No other theological question is more popular and has been more persistent throughout history than the question of, “Why would God allow this bad thing to happen?”
And it’s a good question. After all, if God is all-powerful and good, some evil is really baffling.
The typical answers usually go something along the lines of:
- “Evil does not negate the existence of God.”
- “For all the bad, there’s even more good out there”
- “No one is innocent.” – citing verses like Romans 3:23
- “Evil doesn’t actually ‘exist.'”
- “Ultimately all bad things have a purpose.”
These answers always bothered me as incomplete or incorrect:
- Evil negates the Christian God’s existence as portrayed in the Bible, particularly the New Testament.
- It’s highly questionable that good outweighs evil, especially for some people, who neither asked nor deserved their misfortunate fate.
- No one is innocent with respect to God. This doesn’t give someone the excuse to do anything to others, because the offenses are not with respect to him. However, one can’t really apply this to children by simply stating this.
- This answer, which finds its origin with St. Augustine and is popular with many modern theologians (e.g. Alvin Plantinga) is for me unconvincing. If evil doesn’t exist as a technical entity (e.g. a chair, table, spoon), then neither does good, and this answer misses the point. Information doesn’t technically exist either with these definitions and so the answer doesn’t respond in any meaningful way.
- Aside from the questionably defensible ‘means justifying the ends’ here, even if ultimately bad might serve good in some instances, we can’t prove it does so in all. Let’s say for the sake of argument it does (God would know and direct it so). But then one has to wonder why this has to be God’s tool at all and this explanation inevitably strikes one as a rationalization.
It might seem strange, but the Bible is replete with responses to this issue, but they’re often stated in subtle and more practical ways for the subject matter’s purposes.
We have to remember why bad things exist. It’s not that God has no control or is indifferent. Quite the opposite – God even orchestrates these events and explicitly states so (the Flood, the subjugation of the Canaanites, the fall of Jerusalem).
Sin is the reason why bad things happen – everyone in antiquity knew this. But people misunderstood the connection between sin and the degrees of suffering. So any time someone seemed to suffer more than the majority, the question was “what sin did he or his parents commit?” This was the case with the man blind from birth (John 9:2) as well as 18 workers upon whom a tower collapsed (Luke 13:1-5).
This is why the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day ignored all the unfortunate in utter contempt – if they’re suffering, it’s because they sinned and brought it upon themselves, just like the forefathers of the Israelites when Babylon sacked Jerusalem. If someone was poor, it was his transgression of the Law that did this. After all, doesn’t Proverbs 22:4 say that, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life”?
Of course, the various laments in Proverbs and Psalms regarding the occasional mistreatment of the righteous and triumph of the wicked is ignored in favor of a universal, hyper-literal “he that is rich and well is righteous” interpretation. That riches are not always physical is not taken into account. But that’s not a problem for the immoral mind as this thought never crossed his mind in the first place.
The resulting attitude logically becomes indignant contempt and self-serving pride. This easily morphs into legalism. The result allows for the reinterpretation of the whole spirit of the Torah into whatever teaching suited the interpreters. This is what Jesus criticizes in Mark 7:9-13. Under such circumstances, hypocrisy can proliferate without objection, and is committed nearly unconsciously by the man whose values lie elsewhere (Matt. 6:1ff).
BUT, we have to understand the true connection between sin and temporal punishment. Yes, although God loves both the wicked and the upright and sends rain and sunshine upon both (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17), one can still cross the line. Moses struck the rock twice, and for this righteous man’s record, it was too far – he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Agrippa I, on the other hand, in his infinitely sacrilegious pride allows a crowd to flatter him “like a god” as Josephus and Acts tell us and God strikes him dead within 5 days.
Jesus’ response when asked why over a dozen workers were crushed by a collapsed structure is: “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.” (Lk 13:4-5).
It’s easy to interpret this as impotent acceptance of an immutable reality. One can easily think that Jesus is basically saying, ‘these things happen, focus on what’s more important,’ and be basically avoiding the question as unimportant. But this is not at all the case and he is answering it profoundly, correctly and in a quick and provocative way that is characteristic of his speaking style so that the dialogue doesn’t lose momentum (similarly to the question-counter-question the rabbis constantly employ in the Talmud; can be seen in places like Matthew 15:2-3).
Simply, as sinners, we are all enjoying unlimited mercy insofar as we’re able to lead the lives we’re accustomed to. More on this can be found here, but the basic idea is that one of our smallest sins is an immeasurable offense against God and for Him to delay (or even abstain from!) carrying out their punishment is an undeserved gift, even for the righteous man (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:20). The only way someone can maintain that his circumstances are unfair, brutal, or evil is if his purview is so self-centered, that his crimes become irrelevant.
And, of course, now we can say that such and such calamity had a purpose – Judah was destroyed so that out of the ashes would emerge a nation of Israelites stronger and more faithful than ever, exactly what we see under the guidance of leaders like Nehemiah and Ezra. This is why God “couldn’t” forgive the bloodshed committed under the king Uzziah, who ruled for 50 years prior to the destruction. Despite the fact that Josiah more than made up as a devout king who completely destroyed all the idolatrous “high” places and reinstituted the Mosaic laws. And yet this seemingly juvenile lack of forgiving does not contradict where God says that He’d change His mind upon destroying a nation (Jeremiah 18) if they repent (like Nineveh in Jonah). And that His anger is quick to stop and that He’s forgiving.
This, then, explains why Jesus answers his followers regarding recent calamities on “innocent” victims by saying, “Don’t sin so that something worse (hellfire) doesn’t happen to you.” It’s not an indifferent, “Bad things happen, deal with it, stay religious,” which response seems to say with our naturally self-centered point of view.
The suffering of children of course falls under this topic. But before we join Job in bringing God to trial, we have to remember with respect to whom we’re discussing fairness. No one can justify intentionally harming a child out of his own rationale. But the fate God ordains isn’t for the same reasons as ours, as Isaiah 55:8-9 says:
“8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We were all children once. As adults, we’re no longer innocent. But if we predicate fairness and justice based upon time and space, we’ve lost the basic tenet of any ethical system: intent. A child can be innocent with respect to mankind, but his (future) sins are easily visible to God. What a person would have done, but is prevented from doing so for one reason or another, is no less subject to judgment than if he actually goes ahead with it.
This is what Jesus tells us sinning in one’s heart is (Matt. 5:27-28), and is an easily provable concept if we remember that the only difference between actual sin and “would have done it” (definition of desire in one’s heart) is inability due to time and space – the limitation occurs in physical ability, not intent. Therefore, since intent is the only thing one uses to establish ethical right or wrong (hence why God only looks at the intent), one cannot be considered innocent merely because of circumstances – because one wasn’t capable of carrying out his intentions, even if these intentions would be present in the future (God knows all things), or under different, but equally reasonable circumstances (1 Cor. 10:13).
So with respect to the whole, a baby Hitler would be ethically no less repulsive than the full grown maniac. And all of us were once children, which child bodies are now long gone, replaced by our adult sinful ones – exposing the subconscious bias that can guide us here. Jesus was the only truly innocent human being. His willing suffering was equally unfathomable to the disciples, and most of all for Mary, for whom, like all mothers, a son is never anything but a child.
In this sense, God always has a plan for any suffering. But since no one is truly innocent, to attempt and justify it with respect to justice from the human point of view is going down the wrong way, and is a non-sequitur that is ultimately bound to fail because one is unwittingly comparing apples to oranges.