Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

“Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” – Sermon for Lent 1B

I solicited from you, the members of St. Paul’s worshiping community, your questions about religion, the Christian Faith, the Anglican Tradition, the Episcopal Church, or St. Paul’s Parish as the fodder for a series of Lenten sermons. As I expected, I got some easy to answer questions like, “Why do we use colored vestments?” (which I’ll deal with in a later sermon), but I also got some really tough ones, like the one which I hope to discuss today. I use the term discuss advisedly because it is not a question that I can answer in the course of one short sermon. In fact, it’s not a question I’m sure can actually be answered! It is this, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

That, succinctly stated, is the issue behind what theologians and philosophers call the “logical problem of evil”. It arises from three core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity and one undeniable observed fact. The three core propositions are found in religion’s fundamental understanding of the attributes of God: all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (ominiscient), and all-loving (omnibenevolent). The undeniable observed fact is that there is bad stuff in the world that causes human suffering, both moral evil (murder, corruption, sexual exploitation, greed, etc.) and disordered nature (earthquakes, hurricanes, pathogens, cancer, etc.)

The logical problem of evil is this: An all-powerful (omnipotent) God could prevent evil from existing in the world. An all-knowing (omniscient) God would know that there was evil in the world. An all-loving (omnibenevolent) God ought to wish to prevent evil from existing in the world. Since there is evil in the world these propositions cannot all be true; therefore, argues the skeptical philosopher, either the Christian God does not exist, or God must lack at least one of these fundamental attributes. God may be all-powerful and all-knowing, but cannot be all-benevolent; or God may be all-good and all-knowing, but cannot be all-powerful; and so forth. This problem, or some variation of it including non-Christian versions, has been debated by philosophers since at least the time of Epicurus in the Fourth Century BC. So, as I said, I don’t think I’m going to adequately solve the conundrum of evil in the span of a short sermon, but I do want to acknowledge its seriousness and suggest an avenue of understanding.

The parishioner who asked question explained that it is one that gets asked of him when he tries to evangelize others, to discuss faith or church with his friends or co-workers, or to invite them to join him at church. So I want to thank and praise him for that effort, and to acknowledge that it is fear of being unable to answer this question that keeps so many others from undertaking the work of an evangelist themselves. “What if someone asks me a question (like this one) that I can’t answer?” is the stumbling block that stops so many of us from talking about church with our unchurched friends and neighbors. So kudos to the person who asked this question.

I suppose I could have let that stumbling block stop me from undertaking this sort of Lenten sermon series. “What if someone asks me a question (like this one) that I can’t answer?” is something that I considered. And sure enough, someone did … because I have to tell you all, very honestly, I cannot answer this question! I do not know why bad stuff happens to good people. But I do know that most people who ask that question are not asking it out of hostility to religion! I do know that most people who ask that question are not asking it to be argumentative or contrary. They are not, by asking it, rejecting the idea of God. The theologian William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the Second World War, once said, “This problem is not the creation of an alien criticism, but arises out of the heart of religious faith itself.” It is a fundamentally religious question, so while I cannot give you an answer, I can suggest a Christian response.

The first part of that response, I would suggest, is to acknowledge that bad stuff happens to everyone. I think we might all agree that being driven into the barren desert to wander for forty days with no food or water is a bad thing … but it is what happened to Jesus immediately after his baptism. (Today’s gospel lesson, Mark 1:9-15.) I think we might all agree that being condemned by your own family members and neighbors as a lunatic, and being threatened, by them, with being thrown off a cliff is a bad thing … but that is what happened to Jesus immediately after he preached in his home town. (Mark 3:21; Luke 4:29) I think we might all agree that being unjustly condemned as a political rebel and condemned to a painful death is a bad thing … but that is what happened to Jesus. So, yes, bad things can and do happen to good people, but God in Christ is there in that wilderness of pain and suffering with us. He’s been there before; he knows what it’s like and he supports and sustains us as we go through it.

