Why do bad things happen to innocent people?
You might as well ask, “why do bad things have to happen — period?”
And we do ask. At a time when there is this seemingly inexhaustible supply of “bad things” taking place the world over, from barbarism in the Middle East to indiscriminate violence in America’s cities and suburbs, this question of “why” is never far from our public and private consciousnesses.
This foundational question goes even deeper, because it speaks to our understanding of who we are and how we came to be.
When Americans are asked whether they believe such an entity as God exists, they speak overwhelming in the affirmative: nine of out ten, according to Gallop (though the numbers are trending down from a high of 98 percent in 1967 to 92 percent in 2011). Now how they define God and his nature is as broad and as diverse as is all of humanity.
But despite that diversity of belief, there does appear to emerge a few, universally accepted concepts that transcend many religious doctrines, including the idea that God’s nature is sympathetic, even loving toward his creation. It’s certainly the foundational truth of American’s largest religion, Christianity, in which 73 to 80 percent of the population profess to believe. ‘God is love’ the Apostle John writes in one of his letters to the early Christian church. In fact, the precept that God loves his creation, and that “his intentions toward us are for good and not for evil” is the dominant theme of the New Testament.
Nearly as wide spread a precept that God is love is the idea that God is all-powerful and engages — at some level — in human affairs. For those who give credence to the tenants of the Judeo-Christian faith, God is not only undeniably the creator, but there are examples throughout the Old and New Testaments of God’s direct and miraculous intervention in the life of his people.
Unlike the stories of Greek mythology, for example, which have never been intended or interpreted as anything other than myth, the events depicted in the Bible are widely accepted by scholars as historic narrative. This is not so much a statement of faith, but of the accepted methodologies for discerning the intent of literature. Reasonable people can question whether Moses parted the Red Sea or Jesus restored sight to the blind. But what we can not do — at least not with any great objectivity — is argue these stories were meant to be interpreted as anything other than a narrative of actual events.
So two of the most widely held precepts of God, that he is all-powerful and all-loving, can quickly become flash points of heated debate when life turns harsh. There are those who believe faith in an unseen God is not only irrational, but dangerous. From their perspective, to speak to grief stricken parents about a loving, all powerful God is not only not comforting but cruel and taunting.
“If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then how do you explain away not only a Sandy Hook or a Columbine, but the countless other tragedies and cruelties that plague humanity each and every day?” They reason that if God exists, he doesn’t care, in which case he is not all loving. Or, if he does care, then he is ineffectual, thus eliminating the possibility he is all powerful.
In the study of logical arguments, this would be known as adductive reasoning, where based upon observed cause and effect, you draw a reasonable [but not necessarily correct] conclusion. You awake and look out the window and you see your front lawn soaked with water, much more so than would normally occur from a morning dew. From this observation you might deduce there was a heavy rain from the night before. But perhaps what you didn’t know is that your spouse awoke early and ran the sprinklers long before you even got out of bed.
To conclude the presence of evil disproves the existence of an all-powerful and loving God fails to test the implied assumptions from such an argument. The implied assumption here is that if such a god did exist, the result would be a world that achieves a certain degree of homeostasis, where order is the norm and chaos is rare or nonexistent.
To a partial extent, one could argue that definition is not too far removed from the world in which we live. Just as a violent storm, no matter how destructive, is not the normative pattern for weather, neither is the malevolent individual the standard bearer for humanity. The overwhelming preponderance of the seven billion or so humans who inhabit this planet are non-violent and will live out their days in relative peace with their neighbor. The cruel individual, it can be reasonably argued, is an aberration. Of course, logic and probability are a poor solace to those left in the wake of a tragedy, be it natural or man-made.
To the skeptic then, it is reasonable to assume that a single tragedy would be enough to argue against the existence of God — or at least against one who claims to be all loving and all powerful.
Turn that assumption around and see it through to its logical conclusion. Let’s imagine for argument sake such a world is possible: evil has been eradicated and mankind is no more capable of inflicting chaos and tragedy upon itself then it is of sprouting wings and taking flight. No more Rwanda’s or Columbines. No more cruelty. No more senseless violence.
