Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? With Dr. Norman Geisler and Rabbi Harold Kushner – Program 5

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Norman Geisler, Rabbi Harold Kushner; ©1985
Who is really a “good” person? In what sense does Rabbi Kushner say we are good? In what sense does the Bible disagree?

Program 5: Why Do BAD THINGS Happen to GOOD PEOPLE?
Questions from the Audience-Part 1

Ankerberg: Welcome. We’re glad that you joined us. Our friends tonight that are with us are Rabbi Harold Kushner, who has written the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Harold, we’re glad that you’re with us. And Dr. Norman Geisler, from Dallas Theological Seminary. We’re talking about this serious question because all of us suffer, all of us encounter evil. So it starts us thinking about what kind of a God is in the universe. What kind of a God is out there, if He is there? Both men agree that He’s there, but Rabbi Kushner believes that He’s all-loving but limited in His power, where Dr. Geisler is holding that He is all-loving and all-powerful, and we can still hold to that even in a world that does have evil in it. Gentlemen, this week we’re going to start with some questions from our audience. Our first question is right here:
Audience: My question goes to Mr. Kushner. In the title of your book you use the terminology “when bad things happen to good people,” and then you went on in your discussion to call those good people really innocent people. You feel that bad things happen to innocent people. My question is: Who indeed is innocent before God? Do you consider yourself a good person and thereby innocent before God from having any bad thing happen?
Kushner: In a brief answer, yes. That is, I am constantly seeing people who are subjected to fates they don’t deserve. I’m not concerned about their innocence. I’m not concerned about their freedom from the taint of sin. I’m concerned about a sense of proportionality and justice. I think a child who is born handicapped or retarded is an innocent person, whatever your theology or mine about inherited original sin may be. I think a person who tries to be a good husband, a good father, a good neighbor and is struck down by a drunk driver is a good person in the sense that he didn’t deserve all these happening to him. That’s what I had in mind when I titled my book as I did.
Ankerberg: Can I pick up on that in terms of… I think that, Dr. Geisler, correct me if I’m wrong, that Christianity would hold that, yes, that innocent people are innocent when they do suffer. For example, Jesus Christ Himself suffered. Therefore we would not say He was guilty, He deserved it. Alright? And I think that that is also the message of the book of Job, going back to that, is that, yes, God wants us to love Him for Himself, not for what we get out of Him. That includes the fact that there are times when we don’t understand all of His ways. Dr. Geisler, maybe you’d like to add something not only to that but also this fact of where this question was coming from, concerning, are all people innocent?
Geisler: Let’s just take it on an Old Testament basis. I think Psalm 51 says, “I was born in sin, in sin did my mother conceive me” [v. 5]. The Prophet Jeremiah in chapter 17 verse 9 said, “The heart is desperately wicked. Who can know it?” Moses said in Genesis 6:5 that, “every thought of the imagination of the heart was only evil, continually.” I think you can challenge the thesis, even from the Old Testament, that man is basically innocent and basically good. I think that since the fall, man is evil and that in a sense we deserve far worse than we get. Now, I can empathize with the tragedies that happen in life, but I think in the light of a just God, in the light of rebellious human beings, in the light of the Old Testament verses on the depravity of man, we have to be very careful in saying that man is good and therefore didn’t deserve anything. Man is basically evil and deserves more than he gets, and we can be thankful to a gracious God that he doesn’t give us more than we actually get.
