If God is good, if he loves us, and if he’s all powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people? Or, more to the point, why do bad things happen to me?
Some argue that there is no real answer to the question. Others say that the question proves there is no God. Others say that the answer has something to do with free will. Some will try to argue that there are no good people and that everyone is justly suffering for their sins. That infants die of SIDS, that they starve or suffer illnesses—well, it is the parents suffering for their sins, or the infants suffer because of Adam’s sin—and so on; which does not explain why some infants, then, grow up rich and comfortable. Are they somehow less sinners? It is the inconsistency of it all that troubles many.
In 1979 Douglas Adams published his bestselling book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In it, he told the story of a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who demand to learn the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Unfortunately, the problem is that what The Ultimate Question itself might in fact be, is unknown.
When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer, the Earth, which can. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question.
The answer to the question that so bothers so many—how could a good God let me suffer like this—is 42. That’s why no one is ever satisfied by the answer anyone gives. How so? Because the reality of the whole debate is like that of Douglas’ Adam’s story: no one is asking the right question. It is the question itself that is nonsense. Thus, all the answers that people make up are as meaningful as the one that Douglas Adams proposed in his humorous novel.
The answer, the reality of God and the reality of suffering and reconciling those two things is perhaps not difficult. It took the modern world to come up with the wrong question and thus to muck things up so badly that everyone is now so thoroughly confused that they can’t see the obvious. The ancients don’t seem to be as disturbed by this issue that so plagues the modern, thoughtful person (from about the seventeenth century, on), because it is a non-issue. Once we ask the right question, it becomes obvious.
The traditional question of the modern world is,” if God is good, loving and all powerful, then why is there sin and suffering?”
But what is the real question? The Ultimate Question?
I think the traditional question might essentially be the opposite of the question to the one we should be asking. If humanity is in a fallen state (following Augustine’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3), if this fallen state is a result of Adam and Eve having made this poor choice, and if God has granted us freedom and hides himself so that he may always be explained away, a better question might be: why is there anything good in the world?
That’s right. The traditional question is backwards. The real question we need to ask is simply, “Why do good things ever happen?”
And there are some corollaries to this: why do we even expect good things to happen? Why do we get upset when things go wrong? Why does suffering bother me?
When something goes right for us, we never ask “why me?” We only ask it if something bad happens. That may be natural for us in our current condition, but it is the opposite of what we should be asking.
In reading the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis it appears that one aspect of the serpent’s temptation was this: “look at this lovely fruit; look at how it can benefit you by giving you the wisdom to know good and evil. God doesn’t want you to have that.”
Eve apparently became convinced that God, in forbidding the one tree, was withholding something beneficial. And I believe this is something that is true for most of us: we don’t trust God. We believe he is keeping us from being happy. And since we believe God is holding out on us, it seems to me that in our hearts we really don’t believe God is good or loving. We simply do not trust him. We do not really believe he wants what is best for us. We believe that God wants us to do the last thing we’d ever want to do and to somehow be grateful for it. We expect to suffer because “it’s good for us” like getting a shot or swallowing cod liver oil. When I was in college I was the president of a student organization for missions (as an undergraduate, I attended a Christian college called Los Angeles Baptist College). Each year, we had a campus wide missions conference where we would invite missionaries to talk about their work in foreign countries to the students. And we would come up with a theme for the conference each year. My senior year the theme, or title of the conference was “Everything You Wanted to Know about Missions but were Afraid to Ask Because You Thought You’d Wind up on the Amazon.” It resonated well with the students—because we all feared if we did what God wanted us to do with our lives we’d end up having to do something awful.
So, we tend to expect things to go wrong because we believe that God wants to teach us a lesson and that what he thinks is best for us is in fact something that will make us miserable.
Jesus told his followers, ““Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-12)
We humans believe that if we ask God for bread, he’ll give us a rock and expect us to say thank you. We really don’t trust him.
So the other part of the real question is simply, why don’t we trust God?
I have seen this attitude in my own children. They are quick to assume malevolence on my part: that I tell them “no” simply because I’m mean or because I don’t want them to have fun, or because I simply don’t want to be bothered.
So like my kids, we tend to assume malevolence on God’s part: he’s mad at me, he wants me to learn a hard lesson, suffering builds character, he just doesn’t like me, his plans are different than mine and I just need to suck it up and be thankful for dirt, even though I wanted ice cream.
The skeptic, on the other hand, looks at all of this and sees madness: we religious sorts are playing mind games and refusing to face reality. So skeptics conclude that suffering, being a bad thing, proves that either God is sadistic—and hence a lot of angry atheists come from this—or, that obviously there is no God at all and the religious are just playing make believe. And so atheists seek to relieve us of having to suffer the delusion of an angry, sadistic, or uncaring deity. They hope to free us to live without fear that we are about to be walloped by God’s hickory stick.
I’m not convinced that answering the traditional question by arguing that God doesn’t exist is particularly satisfying. Suffering doesn’t go away if you make God go away. In fact, to me, that would seem to make the suffering all the worse, because then not only am I miserable, I’m alone, no one cares, and it is all pointless. Of course a skeptic would say “exactly! Get rid of your crutch and face the cold hard facts.” Problem is, my leg’s still busted and it hurts. Thanks a lot.
Both the religious and the atheist tend to answer the traditional question by shouting “42” and hoping they’re the loudest.
The religious will argue, with Gottfried Leibniz, that if God really is good and loving and powerful, then despite all the bad stuff that happens, this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire thought this was a nonsensical point of view and wrote Candide to counter it.
Some Christians will also argue that this world is only the prelude to a better one, the coming Kingdom of Heaven.
But the skeptical will ask, if the Kingdom of Heaven is better than this world, then how can this be the best of all possible worlds?
But what if the Kingdom of Heaven can come about only because of this world?
That is, the Kingdom of Heaven requires this world and this world creates the Kingdom of Heaven: the Kingdom of Heaven is a consequence of this world.
Some may object to this for various reasons, but consider: without the inhabitants of this world, there can be no next world, no Kingdom of Heaven. We—the people of this world—are what make up the Kingdom both now and in the future. So yes, this world creates the next world in that it creates the people who make it up.
Another question: what is the kingdom of Heaven? The short answer: it is God’s people. Therefore, this world is necessary for the Kingdom of Heaven to exist—and so this then despite Voltaire is the best of all possible worlds—since it is the only way the better world of the kingdom comes about—which is paradoxical unless you realize that the kingdom is co-existent with this world. This is explicit: the kingdom in a very real sense is now:
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21).
When we ask, is this the best of all possible worlds, we must recognize that this world includes the Kingdom. Ask yourself this: is this baby the best of all possible human beings when you peer at Einstein or Mother Teresa in their cribs? The baby is no less the future great scientist or advocate of the poor. This world is the baby to the adult that is the Kingdom of Heaven.
So, the answer to the question, “why, if God is good and loving and powerful, is there suffering?” is 42, no matter if you’re religious or a skeptic.
That answer is unsatisfying. That’s why I think we’re asking the wrong question, and we need to ask a different question.