But before we get too far down this road, how should this God address the modestly “bad” behavior each of us exhibit, to one degree or another, just about every day? Clearly, not every man-induced tragedy is caused by murderous individuals. The antecedents of most tragedies are significantly more benign.
How many of us, for example, have cut off another car in traffic? Maybe we were in a hurry or perhaps we just wanted to feel powerful. But in a country where thousands more people die on the highway each year than in an acts of random violence, wouldn’t this God we imagine need to reign in aggressive drivers to maintain our tragedy-free existence? In the final analysis, is it any less traumatic to lose your child to a random accident than it is to random violence?
Or what about the unhappy husband who feels unloved and under-appreciated at home, so much so that he becomes entangled with an adoring co-worker at the office? And what if this entanglement leads to a decision to leave his wife and young son and start a new family? So now we have a single mom, a boy without a father, economic hardship and a ripe breeding ground for resentment, juvenile delinquency or worse.
This God is faced then with some terrible choices: he could remove, for example, the ability for humans to make bad or selfish decisions, and hard wire in us only the ability to act wisely and unselfishly; or he could choose to eliminate the “bad person” before they have the opportunity to inflict any damage.
If we choose Option A then goodness or evil cease to be known concepts. Consider we only understand that such a thing as “good” exists because we have something in which to compare it against. One of many problems we run into with this option is that the kind of God who purports to love his creation would have no more interest in programming goodness and obedience in the hearts of his creation then we would have to implant a computer chip in our children’s brains so their only choice would be their unswerving devotion and spotless behavior (though admittedly, a tempting concept). Their love wouldn’t be any more meaningful to us than a robotic human race would be to God.
There are many definitions of love, but most of us would agree it must be freely given and freely received.
The elusive answer then to the age-old question of whether God can create a rock too big for him to move might be “no”. It’s entirely possible that God in his nature can not or will not create automatons who have no ability to choose any path but the right one. To force or coerce someone to freely make a choice is a contradiction, and therefore impossible.
What about the other option, where God simply removes those individuals who pose the biggest risk to society? The same reasoning applied above, where neither God or humans desire an entire race of Stepford children, applies here as well. Would a loving parent ever see the eradication of their off-spring as a viable option in dealing with a rebellious or difficult child? Again, if flawed and moderately selfish humans would reject this option then it is reasonable to presume the same would hold doubly true for a God who is all loving and all-powerful.
And just how bad, by the way, would you have to get before God decides to “take you out”? We could agree, for example, had Corporal Hitler received a lethal exposure to mustard gas in World War 1, v. one that merely hospitalized him, mankind would have been better off. But this option starts to unravel when you apply that kind of thinking to the rest of us.
If God were only to remove those seemingly on a path to destruction, we would never know whether a positive role model or good mental health care would have changed the trajectory of a person’s life. Instead, we would live in this terrifying existence where dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of people every day would be vaporized or just collapse on the street, without any reasonable explanation. Or perhaps these individuals are the only ones who contract a deadly disease or are stillborn. However it is accomplished, eventually, we would catch on that someone, or something, is weeding out the “defectives” among us. Think Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” being fully realized to its terrifying, ultimate conclusion.
Because these strategic strikes would occur before any of these individuals had a chance to do any real harm, the only thing that would tie these victims together is they all appear to operate, in varying degrees, outside the acceptable societal norm. At some point, social scientists would be able to demonstrate a strong connection between anti-social behavior and a shorter life span.
Talk about creating a breeding ground for paranoia in parents! Already the average mom and dad are concerned when Johnny has trouble making friends and spends all of his time holed up in his bedroom. Now ratchet up the stakes, where not only is their child in danger of facing a future as a friendless loner, but now they they must consider the very real possibility that god, or nature, might brand their child as defective and “take it out,” much the same way a scientist might toss a failed experiment in the trash.