One reason these bad things happen is that God, the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God, made his creation free. Human beings have been given freedom of will, and the natural world has been made free, as well, precisely because of God’s love for his creatures. Although it is possible for an omnipotent God to create a world in which creatures are not free, a loving God would not do so. Our loving God has so created a world that all his creatures have the opportunity to genuinely act in freedom, and moral beings such as humans have the opportunity to make genuinely free decisions among all the various options available to them. Sometimes, exercising freedom poorly, we make choices that result in suffering. Sometimes, acting freely, nature causes harm.

That an omnipotent God could have prevented such suffering and harm, we must admit, but God has given up some of God’s power, has limited his own power, in order for his creatures to possess the power for freedom. This is partly the witness of our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today in which God makes covenant with Noah, giving up the power to destroy the earth again by flood and placing the rainbow in the sky as a reminder of that self-limitation. God imposes this self-limitation because God lovingly desires others with whom to relate, others to be God’s partners in creation. God’s loving nature is such that God desires his creatures to express freedom, even when the expression of creaturely freedom occasionally results in something bad, when creaturely freedom takes us into the wilderness of pain and suffering.

Another element of both the Jewish and the Christian response to bad things happening to good people is that, unlike God, we are not all-knowing. What seems to be a bad thing, or what seems to be a good thing, is not always clear to us. There is a rabbinic story which illustrates this:

There once was a farmer who owned a horse. And one day the horse ran away. All the people in the town came to console him because of the loss. “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a bad thing and maybe it’s not.”

A few days later, the horse returned to the farm accompanied by twenty other horses. (Apparently he had found some wild horses and made friends!) All the townspeople came to congratulate him: “Now you have a stable full of horses!” “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a good thing and maybe it’s not.”

A few days later, the farmer’s son was out riding one of the new horses. The horse got wild and threw him off, breaking the son’s leg. So all the people in town came to console the farmer because of the accident. “Oh, I don’t know,” said the farmer, “maybe it’s a bad thing and maybe it’s not.”

A few days later, the government declared war and instituted a draft of all able-bodied young men. They came to the town and carted off hundreds of young men, except for the farmer’s son who had a broken leg. “Now I know,” said the farmer, “that it was a good thing my horse ran away.”

The point of this story is obvious. Life is a series of events, and it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s bad, to know exactly how something fits into the story of one’s life. The rabbis say that that is one reason the Torah commands respect for the elderly – because through the course of life experience they have begun to see how the pieces, the good and the bad, fall into place in the puzzle of life.

Why do bad things happen to good people? I can say, “Because creation is free.” I can say, “There’s no purely bad thing because good can come of everything.” In the end, I have to admit that these are only partial and incomplete responses; they are not really answers to the question. But in the end, also, I know beyond any doubt that whatever life may bring me, good or bad, God is with me in the good and the bad of life; this, among other things, is what the story Jesus’ forty days in the desert means. This is what the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah means. As theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes:

God showed himself in the man whose last words were: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” God emptied himself in the pain of love and died voluntarily a death of desperation. …. In the suffering and dying of Jesus, God bridged the distance between us, so that no one can any longer say: “See – God doesn’t care!” (The Language of Liberation, Baarn 1972, p.32)

Concentration camp survivor Ellie Weisel tells this story of his experience at Auschwitz:

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains – and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.

The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.

“Long live liberty!” cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.

“Cover your heads!”

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows…” (Jon Pahl, Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place, p. 36, quoting Wiesel, Night)

Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t know. I can’t answer that question. But I know that when, in the middle of those bad things, in the very midst the pain and suffering, we cry out “Where is God now?” he is there in the wilderness with us.

Let us pray:

Lord, we do not know what any day may bring forth, whether good or ill, but make us ready, we pray, for whatever it may be. If we are to stand up, help us to stand bravely. If we are to sit still, help us to sit quietly. If we are to lie low, help us to do it patiently. And if we are to do nothing, let us do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give us the Spirit of Jesus that we may keep your covenant and your testimonies and walk in your paths of love and faithfulness. Amen.



    I really appreciate the simplicity of your insight. In Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book that posed the same question he said the answer …Why not? Life is a series of events which happen good or bad we do not know. Yet as time marches on a perspective emerges which elucidates our history and our insight. Thats what forms us and creates the unique person we have becomeand are still becoming.

