Question #1: Why do bad things happen to good people? (Part 1)
If there is one thing that will never change about being a Christian, it is that people will ask us questions about God. They will ask because they want to be antagonistic. They will ask because they want to mock the answer. They will ask because they genuinely want to know. While I don’t waste much time on the first two, I desperately want to be able to answer the questions posed by the third group. There are genuine, difficult questions that unbelievers have that raise legitimate objections to Christianity and why God is the way that He is. These objections, by the way, have been around for thousands of years. They are not new. But they are new to the person asking them. It is vitally important that Believers be able to answer the questions biblically, rationally, and faithfully.
That does not mean, however, that we have to know all of the answers at that particular time. “I don’t know, but I can find out”, is a perfectly good response. The idea behind this series is not to put pressure on the Christian to know every answer to every question every time. When people are genuinely asking these questions, they are doing so because they see it, often times, as a barrier to belief. For many, if these questions are clarified, then it makes the Christian worldview a bit more understandable. Be clear, we are not responsible for what happens to the person even if we answer their question perfectly. We could give an amazing answer…but that doesn’t mean the person will like it. That makes no difference. We are to bear witness to the truth. What God does with that truth in the life of an individual is between them and God. But there are a few basic questions that nearly every unbeliever (along with many Believers) will ask regarding the nature of God, salvation, sin, Jesus, and morality. It is in our nature to ask such questions. We need to have a proper understanding of these topics so that we can bear witness to the magnificence of the grace that God bestows upon us. We have the greatest and most important story in the universe. We need to be able to answer the basic questions associated with that story.
So, we will take the next few posts to investigate some of the more common questions related to Who God is and why He does what He does. Because when all of the trappings of theology are removed, Christianity boils down to these two questions: Is God Who He says He is? Will He do what He says He will do? That’s it. Being able to clarify aspects of the nature of God in light of the many misconceptions about Who He is should be a priority for all of us. With that being said, let’s get started with one of the most asked questions by unbelievers: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Questions regarding God’s dispensation of judgement and justice abound in the minds of Believers and unbelievers alike. All of us struggle at one time or another with the idea of a loving God allowing so many terrible things in the world. And if we don’t struggle with that aspect of our Christianity, then shame on us. The official, theological term for the study of this construct is theodicy. It comes from two Greek words which mean, in essence, the justice of God. The question is as old as the Bible. Why would and good and loving God allow pain and suffering in the world? And if He does allow it, what does that say, if anything, about His goodness? But there is much more to the original question than the nature of God. In fact, there is something wrong with the question itself. Do you see it? Do you see the inherent problem with the question that actually renders it unanswerable? Let’s take a closer look.
The popular question that has been asked beginning 3,000 years before the birth of Christ (Job 10:1-3), has a fatal, untenable premise buried within the context of the query itself. Why do bad things happen to good people? That question, as it is stated cannot be answered by the Christian. The reason is because the question itself presupposes that people are basically “good” (with no real consensus as to what that means). The reason that is a problem, is because the Bible is rife with passages that proclaim without equivocation that people are, in fact, not basically good (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 7:11; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10; Romans 3:23; Isaiah 53:6; etc). The problem is that people use the world’s understanding of “good” and applies that to God. In other words, if I believe that I am good, then God must believe that as well.
The interesting thing about that is, that when someone says this and you question them as to why they consider themselves basically good, an interesting thing happens. They generally begin to list off to you all of the things they don’t do. Interesting, isn’t it? Most times when challenged to explain why one would think they are basically good, they will begin to list the terrible things they don’t do rather than give a list of good things they actually do. They will say things like: I don’t kill, rape, steal, pillage, etc. And that by not doing those things, they then fall into the default category of “good”. In reality, they are not telling you that they are good. They are telling you that they are really not that bad. It is a fascinating phenomenon. However fascinating that may be, that idea does create a barrier to the Gospel. We absolutely cannot, nor should we not, even try to answer the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Because as I stated before, it is an unanswerable question.
Here’s the thing. People assess their “goodness”, as we mentioned before, on the culture’s ever-changing understanding of good. However, when they ask the question, they are ceding that we need to understand God’s idea of goodness. If we do not correct this presupposition, then the conversation cannot ever reach the ultimate truth behind the question. We must not attempt to answer the question as posed. Instead, we must correct their errant presupposition if they are to have any chance of grasping the greater truth. If we cede to the questioner the idea that people are basically “good” any attempts to explain God’s allowance of pain and suffering will make Him sound like a tyrant. Now, they may think that anyway, but that’s not our concern. We must communicate to them that they are asking the wrong question because it is an impossible question. How do we do that? Let’s learn from Jesus. In Part 2 of the answer to this question (why do bad things happen to good people), we will see how Jesus addressed this exact situation when He first had to correct the presupposition of a young man who wanted to know how “good” he had to be in order to get to heaven (Matthew 19:16-30).
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project with Robert Houghton after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in Winter Haven, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.