Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

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A rabbi’s best-selling book proposes a radical solution to the problem of evil. Does it work?

About five years ago, when we were having an altar installed in our new temple, the overseer from the marble company would regularly bring his seven-year-old son along to watch. The boy was very handsome, with jet-black hair and pale skin and long, dark eyelashes. He was well-behaved and always seemed in a good humor even though he could hardly walk at all. I never saw him take more than a few steps, leaning on a wall and straining his torso with an awkward twisting motion and then swinging forward a leg clamped into a large, clumsy brace.

The boy had been born crippled. While he was cheerful despite that, his father was not. His father was an angry man. “When that boy was born I stopped going to church,” he told me once, as he knelt on our altar putting grout between the marble slabs. “I never did anything bad enough to deserve this. Sure, I’m not a saint, but I don’t deserve this. And even if I did, what could he have done?”

The aggrieved father, an unsophisticated marble contractor, was raising a problem that has long preoccupied Western religious thinkers, so much so that it has created a special discipline called theodicy, a branch of theology concerned with justifying the ways of God to man. Theodicy deals with what is usually called "the problem of evil." St. Augustine cast it into the form of a dilemma: “Either God cannot or God will not eliminate evil from the world. If He cannot, He is not all-powerful; if He will not. He is not all-good.” This formulation makes the logic of the problem clear: to show that the existence of a world with evil in it is compatible with the existence of a God who is both all-powerful and all-good. To deny either one of these attributes would easily explain evil, but orthodox theologians have always considered that unacceptable.

Those who find the problem of evil intractable usually deny the existence of God outright rather than settle for a God limited either in power or goodness. Would such a finite being really qualify to be called “God”? Would he be worthy of our worship?

Although philosophers and theologians have left us a huge body of technical literature on the problem of evil, it is far from a theoretical concern. It is everybody’s problem, sooner or later. Suffering is universal. But oddly enough, practically as widespread is the sufferer’s feeling that he has been unfairly singled out. From millions come the outraged cry: “Why me! What did I do to deserve this?”

It is for such people that Harold S. Kushner, a Massachusetts rabbi, has written his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It is a painfully honest treatment of what the author claims is the one theological issue that reaches folks “where they really care.”

Kushner’s book grew out of his personal pain; his testimony commands respect. He tells how his son was afflicted from infancy with progeria, a disease that brings on rapid aging, so that Kushner saw him grow bald and wrinkled, stooped and frail, until he died of old age in his fourteenth year. Kushner presents the victim’s point of view, and he lets us hear the real voices of people in pain. In that stark light, the standard religious justifications for our misfortunes, which Kushner lays out one by one, do indeed seem like facile verbal shuffles that don’t take people’s suffering seriously but simply try, however lamely, to get God off the hook.

Kushner effectively criticizes the standard answers handed out by priests, ministers, and rabbis, and he offers instead his own radically unorthodox solution. His book has been a bestseller for months, and he has attracted a large and grateful following among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Indeed, the popularity of his view among members of America’s mainstream churches and synagogues suggests something of a grassroots theological rebellion.

The most reprehensible device of theodicy, in Kushner’s view, is to remove the blame from God by putting it onto the sufferer, to explain suffering “by assuming that we deserve what we get, that somehow our misfortunes come as punishment for our sins.” To accept that bad things happen to us as God’s punishment, Kushner says, may help us make sense of the world, give us a compelling reason to be good, and sustain our belief in an all- powerful and just Deity—yet it is not “religiously adequate.”

By “religiously adequate” Kushner means “comforting.” Seeing suffering as a punishment for sin is not comforting because it teaches people to blame themselves for their misfortunes, and so creates guilt, and it also “makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves.”

Kushner tells us of a couple who blamed their teenage daughter’s sudden death on their own failure to observe the prescribed fast on a Jewish holy day: “They sat there feeling that their daughter’s death had been their fault; had they been less selfish and less lazy about the Yom Kippur fast some six months earlier, she might still be alive. They sat there angry at God for having exacted his pound of flesh so strictly, but afraid to admit their anger for fear that He would punish them again. Life had hurt them and religion could not comfort them. Religion was making them feel worse.”

It is a virtue of Kushner’s work to bring this anger at God up front, to talk at length about what few believers have had the courage to admit, even to themselves. Many people must be grateful that someone has recognized their real feelings and has dealt with them openly.

