Why Do Bad Things Happen? Spoiler Alert: I Don’t Know

Why Do Bad Things Happen? Spoiler Alert: I Don’t Know October 27, 2021

In my last post, I responded to a John Piper article in which he justifies God committing genocide by basically saying, “God is God; he can do whatever he pleases.” Because I have such insightful and curious readers, I was hit with a follow-up question on my Facebook page. It reads:

“If I may push back respectfully: How then do we reconcile the Biblical accounts and personal observations of things like childhood cancer and murder? I was hoping to read a more complete response rather than just a counterattack to a Calvinistic view.”

The way I took this question is that this commenter is looking for my theodicy (the answer to how evil can exist in a world where a good God also exists).

I’ll attempt to answer in two parts.

I. What Really Went on in the Bible?

John Piper argues that it is okay for God to kill people in the Old Testament because God is God (nice tautology, by the way). He says that God kills tens of thousands of people a day. He gives people cancer. He causes planes to crash. He even has roughly 6-10 people a year eaten by sharks. So, when God kills entire populations in the Bible, it’s because he can.

I don’t buy this for a second. I don’t read the Bible like that. Sure, the texts say that God does these things, but I don’t think everyone’s theology in the Bible is 100% correct. The way I approach the Bible is basically like this: A bunch of people getting together, trying to explain why bad things happen in a world where God is supposed to have some semblance of control.

Now, what we must remember about the Bible is that the theology contained therein ebbs and flows throughout time. For instance, the ancient Hebrew people were not always monotheistic. They believed in many gods and worshiped one. As nations conquered other nations, the gods also died along with the people. In the Jewish story, their God – Yahweh – is the last god standing. From henceforth, they would become monotheists.

How does this relate to Piper’s assertion that God kills simply because God can?

It’s just to show you that theology is in flux. The people are attempting to explain the world around them. They are trying to answer the question, “How does God relate to me here and now?” What it doesn’t mean is that the answers they provide are theologically true. They are their explanation.

This is why we see disagreements in the texts. I point out one of them in my book Heretic! Here’s a snippet:

In 2 Kings 9, there is an account of a great massacre at Jezreel by the hands of a man named Jehu. What happens is that Jehu is ordered – nay, anointed – by the prophet Elijah to strike down the entire house of his master Ahab over their tyranny and wickedness (2 Kgs. 9:7-8). So, he does! And he is championed as a righteous man of God for doing so.

A few generations later, however, the prophet Hosea sees things differently. Speaking on behalf of the Lord, Hosea writes: “For in a while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel: (Hos. 1:4). In other words, according to Hosea, God is not all-too-pleased with what the murderous zealot Jehu did to the house of Ahab. This, in spite of Elijah’s commanding such a thing.

All this to say, the Jewish prophets and rabbis constantly disagree and pushback on what God is like, how God behaves, and how to interpret their Scriptures. What is said of God, then, is something I am always willing to questions, especially given the amount of violence justified in the name of God.

II. Why Do Bad Things Happen?

This is the most difficult question for anyone who believes in God to answer. Any atheist who has any intellectual chops knows this. My answer to the question is this: I don’t know.

I have my ideas, but ultimately, it’s one question I still have for God. I mean, I understand the free-will defense, though it’s still not that compelling. But the real question is natural evil: Why do kids get cancer? Why are babies still-born? Things like that.

Personally, I think these things happen simply because bad shit happens. I no longer really believe in a God who is an all-powerful being. I don’t think of God as a being at all. I don’t think the universe works like that. Perhaps Tillich’s “ground of all being” is a better descriptor, but I’m still working through all that.

And so, I’m left a bit agnostic on the issue. Personally, I take a more Buddhist approach to suffering. Suffering exists. There is a cause to suffering. There is a way out of suffering. And there will be an end to suffering. The only thing I can do, then, is do my part in eliminating suffering for all sentient beings. How God relates to that, I’m not sure. Perhaps I am doing God’s work. Perhaps we are the hands and feet of God and that the only power God has is through beings like us.

So, I apologize if that doesn’t quite answer the commenter’s question. I don’t believe God engages in violence at all, but because humans do, he either endorses it, is powerless to stop it, or is only as powerful as the other humans who attempt to quell it. Because I am nuanced to a fault, I think it’s the last option. That’s why I try to do my part.

Hope that helps.


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About Matthew J. Distefano
Matthew J. Distefano is an author, blogger, podcaster, and social worker. He lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter You can read more about the author here.
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