Kushner: Shakespeare said something like that in Hamlet: “If everyone got his just desserts, who would escape the whipping?” But, Norm, I think you should have quit when you were ahead. I think that this view of man, first, I don’t believe is scripturally valid at least in terms of the Hebrew Bible, and even if it is, I think misrepresents the kind of religion which you and I have been sharing for all the weeks we’ve been talking. It seems to me that if the Hebrew Scripture were to make a major statement about the nature of man it would not tuck it in into a single verse in the Psalms. Of all the books of the Bible, the Psalms more than any, much as I love them, represent human beings talking to God, rather than God talking to Israel or to the human race. It seems to me that what you get from the Hebrew Scriptures is not a story of the depravity of man, but of the weakness of man, with a great deal of sympathy along with the impatience. Beyond that, anyone who has served as a pastor in a congregation will have seen perhaps not theologically innocent, perfect people, but certainly good and well-meaning people who don’t deserve what they have been getting. One has to simply walk down the corridor of a hospital and see that there is undeserved suffering, disproportionate to what has gone on. And it seems to me it is – even if one were to try and demonstrate that it’s theologically acceptable – it seems to me morally unacceptable to answer the terminally ill cancer patient who groans, “Why am I suffering?” by saying “Because your mother conceived you in sin.”
Geisler: Well, first of all, I don’t think we can quite that smoothly push away all those verses of Scripture. I quoted from the Psalms. I quoted from the Prophets. I quoted from the Torah. I quoted from throughout the Old Testament. You can also add to it the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is not a just man upon the earth that does good and sins not.” I think that what we have is a picture throughout the entire Old Testament of a God who looks down on a creation that He made perfect, that He gave freedom to, that they rebelled and as a consequence sin and death and judgment came in, and yet in His mercy He saves us from everything we do deserve. Someone said grace is giving us what we don’t deserve, and mercy is saving us from we did deserve. Surely in a basic sense of the Old Testament Scripture, man is sinful. He deserves the judgment of God, but God is gracious and overflowed in His love and saved us from the judgment that we deserved. So rather than calling man good, I would rather follow the Hebrew Scriptures and recognize that man is evil.
Kushner: I just don’t find that in Hebrew Scriptures, not nearly as strongly and as unequivocally as you do.
Geisler: What would you do with all those verses I just quoted?
Kushner: All those verses? What, one verse out of 150 some odd?
Geisler: No, no. I found all those verses in the Hebrew Scriptures – Genesis 6:5; Ecclesiastes 7; Psalm 51; Jeremiah 17. I could go on and on.
Kushner: Norm, four lines, four lines out of 22 books? That is a theological doctrine?
Geisler: Give me one verse that says, just one, that says that man is intrinsically good, and not fallen.
Kushner: Well, it never says he’s fallen. It says he is rebellious. It says he’s always doing wrong things. But you see, for the Jewish concept of man, sin is an event, not a condition. One sins but one does not become a sinner thereby. One is simply an imperfect man. But where does it say that a hundred is the minimum passing grade? Yeah, we all do wrong things, but there is, I think, an emphasis in Hebrew Scripture, which is different in Christianity, I will certainly acknowledge, an emphasis that says, “If you put your mind to it, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
Geisler: I didn’t quote Christian Scripture. I quoted Jewish Scripture. I’m asking you to give me one verse from Jewish Scripture that says that man is intrinsically good and not sinful and not fallen.
Kushner: I think Genesis 1, about, “Let us make man in our image.”
Geisler: That was before he fell.
Kushner: But it’s still the nature of man.
Geisler: I know, but I’m talking about after Adam sinned.
Kushner: I don’t see Genesis 3 as a fall. We went through this a couple of weeks ago. I think the Psalms, for example, are suffused with the sense of human beings who are basically good, basically God-fearing, feel that they have reason to be in God’s good graces, and are always saying, “How long, O Lord, will you torment us like this?”
Geisler: But why are the Psalmists constantly crying out because of their enemies, those that hate them, those that are judging them, asking for vindication? If man is so intrinsically good, why are the Psalms filled with all these prayers for deliverance, imprecations, and enemies? I don’t see that throughout the Psalms.
Kushner: Because it’s the Psalmists who are good and who are being picked on by unscrupulous enemies. If they deserve it, why are they crying out to God?