But the worst thing about the belief that our misdeeds cause our misfortunes, says Kushner, is that it doesn’t even fit the facts. People do suffer ills they don’t deserve; bad things happen to good people all the time. Kushner adamantly maintains this. To the thousands who resent life’s unfair treatment, who proclaim in outrage and indignation, “I didn’t do anything to deserve this!” Kushner answers, comfortingly, “That’s right, you didn’t.”

And Kushner is not talking about saints, about people who never do wrong. Rather, he wants to know “why ordinary people, nice friendly neighbors, neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily bad, should suddenly have to face the agony of pain and tragedy… . They are neither much better nor very much worse than most people we know; why should their lives be so much harder?”

Here, tapping into a great psychic underground of resentment, Kushner has found his following. He has been willing to openly acknowledge a vast repressed sense of betrayal, a great silenced accusation that leaks unwillingly from the hearts of believers and wends its way up to the divine ear as the universal unvoiced anti-prayer: “You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain!”

Kushner insists that the innocent suffer, and as conclusive proof he advances that grievance which has been the bane of Judeo-Christian theodicy and which occasioned his own harrowing foray into the problem of evil: the suffering and death of children.

This is what drove the marble contractor to take up atheism, the usual response of those who feel God has failed them. But atheism is the response Kushner wants to prevent with his book. To restore the faith of those who have been spiritually devastated by misfortune, Kushner offers his own story of how he and his wife “managed to go on believing in God and in the world after we had been hurt.”

Kushner is indeed convinced that the existence of a God both all-good and all-powerful is incompatible with the evils of our world; yet he wants us to go on believing in God. His conclusion, then, is simple: we can go on believing in God—but not in a God who is all-powerful. God is good, but there are limits to what He can do. God does not want us to suffer; He is as angry and upset at our misfortunes as we are. But He is also helpless.

This is Kushner’s credo: “I believe in God,” he says, but—“I recognize His limitations.” As a result, Kushner tells us in relief, “I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose much when I blame God for these things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.”

It is not hard for me to put myself in the place of Kushner or the marble contractor: I have children of my own. I can even understand why, given the kind of religion they know, Kushner can worship only a finite deity, and the marble contractor can’t bear to enter a church. Nevertheless, I don’t have the problem with God that they do. When bad things happen, I don’t find myself calling into question either His power or His goodness.

Of course, I am a devotee of Krishna; my religious convictions are founded upon the Vedic theism revealed in the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam. To espouse those convictions has been viewed by most normal Americans as a radical thing to do. But now we find that many normal Americans are willing to do something that, in its way, is more radical than what I’ve done. They are abandoning one of the most basic and universal theistic tenets: they are becoming worshipers of God-the-not-almighty.

I want to tell you how we handle the problem of evil. If you, like so many others, are unsatisfied with the standard Judeo-Christian theodicy, perhaps you will consider our Krishna conscious view before following Rabbi Kushner.

In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains that you and I, like all living beings, are spiritual entities, souls. We now animate bodies made of matter, but we are not these bodies. Our involvement with matter is unfortunate, for it is the cause of all our suffering. We rightly belong in the spiritual kingdom, where life is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. There everyone is joyously surrendered to the control of God as they directly serve Him in love. Every action is motivated exclusively by the desire to satisfy God.

But some of us perversely wished God’s position for ourselves. We wanted independence so that we could try to enjoy and control others like God does. Yet we cannot, of course, take God’s place; He alone has no master. But to grant our desires, God sends us to the material world, where He now controls us indirectly, through His material nature and its laws. Here we can forget God, strive to fulfill our desires, and have the illusion of independence.

Yet we are controlled by the laws of nature, and these force us to perpetually inhabit a succession of temporary material bodies. In ignorance, we identify ourselves with each body we enter, and we suffer again and again the pains of birth, old age, disease, and death. Life after life we transmigrate through plant, animal, and human bodies, sometimes on this planet, sometimes on far better ones, sometimes on far worse.

Once we take a human birth, our destiny is shaped by karma. In the Bhagavad-gita (8.3) Krishna succinctly defines karma as “actions pertaining to the development of material bodies.” This means that there are actions we do now that determine our future material births. What kind of actions? Those motivated by material desire. We may do them directly for ourselves or indirectly for our extended self—our family, friends, community, nation, and the like. And such acts sentence us to future births in the material world, there to reap what we have sown.

Karma is of two kinds: good and bad.

