The other day a friend hit me with the question, “Why does God let bad things happen?”
Over the course of a conversation I tried to answer that in the space of about 45 minutes, plus a few follow up emails. This is barely scratching the surface. I thought I’d take a second here and lay out a sketch of these thoughts, more for the organization of my own thinking than anything else. Plus, honestly, I’m struggling to come up with blog ideas lately.
I should start by saying that these answers have been gathered over most of my adult life reading, plus growing up in the church. My thoughts on the subject are influenced by authors ranging from C.S. Lewis to Isaac Asimov, but I’m not sure what came from who, so while I won’t be able to cite individual works here, I’ll admit up front none of this is entirely original to me.
I’ll also say that I don’t believe that there’s any one answer to this question. The fact is different bad things happen for different reasons. We will not always be able to trace which reasons stand behind which bad things, (more on this in a minute) and we should be incredibly cautious to claim to do so.
I believe that there are fundamental laws that oversee our existence. These are metaphysical laws in much the same way we understand physical laws, at least as far as our own understanding can reach. Ultimately, we lack any real meaningful perspective on the universe itself given that we are inside it. In much the same way that a person born and kept sitting inside a room would struggle to describe the whole house, we have been born on this planet, and have barely left it, let alone our solar system, so describing not only the universe but what may lay over and above that remains firmly outside of our grip. However, in order to pursue understanding we might both embrace and yet press against this lack of understanding. The first of these metaphysical laws then that we might describe is what I would term the Law of Free Will. (or self determination) In order for our choices to carry consequences in a meaningfully moral way, we must first have the ability to make those choices by our own will. This means we have the power to do both good and evil. This means that we can have both good and evil done to us. This is perhaps the first principle we had explained to us as human beings.
I do not necessarily hold that the opening of Genesis is a literal depiction of the beginning of the universe. I think it’s not only possible, but indeed quite likely that early people would have had a struggle to understand the beginning of life itself, let alone the launching of existence. For God to describe via revelation how life was formed and stars were set ablaze using higher level mathematics would have been difficult at best, so instead we get “In the beginning, God initiated the heavens and the earth.”
With that in mind then, I can say that we are told in the scripture that Adam (meaning simply “human”) was formed along with Eve and given this power of choice. It’s certainly possible that the story of a fruit being the first foul choice is a literal one, but I think it’s at least equally likely, if not more so, that some early mistake that we can’t really understand from this side of history took place. Genesis says that God formed the universe whole and good, and that somehow, by our choice as a species, death and decay entered it. This brought in chaos. The Law of Choice lead to the Law of Sin. And I do not simply mean “sin” as “people doing bad things,” I mean Sin as a metaphysical expression of the physical Law of Entropy, or rather vice versa. The clock was set to perfect time, but microsecond by microsecond it’s further and further off, and somehow the choices of humanity may have played some kind of point in that. This leads to esoteric sins such as cancer and hurricanes. I do not mean this in the foolish way some might describe it, “you got cancer because of your greed,” the stage play of Job seems to show that equation does not play out the way we might have thought it did. Rather it is the existence of Entropy/Sin that causes these things to exist, a wild sand storm across what might once have been the perfect desert of life.
Further, in what might be an even deeper parable, the Bible tells us that there is an Adversary. Not an equal to God, but at least a being above humans in the hierarchy of existence that works to stand in opposition to the plans of God. This is the snake that first tempted the Great Sin that let death enter our world. This is the accuser or Satan which stands in our hearts. This may be an actual personality, or it could be a series of non human beings, or it could simply be a personified metaphor for a human predilection. Either way, this conflict between the being and God is laid out as a further cause of strife and destruction on earth. We are caught up in this larger story, and in some ways we further it. The being of Satan seems to only have the strength we choose to give it. God cannot simply squash Satan without also breaking our free will. Jesus used the parable to describe weeds that couldn’t be removed without harming the wheat.
There’s also always a possibility that what we see as a “bad thing” isn’t. I don’t know where i first heard it, or how genuine it is, but I recall what was told to me once as a Chinese parable. A man lived long ago and had a son. One day his sons was working out in a field and found a wild horse which followed him home. The man’s neighbors congratulated him on this find adding to his herd. The man replied, “We will see what we see.” A few weeks later the man’s son was trying to train the wild horse and it kicked him, breaking his legs. The man’s neighbors came and offered him condolences on his son’s injury. The man replied, “We will see what we see.” Later the local Lord decided to go to war with a neighboring province and sent men to draft all the young men of fighting age. However, the man’s son still had the broken legs and couldn’t go off to war, saving him from bloody battle. Again, the man’s neighbors came to congratulate him and he replied, “We will see what we see.”
Obviously the story could continue ad infinitum from there. Seemingly bad things followed by good outcomes and vice versa. We never really know how something might turn out when we are in it. What’s more, we may never know the full scope of the ramifications of a particular event. Imagine sitting in a valley following a road. You cannot know for sure all of the twists and turns the road will take as it climbs out of the valley and over the next ridge, but you can choose to continue following it because you’ve placed some faith in whoever designed the road. This is a simplistic picture, but it helps us understand some of what’s happening when we struggle with time. We sit in a valley of the moment, unable to see what’s happening next and often have an unclear picture of what’s passed before. We therefore can struggle with identifying why a certain event may be occurring in our own perception of that time in regards to a loving God’s plan.
It’s worth noting here that none of these categories are necessarily distinct. An evil event may have more than one source. We may have something foul occur in our lives, then over the course of time a redeeming event may come out of it. That doesn’t mean that the initial foul event was something initiated by God. I had cancer as a child, this plus growing up in an environment where my entertainment and creative outlets were severely limited due to my family’s financial background, is part of what lead me to being an individual who prefers to read or write over sports or video games. This should not be taken however to mean that God gave me cancer at the age of six. That may have been a result of the chaos of the universe. It may have been a directed attack by the personified Satan. It may have been a result of the fact that years later we learned that the federal government in the wake of World War II improperly disposed of radioactive material in the area I grew up. (thus making my cancer a result of someone or a group of someones free will choices) It could be a blend of all of those. God then acted in reality, though divine will and guidance of others in my life, to bring about a positive result from the initial evil event.
Ultimately the “why” of a particular event is generally impossible to say. We lack the divine perspective because we are trapped in time. We cannot step back far enough to clearly see the whole picture, with the river of causes and effects that lead both to and from a particular incident. It’s in this struggle that we must first sit in grace. We also have a responsibility to still weep with those who weep, we must show compassion where it is needed. An esoteric discussion of what so many might refer to as “the Problem of Pain” is not the correct response to an individual person’s pain. Love is the force we must lean on first, I will choose to love someone in the same way I believe God loves me.