When talking with unbelievers, non-Christians, atheists, etc., the question underlying their objection to the faith is almost never, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Usually their question is more along the lines of “Why is there evil?” “Why is there rape?” “Why is there ______” (fill in the blank)? Why, in other words, do bad things happen to good people? It is often their thought that the existence of evil, especially as it befalls “good people,” is plain evidence that God does not exist.
Others who ask these questions are not questioning God’s existence as much as they may doubt His goodness – does He really care, is He truly loving? And, if He is truly good, is He not powerful enough to prevent life’s tragedies? This can be stated in what logic refers to as a syllogism. It is a statement composed of at least two premises and a conclusion. In this case:
Premise #1 – “If God is all good, he would destroy evil”
Premise #2 – “If God is all powerful, he could destroy evil”
Conclusion – “Evil still exists; therefore, such a good and all-powerful God does not exist. Either God is not all good or God is not all powerful.
Most people acknowledge that evil exists. Therefore, God is either not all good and won’t destroy evil or not all powerful and can’t destroy evil – or both. In 1981 Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People was published to address this very question. His basic conclusion was that God is all good and all loving, but He is not all powerful. God would destroy evil if He could – but in the meantime, since he cannot, we need to forgive God.
As our friend the late Dr. Norman Geisler pointed out, one very important word is left out of Kushner’s premise – the word “yet.” The fact that evil exists now does not mean that will always be the case. Because God is all good and all powerful, He will destroy evil but has not done so, “yet.” And Jesus tells us why God has not destroyed evil yet, in His parable of the wheat and the tares (weeds). He explained that an enemy (the evil one, Satan) has sown weed seed (evil) into God’s wheat field. (Matthew 24:24-30) He explained that the wheat and the weeds must grow together until God’s final harvest, for the sake of the wheat! You see, while pulling up the evil one’s “weeds,” the desirable wheat might be very well uprooted and harmed. So, Jesus said they would be allowed to grow together until the harvest when the weeds would be gathered up and burned, and the wheat would be gathered into God’s barn, free forever from the weeds.
In addition, there is an unspoken but assumed premise which appears in the title of Rabbi Kushner’s book. Look for it at the end of the title When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It is Kushner’s assumption that human beings are basically good. From that flows the question and/or objection this way. Since we are good, if God lived up to our expectation of good, He would not allow evil, illness or natural calamities to bring harm to us. The problem in Kushner’s equation is that we are not good, at least compared to God, Who is perfectly holy, good, and righteous. We may see ourselves and our loved ones as being “relatively good,” compared to others who we view as really “bad,” but against the light of His holiness, we are evil. (Not even to mention that our evaluation of our own goodness may be wildly off the mark, since we all tend to see ourselves in the best possible light. Human beings are much better critics of others than we are of ourselves.)
People do tend to see Jesus as THE authority on ethics and morality. Nearly all religions, along with agnostics, liberals and even some atheists like to appeal to Jesus Christ as the indisputable moral voice when it comes to supporting some behavior or cause they think we should all affirm. Jesus is the “trump card” pulled out in many an argument. One of the wildly overused and misused cards these days is the “judge not” trump card of Matthew 7:1 to shut down anyone who dares to draw moral distinctions of right and wrong behavior. However, while we cannot ultimately judge persons, (which is God’s prerogative only) we are obviously to judge actions as either right or wrong and to judge the claims of prophets, as to whether they are true or false. The same Jesus who said, “Judge not” in Matthew 7:1 instructed his followers in verse 6 that they were not to “cast their pearls before swine.” Did they not need to exercise judgment to recognize swine? In Matthew 7:15, Jesus tells them to beware of false prophets, but how could they beware if they could not judge or discern whether prophets were true or false? Jesus wanted his followers to make fair and righteous judgments, thereby treating others as they would wish to be treated themselves. They were not to be hypocrites when they judged, harshly condemning in others what they themselves practice.
And what was Jesus’ view of the human condition? Did He see human beings as inherently good? No. In Matthew 7:9-11 Jesus draws a decidedly unflattering comparison between human beings and God:
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
Actually, this is not really a comparison but a contrast. Notice, “if you,” as he then contrasts to God, “who are evil.” Even though unlike God, you are not good, but still able to give good gifts to those you love, God, Who by nature is good is even more capable of giving “good things to those who ask him!”
As stated earlier, we have the ability to delude ourselves into thinking we are more righteous or good than others around us. It might comfort us to believe that someone else suffers persecution, sickness or sudden catastrophe because they are worse people than we are. But Jesus does not hold to that view:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
His response to the crowd was to tell them that those who died were no more evil than anyone in the group before Him. They too would perish.
The Apostle Paul also weighed in after he poses the question of whether Jews are better off then gentiles? He said no and spells out the human condition so as to dispel any doubt on the matter:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
The solution to the opening question, “Why do Good Things Happen to Bad People?” is easy to understand but maybe difficult for some to accept. God loves us not because we are good, but despite our evil nature. He gives us good gifts because He is good by nature and extends His grace, His unmerited favor. We can love and be loved. We can be comforted and comfort others. All that makes life worth living comes from the hand of our good and gracious God as a gift to evil people. Even more importantly than giving us good things in this fleeting life, He has also provided and offers the way to have peace with Him eternally, to be treated with kindness and love for all eternity. We must simply recognize our sinfulness and our complete inability to save ourselves and accept the gift of salvation which He secured by the death, burial and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf. As Roman 10 says:
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)Ω
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Wow, I’m so happy you covered this question and provided such a clear explanation. This is a very common question when speaking to non believers but I’ve found myself stumbling around for an adequate reply and feeling like I failed somehow to rationally provide an acceptable answer…..now I have one!
Joan W. thank you for the encouragement.