Every civilized society recognizes a set of commandments that have divine authority and that regulate material enjoyment. Such commandments, for example, restrict the enjoyment of sex to marital relations and oblige the wealthy to be philanthropic. They also encourage religious and charitable acts, which earn the performer merit. And they prescribe atonements for transgressors. Thus people are allowed to pursue material enjoyment, but they must observe moral and religious codes. And those who follow these codes, who live pious lives of restricted sensual pleasure, are assured of even greater enjoyment in the life to come.

If we act according to scriptural regulations, the Vedas tell us, we will produce good karma and in future births enjoy the benefits of our piety. For example, if a person is born in an aristocratic family, is beautiful, well-educated, or wealthy, he is reaping the benefits of good karma. The Vedas also tell us that if a person is extraordinarily pious he may be reborn on one of the higher planets in this universe, where the standard of sensual pleasure is far greater than anything we have on earth.

Conversely, there is bad karma. We create bad karma when we disregard scriptural injunctions and restrictions in our pursuit of sense pleasure—that is, when we act sinfully. Bad karma brings us suffering and misfortune, such as birth in a degraded family, poverty, chronic disease, legal problems, or physical ugliness. Exceptionally bad karma will take us into animal bodies or down to lower planets of hellish torment.

The law of karma is as strict, relentless, and impartial as the grosser natural laws of motion and gravity. And, like them, it applies to us whether we know about it or not. For example, if I eat the flesh of animals even though I can live as well without it, my bad karma will force me to be born as an animal and to be slaughtered myself. Or if I arrange to have a child killed in the womb, I simultaneously arrange for myself to be killed in the same way, again and again, without ever seeing the light of day.

So when you and I were born we inherited, along with our blue eyes or our black hair, the consequences of our past good and bad deeds. We have a long history, and the happiness and distress our lives will bring is set. We are indeed children of destiny, hostages to fortune, but it is a destiny we created for ourselves, a fortune self-made. And in this life we are continuing to create our future.

But of all this Kushner is unaware, and he can make no sense of his suffering. He has the unshakable conviction that God owes him an agreeable and happy life, that God is obliged to arrange matters for his satisfaction. But God fails, bringing on Kushner’s crisis of faith. It can only be that God is either bad or weak, Kushner reasons, and then settles for weakness.

Yet in spite of Kushner, God is both all-good and all- powerful. But He does not engineer our suffering—we do. We are the authors of our karma. And it is our decision, not His, that brings us down into the material world, into the realm of suffering.

So the answer to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is “They don’t.” All of us here in the material world are—how shall I put it?—not of the best sort. Reprobates and scapegraces—each of us persona non grata in the kingdom of God. We are sent here because we seek a life independent of God, and He grants our desire as far as possible. But since His position is already taken, we can only play at being God while deceiving ourselves that we are independent of Him.

At the same time, the material world reforms us, teaches us through reward and punishment to acknowledge God’s supreme position. For by natural law we are rationed out the pleasures we desire according to our observance of the divine regulations, following the ways of good karma. The practice of good karma, then, amounts to a materially motivated religion, an observance of God’s orders on the inducement of material reward. By this practice, spanning many lifetimes, I may, it is hoped, become habituated to following God’s commands and reconciled to His supremacy. Thereupon I become eligible at last to take up the pure and eternal religion, in which, completely free of all material desires, I serve God in loving devotion, asking nothing in return. This religion, called bhakti in the Vedas, causes my return to the kingdom of God. The acts of bhakti are karmaless: they produce no future material births, good or bad.

From the Vedas, then, we learn of two clearly distinct religions, one pure and the other impure. Practicing good karma can elevate us in the material world, secure for us a vast life span on heavenly planets, and so on. In other words, it can make us first-class inmates of the material world. But bhakti alone can release us from the prison altogether. Even the best karma cannot free us from suffering, as Krishna warns in the Bhagavad- gita (8.16): “From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery where repeated birth and death take place.” But bhakti destroys all karmic reaction, extirpates all material desires, revives our pure love for God, and delivers us beyond birth and death to His abode. There we never taste temporary, material pleasure but rather relish eternal, spiritual bliss by serving Krishna and thus joining in His bliss.

It is a signal virtue of the Vedic tradition that it distinguishes so clearly between the religion of good karma and the religion of bhakti and offers bhakti purely, without compromise. Most of us, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, have been taught a kind of common karmic religion: God has put us on this earth to enjoy ourselves, and if we do so within the ordained limits, not forgetting to show God gratitude and proper respect. He will see to our success. We should ask God to meet our needs and fulfill our lawful desires, for He is the greatest order supplier. If we are observant and good, He will reward us well in this life and even better in the next.

