Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? With Dr. Norman Geisler and Rabbi Harold Kushner – Program 6

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Norman Geisler, Rabbi Harold Kushner; ©1985
What response is God looking for in a person who is undergoing a hard time? Do we have a right to charge God with being immoral if he allows something he had the ability to stop?

Program 6: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Questions from the Audience-Part 2

Ankerberg: Welcome! Our program tonight is about people that suffer. How can a good God who is supposedly all-loving and all-powerful, how can He permit evil? Our guest, Rabbi Kushner, is suggesting that God is all-loving but not all-powerful. And Dr. Norman Geisler is suggesting that God is both all-powerful and all-loving. We’re going to begin with questions again concerning this topic. What is your question?
Audience: This is to the Rabbi. In one broadcast you mentioned that God’s enemy is man’s unresponsiveness. Now, you’ve given two examples over the shows; one, the death of a young son might bring outrage, anger, etc.; another example you gave was one that these parents, maybe their son or daughter died and then they would be uplifted. Maybe it would help their marriage. Maybe it would help their community. Now those are two opposite responses. They’re not unresponsiveness. It’s response. Now, what I want to ask is this: In light of that, what response do you think God requires or wants or what would you like to see in an individual? And if that is a positive response, then what makes the negative response wrong, especially in light of this “unresponsiveness?”
Kushner: Okay, let me distinguish between a couple of things. One is the response of people in the face of misfortune and tragedy, where I would hope they would find in their faith and in the presence of God the strength and the faith to survive tragedy, to keep on living and to affirm the worthwhileness of life even when life has been so cruel to them. The only thing you can do for a person you loved who has died is turn their death into an impulse for affirming life, not an impulse for denying it. That’s the response I would like to see people come up with when they have been struck with misfortune. When I said several shows back that from the Hebrew point of view the enemy of God, the obstacle to God’s kingdom is not Satan but human unresponsiveness, it wasn’t that situation I had in mind. I mean the kind of unresponsiveness that says, “Because it is easier to steal than to work, I will steal. Because it’s easier to tell a lie than to face the truth, I will tell a lie.” That there is a kind of a moral law of gravity which pulls us down, and tempts us to sleep late, and eat too much, and drink too much, and take things that don’t belong to us, and take the lazy way out, that’s the kind of human unresponsiveness to God’s challenge which is the source of moral evil in the world – not natural evil, but moral evil.
Audience: Is it not an easier response when there’s a death of a young son to be angry and bitter, rather than take that as an impulse to be better?
Kushner: Absolutely. The hard thing is to somehow take all of the white heat of your rage and channel it into something which will warm somebody else’s life. That’s the much more creative response. Self-pity, feeling sorry for yourself, jealousy, bitterness, unresolved anger, yeah, I think it’s a lot easier to leave things there. That’s why religion really has to prod people to take the harder route.
Ankerberg: Dr. Geisler, you want to respond to that at all?
Geisler: No, I agree that the response that God desires is a positive response. He wants us to make it a stepping-stone, not a stumbling stone. The only thing I think we would probably disagree on is that I think that in doing that, that it’s an all-powerful God who provides us the strength to do it, because, frankly, in my own fallen, depraved, sinful state, as a rebel against God, I don’t have the desire and the ability to accomplish that, apart from His grace. So I am glad that there is a gracious all-powerful God who gives me the motivation, the strength to do that.
Kushner: I would agree with every word of that except one half of one. I would say an “awfully powerful God,” an “awesomely powerful God,” doesn’t have to be all-powerful to do that, but we’ve been through that before.
Geisler: Do you have a biblical basis for saying that God is limited, or is that just your own reaction to the situation of evil as you see it?