Geisler: The question is not whether they deserve it. The question is whether man is evil, as reflected in the Psalms. I see the Psalmist confessing his own sin. In fact, in Psalm 19, David cried out and said, “Who can understand his errors?” [v. 12]. You said in your book that God has flaws, that God is imperfect. David prayed that he would be cleansed of his errors, not that he would recognize errors in God, when he said, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secrets faults.”
Kushner: Of course. One of the purposes of religion is to make human beings better. But I think you are misinterpreting Hebrew Scriptures when you see them as picturing man as evil. They picture man as imperfect. Imperfect is not necessarily the same as evil.
Geisler: I would be glad to be corrected from Hebrew Scriptures, but I’ve yet to hear a verse that says that man is intrinsically good after Genesis 3, when he took the forbidden fruit and disobeyed God.
Ankerberg: Also, why would there be all the language through the Pentateuch concerning sacrificial offerings, as well as the sacrifice itself? It seemed like it’s heavy on that. There’s another verse that pops into my mind: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” [Jer. 17:9]
Kushner: That was Jeremiah. Norman quoted that.
Ankerberg: But these passages that…
Kushner: But, wait a minute, John. What do you mean when you ask about the sacrifices in Leviticus?
Ankerberg: It seems to me that it’s comprehensive, that nobody was excluded.
Kushner: From sacrifices?
Ankerberg: That’s right.
Kushner: But sacrifices are to express joy and gratitude, and not only to atone for sin.
Ankerberg: But according to the Pentateuch, some of those things, it was for specific sin.
Kushner: Right. And some of them were specific occasions of gratitude. Sacrifices were gifts to God – the Hebrew term, Corban, “that which brings you close to God.”
Ankerberg: I come back and I would say that I agree with that, but I cannot let you off the hook from saying that it seems like everybody is included concerning sin. I find no place where it’s excluded, do you?
Kushner: Well, I’m not sure. Again, I go back to what I said before: that sin is an event, and not a condition. The fact that everybody may break a law doesn’t mean that everybody is a criminal. There are people who will double park, and there are people who will speed, and there are people who will mail letters without stamps, and there are people who will get their deductions wrong on their income tax. They are not criminals. They are simply imperfect. And this, it seems to me, is the Hebrew scriptural mentality in Leviticus. You have rules about how to offer an atonement sacrifice because people are going to be imperfect. Not because everybody is a sinner, but because nobody is going to get through life without ever making a mistake.
Geisler: Bypassing for the moment whether we’re sinners because we sin, or whether we sin because we’re sinners, is it not possible that there is a condition in man that prompts sin, and it is not an “either/or” – either a condition or an activity?
Kushner: Sure.
Geisler: Couldn’t sin be an act proceeding from a condition, which was less than perfect, as a consequence of Adam’s sin?
Kushner: Absolutely, but that doesn’t disqualify people, any more than a baseball player is considered a failure if he flies out two times out of three. It’s considered a tremendous success. The passing rate is well short of one hundred. God understands that people are weak, imperfect, easily distracted, selfish, led by all sorts of appetites, but that does not make them bad people. And I think it does not justify saying that when they get cancer or when they are struck down by heart attacks, it’s because they are sinners to begin with, and God is administering justice.
Geisler: Well, let’s distinguish two kinds of evil. Jesus once said, “If ye being evil know how to give good gifts to your children…” Luke 11:13], so it’s pretty obvious that even people described as evil can do good things. That’s not the question. Obviously, people who are evil by nature could do good things. The question is whether the Old Testament describes them as being evil by nature, and as evil springing from their very hearts, from their very birth. The Psalmist also said, “The wicked go astray from the womb, speaking lies” [Psa. 58:3]. That’s not an isolated passage. Along with Psalm 51:5, “I was born in sin and in sin did my mother conceive me,” in Genesis 3 and all those other passages. I see a vertical evil in the Old Testament. I think that’s what you’re failing to take into account, a rebellion of the heart against God. Sure, a person who is rebelling against God can love his wife and do good to his children, but why is it that we should call man intrinsically good when he is intrinsically a rebel, vertically, against God?
