Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? With Dr. Norman Geisler and Rabbi Harold Kushner – Program 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Norman Geisler, Rabbi Harold Kushner; ©1985
If God is really on our side, shouldn’t he stop any bad thing from happening to us? Since he doesn’t stop them, are we on our own to handle bad situations? Could God have a purpose in allowing hard things to happen to us?

Program 2: Why Do BAD THINGS Happen to GOOD PEOPLE?
God’s Choice or Random Chance?

Ankerberg: Welcome! We’re talking with Rabbi Harold Kushner and Dr. Norman Geisler about, why do bad things happen to good people. And Rabbi Kushner, I want to come to you from something that you said in your book, this week. You said that you went through the tragedy of your son’s untimely death, and were compelled to rethink everything you had been taught about God and God’s ways. And then you said there was a key idea in your book. I’d like to focus in on that. You said, “All the events that happen in our world do not reflect God’s choices.” You believe God’s hand is not behind every bad thing that happens. Rather, bad things just happen and there is no reason for them doing so. There is randomness of events that take place in our world. Then you say this about God when these things take place, “These events sadden and anger God,” but you say He cannot stop bad events from happening, even when He wants to. My question to start with this week is this: How can your concept of God do what you say it can do? Namely, sustain and comfort us when we’re experiencing tragedy? It seems like God is handcuffed by His own universe.
Kushner: John, I would prefer a world where God had the capacity to guard innocent people from harm, and did it. I wish I lived in that world. I wish you lived in that world. Tragically, we don’t. We live in a world where innocent people suffer illness, and accident, and crime, and all sorts of other things. Given the reality of those things, how do we understand them? You either believe that God wants these things to happen because He’s in control of the whole show – and then you have to understand why is He doing this, what are we being punished for? What is the lesson He’s trying to teach us – or else, as I prefer to believe, to choose to say that these happened for other reasons which are beyond God’s power to prevent and that God is on our side. How does my understanding of God sustain us? Because it says to people, “God is on your side. God feels as bad about this, as hurt by this, as you do. He’s not punishing you. You don’t deserve it.” The key to surviving misfortune and tragedy is one’s own self-esteem, one’s own sense that, “I am a good person; this shouldn’t be happening to me.” Religion should not defend God and justify misfortune. Religion should bind the wounds of the bleeding human being and tell him that God loves him and does not want him to suffer.
Ankerberg: Okay, Dr. Geisler?
Geisler: Well, I certainly agree with that. I think that God is on our side, God does love us. He’s manifested it by creating us, by sustaining us, by giving us air to breathe, our heartbeats within our bodies. He gives us food, every good thing in its season. He’s manifested His love in innumerable ways to us. But, what really comforts me is not simply that God loves me, but that the God that loves me has the power to fulfill the desires of that love. That He’s not handcuffed by laws He has made, He’s not tongue-tied by the creation that surrounds Him. That God is in sovereign control over the world and that He can bring about exactly what His love desires to be brought about. If I didn’t have a kind of God who was both all-powerful and all-loving, there would be no reason to be assured from His love, because He might be so impotent that He couldn’t accomplish any of His loving desires for me.
Kushner: But Norm, I think the question becomes: If God has the power to do these things out of His love, why doesn’t He? Why does the person die? Why does the accident happen? Why does the rapist mutilate the body of the young girl?
Geisler: I think that’s a good question. As I see it there are two answers to that, or two aspects of it to the Bible. One, we’re free, and God gave us freedom. And two is that this world is not the whole story. If we assume that this life is the whole story, then it seems unjust. But if we assume there is a life after this and that God is not finished with us yet, that He’s going to resurrect the dead, that there’s going to be a day of reckoning, of reward, and punishment, then of course it takes on an entirely different color. The Bible says that Jesus Christ brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel [2 Tim. 1:10]. And what gives me hope as a believer is that Jesus reversed the course of death. He suffered for us and He brought us hope of an immortal life. And, therefore, I am encouraged.
Ankerberg: Let me answer for Harold at this point from his book: “Sometimes we desperately want to believe that God will be fair to us and so we fasten our hopes on the idea that life in this world is not the only reality.” But, he says, “We should reject telling people this, because neither I nor any other living person can know anything about the reality of that hope.” Is that a true statement?