Kushner: Couple of things. I don’t have a verse because I don’t turn to the Bible for proof text. I turn to it for the whole text. I think there are hints that sometimes God’s power is in fact finite. One of my favorite ones, there is no book in all of Scripture that repeats the idea that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished as much as the book of Deuteronomy. And yet in Deuteronomy you have this very fascinating passage which says when the Israelites go to war the high priest is supposed to say, “If there’s any man here who has affianced a woman and not wed her, who has built a house and not moved into it, who has cultivated a vineyard and not tasted its wine, let him go home, lest he die in battle” [Deut. 20:5-8]. Now, if you believe that God is in charge, if you believe that God controls everything that happens, the high priest ought to take the new bridegrooms and the new homeowners, and the vineyard owners, put them up on the front lines and depend on God to keep them safe. If you believe that nothing tragic happens in the world unless it serves God’s purposes, why do you have to send those people home whose death would be tragic? Why can’t you count on God to keep it safe? That’s one dimension of proof. The other is simply that on every page of the Hebrew Scriptures the text shouts out to me that God stands for justice and morality. And therefore when I see something which to my biblically educated soul is unjust and immoral, I cannot attribute that to God. I have to find the origin, the roots, of that elsewhere.
Geisler: Well, I agree that the entire text shouts for God’s justice, but what you need to do is show that the entire text shouts out for God’s finitude and you haven’t done that. You objected to proof texting, in which you gave one isolated proof text of a view in which the entire text shouts out to the contrary, that “I’m the sovereign God who created heaven and earth, that I can supernaturally intervene and deliver people, that I am sovereign and no plan of mine can be thwarted,” as the book of Job. I think the entire text shouts out for God’s all-powerfulness, not against it.
Kushner: I thought I could fool you with that, but you’re too clever.
Ankerberg: Let me pick up on that… Well, let’s have a question before we do that.
Audience: As a man approaching to seek God, as both men have demonstrated tonight, why would I, as a man seeking God, want to trust a God that’s got all power or all the happiness and all the hope in Him that on the other hand when He has something to come up in my life or in your life, would doubt that later on? Or, on the other hand say the incidence we started off with, the taking of a son or a child, as me as a parent would become very upset. So in that point in time this man says, “This child will go to heaven if they accepted the Christ.” So why would me, myself, charge God saying that He was immoral because He created me, from what you both have said, and He has created the circumstances I am in at that present time, and yet it was better for my son to go on to heaven. So, it’s a dilemma there. Why would I want to fork in the road at that point in time when He has brought me to that specific spot?
Kushner: If my religion taught me that a child who dies is better off than a child who survives, I would have no reason to be upset with God or to look for limitations in His morality. I don’t feel that way. I would rather see children survive. I would rather my son had lived, whether or not there is a heaven. I will confess to being very selfish. I didn’t want to be parted from my son when he was 14 years old, even if it was because he was being promoted to God’s presence. I don’t believe that’s a non-religious, antireligious point to give.
Ankerberg: Can I jump right in there, though?
Kushner: Sure.
Ankerberg: But if you have… like you said concerning Hitler and the holocaust in your book, that you realize that God, because He gave freedom, had to allow people to do this and you could accept that. If ,the fact is, you can allow God to give us that freedom which brings on many of these byproducts, and you have the added thing that if you, because you are free and the only way you can be free is to be in that kind of a world, if you get caught in those kinds of circumstances and your son does die, he does have eternal life, I mean, what would be your objection at that point?
Kushner: I don’t like it. I can say it’s a necessary concomitant of living in a world where people are free to be criminals, and where natural laws don’t make exceptions for innocent people, but I don’t have to like it.
Ankerberg: But then you would be saying, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like then I hear you saying that you would rather give up your freedom.
Kushner: No. What I’m saying is I don’t want to give up my outrage.
Ankerberg: I don’t think that you have to. In terms of, for example, the New Testament, Paul says that death is the enemy, that God sees death as an enemy that is going to be conquered up ahead [1 Cor. 15:26]. It’s not now, because of this thing called freedom. Now, the thing is, it seems like you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have your freedom without having the things that are wrong in our world.
Kushner: That’s right. But I don’t have… even if I accept the necessity of freedom, that is, the fact that people in order to be human have to be free to rob and rape and steal, I don’t have to like the fact that they choose to exercise their freedom in that direction.
Ankerberg: What I’m saying is that I agree completely with what you’re saying, and I see nothing in the Bible – which seems to be presenting this point of view that God is all-loving and omnipotent – at the same time, there is nothing that is disagreeing with what you are saying.