Kushner: Norm, I’m sorry. I think those are isolated verses. I don’t think that Hebrew Scripture makes major theological pronouncements, a word here and a word here. It is not systematically theological at all. It tells a story. It tells a story of an Israelite people who are very often backsliding and stubborn but still worthy of being objects of God’s affection, who are struggling upwards, who are trying to create a more decent society than the pagan worlds around them, who have a higher standard of justice and sensitivity than anything the world had previously seen. It does not say they are perfect. They don’t have to be perfect. They’re human.
Geisler: But let me ask you this: You say the Hebrew Scriptures do not make major pronouncements concerning the condition of man as being sinful. Does it make a major pronouncement concerning man as being intrinsically good?
Kushner: No, because it’s not a theological book. It’s a book about life.
Geisler: Well, I would say that there’s no difference between those two. A theological book can be a book about life. Why do you have to bifurcate the two?
Kushner: Because it is simply not given to make a theological pronouncement. Theology is not a Jewish métier.
Geisler: Well, forget about the word theology. Does it tell us truth about life as God gives it, whatever you want to call it?
Kushner: Yes, I believe it does, but I believe that that truth arises from the comprehensive narrative picture in its context and not from isolated proof texts.
Geisler: But is that comprehensive narrative picture such as I quoted, a whole comprehensive picture of those verses, that man is in rebellion against God?
Kushner: No, you didn’t. You quoted isolated verses.
Geisler: Well, they’re isolated verses but they’re not out of context and they’re throughout the entire Old Testament. Can you give me a series of verses or truths throughout the Old Testament that says that man is intrinsically not in rebellion against God?
Kushner: No. All I can give you is a volume of 22 books in Hebrew which paint a picture of a people who are sometimes weak and rebellious and sometimes faithful and inspiring.
Geisler: But isn’t that same picture from that volume of the 22 or 24 books, depending on how you count them, a picture of a rebellious people who, as a consequence of Adam’s sin, are with a propensity and a continual practice of sin, and are constantly in rebellion against God and need atonement?
Kushner: Not as I read it.
Geisler: Well, what was the whole atonement for?
Kushner: What atonement?
Geisler: The Day of Atonement, the sacrifices.
Kushner: For imperfection, for the fact that we’re not perfect, not that we’re terrible sinners, not that we’re fallen.
Geisler: But Leviticus clearly says that this was for the sins of the people [cf. Lev. 16:3-10; 23;26-32].
Kushner: The imperfections, the fact that they haven’t been perfect.
Geisler: But that’s sin.
Kushner: Not for the sinfulness of the people, but for the individual deeds of sin.
Geisler: Their sins follow from the fact that they can sin, don’t they?
Kushner: Of course, yeah, that they’re not perfect.
Geisler: And the atonement was given for these sins. Now how do you say they were a good people when constantly they had to offer sacrifice for their continual sins?
Kushner: Because they’re good people, but not perfect. If they weren’t good people, why would they be trying to atone? Why wouldn’t they simply wallow in their sinfulness the way the Canaanites did?
Geisler: The fact that they are willing to follow God’s direction doesn’t mean that they didn’t sin. I mean, the fact that I’m willing to confess my sin is one thing, but the fact that I continually sin is another thing. I’m talking about the latter. Doesn’t the Old Testament paint a picture of a people who are continually sinning, continually rebelling, continually worshipping idols, continually putting something else first over the one and true God?
Kushner: Sure, in the same way that the newspaper is full of wars, and murders, and automobile accidents. This is not where life is lived in the same way that the law codes deal with crimes and not with people being faithful and law-abiding, because it is the nature of law codes to talk about the extraordinary, and it is the nature of newspapers to report the extraordinary. And the parts of Scripture which are law codes talk about misdeeds, and the parts of Scripture which are, for example, the book of Judges, talk about misdeeds because normal life is dull. I mean you have a verse in the book of Judges, for example, “And the land was quiet for 40 years” [Judges 8:28]. That’s 40 years without worshipping idols. And then after the 40 years they start to backslide and because war and oppression and God sending a Redeemer is much more interesting copy than the land being peaceful for 40 years, it get a disproportionate amount of ink in the Bible just as crimes and wears get a disproportionate amount of coverage in the newspaper. You will never see a newspaper article saying, “Plane lands safely at local airport.” You will only see an article that says, “Plane crashes,” not because planes crash all the time, not because airplanes are unsafe, but because when a plane crashes it is dramatic news.
