and successful man that Job is. It thus insults Job’s character. But he’s also insinuating that God isn’t good enough to call forth love and devotion from those who love him if there’s no hedonistic benefit from it, and thus it’s a criticism of God as well. To someone holding to Thrasymachean ethics, such as Satan, I can see how God in Job might appear to be a sadistic tyrant. But with a broader perspective, that strikes me as being especially unfair.
    What God is doing in this book is not just engaging in a petty dispute over what Job would do. Job’s character has been insulting, and God loves him enough to want to see him vindicated, knowing full well that Job will be vindicated. (This book makes no sense if open theists are right about God’s knowledge of future contingents. God would be exposing Job to all this suffering without even knowing if it would be worth it.) God knows, even if Job doesn’t, that internal character is much more important in terms of intrinsic goods than any of the things Job loses. Part of what’s going on here, also, is God’s insistence on the truth about the important ethical matters Satan is challenging.
    Now you’re right that the reader of the book of Job is given information about the purpose God has in this case. So what? That still doesn’t tell me why God allowed someone to be deaf or why God allowed the World Trade Center to get hit by a plane in 2001. So the fact that I’m told why Job was suffering, even if that’s a one-time occurrence for a reason like that (which I very much doubt) does not give us reason to say that the reader of Job is never in an epistemic position like Job’s. And if God’s speech to Job at the end of the book expresses the truth about Job’s epistemic position, then it seems to me that the same arguments would apply to someone else in an epistemic position like Job’s, even if the hidden explanation has nothing to do with Satan’s sophistic ethics, a challenge to anyone’s character, or the truth of moral principles. The argument is based on what epistemic position someone who didn’t create the world is in with regard to facts they don’t know about the creator’s purposes, and my position is no different from Job’s in general in that regard, even if it’s different with regard to Job’s own suffering.

    December 26, 2010 — 22:48