Ecclesiastes 8:1-15: The Problem of Evil

Read: Ecclesiastes 8:1-15

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 8 addresses what has become known to in modern philosophy as the “problem of evil”.  The Preacher asks a number of questions concerning the nature of bad things happening to good people and the flip side of that, good things happening to bad people. He begins by speaking of the certainty of one thing that is the common fate of all people, and that is death. He says that no one can know the future. Death as he sees it comes to all and there is nothing that saves one from it and even more so to the ones who practice wickedness, because it will not save them either. The certainty of death then prompts the preacher to look at other matters concerning wicked: First he sees the wicked being praised in the cities in which they did much wickedness and they are being buried with honor. Second, he sees the wicked doing much wrong to the point they are not afraid to do it anymore. Third, he sees good people being treated as if they were wicked, and wicked people being treated as if they were good. All these things he says are meaningless.

The problem of evil has perplexed thinkers for ages as it did the Preacher. The reason why is because of a discrepancy in many the states of affairs that people are in and a purported inaction by God to resolve the state of affairs for good rather than evil. The argument may look something like this:

  1. If God exists, God is all loving and all powerful
  2. An all loving and all powerful God should remove evil.
  3. Evil exists.
  4. Therefore either:
    1. God does not  exist.
    2. God exists and is all loving but cannot remove evil.
    3. God exists and is all powerful but not all loving therefore does not want to remove evil.
    4. God exists but is neither all loving nor all powerful.

In any case, the conclusion purports a contradictory state of affairs in spite of what many believe about God. The problem with this is that the argument in most all forms obligates God to something that God is not necessarily obligated too. In the example above, premise 2 supposes that God “should” do something about evil by virtue of his that he is all loving and able. The only way the contradiction exists is if one supplies the extra premise that God “should” or “ought to” do something about evil. If premise two does not exist, then the contradiction does not exist.

On the other hand, one can supply another premise that says so long as there is a possible reason for evil to exist, there is no reason to doubt God’s existence, his goodness, or his ability to remove evil. A reason that attempts to explain evil is called a theodicy. There are many possible theodicies that are found in the Bible.

  • The Freewill Defense: The Bible is replete with verses that talk about the sinfulness of man, and how it pervades everyone who exists (Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20). This freewill defense says evil is a result of man choosing sin.
  • The Greater-Good Theodicy – This reason says that sometimes evil occurs to bring about a net gain of good for the many. This is most clearly seen in Genesis when Joseph was sold into slavery and he endured much evil as a result. But in the end, Joseph says that what his brother intended for evil, God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).
  • The Soul-Making or Soul-Building Theodicy: This theodicy suggests that people endure evil to help build their character and faith. The motif of God disciplining children can be found in Hebrews 12:4-13. Hardship can produce a strong, more mature believer.
  • The Eschatological Theodicy: This one is uniquely Christian; in that all is made right in the cross by Jesus’ sacrifice and that there will come a time when evil is removed. There will be a new heaven and new earth with no crying, pain, or death (Revelation 21:1-4).

What one needs to realize though is these are only possible reasons for what God does. Usually when one is enduring evil, it is difficult if not impossible to know why bad things are happening. Even after sufferings have passed, sometimes the reason is not apparent. This was the case with Job. The readers of Job get to see the full picture of the matter, but Job never ascertains why he endured so much suffering. At the end of the book, he basically concedes that God’s reasons are too wonderful to know (Job 42:1-6). In all of his pondering on the problem of evil, the Preacher never questions the goodness of God, rather sees it better that one should do good in their lives because this is right in the sight of God and he sees the blessings that come from work as a gift from God. The Preacher was correct in noting that death is inescapable, but for Christians, there is the prospect of eternal life in a place where there is no evil. For the reasons the Preacher mentioned and the escape from evil when God creates a new heaven and new earth, it is most certainly more wise to side with God. Furthermore, there is no reason to doubt his goodness and power so long as God has a good reason for allowing evil to persist – even if the reason cannot be ascertained.

Lord, you are good! Help me to trust you even when I cannot understand why bad things are happening!