Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? With Dr. Norman Geisler and Rabbi Harold Kushner – Program 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Norman Geisler, Rabbi Harold Kushner; ©1985
Is God limited? Is he loving – but not all-powerful? Are there some things he simply can’t do anything about?

Program 1: Why Do BAD THINGS Happen to GOOD PEOPLE?
Is there A God? What Kind of God is He?

John Ankerberg: Good evening. Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, we have as our guests tonight two distinguished men who are going to help us answer that question. Rabbi Harold Kushner has written the bestselling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. With him is Dr. Norman Geisler. We’re going to discuss the fundamental questions that get down to the foundation of life, such as: Is there a God? If there is, what kind of a God is He? By what rules is He running the game of life? Is He free or is He handcuffed by His own universe? Is He working out a plan or is He so limited that He can’t intervene in the affairs of life? Does it do any good to pray? Do we have any authoritative information from God about God, or must we settle for our own limited conclusions? Our purpose tonight – I’m sure all of us here – is to have a discussion that will give information that will help people that are hurting. Maybe you’re hurting tonight. Rabbi Kushner, I’m going to come to you first, with the first question. We’re glad that you’re here tonight!
Rabbi Harold Kushner: Thank you.
Ankerberg: You said in your book that you did not set out to write a book that would defend or explain God. You said, “I am fundamentally a religious man who has been hurt by life, and I wanted to write a book that could be given to the person who has been hurt by life, by death, by illness or injury, by rejection or disappointment, who knows in his heart that if there is justice in the world, he deserved better.” You say, “I want to answer the question: What can God mean to such a person?” Then you answer your own question by stating your son’s tragedy compelled you to rethink everything you had been taught about God and God’s ways. And you state that now you have come to believe that God is limited. He is loving but not all-powerful. There are some things God does not control because He cannot control them. He is not perfect, and we must first forgive Him for not making a better, more perfect world. What I’d like to ask you in starting tonight is, tell us why, right now, this new view of yours of God offers you a more acceptable explanation of why your son tragically died?
Kushner: John, as I watched my son decline and die the day after his 14th birthday from progeria, I was so full of anger and pain at the unfairness of it all. If I thought that God was inflicting this on an innocent child, I could not have worshipped that God. I might have been afraid of Him; I could not have loved Him. It was very important for me to believe for myself and to share with others the belief that God is not our judge, He is our friend. That God doesn’t want children to suffer and die. God doesn’t want planes and automobiles to crash or hurricanes to wipe out communities. God stands for what is good, what is loving, what is constructive, and not for pain and destruction.
Ankerberg: Okay, Dr. Geisler, let me just come to you. We have disagreement of opinion tonight. That’s why we have a discussion. I think that we’re all good friends and friends can sometimes disagree. Let me come right to the point of where you disagree with Rabbi Kushner. In your book you have stated, “A God who is not all-powerful is really an impossibility, religiously unworthy, and ethically demoralizing for people who are struggling against evil.” Why did you say that? Why do you believe that?
Dr. Norman Geisler: Well, I think first of all we all have to identify with the dilemma, the painful dilemma, that people have who go through suffering like this. I certainly identify and sympathize with the Rabbi and his situation. Our best friend’s daughter was stabbed to death fourteen times by a rapist, and you can’t help but ask yourself, “Why do these things happen and what kind of God, if any, is there in the universe?” But I take comfort in the fact that there is a God who controls the entire universe, who is not caught unawares, who sees the end from the beginning, as Isaiah the prophet said [Isa. 46:10], who’s in sovereign control of the universe, as Job concluded in the end of his book – that God can do anything [Job 42:2] – and who, although He permits suffering, does not promote it. There’s a big difference between beating your head on the wall because it feels so good when you stop, which of course we don’t do, and permitting an operation, the pain of an operation, in order to achieve the greater good that results from it. Job himself said, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” [Job 23:10] I admired Rabbi Kushner’s testimony in the end, where he said he was a better man for having gone through this experience even though he would not have chosen to have done it himself. I think that God has that kind of purifying purpose in our life as He permits evil for our good. And we in our freedom sometimes bring destruction on ourselves, but God in His gracious love works all things for good to those who love Him [Rom. 8:28].
Kushner: Norm, I think this is exactly the point at which you and I differ. I like the way you’ve presented your case. Let me say where I differ with it. You’re right. I feel I’ve become a more sensitive person through the experience of watching my son decline and die. But I cannot believe that his illness and death were God’s will. This instrumental view, this idea that God would pervert one life so someone else would grow through the experience, I cannot accept that about God. It would be immoral if a human being did that – use the person for someone else’s benefit. How could we hold God responsible for hurting one person so another person would be sensitized?
