Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People/Part 2

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©1999
Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is frequently recommended to people who are undergoing suffering of some sort. Dr. Geisler explains, in part two of a four part series, why we need to be careful of Rabbi Kushner’s theology. It may not be as “comforting” as you think.

Previous Article

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People – Part 2

(In Part One of Dr. Geisler’s critique, we discovered that Rabbi Kushner had come to the conclusion that God does not prevent suffering because He cannot. He comments that “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.” (p. 134) He further comments that the purpose of prayer is not so much to influence God in any way (pp. 116,117), but to put us in touch with other people, who can keep us from feeling isolated in our suffering (p. 121). We now continue with the critique.)

III. Is God a Hedonist?

Rabbi Kushner’s view rings a response chord in many suffering hearts. Maybe we should conclude after all that there is no perfect God in complete control of the world. Perhaps this is the most reasonable position.

Healthy, Wealthy, and Happy

Before we discard the traditional Jewish-Christian belief in an all-perfect God, let us examine the Rabbi’s reasoning more carefully. In fact, let us look at the assumptions on which it rests. First, let us notice that Kushner assumes a kind of universal hedonism. That is, he seems to believe that unless everyone is happy, God has not done His job properly. But is God a Cosmic Hedonist? Is it His all-consuming preoccupation to make everyone happy all the time? Or does God desire other good things for His creatures as well?

Futhermore, Kushner demands a specific kind of happy life as a condition for there being an all-good, all-powerful God, one that provides sufficient peace, prosperity, and good health for all. Of course this hedonistic desire is merely an assumption for which he offers no proof. Freud would call it an illusion, since it is based simply on a wish that it be so.

Does God Desire Comfort over Character?

Kushner does not seriously consider the possibility that God may be more interested in our character than in our comfort. He does not allow that God may be more concerned about our being morally good than in our simply being physically healthy. Perhaps God is not as hedonistic as we may like Him to be. God may desire our holiness more than our happiness. He may want us to be good, not simply to feel good. After all, the Scriptures do not say “Be ye happy as I am happy,” but “Be ye holy as I am holy.”

Consider My Servant Job

Since Kushner uses Job as the example, let us ask Job about the purpose of suffering. In spite of his complete loss of health and wealth, Job cried out, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). “When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” (23:10). In short, Kushner’s views about Job’s dilemma do not accord with Job’s own words. For Job realized that the diamond of his character, formed under the pressure of adversity, more than compensated for the wealth he lost. He recog­nized that suffering, while taking away from his prosperity, added to his personal character which could not be taken away.

IV. Does the Rabbi Believe his Bible?

Which God?

A careful reading of Rabbi Kushner’s book reveals that his argument against the all-powerful, all-perfect God is based on a rejection of the Bible. Rabbi Kushner’s reasoning goes like this:

  1. God is all-powerful and causes [controls] everything that happens.
  2. God is just and fair, giving everyone what they deserve.
  3. Job is a good person
  4. Job did not get what he deserved.
  5. Therefore, either God is not all-powerful or else He is not all-just (or both).

Which Bible?

Now there is an assumption in the Rabbi’s argument which is contrary to the text of his own Bible. The statement in premise 4 is at odds with the biblical story of Job. For con­trary to Kushner, Job did eventually get what Kushner feels he deserved. According to the biblical record, in the end Job was rewarded amply. In fact, he received twice as much as he possessed initially (see Job 42:10). Kushner, however, treats the biblical record as a “fable” and arbitrarily dismisses the last chapter of Job as a later inauthentic addition (pp. 143-146).

In short, he rejects the biblical text as it is and as it has always been known to be in the manuscripts. In place of the biblical text Kushner puts his own mutilated version of Scripture. But since Kushner has rejected the story of Job as it is presented in Scripture it is not surprising that he rejects the God presented in those Scriptures. The two are inti­mately connected. In brief, Kushner creates his own concept of God because he created his own Bible. The book of Job presents a perfect God and a good man, Job, who served Him. And this God eventually gave Job what he deserved and more. Thus Rabbi Kushner’s point about Job is biblically unfounded.

V. Is This All There Is?

Life Does Not Seem Fair

Of course, not everyone who suffers misfortune eventually does as well in this life as Job did. So Kushner’s main point still stands. His argument can be reworded this way:

  1. God is all-powerful and causes [controls] everything that happens.
  2. God is just and fair, giving everyone what they deserve.
  3. John Doe is a good man who did not get what he deserved in his lifetime.
  4. Therefore, either God is not all-powerful or else He isn’t all-just (or both).

Is There More to Come?

But even though most will readily admit that not all persons have their bad fortune reversed as Job did, still there is a problem in Kushner’s logic. In order for the argument to be complete Kushner must add an important phrase:

3. John Doe is a good man who did not get what he deserved in his lifetime nor will he get it in an afterlife.

In short, Kushner’s argument is credible only if he knows for sure there is no afterlife wherein ultimate justice is achieved for all. But Kushner offers no proof for this. Instead, he simply expresses an unsubstantiated and dogmatic assertion that “we cannot know for sure” if there is such a life after death (p. 29). How he knows for sure that we cannot know this for sure the Rabbi does not say.

The Big Boomerang

On the other hand, if we interject the concept of immortality into the argument, then Kushner’s conclusion crumbles. In fact, it backfires into an argument in favor of ultimate justice like this:

1. There are some injustices in this life.
1b.Those who suffer unjustly will be duly rewarded by God.
2. An all-powerful, all-just God does not allow any injustices.
3. Therefore, God will reward these injustices in the next life.

In view of this it becomes clear that Kushner’s conclusions—that God is neither all-perfect nor all-powerful—is premature. The burden of proof is his to demonstrate that man is not immortal. In order to counter this, Kushner’s argument must go like this:

1. There are some injustices in this life.
1b. An all-powerful, all-just God would not allow injustices to go on forever.
2. But some injustices will go on forever.
3. Therefore, God cannot be all-powerful and all-just.

The problem with this argument is found in the accented words. How can one know that injustice will go on forever? Kushner would have to be omniscient (all-knowing) to know this for sure. But in this case he would have to be God in order to disprove there is a God. Thus Kushner’s argument backfires either into an argument for an all-perfect God or else, in trying to disprove God, he must assume that he is God.

Read Part 3

1 Comment

Leave a Comment