Kushner: Right. I think where I differ from the question which the gentleman posed is, I don’t want to be painted theologically into a corner where I have to perform an act of emotional dishonesty where, if a child or a parent or a wife or a brother dies, for me to say, “Isn’t that wonderful? They have graduated to be with God,” when I don’t feel that it’s wonderful.
Ankerberg: I would object to that, too. I think Dr. Geisler would, as well.
Kushner: Okay. That’s really what I’m saying.
Geisler: Well, if that were the only basis for it, I think we’d all agree again with Freud that it would be simply an illusion. But what if God revealed that, “In His presence is fullness of joy, and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore, “as He did in Psalm 16:11? What if God revealed, as He did in the Old Testament, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints?” [Psa. 116:15] Then it seems to me that He has revealed to us that there is a life and there is joy beyond the grave and there’s no reason we should deny ourselves of that joy in the light of the tragedy of life. We should encourage ourselves with that joy.
Kushner: Norman, are you happy when somebody you love dies?
Geisler: I am not happy with how they die but I certainly am delighted with where they went. I think we have to distinguish in the way in which someone dies and the destiny to which they go when they die.
Ankerberg: With the fact also of freedom being involved in that, that whole discussion….
Kushner: I could be happy with “where.” I’m a little uncomfortable with “when.” I mean, couldn’t they have received their promotion 30 years later?
Geisler: I’m uncomfortable with “when,” too; but my discomfort is not a proof that their death was unjustifiable, particularly if there is a God who plans the end from the beginning, who has our best interest at heart, and who has the power to bring it about.
Kushner: Okay, I think we’re really getting down to one of the fundamental divergences between your view and mine. My sense is, the theological promise of an afterlife is simply not substantial enough to counterbalance the pain of a tragic death world.
Geisler: But if there were an afterlife as you said, I think, on a previous program and if there were a reward for good, and there were a punishment for evil, that would indeed solve the problem for you. It’s just that you have doubts as to whether there is one.
Kushner: And I have some very sincere pain in confronting what goes on in this world, and it would have to be quite a balancing act to make up for all that pain.
Ankerberg: All right, let’s talk about the evidence for that balancing act when right back. We need to take a break.

Ankerberg: We’re back. Dr. Geisler, in one of your books you said that this world is the best possible way to the best possible world. And yet Rabbi Kushner is pushing you for some hard, concrete evidence that that is not just wishful thinking. I think he’s pointed out about some of the authors that have painted this same scenario that we find in the book of Job, and others, that nobody can see this plan, nobody can see this broad picture. Nobody’s got proof that it’s actually even there. What’s the proof?
Geisler: I think the proof is the history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament and the Incarnation of Christ in the New Testament. If you look at the history of the Jewish people, the tragic history; the suffering they went through in Egypt; the deliverance of God, the miraculous deliverance; the declaration: “He’s a God who created heaven and earth” [Gen. 1:1]; that He can supernaturally intervene; that He gave prophets messages hundreds of years in advance that were fulfilled literally. And then we come to the New Testament, that Jesus Christ fulfilled these, claimed to be the sinless Son of God, proved it by the Resurrection from the dead, which was witnessed by over 500 people [1 Cor. 15]. We have over 5,000 documents supporting that New Testament claim, and dozens of people who have looked into it have been converted, and it’s open for anyone else who wants to look into it
Ankerberg: But you don’t accept that evidence?
Kushner: No, I don’t. It’s…
Ankerberg: Would you admit that it’s some evidence?
Kushner: I think for the person who wants to be persuaded it’s more than ample to persuade him that he’s not simply engaged in wishful thinking. For the person who’s skeptical I think it’s….
Ankerberg: Let me ask you this, if you say that …let’s stop right where you’re at; if somebody said Moses didn’t live, is there any evidence of the fact that Moses lived?
Kushner: You mean, do we have an autographed picture of him? No, we don’t.
Ankerberg: Do we have any evidence?
Kushner: No. Does it make any difference whether….
Ankerberg: So Moses is an imaginary figure?
Kushner: Now, wait a minute. The joke we used to say in seminary is that there was never such a person as Moses; the Bible was written by somebody else by the same name. That is, we don’t have proof of Moses. What we have is a book, a book which is attributed to him. It is not the authorship which makes that book a religious lodestone. It is the contents, it is the truth, it is the pulsating vision of the book, whether Moses wrote it or somebody else by the same name wrote it. It doesn’t matter whether he lived. What matters is that whoever put this book together, whoever caught inspiration in a bottle and wrote it down black on white, has taught us something about how we should live, not how they lived.
