“Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People” is a phrase we often hear when people discuss tragedies and misfortune. And we see enough of that around us lately, don't we? There is something inside us that feels an injustice has been perpetrated and an explanation is due when trouble happens for no apparent good reason to innocent people.
“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is the title of a best selling book by Rabbi Harold Kushner that was first published in 1981. I read it back in the 80's expecting to find some insight into the question. What I found were insights into the author's view of God.
Rabbi Kushner had the heart wrenching experience of watching his young son die from illness, a personal tragedy that caused him to rethink everything he had been taught about God and God's ways. In the book he recounts the story of Job and then gives us his rational behind the suffering in the world.
Kushner lays out the choices that he feels an innocent person facing trouble has when pondering the injustice that has befallen them. Those choices are:
- God does not exist.
- God exists but is not good, or
- God exists and is good but is not all powerful.
- There is no 4, or 5. If you're waiting for one...
He only sees these three options because an all-powerful, good God that allows suffering is inconceivable to him. Here is a case of man limiting his reason by refusing to acknowledge the whole word of God. In the end the rabbi goes with number 3, God is good and suffering exists therefore God cannot be omnipotent. For him a Job that is good yet suffers, is an impossiblity with an all powerful God that is good. He does credit God with giving us the strength of character that sees us through times of trouble. But man's free will, the laws of nature, and even random acts of chance are all outside of the influence of Kushner's God.
When I began working on this talk I realized that I did not have my copy of the book at hand, I had either gotten rid of it or had packed it away somewhere in a box. So I decided to go online to read up on what other people have said about the book to make sure my own two decade plus recollections were correct.
I shouldn't have been shocked at what I found, but it was still disconcerting. The vast majority of reviews gushed over this book, after all it was a best-seller. One person found this book to be “life-changing” and even commented that, “This is the only satisfying explanation I have ever heard of the suffering in our world.” I had almost suspected that my memories were faulty but fortunately I found a few detailed reviews that contrasted the rabbi's views with the Biblical belief of a sovereign God.
I also found that these sorts of writings fall under the title of “Theodicy” - from the Greek words for “God” and “Justice”. It is the study of God's all loving, all knowing, and all powerful traits in light of the evil and suffering in the word. Often that study will center on man's own reasoning alone with no recourse to the word of God.
That term, “Theodicy”, was coined in 1710 by a philosopher who was responding to a skeptic's work. He did reconcile the suffering and evil in the world with the goodness and omnipotence of God by coming to a rather startling conclusion, he claimed that... this is the best of all possible worlds. It's a startling conclusion when you look at all the suffering, evil, and injustice so prevalent in our world. It also carries no comfort in itself. In fact saying that, “This is the best of all possible worlds” to someone who's suffering is likely to earn you an icy stare, if not much worse.
But which concept is closer to the truth, the rabbi's or the philosopher's?
Outside of belief in scripture, the thought that God is on His throne and is in control carries no more comfort than the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. But in the context of the promises of God, when we take them into our heart and believe on them as the Word of God, all things are possible.
So when we read in:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
we can take comfort and even joy in this world.
And because of this we should never let our reason function apart from God's revelation but let our reason always be subject to it.