If God is good, if he loves us, and if he’s all powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people? Or, more to the point, why do bad things happen to me? This is not an ancient question. It’s actually a modern one.
Some argue that there is no real answer to the question. Others say that the question proves there is no God. Others say that the answer has something to do with free will. Some will try to argue that there are no good people and that everyone is justly suffering for their sins. That infants die of SIDS, that they starve or suffer illnesses—well, it is the parents suffering for their sins, or the infants suffer because of Adam’s sin—and so on; which does not explain why some infants, then, grow up rich and comfortable. Are they somehow less sinners? It is the inconsistency of it all that troubles many.
In 1979 Douglas Adams published his bestselling book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In it, he told the story of a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who demand to learn the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42. Unfortunately, the problem is that what The Ultimate Question itself might in fact be, is unknown.
When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer, the Earth, which can. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question.
The answer to the question that so bothers so many—how could a good God let me suffer like this—is 42. That’s why no one is ever satisfied by the answer anyone gives. How so? Because the reality of the whole debate is like that of Douglas’ Adam’s story: no one is asking the right question. It is the question itself that is nonsense. Thus, all the answers that people make up are as meaningful as the one that Douglas Adams proposed in his humorous novel.
The answer, the reality of God and the reality of suffering and reconciling those two things is actually not difficult. It took the modern world to come up with the wrong question and thus to muck things up so badly that everyone is now so thoroughly confused that they can’t see the obvious. The ancients were not so disturbed by this issue that so plagues the modern, thoughtful person (from about the seventeenth century, on), because it is a non-issue. Once we ask the right question, it becomes obvious.
What is the real question? The traditional question of the modern world is,” if God is good, loving and all powerful, then why is there sin and suffering?”
I. This is essentially the opposite question to the one we should be asking. If humanity is in a fallen state, having made a poor choice, and if God has granted us freedom and hides himself so that he may always be explained away, why is there anything good in the world? That’s right. We’re asking the question backwards. The real question we need to ask is simply, “Why do good things ever happen?” And there are some corollaries to this: why do we expect good things to happen? Why do we get upset when things go wrong? Why does suffering bother me? When something goes right for us, we never ask “why me?” We only ask it if something bad happens. That may be natural for us in our current condition, but it is the opposite of what we should be asking. Because we believed God was holding out on us—Eve was convinced that God, in forbidding the one tree, was withholding something beneficial—in our hearts we really don’t believe God is good or loving. We do not trust him. We do not believe he wants what is best for us. We believe that God wants us to do the last thing we’d ever want to do and to somehow be grateful for it. We expect to suffer because “it’s good for us” like getting a shot or swallowing cod liver oil.
We expect things to go wrong because we believe that God wants to teach us a lesson and that what he thinks is best for us is in fact something that will make us miserable.
II. We believe that if we ask for bread, God will give us a scorpion. We don’t trust him. So the other part of the real question is also, why don’t we trust God?
My own children tend to be this way, too. They are quick to assume malevolence on my part: that we deny giving them what they ask for simply because we’re mean or don’t want them to have fun, or simply don’t want to be bothered. So people tend to assume malevolence on God’s part: he’s mad at me, he wants me to learn a hard lesson, suffering builds character, he just doesn’t like me, his plans are different than mine and I just need to suck it up and be thankful for dirt, even though I wanted ice cream.
The skeptic, on the other hand, looks at this and sees madness: we’re playing mind games and refusing to face reality—and thus concludes that suffering, being a bad thing, proves that either God is sadistic—and hence a lot of angry atheists come from this—or, that obviously there is no God at all, we’re playing make believe—and thus relieving us of having to suffer the delusion of an angry, sadistic, or uncaring deity and so freeing us to live without fear that we are about to be walloped by God’s hickory stick.
III. If the Kingdom of Heaven is better than this world, then how can this be the best of all possible worlds? As I asked before, what if the Kingdom of Heaven can come about only because of this world: that is, the Kingdom of Heaven requires this world and this world creates the Kingdom of Heaven: the Kingdom of Heaven is a consequence of this world.
Some may object to this for various reasons, but consider: without the inhabitants of this world, there can be no next world, no kingdom of heaven. We—the church, the people of this world are what make up the Kingdom. So yes, this world creates the next world in that it creates the people who make it up: after all, the bride of Christ, the celestial city of Jerusalem coming to Earth from heaven is what? The people of God (see Rev. 21:9 where the author explicitly identifies the celestial city of Jerusalem as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb”; see also Rev. 21:2). The question here is: what is the kingdom of Heaven. The short answer: it is God’s people. Therefore, this world is necessary for the Kingdom of Heaven to exist—and so this then is the best of all possible worlds—it is the only way the better world of the kingdom comes about—which is paradoxical unless you realize that the kingdom is co-existent with this world; this is explicit: the kingdom in a very real sense is now:
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
When we ask, is this the best of all possible worlds, we must recognize that this world includes the Kingdom. Ask yourself this: is this baby the best of all possible human beings when you peer at Jesus in the manger. The baby is no less Jesus than the resurrected Lord. This world is the baby to the adult that is the Kingdom of God.