Geisler: I think perhaps the key difference in our view is that you use the word “inflicted” as though God had punished people. That is not necessarily divine infliction. It’s a divine permission. It’s a loving God who gives people free will, who created a world in which they had free choice to either love Him or hate Him, to blaspheme Him, or worship Him, in which they chose to rebel and as a consequence of their rebellion, as is recorded in Genesis 3, sin and death and sickness and the kind of world we live in resulted. And as God looks down on that world, He patiently, lovingly works with people in the context of their freedom to bring them to a greater good. And He permits this to happen because it is the consequence of freedom, and nevertheless He is going to bring a greater good out of it, as Job said, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” [Job 23:10]
Kushner: I think there’s not a single word in there that I would have disagreed with. Let me see if I can clarify the difference further. When you say that human beings are free and that God permits us to hurt each other, does that imply that God cannot stop the murderer from shooting the bullet? That God cannot stop the rock from falling on the passing pedestrian? That God cannot stop the cancer germs from causing a person to die?
Geisler: As I understand your view, that’s what you’re saying.
Kushner: That’s what I’m saying. What do you say, Norm?
Geisler: And I’m saying that the God of the Bible is a supernatural God, who created the world out of nothing. He created the heavens and the earth. He intervened in the Prophets in the Old Testament. He intervened in His Son in the New Testament, and resurrected Him from the dead to confirm that He was indeed the Messiah and that He can and does supernaturally intervene. And what gives me hope is that God has involved Himself in the world personally. He has taken on, in the person of His Son, suffering, and He has promised a final triumph over this and, therefore, I can have hope.
Ankerberg: Harold, if I could ask you this: do we have any authoritative information from God about God, as far as you’re concerned?
Kushner: My tradition teaches me that theology is not about the nature of God. There’s something a little bit arrogant about sitting around and talking about whether God is immanent or transcendent. Then when somebody says, “It’s 9:30, our babysitter has to go home,” we vote and we determine God’s nature. No, I believe that we have authoritative information, not about the nature of God, but about the will of God, about how God wants human beings to live. For me that is the content of revealed Scripture – not what God is, but what God demands of us.
Ankerberg: Okay, Norman, do you want to respond?
Geisler: Just quickly to hitchhike on what he said. I think that we have authoritative information about God’s will and about God’s nature. Indeed He revealed who He was. He is a great God. He’s referred to some 48 times in the Old Testament as the Almighty, which is why I believe that God is all-powerful, as well as many other Scriptures. But I think if we only had information about God’s will, it would still tell us something about His nature, because you can’t know really about the will of somebody without knowing at least something about their nature.
Kushner: For sure. I’d agree with that. That is, when we know that God wants us to be compassionate, that God wants us to be honest, that God wants us to be self-controlled, that tells us a great deal about our nature. When we’re told that all human beings are fashioned in the image of God, not physically but in terms of our moral capacity, that tells us by reflection something about the nature of God. But it’s always in terms of how human beings catch and shape divinity and reflect it.
Ankerberg: Okay. We’re going to take a break right here. I think that I’m going to push both of you just a little further, and I’ll start with you, Norman, on the question of, since you’re saying that God did create everything, did God create evil, then? Because you’re not saying that evil is an illusion, you’re saying it’s real. Is that correct?
Geisler: Right.
Ankerberg: All right, we’ll find out, then, did God create that, because He created everything? And we’ll check that out, when we come right back.

Ankerberg: We’re back. I guess, Dr. Geisler, everybody would like to believe that God is all-powerful and all-loving, and hold those together, but let’s get down to it. I think Rabbi Kushner would agree we’ve got to answer some solid questions here. Number one is God did create everything? You’re not saying that evil is an illusion; then evil exists. Did He create that? If so, He’s responsible.
Geisler: I think I would have to answer something like Saint Augustine did around 400 A.D., that to say that, “God created everything; evil is something, therefore, God created evil” is to miss the real nature of evil, evil as a privation or a lack. Evil is like rust to a car or rot to a tree. It’s a kind of parasite. It exists only in something else. God created the good natures and evil is a corruption of those good natures. So God did not create evil. But nevertheless evil is real. Evil is like being maimed. You don’t have an arm, but it’s real not to have an arm.
Ankerberg: Rabbi Kushner, you said something like that in your book, but where do you differ at that point?