Geisler: Well, you make an interesting comment there, but I don’t think that represents the Old Testament, because one thing that distinguishes the Old Testament from a normal newspaper account is the Old Testament says the good along with the bad. It’ll tell the great things about people as well as the bad things. But in spite of the fact that it gives a balanced picture, it still presents man as in continual rebellion against God manifest in different ways internally and externally, but perpetually and by inclination. You seem to admit this and yet want to say that man is somehow intrinsically good. I don’t understand how you can have both.
Kushner: Point number one: you’re not simply arguing with me. You are arguing with 3,000 years of Jewish understanding of the Bible, which says that human beings are not bad because they’re not perfect, that Abraham and David and all these wonderful Patriarchs were not perfect, but they were still darn good people. Secondly, and this gets back to the question which started this whole involvement, when people are hurt in life, my pastoral experience is that frequently they suffer out of all possible proportion to their sinfulness. That they are not perfect is no justification for what people have to go through, let alone the question of proportionality. If imperfect people are going to be struck down, why aren’t the most imperfect struck down most dramatically? I think it’s that which I had in mind when I said that innocent people suffer. It’s not a juridical concept of innocence. It’s a sense of disproportionality.
Geisler: Well, I understand the horizontal thing that you have in mind, but I’m not quite sure you understand the vertical thing I have in mind.
Kushner: I do understand it. I’m just not persuaded by it.
Geisler: I’m talking about the Old Testament presenting a picture of man in continual, vertical rebellion against God, for which he is accountable before God and for which sacrifices are necessary to atone for sin. Do you see that picture in there?
Kushner: Of course I see it, but that doesn’t brand man as hopelessly sinful.
Geisler: Well, I would think it’s hopelessly sinful if he can’t do anything for himself and God has to provide a lamb as his sacrifice, that man is hopeless in himself unless God provides graciously for his salvation.
Kushner: Right! That is the Christian overlay on Hebrew Scriptures. I recognize it.
Geisler: Well, I don’t think it’s the Christian overlay. I wasn’t referring to anything Christian. I’m referring simply to the Old Testament Scriptures themselves. Did God not provide sacrificial lambs for the sins of the people? Did He not provide a Day of Atonement for the whole nation? Was there not a continual sacrificial system for their continual sins? Regardless of whether Christ fulfilled this, which is a Christian concept, don’t you see even that in the Old Testament?
Kushner: That God provided the lambs? Only in the sense that He created all living creatures. The people brought the lambs. The people brought the lambs to express…
Geisler: But were they not provided for sin?
Kushner: Sometimes for sin, and sometimes for joy, and sometimes for the birth of a child, and sometimes for a good harvest.
Geisler: The lamb was sometimes provided for joy?
Kushner: Sure.
Geisler: There were thank offerings, but it was not the lamb that was a thank offering.
Kushner: The Feast of Tabernacles, for example, in the space of seven days you would offer 70 rams, right? They were not atonement. They were celebration. They were gratitude.
Geisler: Well, the Feast of Tabernacles was a feast of thanksgiving. But are you saying that the sacrifices that were offered there were not for sin?
Kushner: That’s precisely what I’m saying.
Geisler: Where does it say that in the Scripture?
Kushner: Try the book of Numbers chapter 28.
Geisler: Give me the concept of the verse or what is the….
