Concerning the Prosperity of the Wicked

January 15, 2009

I have seen two objections raised against the combination of God’s goodness and providence: how a good God could create evil, and how a good God could permit the wicked to prosper. The first is easily addressed, so here I shall treat the second which, in fuller form, is that while justice dictates that the good should prosper and the evil suffer, it is observed that in many cases the good suffer (witness Job) and the evil prosper.

Key to this is an understanding of true and apparent prosperity. Certainly, justice demands that the good reap good (“to those who have much, much will be given”). But the good granted in reward ought to be the ultimate good, not an apparent good. Similarly, the punishment inflicted on the wicked ought not to be apparent, but actual.

What, then, is ultimate good? Not wealth, for the true good must last, but here “moths and rust destroy”. The true good must inspire confidence, yet the wealthy fear for their wealth. Not comfort, for the true good must beget no ill, and comfort often breeds complacency. Not even life, for nothing is better than the true good, and yet there are some things more valuable than life. Not power, for power wielded poorly is the greatest evil. Not glory, for glory depends on men, and the reward given to men cannot be given by themselves. Rather, the true good is to behold God. All else is only a contingent good, valuable insofar as it serves the ultimate.

Thus, when we behold the wicked man living in comfort and affluence, we should feel no envy, for he possesses not true goods but phantoms. Rather, we should feel pity, for if those mistaken in how to achieve lesser goals are to be pitied, are not those mistaken regarding the ultimate goal to be pitied far more? But yet their wealth may, in the end, bring good, although not as its possessors intend: for he who relies on wealth but has it not can blame his lack of wealth for his sadness, while he who has wealth but not happiness can better realize his mistake as to means and correct himself: “And all that mine eyes asked I kept not back from them; and lo, the whole is vanity and vexation of spirit, and there is no advantage under the sun!” Similarly, we are not to be troubled by the good man living in poverty, for he to may learn a lesson thereby: he has happiness, having been granted a knowledge of God, may yet not know wherein he has this happiness; his poverty can prove to him its true source, while prosperity might lead him into error: “Lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your god”.

Riches are no true reward, but a lesson through their futility, a lesson needed by the evil, not the good. Therefore, worldly goods better befit the wicked than the good.

“Give me neither poverty nor riches
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say ‘Who is the Lord?'”