Ankerberg: Make a comment to that, Norman?
Geisler: Well, yes, we have more evidence that Moses lived than perhaps any figure from the ancient world. He’s referred to in more books by more people of historical nature and virtually throughout the whole rest of the Old Testament. He’s the central figure of their deliverance. If Moses didn’t live, then we don’t know that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. The same thing is true in the New Testament. There is more New Testament documentary, historical witness that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose from the dead that any event from the ancient history recorded in that time period. So if you can’t believe that, then you can’t believe anything.
Ankerberg: Let me follow that up. Where I was going with the question was that at one religious school called the University of Chicago Theological Seminary, they helped put out what you find in the religious section of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In the Encyclopedia Britannica there are more words listed to a certain person in the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I don’t feel is a religious document, than anybody else in history. That person happens to be Jesus Christ. My question is: Why would those folks put all that information into a non-religious book concerning a person, if there wasn’t evidence that He actually lived? There’s never been a philosopher, a skeptic, that has ever said in their history of the first hundred years A.D. that Jesus didn’t live.
Kushner: John, I don’t see what that proves. All that proves….
Ankerberg: That there is a person called Jesus that did live, which is evidence concerning the fact of a future life.
Kushner: Negative. John, all that proves is that the Encyclopedia Britannica was printed in a Christian society. All it proves is that Jesus is a very important figure for people in the English-speaking world. It doesn’t prove that He existed.
Geisler: Are you saying He didn’t exist?
Kushner: I’m saying I have absolutely no way of knowing whether He did or not. My own theory is that He probably did exist as a Jewish teacher of the first century and not as an incarnation of God, I mean, anymore than you and I are incarnations of God.
Geisler: Is the New Testament a reliable record of His life?
Kushner: I think the New Testament is a partisan document. That is, we’re going through an election campaign in which people say some very strong things about what American life has been like in the last few years. Their statements are accurate but their statements are tendentious; they are partisan. The New Testament was written by people who were pleading a cause that may have moved them to leave out certain information, certainly moved them to defame the Pharisees, who deserve a much, much better fate than they received in the New Testament. The New Testament is a hatchet job on the Pharisees. From that point of view it is completely, historically unreliable, because it is a political, tendentious document. Whether it’s accurate in other aspects, I don’t know. The fact that the New Testament says Jesus fulfilled certain prophecies is not proof that He fulfilled them. It’s only proof that somebody wrote that He did.
Geisler: So the New Testament is not a reliable document.
Kushner: No, I’m saying I have no way of knowing whether it’s reliable or not. I don’t even know if today’s newspaper….
Geisler: You said you knew it wasn’t reliable with regard to the Pharisees. So you do know.
Kushner: Well, it’s not perfect.
Geisler: Well, you do know it’s unreliable with regard to the Pharisees.
Kushner: In at least one area where I have some independent knowledge, it is pretty strongly unreliable.
Geisler: Then it would be reasonable to assume that it might be unreliable in other areas, too?
Kushner: That’s correct.
Geisler: Well, let me just share that if that’s the case, then we can’t trust anything from the ancient world, because there is more documentary evidence closer to the original, with more people and more eyewitnesses that have been verified for those documents than any event from the ancient world. The gap between the original record and the first books is less than a hundred years. It’s a thousand years for others. The number of copies is about a dozen for the others, we have 5,000 for the New Testament. The number of witnesses of the Resurrection of Christ alone, over 500, direct witnesses. We don’t even have direct eyewitnesses for Tacitus, Thucydides, Herodotus, other books. So if you throw out the New Testament as a reliable document, you’ve just thrown out all of ancient history as reliable.
