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Why Bad Things Must Happen to Good People 

In an orderly and just world, religion would be just a cosmic vending machine. Unpredictable suffering makes true virtue possible.

Even if we accept that mortal life is difficult by design to some extent, we may still be left with the question: does there have to be this much of it? This is an ancient question. How do we reconcile a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving with a world that teems with suffering and evil? That is the classical formulation of the great problem of evil, and it’s one of the strongest challenges to faith in God. 

Those who take up the challenge and try to answer the problem of evil—who try to show that an almighty, omnibenevolent God is somehow compatible with this fallen world—are creating an argument known as a theodicy: a vindication of God. 

Many theodicies are based on free will. If God allows His children to decide what to do, then it is not His fault if some of them choose to make bad choices, no matter how bad those choices might be. In that case, child abuse, murder, rape, are not God’s fault because they are the result of free human choices. 

The free will defense is especially powerful to those who understand that the ability to choose evil is a necessary condition for being able to choose good. True freedom only exists where there are meaningful alternatives. As Lehi taught his children: “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.”

Although free will defenses are powerful and popular, these theodicies face challenges on at least two fronts. First, many of them only address the moral problem of evil, seeking to explain pain and suffering arising from willful human action. If a murderer chooses to kill an innocent child, then we can blame that injustice on the murderer’s choice. But if an innocent child contracts a painful and fatal disease, whom do we blame? 

This is what philosophers call the problem of natural evil. From earthquakes to cancer, this world overflows with disasters large and small that cause the young, the innocent, and the good to suffer terribly. Free will defenses fall short of explaining why God created the kind of world that includes cancer and tsunamis. 

The Lord reiterates . . . that Job is “a perfect and upright man” to dismiss the possibility that all suffering is caused by sin.

Second, free will-based theodicies tend to be deistic. God stays hands-off and allows human beings to do to each other pretty much whatever they choose to do, for good or ill. But the scriptures are full of examples of a hands-on God. Ironically, it may be that one of the biggest challenges to free will theodicies is not the evil that happens in the world, but the divine manifestations of an interventionist God. Once God intercedes miraculously to save one person, we are left with the question of why He chose not to intercede to save someone else. If God never intervened to stop a murderer or cure a fatal disease, then we might be able to rely wholly on a freedom-based theodicy. But if God sometimes intervenes to stop a murder and sometimes does not, then the challenge is just as bad as it was before. Maybe worse. 

Of course, some Christians may respond that God has, in fact, intervened in a sweeping, universal manner via Jesus Christ’s life, Atonement, and resurrection. Through Christ, all are eventually made whole and suffering is ultimately sanctified. Or, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” 

Still others, channeling Ivan from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, can’t help but declare: “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”

The Book of Job engages  many of these complexities head on. In the very first verse of the book, Job is established as “blameless.” This is crucial, because it is tempting to assume that God exclusively saves the more righteous and allows only the less-righteous to be victims to natural disasters and evil actions of other people. This is an evil heresy that Jesus explicitly rejected, and the scriptures are filled with many other painful examples of righteous people suffering for no fault of their own.

The Lord reiterates in verse eight that Job is “a perfect and upright man” to dismiss the possibility that all suffering is caused by sin. (Much suffering is caused by sin, of course. But some is not.) Satan then responds:

Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land (Job 1:9-10, NRSV).

Satan is right. Job is being paid for his good behavior. Is it truly righteous to follow the commandments if you immediately receive obvious rewards? Is it truly righteous to avoid sin when committing sin immediately brings obvious penalties? In these conditions, it is impossible to separate righteousness from self-interest. As long as rewards and punishments reliably and quickly track our behavior, there is no way for us to develop virtue for its own sake—to genuinely choose good over evil. There would be, in fact, little substantive moral agency. 

And so Job may have been “blameless,” but perhaps he wasn’t yet virtuous. He was blameless in the same way that Adam and Eve were innocent in the Garden before they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Like Job, Adam and Eve merited no blame. And, also like Job, they merited no praise. 

