Why do bad things happen to good people?
It’s a very old question and a very good question that deserves careful examination.
We often assume that “bad” means “painful.” But “bad” and “painful” are not the same thing. When someone dies at a ripe old age surrounded by a loving family, it’s painful, but it’s not bad. We don’t expect to live forever. We have got used to the idea of mortality so we don’t call death at an old age “bad.” But when a young person dies (g-d forbid,) that is bad, and that bothers us deeply. Childbirth is very painful, but it is not bad, while false labor pain is bad.
We ask why bad things happen rather than why painful things happen because the word bad has a very particular meaning. It’s the bad that disturbs us and grates on our conscience, not pain.
When we use the word “bad,” we are implying that something happened that should not have happened. It is wrong; it shouldn’t be. That disturbs us terribly. When something bad happens it’s particularly disturbing because of what it means about the world. If this can happen when it shouldn’t happen, what else could happen? Then anything can happen. Then there is no rhyme or reason. There is no plan; there is no judge; there is no justice. The world is a jungle that we cannot tolerate. That goes against the green. A human being is orderly and purposeful, and when the world doesn’t follow a purpose and doesn’t seem to be orderly, we can’t handle this.
So what is the worst thing that makes us upset and depressed? Senselessness.
If things happen for no reason, that disturbs us most deeply. When we know what to expect, we can handle almost anything, but if things can happen that shouldn’t happen, that’s disturbing. And in terms of our belief in God, It is also alarming that something can happen that shouldn’t, because who’s making it happen? Since there’s only one God, if it’s meant to happen, then it happens. If it’s not meant to happen, then who’s making it happen? It’s almost like suggesting that there are two gods: the good God and the bad God, the big God, the little God. It threatens not only our stability, our sense of security in the world, it also threatens our faith. Is there one God? Well, then what is he doing? Is he good, or is he not good?
With this definition – bad means that which should not happen, we have two considerations.
Number one: We have no way of knowing what should or should not happen?
When our favorite team loses the Super Bowl, we think that shouldn’t have happen! It shouldn’t have happened because we like to win. So, anything I don’t like, anything I don’t want, anything I don’t enjoy shouldn’t happen. But there are two teams. If I win, then the other team loses and their fans will say that that shouldn’t have happened. So how could we know what should or shouldn’t be?
Since we don’t have the information, we don’t have the evidence, don’t have history, don’t know what came before, and don’t know what’s coming down the pike, can we state with any authority that “this should not have happened?” How often have we experienced something awful that we were sure should not have happened, but then a few weeks later, sometimes even a few hours later, everything changes, and we realize that it was pretty good.
There was a good thing that happened, and it should have happened. So, before we decide what should not have happened, we need a lot more information which we don’t have.
The second thing is: Anything that should not happen, cannot happen.
Nothing moves, nothing shakes, nothing turns, nothing happens unless there’s an instruction from god. Everything happens by divine plan, which means everything happens when it’s told to happen by the Creator, who is the only mover and shaker in the world. To think that something can happen without God is idolatry. It’s implying that there is another master to the universe who is mischievous and makes things happen that shouldn’t happen. That is Greek mythology, not Judaism.
Nothing happens if it shouldn’t. And only because it should, does God make it happen, and if he makes it happen, then it should. Either something is meant to be, or it isn’t meant to be, it can’t come out of anywhere. If nothing that shouldn’t happen, can happen, then nothing bad can happen, since “bad” means something that shouldn’t happen. So, do bad things happen to good people? No, bad things don’t happen even to bad people. Bad things don’t happen.
But painful things do happen. There is a lot of real pain in the world. Tragic things happen. Yes, there are things to grieve about. But if we were to be open to the idea that bad things could happen, which means that things that shouldn’t happen, do happen, what would it do to our respect for life? If people could die when they shouldn’t, where is the sanctity of life? Where is the significance of a person, of a human being, if it can be snuffed out for no reason, if they can die when they shouldn’t?
It is disrespectful to life itself to think that someone I loved and cherished died when they shouldn’t have died, that their death was unnecessary and meaningless.’
The thing that destroys us, beyond pain, beyond grief, is the assumption that what had happened was not supposed to happen. Its like the rug is pulled out from under our feet. We have no way of predicting what’s coming next, and we can’t live like that.
So now we must rephrase the question: Bad things don’t happen, but painful things certainly do. Why? Why does god make painful things happen? We believe that the pain is part of God’s plan, but that doesn’t make it okay! Why can’t God make the pain stop?
There’s a profound, wonderful exchange Elie Wiesel had with someone who asked Wiesel why God had allowed the Holocaust.
Wiesel said to him “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to tell you.”
The man was surprised by this statement and said “are you saying you know why there was a Holocaust, but won’t tell me?”
Wiesel said “that’s right because when I tell you, you will become a Nazi.”
The man said “I’m Jewish! How can I become a Nazi? I’m a Jew!”
Wiesel gave an amazing answer. He said “look, you’re coming to me all distressed, hurt by the incredible tragedy of six million Jews losing their lives and all the suffering of the Holocaust. It disturbs you that there was so much suffering and so much pain, and you’re asking me why that happened which means you want me to explain to you how a Holocaust is a necessary and good thing so that you could sleep better at night. Now imagine, if I give you a satisfying answer, and I say to you ‘the Holocaust happened for this and this reason,’ and it all makes sense. And you say, ‘oh oh okay, good now I understand now I can sleep better, now it doesn’t bother me so much.’ You’ve become a Nazi.”
So, when we ask particularly about the Holocaust, do we want an answer? Or is it the height of chutzpah to even try to answer. How are we going to justify the death of six million Jews? That can’t be, that mustn’t be. So why haven’t we found an answer to bad things happening to good people? Because we don’t want an answer.
We’re complaining; we’re not asking. We’re objecting; we’re saying this is painful, this is terrible, don’t give me an answer, don’t make it sound good. When we see injustice, we don’t want to understand it, we want to end it.
We believe that nothing bad happens because everything that happens is a necessary part of God’s plan. But when it comes to the pain, we don’t want to understand, we want the pain to stop right now.