Kushner: That’s a true statement. I think I would go on beyond that and add a second point. Taking what you said, Norman, and reading it backwards, the danger of comforting ourselves with the affirmation of life beyond this life, the danger is, we will not take the injustices of this world seriously enough. I think it is absolutely tragic and blasphemous that people are murdered. I think it is absolutely unacceptable that people are cheated and starved and pushed around. If I were to believe too confidently in a world, another world, where the last shall be first and all moral debts are squared, I would shrug that off. I remember my teacher, Abraham Heschel, used to tell us in seminary, “Plato would have laughed at Isaiah for getting so upset that some widow was being cheated. Think about the idea of justice. Don’t think about the poor widow.” And yet it has been the genius of the Judeo-Christian tradition to take every widow and orphan seriously, to see every act of fraud and oppression as a monstrous offense against God. I worry that people who place too much trust in their belief in the world to come will forget to be outraged by the crimes and the oppression in this life.
Geisler: I, too, share that same feeling, but I don’t think it’s a necessary consequence of that to deny an afterlife. I think that you can take this life seriously. In fact, I think the Day of Judgment, where good is rewarded and evil is punished, is in itself a necessary concomitant to the view that evil is real, and evil is ugly, and evil is terrible and that’s why it has to be judged and that’s why the good has to be rewarded. So contrary to your anticipation that a day after this would negate the reality of evil, to me it accentuates the reality of evil, because God hates it so much that He is going to take care of it. But a limited God can’t take care of it, can’t defeat it, and can assure no victory over it.
Ankerberg: Okay, let me push you, though. Why do you think that’s a necessary view that we have to have an afterlife? What’s the purpose of it?
Geisler: Well, I think it’s a matter of: Is there, or is there not? It’s a matter of whether it’s true or false. It’s not, as Freud would say, simply because I wish it to be so, because that would simply be an illusion. But the evidence that I see for an afterlife comes from the Scriptures themselves, which say that there will be an afterlife. Both Old and New Testament Scriptures predict the Day of Judgment.
Kushner: A little shaky in the Old.
Geisler: Well, I don’t think it’s shaky. I think Daniel chapter 12 is very clear. Ezekiel 37:28 is quite clear. I think Job said, “I know that my redeemer liveth and he shall stand in the latter day upon the earth” [Job 19:25]. I think that’s quite clear. I think Abraham said, or rather it is said of Him, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” [Ex. 3:15]. And Jesus used that in the New Testament to silence the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection [Matt. 22:32]. So I think there’s a lot of evidence, even in the Old Testament, that there is a resurrection.
Ankerberg: What I am pushing you toward, Norman, is this the best of all possible worlds that we are living in then?
Geisler: I wouldn’t say so. I would have to agree with Candide, which is the satire that Voltaire wrote on, “life in the best of all possible worlds.” This is not the best of all possible worlds, but I think it’s the best of all possible ways to get to the best of all possible worlds.
Ankerberg: Why do you say that?
Geisler: Well, because a true believer is something like tea. Their real strength comes out when they get in hot water. And I think God permits this to happen to us to produce the greatest virtues in us. As He said in the case of Job, as Job himself admitted, and everyone, including Rabbi Kushner, has admitted, that there is this kind of sanctifying influence of suffering that perfects us. Paul in Romans 5:3 said, “Tribulation works patience.” There just isn’t any way to get to the Promised Land without going through the wilderness.
Kushner: But, Norman, hold it! Can I just ask Norman this?
Ankerberg: Go ahead.
Kushner: My pastoral experience, and I suspect your pastoral experience, has been that not everybody is sanctified or strengthened by tribulation. Haven’t you seen a lot of people become bitter? Haven’t you seen marriages break up, people have breakdowns, because of the tragedies that darken their lives? Has God miscalculated or was that also part of His plan?
Geisler: I think it was part of His plan to allow us the freedom to make it a stumbling stone or a stepping-stone. To either get better or bitter. But if His purposes were good in it – and from God’s standpoint, “it’s better to have loved and to have lost than not to have loved at all” – and simply because His purposes weren’t fulfilled, because we frustrated them by rejecting what He really desired, doesn’t mean that His purposes weren’t all good.