God responds by withdrawing His protection from Job’s household and possessions, but He maintains his protection over Job himself. Job loses his sons, his daughters, and all of his belongings, but retains his health and personal safety. After all his losses, he continues to worship the Lord.

This doesn’t satisfy Satan. He points out: 

Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face (Job 2:4-5, NRSV).

This is essentially the same argument as before. Even though lots of bad things have happened around Job, he is still being effectively paid for his good behavior with protection over his own body. God then allows Satan to do anything he wants to Job except for taking his life (which would end the demonstration). 

The second round of the argument between God and Satan makes an important point. The first round establishes that there must be some variability between good behavior and rewards. The second pushes this logic even further. The perceptible link between good behavior and rewards must be stretched so far that there is no sense of safety or certainty. We have to be totally weaned from reliance on the idea that God is a divine vending machine: put in good deeds, get out blessings (like miraculous protection). The uncertainty between what we do and what happens to us during mortality must have few or no limitations. 

But why? It could be that bravery cannot exist in a universally safe world. That love of justice is pointless in a world that is already perfectly fair. That art is meaningless in a world that is ubiquitously beautiful. And finally, that compassion is impossible in a world without suffering. 

What’s more, a world that is only a little dangerous, only occasionally unfair, only slightly marred by ugliness, and where suffering is rare is a world where we can only be a little brave, only a little valiant in defense of justice, only timid artists, and have only small-hearted compassion. None of this supposes that God intends evil or suffering per se, only that they are necessary to enable virtue to exist. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”

It’s also fair to say that when we know in advance the boundaries of the bad that can happen, we can hedge our bets and selectively choose our course through life to optimize risk and reward. The problem isn’t that we will make different decisions under conditions like these. The problem is that we will make them for different reasons. Insofar as we can reliably and easily track good rewards to good behavior, we are tempted to choose the right instrumentally rather than sincerely. Virtue and righteousness become means rather than ends. With known limits in place, we may only play-act at virtue. 

Moses learned that the Savior’s work and glory was to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” What does this mean? Latter-day Saints believe eternal life is knowing God and living like Them. But, although eternal life brings unspeakable joy and fulfillment and meaning, it does not promise a complete and total absence of pain or trial. Christ suffered above all. 

Enoch saw God weep at the sight of His creation’s wickedness and suffering. Stunned, Enoch asked God why He wept. In reply, God gave Enoch a glimpse of divine empathy:

And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook (Moses 7:41, emphasis added).

That is the destiny our Heavenly Parents have for us: to stretch our hearts wide and feel all eternity shake. The training ground for such a high aspiration is equivalently deep and terrible. Removing bounds on suffering and ugliness and cruelty and misfortune is the terrible but necessary price to allow us to strive for unbounded bravery, zeal for justice, artistic creativity, and charity.

In order to be able to learn to do good for its own sake, it seems we must at some point be stripped of all other unworthy incentives. How bad does it have to get? That’s not quite the right question. The degree of suffering isn’t the issue. The seeming randomness and unknowableness of it is. 

If you can predict the system, then you can work the system. If you know the rules, then life is just a game. The fact that we never know how bad it could get continually reminds us how real this is—like a voice declaring “This is not a drill” when the alarm sounds. Everything is on the line.

This world is so bad that we can’t make complete sense of it. From our mortal vantage point, the connection between good behavior and the blessings that result from it are not self-evident. Only when virtue and self-interest are decoupled do we have the chance to legitimately, authentically choose virtue. 

Insofar as we can reliably and easily track good rewards to good behavior, we are tempted to choose the right instrumentally rather than sincerely.

Of course, the connection is still there. We can’t entirely escape the law of the harvest. Blessings do inevitably and ultimately follow after righteousness. But in this life, we cannot reliably see that unless and until we look with the eyes of faith. We see the hidden connection only after the trial of our faith. And even then, there are no guarantees in this world.

This theodicy is not an alternative to basic free will theodicies. It is an expansion and addition to them. It incorporates the idea that much of the evil and suffering in the world comes from malevolent or reckless exercise of agency. It also explains that we need a world of random suffering in order to have a chance to exercise our free will to selflessly choose good. Thus, it also helps explain natural disasters and disease and why God intervenes—at least from our perspective—only sporadically and randomly to help His children. In a sense, it is a much stronger theodicy. 

