The presence of evil in the world has troubled philosophers, and humanity generally, since the beginning.
Job, the oldest book in the Bible, is an exploration of human suffering; in it, the title character endures all manner of catastrophes — the deaths of his children, painful disease, marital discord, the loss of his crops.
What we readers know, and Job doesn’t, is that his misfortunes are the handiwork of an other-worldly Evil One. This sneering, accusing devil, the personification of what we might today call sociopathy, has set out to destroy Job.
How literally we’re supposed to take this tale, I can’t say.
But the story gets complicated. For we learn that the devil can torture Job because God, who runs the cosmos, has granted him permission to do so.
Bottom line: God — who many of us today describe as entirely good and all powerful — controls the devil, who is pure smoke-belching evil. God allows the devil leeway to afflict people living righteously, obeying the rules and minding their own business.
Job himself isn’t aware of this, yet understandably he spends much of the book shaking his fist at God. So do we readers.
Years ago, I interviewed a religion scholar who’d published an important treatise on the mystery of evil. Over lunch, he and I kicked around the themes found in Job, among other notions.
If God is all good, I asked, wouldn’t he want to prevent innocents from suffering at the hands of the Evil One?
If God wants to stop Satan but can’t, then it appears he’s not all-powerful. If he does possess the power to stop Satan but chooses not to, then how can he be good?
And if, being God, he knows everything in advance, why did he create Satan in the first place, since he would’ve known how much havoc the devil would wreak?
It was a timeworn set of questions, I realized even then. I wasn’t trying to be original or a smart-aleck.
I wanted answers: Where does evil come from? If there is a God, why doesn’t he do something about it and the suffering it causes?
As I recall, the august scholar finally looked at me across the table, shook his head and said, “I don’t know why evil exists. Nobody knows.”
I thought of our conversation as the news broke about last Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas.
As I write this, no motive has been established for that rampage. It doesn’t appear the murderer had a history of mental illness or was affiliated with a terrorist organization. Right now, what he did seems to have been evil for the sheer sake of evil.
Thousands of innocents — parents and children, dating couples, friends — went out to enjoy a country music concert. A fellow human being mowed them down.
Scores died. Others were maimed. Others still, physically uninjured, were left with tortuous images of their loved ones bleeding out.
Many folks are calling for stricter gun controls. I get that. But in a spiritual sense, this is bigger than guns.
If the Las Vegas murderer hadn’t owned a stack of automatic rifles, he might have exploded a giant fertilizer bomb, as Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City, or plowed a heavy truck through the crowd.
At its core, this is about evil.
Where does such malevolence come from? Where was God while this guy was blazing away at the crowd with automatic weapons?
We don’t know.
Evil is. That’s all we know.
That’s all the answer Job gets when the Lord finally speaks to him in that most ancient — and angry — of biblical books.
“I’m God and you’re not,” the Lord announces (although he says it more poetically). “You couldn’t understand if I told you.”
What an unsatisfying response.
Later, the New Testament’s characters don’t much attempt to solve the mystery of evil.
“In this world you’ll have tribulation,” Jesus simply warns. “But be of good cheer, for I’ve overcome the world.”
Elsewhere he says, “Remember, I’ll be with you always, even to the end of the age.”
St. Paul tells us that, no matter what, we should never repay evil with evil. “Instead, overcome evil with good,” he urges.
But how, exactly, are we to overcome evil with good? Campaign for better gun control? Donate blood? Hold community prayer meetings?
Those all might be compassionate actions. I’m certainly not opposed to them. Yet they don’t seem adequate. Nothing seems adequate.
Perhaps, in our frustration, we can only admit to God, ourselves and anyone who asks that we have no idea why evil acts such as the Las Vegas massacre occur, that we see no redemption in them and probably never will.
We can try to believe that God remains present with the suffering. We can believe he cares, and his healing spirit is real, even if, again, we don’t see that now and can’t parse the metaphysical details.
We can take to heart St. Paul’s idea that if we respond toward evildoers with raw burning hatred, then evil has won — and we’ve helped it win.
And despite all evidence, we can believe that if we never give up, good might yet triumph in the end.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.