Kushner: It says, “Ye shall rejoice on this holiday and ye shall bring these” what’s known as the corban todah – the sacrifice of thanksgiving. And it’s 14 lambs one day, and 13 lambs the next day, and 12 lambs the next. This is not atonement for sin. This is sheer expression of joy. The way, for example, when a person marries off a daughter; he will invite his friends and relatives to a big dinner and many more than 14 lambs will be slaughtered to fill their plates.
Geisler: And are you saying that’s the same thing that the lamb and the Passover was? A thanksgiving instead of atonement?
Kushner: From the lamb’s point of view it’s the same thing.
Geisler: No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about from God’s point of view and man’s point of view. Did God…
Kushner: No, from man’s point of view it’s totally different. From man’s point of view an offering in celebration and gratitude is psychologically 180 degrees different from atonement.
Geisler: The lamb wasn’t given to atone for sin?
Kushner: The Pascal lamb was.
Geisler: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
Kushner: Sure.
Geisler: So the fact that there were offerings on other occasions that were thank offerings does not negate the fact that there were continual offerings for continual sins?
Kushner: Right, or repeated sins.
Geisler: But if you say that, then I can’t understand how you can say that man is not continually a sinner, and that he’s essentially good.
Kushner: Because a person who is imperfect is not continually a sinner, he’s just less than perfect.
Geisler: Yeah, but less than perfect is sinful, is it not?
Kushner: No. I am less judgmental than you, and I believe God is.
Geisler: But if God’s standard is X and I do less than X, am I not falling short of God’s standard?
Kushner: Absolutely. All we have to do then is to find what X is.
Geisler: But if I fall short of God’s standard then I’ve sinned, have I not?
Kushner: Sure. I just don’t know what God’s standards are.
Geisler: Well, hasn’t He revealed them in the Old Testament? Isn’t, for example, Exodus 20 God’s standard?
Kushner: Yes, but I’m not totally sure that 95 percent is a failing grade.
Geisler: Yes, but don’t a hundred percent of the people at one time or another fall short of the standard of God revealed in Exodus 20 called the Ten Commandments?
Kushner: No.
Geisler: That is, is there anyone who ever lived who perfectly kept all the Ten Commandments?
Kushner: Hey, watch it, Norm. The Ten Commandments are a giveaway. The Ten Commandments are simply a way of staying out of jail. Yeah, there are tens of millions of people who never murder, and never commit adultery, and never steal.
Geisler: And never have any false gods, and never lie? There are tens of millions of people who have never broken any one of the Ten Commandments?
Kushner: I believe that.
Geisler: I would like to meet one.
Kushner: I hope you will.
Geisler: I hope I do, too, because the Psalmist said clearly in Psalm 14 that they’ve all sinned [Psalm 14:1-3]. In Isaiah 53:6, “We’ve all gone astray,” and that’s why the ram had to be sacrificed.
Ankerberg: Let me break right in here. Dr. Geisler, let me ask you where you’re going with this.
Geisler: Well, I’m just simply trying to point out that in Psalm 14 and in Isaiah 53 it says, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We’ve all turned to our own ways.” And that’s why the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all [Isa. 53:6]. To say that it’s not true in the Old Testament, that people didn’t continually sin, seems to me to negate what the Prophet said.
Ankerberg: And how does this relate to our topic of the problem of evil or suffering?
Geisler: Because the basic thesis of Rabbi Kushner’s book is that bad things happen to good people. I think that people are not intrinsically good. They’re intrinsically evil and sinful and need sacrifices, and therefore the whole thesis of the book collapses if you deny the fact that man’s intrinsically good.
Ankerberg: And at the same time I don’t think that you’re saying that’s the only reason that there is suffering and evil.
Geisler: By no means, but it seems to me that God is gracious in not giving us more judgment, that He’s merciful in delivering us from more consequences.
Kushner: I’m sorry. I think religion is supposed to comfort and that doesn’t comfort.
Ankerberg: We’re going to have to cut right here, guys. We’ll pick it up here in the next program. We’re out of time. Join us next week. We’ll be with you.

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