Kushner: I would go along and say that God created the possibility of evil. That is, when God permitted human beings to evolve morally free so that anybody in this audience had the power to rob a bank, the power to break a window, He made evil possible without mandating the individual robbery, the individual vandalism. I believe when God created a world of natural law so that the law of gravity is not arbitrary, He created the possibility of harm to people who deserve better. When He created the whole meteorological system so that there are earthquakes, there are hurricanes, He created the danger that innocent people would be hurt, without decreeing that a certain coastal town will be flattened on a certain autumn day by a certain hurricane. I don’t hold God responsible for individual incidents of evil. I do believe He created a world. The only world He could have created for the maximum good was a world in which evil was at least possible, because if you don’t have the possibility of evil then there’s no good. There is only necessity.
Ankerberg: Okay. Dr. Geisler?
Geisler: I would agree with that, that without the fact of freedom there is no possibility for evil, and there is no possibility for evil without the fact of freedom. I think the difference probably comes in this idea of natural law, whether God’s hands are tied by the laws He made, or whether God transcends the laws He made. It seems to me that if He created the natural laws, then He transcends them and can, from time to time, intervene. To have nature or the chaos or the void more powerful than God is to make God, who created them, finite, and the laws, which He created, all-powerful.
Ankerberg: Now, Harold, why would you say that you do not accept the idea that God is above that, but also can intervene into nature?
Kushner: On moral grounds, John. Because if God has the power to spare the life of a person dying of terminal illness and chooses not to, I have affirmed His power at the cost of His goodness. For a child to be born hopelessly retarded, for a young man to be struck down with multiple sclerosis, and to know that God, even if He didn’t send it, God has the power to work a miracle and chooses to withhold that miracle, God is morally deficient if He does that. Had I believed that God could have made my son whole, and for whatever elaborate, intricate theological reasons chose not to, I would stop worshipping God that moment. He would be a morally deficient God.
Ankerberg: Okay. Dr. Geisler?
Geisler: Well, my response to that would be when you say God is morally deficient or He is imperfect, you must have some standard by which you’re judging God to be imperfect. Now, if there is some perfect standard beyond God by which He is judged to be imperfect, then that standard is ultimate and by definition would become God. This is the same thing that led C. S. Lewis, the former Oxford atheist, to become a believer. He said, “I realized I was arguing in a circle. I was saying God is imperfect, but I had a standard of perfection beyond God by which I was measuring Him. But if that ultimate standard of perfection was that by which I measured God, then God wasn’t God. It was the ultimate, therefore it was God.” So I would like to know from Rabbi Kushner, what’s this ultimate standard of perfection by which he measures God to be imperfect?
Kushner: No. I believe that God is morally perfect. I believe that God wills only good, and caring, and compassion. I believe that God is limited in power, because I don’t believe that perfect power is such a big deal. Remember, the President said a couple of weeks ago that any jackass can knock down a barn; it takes a carpenter to build it. It doesn’t take a whole lot of greatness to destroy. Any jerk with a gun can kill somebody. That doesn’t require a whole lot of power to kill, to take life. To create life is a divine miracle. I see the perfection of God in a moral direction and when I do see innocent people suffering, I’m prepared to qualify His power, to compromise His power, because power…. I don’t deify power. I don’t think power is absolutely divine. I deify goodness. God is the perfect good, and I try to model myself as a good person after that. I don’t strive to become totally powerful in the image of an all-powerful God.
Geisler: Well, then, I misunderstood your book, which I’ve read carefully a number of times. I thought you said God was limited in love as well as power; that God was imperfect and, therefore, we had to forgive Him because He was limited in His love and perfection.
Kushner: Okay, let me try and clarify that. No, I don’t believe God is limited in His love. I believe that to forgive God means to get over our anger at God that He made a less than perfect world. Perhaps God could have created a perfect world, but perhaps God loves goodness more than He loves perfection. And perhaps God realized that if He made a world where the right thing would always happen, there would be no goodness. There would be no free human moral choice in it. And so at tremendous risk to His creation and His creatures, God created a world where goodness would not happen unless one of us made it happen. Sometimes we are hurt very painfully because of that decision of God’s, and that’s where we have to forgive Him, for leaving us vulnerable in an imperfect world.
Geisler: So you’re saying God is infinite in love.
Kushner: I believe that. I choose to believe that.
Geisler: If God is infinite in love, and that’s part of His nature, how can He be infinite in love and only finite in power, if both of them are attributes of His nature? It seems to me if God is infinite and love applies to Him, He would be infinitely love. If God is infinite and power applies to Him, He would be infinitely powerful as well. I don’t see how you can take one attribute and reject the other one.
