The eternal question of religion is why do bad things happen to good people. Hundreds of thousands of volumes have addressed the questions. We still yearn for a satisfying answer.
The horrific and highly-visible impact of Hurricane Sandy raises this question anew. How can we come to grips with thousands of homeless families, a couple killed while walking a dog, a woman electrocuted in front of a fallen transformer, and other horrors?
The Bible offers two main answers. I will add a third articulated most popularly by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
1. We did something to deserve it
The notion of reward and punishment is intrinsic to the Bible. God rewards us for good and punishes us for evil.
In the book of Job, Job’s friends offer this approach most clearly when they suggest that he must have done something to deserve his horrific condition.
The one advantage of this approach is that it can spur self-examination. It can lead us to draw upon what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls reservoirs of “remedial energy.” We aim to fix something, even if we are not responsible for it. Consider parents whose child dies from a tragic illness, and who then decide to dedicate their lives to helping others suffering from it.
The problem with this approach is that it simply does not ring true. What did children murdered during the Holocaust do to “deserve” their fate? What did a random person hit by a car do to warrent such a punishment? What did their families do?
Religious leaders only make themselves look naive and simplistic when they try to establish moral causes for every human suffering. It offends our humanity to think in such a way.
2. God is a Mystery
God’s ways are mysterious and inscrutable. This approach is a variation on the first. It suggests that God has a reason for whatever happened, but we will never figure out what it is.
In the book of Job, God articulates this view when he tells Job to stop asking why he is suffering. He simply has no right to ask, because he was not there when God created the world. He is merely a human being, while God is the Sovereign of the Universe.
This approach can bring comfort to some, because it acknowledges that so much of what happens in the world is outside of our control. We are mere mortals who go, as Job puts it, “from dust to dust.”
While filling the heart, this approach can empty the mind. Why would God give us a conscience if we could not challenge or question what happens around us? We may never know all the answers, but we need not stop trying to find them.
3. God works through human hands
This view does not see God as all-powerful and all-knowing. God cannot supersede the laws of nature, and the laws of nature do not follow a logical or moral purpose. Hurricanes hurt good people. Illness does not discriminate between the righteous and wicked.
How then do respond? What role does God play? God becomes real when we act in Godly ways. When we comfort the sick, we express God’s caring. When we love each other, we illustrate God’s eternal love.
Harold Kushner put it well when he said that the core question of faith is not “Where is God?” Rather, it is “Where are we?”