Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Amid the wake of such tragedy, Christian lessons to shed light on such mysteries as suffering
One of the great mysteries to believer and nonbeliever alike is that of evil and suffering. If there is a God who is omnipotent and omniscient, how can he tolerate evil, injustice and the suffering of the innocent? Where is God when there are shootings in a school in Uvalde, Texas, a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, a church in Los Angeles, or when, during a parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, participants are brutally mowed down by an irate man in a SUV? Where is God when a woman or young girl is raped, an elderly person is assaulted, an infant is aborted, when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and allow them to be born? Add to this the many natural disasters that occur in the world. Where is God, and why does he allow comparatively innocent people, even children, to suffer so?
The problem of evil cannot be answered simply. It is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says, “All things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Romans 8:28). But in many circumstances, it is difficult for us to see how this is so.
Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or who has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask, “Why?” And the answers aren’t all that satisfying, for suffering is ultimately mysterious in many ways.
I have some respect for those who struggle to believe in the wake of tragedies. I understand and respect despair’s depths and the dignity of such questioning. At the end of the trail of questions, often asked in anguish, is God who has chosen not to supply simple answers. And even if he did, our simple minds could not comprehend them anyway. We are left to decide, often in the face of great evil and suffering, whether God exists or not.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of suffering is its uneven distribution. Some people seem to skate through life strong, wealthy and well-fed, while others endure suffering, disease, inexplicable and sudden losses, financial setbacks, injustice and other burdens. Some suffering comes from poor choices, substance abuse and lack of self-control. But some suffering seems completely unrelated to any of these reasons — or any reason at all.
A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery), and they are humble because they acknowledge their own limits.
1. The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was a paradise. Though we only get a brief glimpse of it, death and suffering were not part of it.
2. But even in the Garden of Eden, the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise, the mystery of evil lurked. In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there because we were made to love; love requires freedom, and freedom requires choices. The “Yes” of love must permit the “No” of sin. In our rebellious “No,” both we and the world unraveled, and death and chaos entered in. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth — the vast majority of it, by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation of paradise rather than to serve in the real paradise.
3. So Adam and Eve chose the way of suffering death over the Garden of Eden. And the Lord did not cancel their choice but worked with it. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, meets us at the crossroads of suffering and death and, not exempting himself, allows suffering and death to have a redemptive meaning, a way back to him and a road to glory.
4. This link of evil and suffering to human freedom also explains God’s typical lack of intervention in evil matters. Were God to intervene routinely, it would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But here, too, there is mystery: The Scriptures recount that God did sometimes intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does he sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of Providence.
5. The lengthiest biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. In it, God showed an almost-shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions about his suffering and set a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit that Job’s faith be tested and strengthened. But, in the end, Job was restored and reestablished with even greater blessings in a kind of foretaste of what is meant by heaven.
6. The First Letter of Peter also has a partial explanation of suffering: “In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable, even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
7. Does this mean that those who suffer more need more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that a greater glory is waiting for them. For the Scriptures teach, “Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). Hence, suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
8. Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering, it should be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal, in which the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16), the mighty will be cast down while the lowly are exalted, and the rich will go away empty while the poor are filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense, it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich, well-fed and unaccustomed to any suffering. In the great reversal, the first will be last. The only chance that the rich and well-healed have to avoid this end is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Timothy 6:17-18).
9. Finally, as to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt himself from the suffering that we chose by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise. In this regard some also question that, if God is love, why does he let terrible things happen? It does not seem to be very loving. However, there is a tendency today to equate love with mere kindness. While kindness is an aspect of love, so is rebuke and challenge. As any loving parent knows, it is sometimes necessary to lead children through challenges and difficulties and to allow them to experience some of the consequences of their decisions. Doctors too must often employ strong medicines and invasive surgeries to bring ultimate healing. Love, therefore, is not always a pleasant thing, and God who is love has to lead us through some difficult patches in this “paradise lost” in which we have chosen to live. It is, however, a firmly held truth that God never permits suffering or evil except that he can bring greater good out of it.
10. St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the mystery of iniquity and suffering by speaking of our inability to see the whole picture. He imagined a great painting of which we can only see a few pixels, or a mere brushstroke of dark colors. “What is this dark ugliness?” we might cry out. But if we could back out and see the whole picture, we might see its beauty and understand that it is a play of light and darkness and that the darkness frames the light and gives way to it.
To these points I am sure you will add, but be careful with the problem of evil and suffering. It has mysterious dimensions that must be respected. Simple answers may not help those who struggle with it. Understanding and an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with this may be the best way. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but it also appeals to reason and calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a small part.
In the end, why is there suffering and evil in the world? We don’t fully know. But why is there love, loyalty or beauty? Why is there anything at all? These sorts of questions are imponderables, questions with no exact or certain answer. But God knows — and he will requite every injustice, and those who have died unrepentant will answer to him. For now, we wait and accept the truth that God has permitted suffering and death as a way back to him and a path that leads to glory if we are faithful.
In this life we seek to accompany and pray for those who suffer. This is part of the good that God seeks to draw from tragedies. Friendships and alliances form; people make new commitments to build a more just world and to reject the violence and lack of regard for human life that is too evident today. Only light can drive out darkness; only love can conquer hate. As we mourn recent tragedies, we can only trust the Lord’s promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).