The Problem of Job and the Problem of Evil

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Espen Dahl
Elements in Religion and Violence
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     75 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Problem of Job and The Problem of Evil by Espen Dahl is a brief but thorough meditation on evil and suffering. While it is not a traditional commentary, it is highly informed by ancient Near Eastern studies. Taking the book of Job as his guide, Dahl leads readers through centuries of thought and arguments. The result is a wonderful little book that would be informative for anyone.

In the introduction Dahl defines evil generally while showing the error of being too nuanced if one is too specific. He leans more on the shared existential conception of suffering to convey his point. He also gives a helpful sketch of the past historical interpretations throughout the centuries. Chapter one explores the prologue of Job and its mythical elements alongside the origin and nature of evil. The character of Satan is, for the most part, a myth that symbolizes the nature of humans, and gives rise to the explanation of the human condition we do not find ourselves in. Dahl helps to interpret the origin story of evil through the ancient Near Eastern lens, viewing it as unnatural and thus considered impure or dangerous. He also distinguishes the classic categories of evil as moral, natural, and metaphysical. Yet Job’s story cuts across these neat distinctions of different evils, as does reality (19). 

Dahl then surveys three answers from Augustine of Hippo, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich as to the creation or non-being/being of evil. The author largely examines Augustine’s privation account of evil and finds it lacking in its ability to address the kinds of suffering in the real world. Dahl helps the reader maintain a balanced view of evil. As he notes, the motivations and action perpetrated are far too often emphasized to the exclusion of the violence suffered. And this is exactly why this project is helpful, because with Job the violence suffered is inescapable. Dahl concludes the nature of evil with Paul Ricoeur’s reflection that contemplation of evil can only lead to aporia, and false theodicies. 

Chapter 2 explores the most popular answers to the problem of evil historically and then examines Job’s friend’s responses for his suffering. This may be the most familiar section to readers of this topic. Augustine is heavily discussed again for his theology of sin and its origin. Augustine, Irenaeus, and Gottfried Leibniz are covered, as well as more modern theodocists like Richard Swinburne and John Hick. Those who favor theodicy may not agree with the conclusions Dahl draws, being that theodicy largely fails in his analyses. Here, I have two main quibbles, based on my interpretation of Dahl. First, Dahl rightly critiques Augustine’s sexual intercourse theory for the transmission of sin. Yet, he seems to unfairly criticize Augustine’s metaphysical understanding of evil as privation for not answering the violent nature of evil, which his unoriginal theory of original sin accounts for (and which Dahl deals with separately in a subsequent section). This seems like a needless critique since Augustine didn’t separate his privation theory from original sin. Second, I do not think the Leibniz argument succumbs to circular reasoning for the goodness of God (44). It seems implausible that Leibniz would argue in such a way, since he did much work on both the ontological and cosmological argument, and so would have argued that, God, by definition, would contain all perfections. Why would Leibniz argue for the goodness of God any other way when he could appeal to God being the greatest conceivable being? Indeed, this seems to be where he goes later on in the passage, from which Dahl refers to in an earlier part but does not specify. Concerning God’s ability to choose the best possible world Leibniz writes this is because, “he does nothing without supreme wisdom” (Leibniz 2015: 128). 

Chapter 3 explores Job’s rebuttal to his friends and anti-theodicy. These two problems, of evil and of suffering, are found to require two different answers. As Dahl writes, “He is in need of someone to welcome those words: to meet them not with explanations and theories, but with compassion and understanding” (49). In the second half of the book Dahl convincingly argues that an “adequate reading, therefore, entails interpreting Job not as providing arguments against theodicy, but as displaying how theodicy fails. In other words, the book can be read as deconstructing the enterprise of theodicy” (50). Next, Dahl largely follows Immanuel Kant in his two-pronged critique of theodicy. First, that it voids evil’s moral dimension. Second, it fails to account for the limitation of human knowledge. However, anti-theodicy is not without its own problems (65). In the face of the failure of theodicy, what must be done to avoid the void of meaninglessness? From Emmanuel Levinas, we are to take responsibility and non-indifference to the other’s cries for help.

Chapter 4 explores God’s revelation to Job in the whirlwind and how to make sense of suffering in light of the inadequacies of both theodicy and anti-theodicy. Job comes to realize that God does not owe him anything. God is above us, our laws, and our feelings. Here, one of the strengths of Dahl’s work is put on display; his presentation of highly diverse viewpoints, from the traditional to the speculative.

What it lacks in verve and wit, the book makes up for in brevity. Dahl makes the most of every sentence. He offers a variety of perspectives on the topic (such as theodicy, anti-theodicy, conservative, postmodern, speculative, etc.). To some it may seem choppy to go back and forth from the problem of Job to philosophical argumentation on evil, yet this gives it a unique flow that is helpful for taking one’s time and to seriously digest the ideas that are worth hovering over. This lends itself to the overall aim of the book, not to provide quick answers but to be present and recognize the suffering of the other. This work is not too technical, but may not be the best for a local bible study. Instead it might be best for undergrads in religious studies or philosophy.

Overall, this book will be provocative, displaying the large variety of perspectives. As such the reader will not agree with all of the thoughts presented. The narrative of Job helps to ground Dahl’s discussion, making it more meaningful, and builds a personal connection to the reader. This is not a book merely to be read, but to learn from. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Seth Pryor is a graduate student in religion at Liberty University.

Date of Review: 
January 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Espen Dahl is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Arctic University of Norway.


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