Kushner: Oh, wait a minute! Are you saying that the person who has a mental breakdown because her daughter is raped then murdered is a sinner by not following God’s purposes? Isn’t that really double condemnation? This poor woman not only has to suffer pain and bereavement, she has to suffer your theological condemnation as well?
Geisler: I am not saying that at all, no, because that would certainly be unfair. I am saying that she lives in a world that is fallen. A world in which Adam sinned and brought this kind of sickness and death on us and we all suffer the consequences of that kind of action, and we live in this space-time universe. But God, in spite of it, has taken this suffering upon Himself and has done something about it in the incarnation, and death, and resurrection of Christ. And that gives me hope that there is something beyond the grave that I can look forward to.
Kushner: What do you say to the person who has become bitter and jealous because her child has died? I am sure, because I know the kind of person you are, that you don’t say, “Lady, you are doing it wrong.” I am sure you have something more compassionate. What do you say to her?
Geisler: I say, first of all, “I love you, I feel for you. God loves you, God feels for you, and God has done something about it. And He can make you a better person through this. Or you can become bitter if you reject His good purposes in it. Your choice is going to determine which of those two will be fulfilled in your life.”
Kushner: And if the woman says, “I don’t understand why a loving God would put me in this situation in the first place?”
Geisler: Then what I would say is, “Join the club!” We are all finite. Nobody can understand the infinite purposes of God completely. The Prophet Isaiah said, “His ways are unsearchable. His judgments are past finding out” [Isa. 40:28; cf. Rom. 11:33] In Deuteronomy, Moses said, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God, but unto us and our children the things that are revealed” [Deut. 29:29].
Kushner: Right!
Ankerberg: I would like to come back concerning the view that God is limited. When we were going through this discussion, that seems to bother me a little bit, too, in the sense that, why should we love Him when His love might not win out in the end? If He’s not all-powerful, there must be something more powerful than Him, because He cannot control it: namely, events. Now if that’s true, if God can progress, probably He can regress. What is to assure us that in the end, when we do agree with God… let’s say we take your view and we agree with Him, and He is defeated by chaos… what assurance do we have that we have joined the right side?
Kushner: Okay. First, you can’t be sure that God is going to win. That’s why we have to work so hard for it, because we have to help God out and make sure that His purposes are fulfilled. Secondly, how can you love God if you are not sure He is perfect? John, that’s what love is. Love is the acceptance of imperfection, not the admiration of that which is perfect. Only teenage girls with crushes on movie stars think love is admiring someone who is perfect. Love is accepting the flawed.
Ankerberg: Hold on to that thought! We are going to take a break and I’ve got a great question to follow that one up, when we come right back.

Ankerberg: We are back, and the question that I would like to pursue with you, Rabbi Kushner, is this: that if we are going to believe in a limited God, we then are making the choice to follow someone that might not win in the end. It’s not absolute. We are following a standard that we have erected, and I am wondering that if God is not all-powerful, then He cannot… there is no standard to bounce off of Him, as far as I can see it. Then we can redefine love, because He is not defining it, we are. Does that make sense?
Kushner: John, I think the word for what you are picturing us doing is faith. Faith means betting your chips on God without having peeked ahead and seen how the story ends. This is why I am really advocating faith. I don’t think I am diminishing God. I don’t think we add to God’s greatness when we say He wants the child to drown, He wants the plane to crash. I think I am enhancing God’s greatness by relieving Him of the responsibility of tragic things.
Ankerberg: All right, let me jump right in here because, and excuse me for doing so, but to say that we ought to do that, tell me why I ought to do it if God cannot judge me in the end and actually might lose? What’s to keep me from going the other direction and saying that’s right? Why shouldn’t we be, God forbid, like Hitler? Who is to say that Hitler is wrong by killing 5 million Jewish people? Who is to say, if God might not turn out to be right in the end? Do you see my dilemma?
Kushner: Yes, I do. I would like to think that people do what’s right because it’s right. People do what’s right for the satisfaction of finding out what it’s like to be a human being. Hitler’s punishment was not that he lost the war, though I am grateful to God that he did. Hitler’s punishment was that however long he lived he never tasted the sense of being human, because his life was rooted in cruelty and destruction. That’s the punishment. That’s a worse punishment than hell fire. That’s a worse punishment than being dipped in hot brimstone. To have had the chance to be human and blown it and never know the satisfaction of being a real mensch, a real live human being. Why should we follow God? Not because He is leading, but because He is offering what we need.
