Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Both within and beyond the walls of the church, many of us have encountered this question at one point or another: why do bad things happen to good people? Frankly, it’s not a bad question, and it’s certainly worth investigating. It’s a theological and philosophical issue called the problem of evil. But often, it isn’t just some distant, hypothetical, or philosophical challenge—it’s a deeply personal one that often becomes a stumbling block to those who want to believe but are hurting or grieving.
The person asking this question could be someone who has lost a child or a spouse. It could be someone who has survived unspeakable abuse or trauma. On a larger scale, many people wonder how could God have allowed the Holocaust and struggle with the fact that people all over the world starve and die without access to simple things like clean, drinkable water.
The Character of God and the Nature of Man
Whether you are supporting a friend or family member who is struggling through similar questions or if you’re trying to make sense of this personally, the question at its core is this: if God is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all-good (omnibenevolent), why would he allow such awful things to happen? This brings into question these three characteristics of God. If something bad happens, maybe God is good and powerful but isn’t aware. Alternatively, maybe he knows and he cares, but he’s just not strong enough to put stop it. Finally, perhaps he knows and is able to change things but isn’t very good after all.
The truth is, despite this quandary, we know and proclaim that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Here’s why: the problem isn’t him, it’s us. God not only gave humanity free will, but he also allows us to exercise it in any pursuit we choose. Even in the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a whole world of opportunity and choices, restricting them from only one tree for their own good. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve who sinned. We all still exercise that free will to sin, to rebel against God. In short, God is not sinning, people are. Underneath all of the philosophical language, we have to understand that the question itself is built on a faulty foundation. Because of sin, there aren’t really any “good people.”
The Purpose of Suffering and an Eternal Perspective
Another common question in regards to sin, evil, and suffering is this: why doesn’t God intervene and prevent people from sinning and hurting others? It’s worthwhile to note that, sometimes, bad things that happen are actually evidence of God’s retribution. For example, in the Old Testament, God frequently used sinners to bring judgment on God’s people.
However, even in the midst of pain, God is working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). A common theme throughout Scripture is that suffering, as uncomfortable as it may be, is an important tool for maturing and refining us: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). The gospels include many stories depicting Jesus’ suffering, and in this way, God relates to us because he has experienced suffering on Earth too.
God sent his Son into this hard world, full of sin and suffering, in order to reveal his love for humanity and eventually to mobilize his church to bring light to a dark world. God is not a babysitter busy plugging his ears with his fingers. He does care and he’s in control, but our choices carry consequences. The good news for us as Christians is that suffering is not without context, and it is not the end of the story. Eternity with God in Heaven dwarfs the weight of our present struggles. If you live for 80 or 90 years, even if your life is full of hardship, what is that compared to 10,000 years in the perfect presence of God? Christians do not suffer without reason. Knowing what is around the corner, we can rest assured that the things that happen during our lives have real significance, even when they’re difficult.Eternity in Heaven dwarfs the weight of our present struggles. What is 80 or 90 years of hardship compared to 10,000 years in the presence of God?Click To Tweet
We Know in Part
Ultimately, we have to make peace with our limited understanding. Only God is omniscient, and the Bible tells us that on this side of eternity, we will only know in part (1 Corinthians 13:9). With our incomplete knowledge, we must humbly admit that we cannot know everything that God is capable of doing and actively accomplishing through suffering. For example, picture a dad teaching his son how to ride a bike. Inevitably, the kid will fall off, and it will likely be painful. However, the father is willing to let his child experience some temporary pain as part of the process that will equip and empower him in the future. Neglecting to teach his son to ride a bike may be more comfortable for the child for a while, but it will ultimately rob him of the opportunity to learn and experience something greater.
At the end of the day, we must learn to trust in the plan of a just and merciful of God. But one thing we do know is this: God’s plan always includes redemption. As R.C. Sproul Jr. said referring to Christ’s sacrifice for us, “Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, that only happened once, and he volunteered.”