Timothy P. Jackson

Timothy P. Jackson is Professor of Christian Ethics at The Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  He is also a Senior Fellow at The Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory.  Professor Jackson has previously held teaching posts at Rhodes College, Yale University, Stanford Univer­sity, and the University of Notre Dame.  He has been a Visiting Fellow at The Center of Theological Inquiry, The Whitney Humanities Center at Yale, The Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton, and The Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard.  A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Jackson received his B.A. in Philosophy from Princeton and his Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religious Studies from Yale.  He is the author of Love Disconsoled: Meditations on Christian Charity (Cambridge, 1999) and The Priority of Love: Christian Charity and Social Justice (Princeton, 2003).  He is also the editor of and a contributor to The Morality of Adoption (Eerdmans, 2005) and The Best Love of the Child (Eerdmans, 2011).  His current research and teaching interests are in biomedical ethics and political theory; his present book project is entitled, Political Agape: Prophetic Christianity and Liberal Democracy.

Evil, Immortality, and the Holiness of God: Some Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) Conceptions

The question of theodicy is ancient and ongoing for many religious traditions: “How is the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God compatible with the reality of evil and suffering in the world?” One extreme response is to reject the characterization of God as omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, as in process theology; another is to deny the reality of evil and suffering, as in some forms of Buddhism. These can be powerful moral and metaphysical positions, but they are not plausible options for Biblical faiths. Judaism and Christianity, in particular, are historically committed to upholding both horns of the theodicy dilemma. Another possible answer to the problem of evil is to postulate an afterlife in which the Deity compensates creatures for the pain and injustice experienced in this life. This alternative is more tenable for Jews and Christians, but it is striking that Judaism did not begin to affirm personal immortality until the Book of Daniel (ca. 167-164 BCE). For centuries, including the time of the Book of Job (sixth century BCE), the idea of postmortem existence was not deemed essential to faith in God or hope for humanity. (Ancient texts, like Genesis and Job, do refer to “Sheol,” but this is a forlorn realm of impersonal shades, not a heaven in which individual souls are blissfully united with God.)

In this paper, I explore some of the logical and ethical inter-relations of evil and immortality – first, as these are treated in Job and Daniel; second, as they emerge as themes in some Holocaust literature. The radical evil of Nazi genocide pushed some Jews (e.g., Hans Jonas, Richard Rubenstein, and, for a time, Elie Wiesel) to cease to believe in the traditional Biblical God. Others (e.g., Eliezer Berkowitz, Etty Hillesum, and Joseph Soloveitchik) detected Yahweh even in the death camps and continued to celebrate life and law, some without the postulation of immortality. All are challenged by Alexander Donat’s query: “How can an honest man believe, after Auschwitz?” All who survive are haunted by Primo Levi’s (apparent) suicide.

One of my central concerns is whether Rabbinic Judaism’s emphasis on practical law (halakha) over theoretical creed provides a distinctive “solution” to the theodicy problem or is, rather, a rejection of the problem altogether. (I am indebted to Shlomo Pill for helping me to clarify this issue.) More specifically, is there anything about the nature of evil or God that requires a final resurrection at least of the just? (Think of an innocent child who is so neglected or abused that his or her earthly existence is simply an affliction.) Or is temporal participation in God’s own holiness its own and sufficient “reward,” even in the face of profound malevolence? It is arguable that individual perdurability after death is more salient to most Christian philosophers and theologians than to their Jewish counter-parts. But why, and is this salience justified?

My thesis is that the more one accents God’s steadfast love (hesed), and the more one rejects the pursuit of happiness (eudaimonia) as the basis of ethics, the less crucial personal immortality will be and the less pressing the theodicy problem. I do not wish to play the Sadducee to Saint Paul’s Pharisee and to deny the possibility of resurrection, but I do maintain that, in light of Job and the Holocaust, an afterlife ought not to be the motive for faith, hope, and love. Such a motive tends to diminish the significance of this world, both its joys and its sorrows, in the extreme suggesting that all temporal realities are ultimately fungible. Can what I or others lose in a beleaguered life always be made up for in heaven? Or is there a place for irreducible lament in the human record? Especially after Auschwitz, I say the latter. Moreover, to love God and the neighbor in order to win “heavenly reward” is, as Nietzsche quipped, to insist on being “well-paid” for one’s virtue. The Shema does not mention immortality, and the “eternal life” referred to in Maccabees 15:3 and John 5:24 seems fully possible here and now. Immortality may be a “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13), but it need not be a dogmatic tenet.

Again, there is no denying that key traditions in both Judaism and Christianity uphold resurrection in some form, often as an answer to evil. The call to “holiness” at the heart of Scripture renders this of secondary importance, however. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Enough said.