Ankerberg: But isn’t, without an infinite God, without an infinite reference point, that just a personal preference that you are expressing?
Kushner: No, I don’t think so, John. I am glad you are giving me the chance to clarify this. I think God’s standards of good and bad are built into the universe. They are as solid as the law of gravity. In the same way that Congress cannot repeal the law of gravity, in the same way that nobody can vote that cookies should be more nourishing than vegetables, nobody can vote that adultery is better than fidelity, that greed is better than generosity. These things are not subject to human choice. They are built into the world. God represents that kind of Omega point leading us to these things, and He represents a whole lot more, including the impulse of conscience to want to be good, to want to be generous. The presence of God in us is manifested when we respond to the call for generosity, when we find ourselves being compassionate in the presence of need, when we find ourselves getting angry when we read about injustice, when we find ourselves doing something that really is not a whole lot of fun, like visiting a dying person in the hospital. Where do we get the strength to do that, where do we get the impulse to do that? That’s, I think, where God comes in.
Ankerberg: Norman?
Geisler: Well, I certainly agree with that. I think that was eloquently put. The only thing that I would add to is that it seems to me that there is a tension there in what he is saying, because earlier we discussed about the fact that God is all-perfect and absolutely perfect, and then I thought I heard you say that God was flawed and imperfect, and I am not quite sure which one you are holding now, nor which one to address. But if God is absolutely perfect, then, of course, I would have no problem with what he says at all, except that he is not willing to add that God has the power to bring about His good desires for us. So it leaves me high and dry to know that somebody loves me, but He might not be able to do anything to fulfill that love for me. If, on the other hand, he would be willing to say God is all-loving and all-powerful, then I could rest assured, as could anyone else, that someone going through the type of suffering that he did, and his family, in the sickness and death of their son, could rest assured in the arms of an almighty God, that He had a good purpose and was going to bring it out and that this life was not the whole thing. And that they would see their son again in the next life and be able to be reunited, and the injustices of this world would fade as, the Apostle Paul says in the New Testament, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” [2 Cor 4:17]. And I would like to offer that hope to him.
Kushner: Okay, I started out quibbling about one word and by the time you finished I had a little bit more to quibble about. It’s not that I am unwilling to accept that God can redeem us from all this pain and sorrow. I am more than willing. I wish He would do it. Really, I would be prepared to renounce everything I wrote in that book in an instant as soon as I see people no longer getting sick, no longer getting robbed, no longer getting killed.
Geisler: Well, does that mean if, for example – just to spell out a hypothetical scenario – if, for example, some day there is a resurrection of the dead and that the just are rewarded and the evil are punished and there is a reunion with loved ones like that, and that were verified in your life, does that mean that at that day you would renounce everything that you wrote in the book?
Kushner: Except the integrity which inspired it, yes. Then I would say to God, as Job says, I trust you will approve of my integrity more than my comforters’ flattery [Job 31].
Ankerberg: And for saying that your status in my mind goes up 15 points right there.
Geisler: Right! I admire your integrity and I admire your willingness to say that if that happened it wouldn’t… and I would just like to offer you the hope that I have as a believer that there is historical evidence, in terms of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ who reversed this, that that indeed is going to happen some day and it is not a blind leap for me, it’s built on a historical Person who can be historically verified, and who made claims that were supernaturally confirmed. And as a result of that I have that hope, and I think that everyone who does will be able to look back on a life such as we have all gone through, suffering, and say, “It was worth it.”
Kushner: Okay, Norm, what I am not going to do is convert here on television.
Geisler: I don’t expect you to convert here, I do hope you convert later.
Kushner: No, I’m not going to convert later, either. Now, let me get back to the other point which you drew me out on before. What is flawed about this scenario is that I think it tries to take away from me the right to call my son’s death, or my neighbor’s death, an unspeakable tragedy. I want that right. I want to be outraged. I want to say there is no good purpose to a child dying, there is no good purpose to a murder. I don’t want to say that in time to come being reunited on the other side of the Great Divide will make it all worthwhile. There is nothing that can make it worthwhile. I am sorry, I want the right to be outraged. And when anybody, I don’t mean you, because you are not doing this, when well-meaning people in the name of religion try and take that outrage away from me, I protest.