In another sense, it’s a much weaker theodicy. It will never help you win a debate or force someone to believe who does not already believe. It has an answer, but part of the answer is not being able to completely make sense of and accept what the answer points us towards. Understanding the logical necessity and reality of unpredictable evil and suffering doesn’t prepare anyone for the visceral experience of confronting that evil or suffering. 

By deconstructing a random and unfair world, this theodicy does not alleviate the emotional strain and cognitive dissonance that comes with living in such a world. It is a self-annihilating theodicy. We can understand it in principle, but it won’t put our minds or our hearts at rest. It offers us no complacency. If the theodicy really worked, then this life wouldn’t, because the world would no longer seem unboundedly unfair or cruel. Things have to be so bad that no explanation will always work to set anxious minds and tender hearts at ease. Not even this one.

I believe that this theodicy captures something truly essential about our mortal probation, but even a single story of a tragedy befalling a little child turns it to ashes in my mouth. I am the mirror image of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, whose philosophical work led him to feel “environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.” And yet he found that:

I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

For me, it is the opposite. The logic of the theodicy creates a sense of order and peace. But when I look at the suffering in the world, the sense of order and peace evaporates. Logic is frail protection against the darker realities of our mortal world. The best that this theodicy can do is gently explain why our intellects alone can never save us and suggest earnestly that we look elsewhere instead.

That is one reason why, after the logic is laid out in the first two chapters of Job, we get forty more chapters. The beautiful poetry that forms the heart of Job is a human—and Godly— response to a fundamentally flawed and tragic world. God weeps in front of Enoch, and Christ does the same before raising Lazarus. 

The pain and confusion Job voices—vigorously defending his righteousness in some passages and desperately begging to know what sin he has committed in others—reflect the raw response to suffering: our own, that of our loved ones, and even that of strangers. 

There is a lot going on in Job. It is not only a theodicy. But, as a theodicy, there is one final point that it makes. That point is that, after dozens of chapters of bickering and betrayal from Job’s friends, the Lord Himself makes an appearance. When He does, He doesn’t come to answer Job’s questions. He says, instead:

Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me (Job 38:3, NRSV).

This brings to mind Viktor Frankl’s famous contention that:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

The Lord is telling Job, as a proxy for all of us, that the perplexing and irresolvable questions with which life confronts us are part of the plan. Our attempt to answer them is why we are here. In this sense, the restored gospel taught in the Church of Jesus Christ is an existential faith. There is intrinsic meaning to the world, but we can’t see it without eyes of faith. Apparent meaning has been stripped from our world. We have to believe before we can see it again.

But the Lord’s stern injunction bears a hidden comfort, which is this: He came to Job to deliver it Himself. I do not take this to mean that Christ will grant us each a personal appearance in this life, but I do take it to mean at our absolute darkest and most hopeless times, we may catch a glimpse of His face or feel a trace of His love. We have been sent to this chaotic, tumultuous world of unbounded evil and suffering, but we have not been abandoned here. We are not forgotten. We are not alone. God is with us even—perhaps especially—when we are caught helpless and naked in the jaws of suffering. For, we read, God Himself came down to suffer “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind.”

As N. T. Wright said, speaking of the story of Mary’s visit to the tomb in John 20, “I have sometimes wondered . . . whether the point is not that those who see angels are likely to do so only through tears.” 

I know that something like this has been my experience. It has often been at my lowest points when I have had my deepest spiritual experiences. They have never been enough to feel that the path is smooth and easy, but they have always been enough that I’ve been able to keep walking a little farther. And it is in this sense that the restored gospel is also a romantic faith: beyond the darkness of this world, we have reason to hope for a brighter one to come.

About the author

Nathaniel Givens

Nathaniel Givens is a writer and blogger. In addition to Public Square, he has written for Meridian, Real Clear Religion, First Things, and Square Two. He blogs at Nauvoo Neighbor, Times and Seasons, and his own blog: Difficult Run.
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