Kushner: Because, Norm, love and power are incompatible. You can’t control somebody and love them. If you love your child, you’ve got to give him the space to do things that you don’t particularly want him to do. If you need to have a child who only does what you want him to do, if you need a wife who will always be compliant and do what you want her to do, you don’t really love her. You love yourself as reflected in that wife or child. If God were flawed, if God were immature, He would need all the power to control us. Because He doesn’t, because God is the perfection of love, He can give us scope to mess up our world. God doesn’t need all the power, because if He had all the power, there would be no room for us to be loving, to be freely choosing to obey, to be moral.
Geisler: It’s not a question of whether God needs it or not. It’s a question of whether He has it. I think you have an internal problem if you say that God is infinite but that His power is only finite, because then the power doesn’t apply to His nature, which is infinite. Plus, you have the problem of showing how love and power are incompatible. Just because God wills to give us freedom doesn’t necessarily limit His power, except that He freely chose to give us freedom. So, what you would have to show is that there is some internal contradiction between God being all-powerful and all-loving. I haven’t seen that particular argument.
Kushner: First of all I think that’s only a problem for philosophers. For real people in a real world, I don’t think it’s a problem to define God as the infinite of everything.
Geisler: Which you don’t believe. You don’t believe He’s infinitely powerful?
Kushner: No, I don’t.
Geisler: What I’m trying to find out is how you can hold He is infinite and powerful and yet not be infinitely powerful.
Kushner: Because that’s a word game.
Geisler: Well, I would think it’s more than a word game. You hold that God is infinite and loving and that’s He is infinitely loving. We wouldn’t call that a word game.
Kushner: Because I see God as the source of our own ability to love and therefore God has to have an inexhaustible capacity for love, for compassion, for growth, for discipline, for learning, for all the things which are manifestations of divinity in our lives. I don’t necessarily see power as a divine characteristic. I can understand why the writers of Scripture did. They grew up in a world where potentates, pharaohs, and emperors had power, and they were the heads of the government, and they translated this to their concept of God. I think we have evolved beyond that. We understand that power is a very mixed blessing and so we don’t have to see God as the epitome of power, because we don’t have to see power as a divine quality. I have real doubts about power.
Geisler: Are you saying that all of the attributes that God has are attributes that we have just attributed to Him, or do you think that they’re intrinsic to His nature?
Kushner: No, no. I think it works the other way around. That is, I think certain things are found in God and that’s why they are desirable for us.
Geisler: Well, that would be true of power too, wouldn’t it?
Kushner: No, I’m not sure. I’m not sure that power is a divine quality. Maybe, to a certain extent.
Ankerberg: Let’s take it the other way, though. We’ve got about three minutes left here. That would be the fact of, is there a problem with the fact of saying that He doesn’t have power, in a sense that, then, how can we trust Him to do anything for us?
Kushner: Give you two answers; you can choose whichever one you like better. One answer is that God is in fact all-powerful and has voluntarily limited His power to make some room for us. It’s an old 15th century Jewish cabalistic idea. If God filled all of reality, there would be no room for us, so God has withdrawn and left a part of the universe which is non-God and that’s where all the trouble comes from. The second possibility is that maybe you can’t count on God to provide happy endings. Maybe we have to. Maybe one of the lessons of Auschwitz, of Hiroshima, of Vietnam, is that you can’t count on God to prevent us from messing up our world. And if we are not God’s agents on earth, earth is going to get messed up.
Ankerberg: Norman.
Geisler: Just let me suggest a biblical approach. Isaiah said, “God knows the end from the beginning” [Isaiah 46:10], and Job said that, “He can do anything that He wants” [Job 42:2], as Job himself discovered. I think as you look at the scriptural record you see a God who intentionally created or intentionally gave man freewill, who had deliberately rebelled against Him, and in spite of that a God who is working out His purposes through history to bring the greater good in the end. Because as Joseph acknowledged… do you remember when his brothers had sold him to Egypt he said, “You meant it to me for evil, but God meant it for good” [Gen. 50:20]. And in spite of our evil, God can bring a greater good.
Ankerberg: To follow that up, let me ask you a question I asked Harold. That is the fact of, what difference does it make if God is all-powerful or not?
Geisler: Well, I think, as William James put it once very well in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “The world is better for having the devil in it, provided we have our foot on his neck.” But the one thing we cannot be sure of, if God is limited in power, is that we have our foot on his neck. I feel much more assured knowing there is an all-powerful God who has His foot on the neck of the devil.
Ankerberg: All right, gentlemen, thank you for this week. Next week we’re going to continue this. We’re going to talk about the fact of what you call the key idea in your book, Rabbi Kushner. And that is that all events that happen in our world do not reflect God’s choices. It’s just random chance. God can feel sorry for us when they happen to us, but He can’t do anything to control or change them. I hope you’ll join us for that discussion next week.

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