Kushner: First of all, Norm, I can sleep perfectly well tonight having discarded the New Testament as a reliable guide to history. Secondly, that you have witnesses close to the event, especially in the ancient world, is not persuasive to me. There are people who fought in World War II in whose lifetime there are already legends about what happened in battles in which they took place, which are inaccurate. John Bright, the biblical historian, in his volume, The History of Israel, tells a story of growing up in Virginia where a Civil War battle had taken place, where there was a certain legend about how the site of the battle got its name, which everybody knew was false. But within the lifetime of people who had taken part in that battle the legend was circulating. It’s very plausible that for whatever reasons people told stories which may or may not have happened, but which they hoped had happened, which they….
Geisler: But, see, what you just said, Harold, is a proof of the very point I’m making. The only reason they knew those were legends is because there were eyewitnesses who could correct them. Now the New Testament was written by those eyewitnesses. Therefore, the very point you’re making substantiates the accuracy of the New Testament.
Kushner: No, because there were other people who were contemporaries of the authors of the New Testament who denied the fact that Jesus was an incarnation of God and rose from the dead.
Geisler: But there were no people who were contemporary eyewitnesses of the events who lived with Christ day and night for three and a half years, who saw the events, who said that. They were people who recorded it on the basis of secondhand information. Even Josephus, however, admitted that the immediate disciples of Christ believed that Jesus died and rose from the dead. He was not an eyewitness to disprove it.
Kushner: Sure. I admit that too. I admit that they believed it.
Geisler: Okay, if the immediate eyewitnesses did it, and if the eyewitnesses are the key to correcting legends, then you should use that eyewitness testimony to correct that legend that Jesus didn’t really live and die.
Kushner: But how is somebody an eyewitness to a non-event? How can somebody come forward and say, “I was there and there was no Resurrection.” How can you testify to something that didn’t happen?
Geisler: You can produce the body of Jesus. They never found the body. They found an empty tomb. You could produce…
Kushner: How do you know they found an empty tomb?
Geisler: Because it’s still empty…
Kushner: What do you mean, it’s still empty?
Geisler: …and because the eyewitnesses, from the first century on, testified to it being empty, and because the authorities in the first century, who wanted very much to prove that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, who had the tomb sealed and had their guards there, could have easily produced the body, had there been a body.
Kushner: But the only testimony to that is a Christian document itself. That’s like the joke we used to tell in seminary that in biblical days they had transistor radios because we haven’t found any electric sockets.
Geisler: It doesn’t make the document unreliable because it’s a Christian document, any more than it would make it unreliable if it were a Jewish document. It makes it reliable if it’s an eyewitness document cross-checked by many eyewitnesses as contemporaries of the event, and that’s what we have.
Kushner: No, but by definition all the people who affirm the resurrection are believers, and all the people who deny it are non-believers and there are many more non-believers than believers.
Ankerberg: Was Thomas a believer?
Geisler: Was James a believer? There were several people who weren’t believers who were convinced by meeting Christ. And besides that, simply because one believes that he saw a murder occur doesn’t make him an unreliable witness to testify on behalf of seeing the murder.
Kushner: No, but somebody who has an emotional vested interest in convicting somebody, I think his testimony is suspicious.
Geisler: But you’re assuming that those people had an emotional vested interest. The record says the exact contrary. It says they wanted to disbelieve it. They had to be convinced. Thomas had to put his finger in His hand and his hand in His side. Some of them were skeptics. They did not have that emotional vested interest.
Kushner: Again, the only testimony that any of that happened, the only testimony that Thomas did that comes from the documentary of people who were trying to affirm the resurrection.
Geisler: But, see, that’s like saying in a witness at a trial, “Now apart from these five eyewitnesses, you have a very poor case.” Of course we have a very poor case if we eliminate all the eyewitnesses.
Kushner: No, but what about the attorney who says, “Apart from these five eyewitnesses we have 20,000 eyewitnesses who said that they never saw any evidence of it.”
Geisler: Well, if you can produce eyewitnesses who never saw any evidence in the New Testament, now you just converted me.
Kushner: Okay, what about the rabbis in the Talmud, who were contemporaries who lived in the same country at the same time, and regarded Jesus as a well-intentioned Jewish man who was put to death by the Romans who were there, were in Jerusalem that Passover and didn’t see a resurrected Jesus?
Geisler: The question is not whether somebody didn’t see a murder. The question is whether somebody did see it. You don’t convict somebody because somebody wasn’t there to see the murder. You convict him because there were people there who saw the murder. That’s a strange twist of logic.