Geisler: I don’t think they should take it away, and I would protest with you. I am outraged at sin, I am outraged at tragedies like this. This is what makes sin and evil so desperate and so discouraging, and I think that every person who looks at it through realistic eyes, unless they are a pantheist who thinks it’s all an illusion, then I would say: Why is it when they sit upon a pin and it punctuates their skin, they dislike what they fancy they feel? Unless they are a pantheist, if they believe in God and they believe in the reality of this life, they should be outraged. The question is this: I believe you can have your integrity and you can have your outrage and still have a purpose for it. I am outraged at the bondage of your ancient people Israel in Egypt. But God surely had a purpose in bringing them out of Egypt. And look at the great benefit it’s been to the world. So, we can be outraged at the event itself and still see a divine purpose through it all.
Kushner: Okay, here I think is one of the real theological separations of the ways between you and me. I have been impressed by how much we have agreed so far. It’s not just politeness. I think we really see a lot of things the same way. The difference is I don’t believe that these sufferings come upon us for any purpose. I believe that God gives us the magical quality of transforming the meaningless tragedy and giving it meaning. I believe God gives us the strength and vision to redeem useless, blasphemous, outrageous tragedies from meaninglessness. He doesn’t send them so that we will respond this way. They happen because of the laws of nature, or human stupidity. When they happen, God’s gift to us is the capacity to take this meaningless outrage and redeem it from meaninglessness and make it a stimulus to growth and affirmation.
Geisler: I agree that it’s a stimulus to growth and affirmation, and I agree that God permits it, but what I would like to suggest is there is a difference between saying,” I do not see a purpose for it,” and, “God has no purpose for it.” Simply because I as a finite human being do not see a purpose for something doesn’t mean there is no purpose. That would be an ultimate act of arrogance on my part, to say God Almighty, the omniscient God, can’t have a purpose for it because I don’t know it. And I would like to eliminate that kind of arrogance from my life, in which I say to God, “I can’t imagine a purpose for this; therefore, you can’t have one.”
Kushner: That’s not exactly what I am saying. Sure, God can do things that I in my finitude I can’t understand. Of course He can. My plumber does things I can’t understand! The issue for me, Norm, is not whether God does things too wondrous for my mind. The issue is, will God do things which He Himself has condemned as wrong? That’s where I get tied up in knots.
Geisler: But He is not doing anything He condemns as wrong in this scenario. He is permitting things that He condemns as wrong, but don’t we all with our children? That’s how they can grow. If you never gave your child any freedom, He could never mature. And God gives it to His children. But He condemns the very things that He must permit, in our freedom, in order to cause the occasion where we can mature. And then, just like in the case of Joseph being sold into Egypt, he can say to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” [Gen. 50:20].
Kushner: I think this is a crucial passage, now, and a crucial verse. My understanding is that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they were cruel and jealous people. And God took their jealousy and cruelty, transmuted it into an instrument of redemption. Now are you saying, because I know there are some people who say that it wasn’t that, that God was the great marionetteist, causing them to be jealous so that Joseph would go into Egypt?
Geisler: No, I am saying the former.
Kushner: Good! So we agree?
Geisler: Well, if we agree….
Kushner: What are we going to argue about?
Geisler: Well, no, if we agree on that, then clarify this: Why, if you agree that God permits evil in order to bring about a greater good, why, if you agree that God knows more than we know and can have purposes that we don’t have, then why do you say that I see no purpose for this, therefore, God couldn’t have a purpose for it?
Kushner: Because what I think I am saying when I use those words is that the outrage that I feel in the face of these crimes and sicknesses I firmly believe is a reflection of God’s outrage. That God is very upset and doesn’t want these things to happen, but having given us moral freedom and natural law, He not only permits it, He can’t prevent it. I think that’s where you and I disagree.
Ankerberg: Okay, now we want to hold that thought and we are out of time for this week. We will pick it up right there next week. So please stick with us.

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