This is the religion Kushner professed: “Like most people, my wife and I had grown up with an image of God as an all-wise, all-powerful parent figure who would treat us as our earthly parents did, or even better. If we were obedient and deserving, He would reward us. If we got out of line, He would discipline us, reluctantly but firmly. He would protect us from being hurt or from hurting ourselves, and would see to it that we got what we deserved in life.”

Of course, Kushner begins to reconsider his religion when he discovers that it doesn’t work. At this point, most people (like the marble contractor) become atheists. The idea of God as order supplier is thus responsible for a great deal of unbelief. But Kushner wants to preserve his faith in God, or at least in God’s goodness, by denying His power.

Kushner’s chief defense of his position is that it is “religiously adequate,” that is, comforting. You will recall that he accused conventional theodicy of making people feel worse—causing them to feel guilty and to hate God. The explanation of suffering I have presented shouldn’t make anyone feel worse. True, it says that we cause our own suffering, yet the point is not to make us feel guilty. The point is to let us know we’ve made some mistakes and should correct them. And why should we resent God for our suffering? Suffering comes by the law of karma. But karma is the impartial working of causal law. Hostility toward God is what has put us under that law; it certainly won’t help us get out. For His part, God is making every effort to get us out: He comes to this world from time to time to teach the path of bhakti, which will destroy all our karma. He sends His representatives throughout the world on the same mission, and He even stays with us as the indwelling Supersoul during our sojurn in the material world, ready to give us the intelligence to approach Him when we put aside our ancient enmity.

Kushner has the right instincts: he too would like people to cease their enmity toward God, and he even recognizes the ignobility of worshiping Him on the condition that He satisfy our demands. But if only we recognize God’s limitations, he says, we won’t be angry at Him when things go wrong in our life, nor will we worship Him for the satisfaction of our desires. Kushner thus urges the religious adequacy of his own theodicy.

But it is far from adequate. Kushner’s problem is that he cannot overcome the conditioning of karmic religion. He needs something more spiritually powerful than good instincts to free him from the implicit hostility toward God, the unconscious, deep-seated unwillingness to serve Him unconditionally, that binds the conditioned soul to karma.

Kushner is still hostile. Because God did not satisfy his demands, Kushner must think of Him as ineffectual and weak. Kushner once thought of God as a parent who always gratifies our desires. But now Kushner views Him as needing our forgiveness—for having failed as a parent: “Are you capable of forgiving and loving God even when you have found out that He is not perfect, even when He has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in His world, and permitting some of those things to happen to you? Can you learn to love and forgive Him despite His limitations ... as you once learned to forgive and love your parents even though they were not as wise, as strong, or as perfect as you needed them to be?”

Kushner asserts that his hostility toward God is no more, but what he has really done is simply change the form in which it is expressed—from rage to condescension. And this idea of God will only support our unwillingness to acknowledge His supremacy, and thus it will help keep us in the material world, where we will continue to suffer. Thus Kushner’s theodicy will not make us feel better; it will only make us feel worse.

Furthermore, if we think God weak and ineffectual, it is certain that we will not be able to surrender to Him fully and serve Him without any personal consideration. The condition that makes such service and surrender possible is His promise of complete protection. “Declare it boldly,” Krishna tells His disciple Arjuna, “My devotee never perishes” (Bg. 9.31). Because we can depend upon God completely, we can surrender to Him completely: “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Therefore you have nothing to fear” (Bg. 18.66).

If we accept Kushner, we will always have to look out for ourselves; we will have to act for our own sake, and so we will remain involved with karma. Our service to God will never be total and unconditional. Indeed, as long as we insist on taking care of ourselves, God will leave us to our own devices.

But if we accept Krishna, if we give up independent action and depend completely on God, devoting all our effort to His service, He will take complete care of us. We shouldn’t expect God to remove all inconvenience, but if difficulty comes we should simply tolerate it, recognizing that our residual bad karma is playing itself out, and continue to expect God’s mercy.

God will minimize the karmic reaction due us, but the ultimate way He protects us is by bestowing spiritual consciousness upon us and destroying the ignorance by which we identify ourselves with matter. Krishna describes that consciousness in the Bhagavad-gita (6.22-23): “In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses… . Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This, indeed, is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.” God frees us not so that we can goof off, not so we can get some “reward,” but so that we can serve Him wholeheartedly, without any other concern.

So if we accept Krishna, we can solve the problem of evil. That solution doesn’t lie in rejecting either the goodness or the power of God, but rather in taking advantage of that goodness and power to perform pure devotional service—and in that way end all our suffering forever.