The Question

The question of why bad things happen to good people is a question that is directed at a particular someone: God.  And inherent in the question is blame.  “Why did you let that happen?  Couldn’t you have stopped it?  You’re the almighty creator of heaven and earth.  Couldn’t you have done something?  Couldn’t you stop the pain, the agony, the loss?  Why did my baby have to die?”  Our query is not unreasonable.

It’s also at the heart of what is sometimes called “the new atheism” in the bestselling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, and others.  Of course, calling it the “new” atheism, is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s what has driven atheism for a long time.  Voltaire submitted the same question back in the eighteenth century in his book Candide.

From the horrors that fill both our histories and our memories, the atheist recoils and concludes that either God is a sadistic son of a bitch, or that he doesn’t exist at all. The atheist has decided that the best explanation for the world as it is, is to believe that there is no one to believe in, no one to put one’s trust in, no hope, and no future: God does not exist. There is no one out there that cares. And that’s why bad things can happen to good people.

Are atheists right? How can we answer their—and our—agonizing howl of why? What does suffering demonstrate about God? What does pain tell us about who God is, how he relates to his universe, and what our expectations are? 

The better we understand God, the easier it will be for us.

* * *

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me   (Psalm 23:4)

This is what life is like.  We are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  Bad things are going to happen to me.  If they are not bad now, just wait.  If they are bad now, just wait.  Back and forth we go, like a ping-pong ball.

The problem of the ultimate question, the question of suffering, is that our emotions are in play.  We are not just thinking about an intellectual, academic issue. We mostly don’t approach it with cool, clear logic.  It is personal.  Our guts are fully engaged.  We too often have tears in our eyes. 

We get mad when our expectations are not met.  That’s part of the difficulty in our relationships in general.  We go to McDonalds.  We order a strawberry milkshake.  Then they tell us they are out of strawberry, but they can give us a chocolate shake.  We get angry.  Because our expectations were not met.  Our reasonable expectations.

When something bad happens to you, and you get mad at God, the reason you are mad at God is because he didn’t meet your expectations of what he would do for you. 

But consider a possibility: that our expectations of God are out of whack.  Who we think God is, what he has to do for us, how he has to behave—we might have misunderstood everything.  It would be ludicrous, for instance, to go to McDonalds and then get mad because they refused to sell us golf clubs.

We need to worship the God who actually is, not the one we wish for, not the one we made up in our heads.  If we are mad at God, perhaps the problem is that we don’t know God as he actually is.  We might be mad at the god we made up in our mind.  In which case, we need to stop believing in our made-up god and find the real one.  Then we won’t get mad at the real God.  The real God won’t disappoint us. The real God won’t tell us that we can have a strawberry shake when he knows there aren’t any there.  There won’t be any bait and switch with the real God.

The characters portrayed on the pages of scripture sometimes get mad at God.  They accuse God.  But that’s because they had expectations that weren’t accurate.  They’d made something up in their head about God that wasn’t so.  We all do it, and we all do it all the time.  We need to work at minimizing that.  We’ll probably be happier if we ever can.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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