Kushner: But if He came to life again, why was this not persuasive to hundreds of thousands of people who….
Geisler: It exactly was. There were 3,000 people converted within a month in the very city in which it happened, and then thousands more….
Kushner: No, I’m sorry Norm. There is a Christian document which says there were 3,000 people.
Geisler: And there is a man named Ramsey who spent 20 years of his life researching the man who wrote that document, and his other book, who concluded he was a first rate historian. He made not one single mistake. Have you read St. Paul, A Traveler and Roman Citizen?
Ankerberg: And he was not a scholar that was of the Christian ilk. He was at the school of Tubigen in Germany and he actually set out to write that book to disprove it. Now at that point you have a man that came to the evidence via the archaeological truthfulness of the book of Luke, when he started out to disprove the whole thing.
Kushner: John, I don’t believe anybody living in the 20th century can prove or disprove what happened in the first century.
Ankerberg: No, what we’re saying is, the question is, the probability. Is there evidence? Just like, is there evidence for believing that Abraham Lincoln lived? The question is, we could say, “Well, I’ve never seen Lincoln, but do we have evidence that would make the probability so that, intellectually, I could say, ‘Yes, this is an option that I should go with’?”
Kushner: I just don’t think you can compare standards of truth 1,900 years ago to standards of truth 100 years ago. And in terms of prophecies, Norman, isn’t there a conspicuous prophecy in the book of Isaiah that when the Redeemer comes we’ll have a world of peace and non-violence? I think the reason Jews have not been persuaded is not because they did or didn’t have enough eyewitnesses, but because the kind of world which the Redeemer was supposed to usher in has been conspicuously absent.
Geisler: Well, let me share with you the explanation for that. The Old Testament predicts that the Messiah would come and suffer (Isaiah 53); that “they will look on Him whom they pierced” (Zechariah 12); and it also predicts that He will come and reign and there will be an era of perpetual peace. Now the only way you can do both is to come and suffer and die, rise from the dead, and come back and set up that kingdom. That’s our hope as a Christian, and what guarantees the hope for us is that He fulfilled the first part of it, so we have every reason to look for the second part.
Kushner: Yes, but you see what leaves a lot of people skeptical is that they’re waiting for the second part. It’s not very impressive that He fulfilled the prophecy that they would cast lots for His clothes when the major purpose of the Messiah was to bring about a world of peace and justice.
Geisler: But I think the hope that we have is guaranteed by the fact that the prophecies were fulfilled literally and accurately with regard to His dying. You can’t both die and reign forever unless you come back to life. So we have every reason to believe the rest of them will be fulfilled because He did fulfill the first ones.
Kushner: We’re still waiting.
Geisler: So are we, but we wait with evidence for waiting and with hope that it will come about by the God who created the universe and who has the power to bring it about.
Ankerberg: Okay, Rabbi Kushner, why don’t you give us a final 30 second wrap-up of our discussion through these weeks? And then, Dr. Geisler, why don’t you do that in 30 seconds for you?
Kushner: The main feeling I’m left with is that the issue is not really a theological one but a personal one, and that the person who asks, “Why is God letting this happen” is not really asking a question about God but is crying out in pain. What I want to give that person is not a series of theological explanations. I want to give him a big hug, because I believe he needs consolation, not explanation. Martin Buber says, “Theology is talking about God. Religion is experiencing God.” I don’t want to give suffering people theology. I want to give them religion.
Geisler: I would like to give suffering people hope, and I think hope is built in firm evidence and there’s good evidence that Jesus lived, that He died, that He rose from the dead, that He reversed all of the suffering in this world, and that He’s returning to completely defeat evil. And the only kind of God who can guarantee that kind of outcome is an infinite God who is all-powerful and can bring it about. A God who is finite isn’t worthy to be worshipped; He’s just an idol. A God who is finite can’t assure us of any victory over evil. A God who is finite is inadequate to bring the consolation that the Rabbi himself and all of us need in the suffering we go through in this world.
Ankerberg: Gentlemen, I want to say thank you on behalf of all of us, as well as all the folks that are watching these programs. Thank you for sharing with us so intimately. Thank you for being our guests.

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