The Guideposts senior editor ponders why God allows bad situations to happen to good people.
Why do bad things happen to helpless people? That, more than anything else, is the question that ended the faith of William Lobdell, author of a book I’ve been reading and thinking about a lot recently. The book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace, details Lobdell’s inexorable transformation from born-again Christian to what he calls “reluctant atheist.”
It was the never-ending scandals Bill covered as a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times—priest sexual abuse, corrupt televangelists, manipulative faith healers—that shattered his belief. How could a good, powerful God allow such things to happen, he wondered? He never found an acceptable answer.
I’m not surprised. The problem of God’s seeming inaction in the face of evil should bedevil all believers. And no, I don’t think the “of course there’s evil, we’re all sinners” argument is a solution. The evils that troubled Bill—priests molesting children, natural disasters wiping out populations, mysterious crippling diseases—were not mere sin. They were senseless, horrific harm done to helpless victims. They begged the question: Why doesn’t God do anything?
The reasoning animating Bill's questions usually runs like this: An all-good, all-powerful God would have to intervene to prevent such suffering. Failure to intervene means God either can’t or won’t stop evil. Which in turn means God is either not all-powerful or not all-good. Or perhaps doesn’t exist at all.
Argument about this issue usually devolves to limit cases. Why didn’t God prevent the Holocaust? Why did God allow the abuses that so horrified Bill Lobdell? Why do believers celebrate every time God seemingly heals an illness or rescues someone from natural disaster—but God is never blamed when the cure doesn’t work or the disaster kills thousands?
I can understand why such questions eroded Bill’s faith. As posed, I don’t think they’re any more answerable than he did. Unlike Bill, however, the reason I can’t answer them is not because I fear they expose a fatal chink in the armor of faith. I can’t answer them because I think they’re the wrong questions. Nonsensical questions. Questions that begin from false premises and end up sounding fatally weird, like “How many does yellow have?” Or, “Where is five?”
Let me explain. Asking why an all-good, all-powerful God allows evil to afflict helpless people presumes we know the definitions of three exceedingly large, exceedingly difficult words: good; power; and evil.
Take the first of those words. What do we mean when we say God is good? That God is nice? That God helps people? That God wants everyone to be happy? If you think about it—and I have thought about it a lot lately—you may realize that you don’t know as much about goodness as you thought you did. Or rather, as I discovered, your definition of goodness may turn out to have less to do with the state of the universe or humanity than it does with what happens to be good for you. That is, for many people, goodness equals what I like or what I approve of.
Same with evil and power. For me, evil is everything I happen to hate—death, suffering, cheating, everything that harms. Power means power over things, the ability to make things happen, to bend people and things to another’s will. Using those definitions, I’m afraid I would have to agree with Bill Lobdell. A good God who does not use power to squelch evil is not worth believing in.
But what if I’m wrong? What if those words mean something more, something different than I initially understand? In my faith tradition, Christianity, all the available evidence tells me those words do in fact mean more—far more than I can hope to grasp without careful thought and study.
Take a single example. The life of Jesus as told in the Gospels is one of poverty, preaching to a hostile public, healings that sometimes take and sometimes don’t, all culminating in public humiliation and death. There it is, a life beset by what I would call evil, failure and powerlessness. And yet we are to believe that Jesus is the very incarnation of God, the clearest, most blatant statement of who God is.
If God agreed with my definitions of goodness, evil and powerlessness, the world would be a wonderful place—for me. If God agreed with Bill Lobdell’s definitions, Bill would never have had to witness the abuses that so scarred him.
But of course everything else would be different too. The rest of us would be slaves to Bill’s particular understandings and prejudices. God would not be a God who says things like, “The last shall be first.” God would be a God of power who intervenes forcefully, eliminates free choice and runs the earth like a puppet show. God would make everyone happy. God would make everyone nice. God would ensure the world never grew bigger or more complex than the human brain and its insistent moral compass.
Of course it would be terrific—for awhile, anyway—if the God Bill Lobdell demanded and didn’t find really existed. We could dispense with questions and live our (Bill’s?) nice, happy lives. Thankfully, as Bill discovered, that God doesn’t exist. What I believe does exist is a far fiercer, larger, more complicated, more magnificent God. A God whose nature is disclosed by this universe we live in—heartbreakingly beautiful, relentless, mysterious, sometimes pitiless, sometimes embracing, always bursting with a life that is shadowed but not defeated by death.
No, that God doesn’t always answer my questions. But given the treacherousness of those questions, their shifting definitions and me-centered thinking, I’m not sure those are the questions I want answered.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Contact him at [email protected].