  2. Vicki Sizemore

    What a great sermon, and I am glad I was not there to hear it in person. This subject is too close to my heart right now. I so admire those examples in our lives that are able to take those “bad things” in their lives and stay positive. See the good. See God in all things. Be thankful for those moments of good. Believe that God does not give us more than we can handle.

    For me the question has become how do you find your way back to God when so many bad things have happened. When your belief in a loving and compassionate God is hard to find.

  3. eric

    Hi Vicki – Thanks. I’m not sure I would ever say something like, “God does not give us more than we can handle” because I don’t believe God “gives” us the bad stuff at all. (I nearly walked out of a funeral once because the priest said the death – of a child by accidental gunshot – was “God’s will”!) I don’t believe God gives us the bad stuff; but I do believe God goes through the bad stuff with us, helping us to handle it!

  4. Jim Oppenheimer

    God is omniscient and omnipotent. Oh? Really?
    “Well, of COURSE God is omnipotent and omniscient!” one might say. “God created the universe! He knows all about it, how it began and how it will end — if it actually does end. And since He created it, obviously there is absolutely nothing whatsoever in the universe outside of His complete control. Nothing!”
    To which I say, “Oh? Really?”
    You see, I think what people mean when they say that, is that God has the ability to understand and control anything in the universe. God has the ability and the potential The difference is everything.
    God certainly has infinite ability to control and understand the universe. However, what if God has deliberately decided to put all of that aside? What might that look like, and what might be the result? Well, of course there’s no way to know for sure, but it’s one way that the universe and all within it could be really, truly free. I’m not going to go all mystical and posit why the universe needs to be free; let’s just consider the possibility that, given the universe obviously appears to be free, that there’s a reason for this freedom. I can speculate on that, and so can you, but the important point here is that with God deliberately electing not to be omniscient and omnipotent in at least certain areas (not going there either), life has the freedom to develop on its own terms, in its own ways. It’s an experiment in which God does NOT know the results, but God perhaps has faith in us. A huge cosmic bet, if you will. Perhaps God sees that this is the only way we can truly grow to become what She intends us to be.
    The idea of God laying aside omniscience and omnipotence is not really all that difficult to accept.
    I have a deck of cards. I shuffle them and play solitaire. I can do whatever I want with them. I can just take them and stack them in order into the four suits. I don’t even have to shuffle them. They’re my deck; I can do whatever I want. But that’s not what happens; I shuffle them, and I place them face down and then I draw only every third card, and in time either the cards play out or they do not. But the game exists because of all those limitations I’ve placed on myself. I don’t have to follow that. In fact, you might recall when you were a kid, you were stumped, and you peeked at a card, and maybe pulled out a card “just to get started.”
    It’s a bit simplistic to compare a deck of cards to the entire universe (and now they’re saying we may live in a multitude of universes — as if one wasn’t enough!), but the analogy to God is, I think, apt. We just assume, “God knows everything! He must!” But that’s not really correct. What we really mean is that God has the ability to know everything; We cannot suggest to know God’s thoughts. Perhaps, for reasons unknown, God has set aside part or all of Her omnipotence under certain — or all — conditions. We don’t know. It’s possible. Anyway, it means we can’t say that God must know everything. In my opinion, that dog won’t hunt.
    And one can say the same thing about omnipotence.
    When we talk about a “free universe” we are really pushing toward this model. It makes a plausible setting in which evil exists.
    One can say that I’m just adding a few cycles, (or a few quadrillion cycles) to the story of whether it’s a good thing the horse got loose, and God is betting that in the end, it’s going to turn out to be a good thing. Perhaps without knowing how it will turn out (for if God already knew, then obviously what would be the point??).
    Could be. Who knows? (Well, She knows, but She’s not telling, just now.)

  5. eric

    As I said in the sermon, God has surrendered some of God’s power in order that the Creation might be free. The sermon would not have been an appropriate place or time expand upon the themes treated in your comments, James, but influenced as I am by both process theology and the free-will theodicy of Alvin Plantinga, I don’t have any quibble with the comments in your post.

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