Why doesn't God prevent needless suffering and death?
Apparently senseless events involving injury and death happen every day. Sometimes we learn of them on
the evening TV news and feel saddened for the victims and their loved ones.
Other times, they happen to one of our relatives or family members and we are
An innocent child runs out onto the street after a ball and is killed
by a truck.
A man is accidentally killed in a hunting accident.
A car driven by a drunk driver collides with a car driven by a young woman on her way
to her bridal shower; the drunk lives and the bride-to-be is killed.
A newborn is found to have an incurable, untreatable medical problem
and is given only hours to live.
We ask "Why." There are answers, but none of them are particularly
What we learn as children:
Christians outnumber the followers of the next
larger organized religion in North America by a factor of about 30 to 1. So, we will give greater
emphasis to Christian theology in this essay. We hope that the essay
will be of interest to followers of other theistic
religions, and the "NOTAS" -- the religiously unaffiliated.
Many -- perhaps most -- children in North America are taught, either in Sunday School or at
home, that God micromanages everyone's life. Every significant event -- both good and
bad -- is caused, organized and scheduled by God. God has a plan for
everyone's life. They are taught that God has many attributes. Among them are:
Omnipotence: God is all-powerful. He can cause anything to
created the universe in six days by speaking it into existence. He can
suspend the rules of nature at any time and generate a miracle.
Omniscient: God knows everything. He is aware of every event in
everyone's life, and every thought going through their mind. He knows about future events before they occur.
Omnibenevolent: God is all-good, kind, and loving towards
humans. He wants the best for us.
These beliefs may well give children a sense of security -- a belief that God
is in charge and all is right with the world. However, childhood beliefs are not
necessarily helpful when one is faced with adult problems. When an apparently senseless tragedy happens, the faith that a person had
formed in childhood can be shattered. They might want to go on believing, but
their anger at God for not preventing the disaster makes "it hard for them to hold on to their faith and be
comforted by religion." 1 At a time when they need support
from their faith, they might find themselves adrift.
They are not alone.
Theologians have been debating the problem of theodicy for centuries. Theodicy comes from
the Greek words "theos" (God) and "dike" (justice). It attempts to
harmonize belief in the goodness of God with the obvious existence of evil in
the world. It asks hard questions like: If a ethical person feels an obligation to do whatever they can to prevent a child from
running into the path of a truck, why does God not prevent such tragedies.
Why do these tragedies happen:
People have given many rationales to explain what appear to be senseless
tragedies. Many people find that none of them are particularly comforting:
We must trust God: God's ways are not our ways. We must trust
that God took an action (or failed to prevent an event) for reasons
which make sense to him. It was all part of God's plan. Someday, when we
are in Heaven, all will be revealed to us; we will understand and be satisfied
with the explanation. In the
meantime, we have to trust that God had his reasons for doing (or not
doing) what he did. We are not to question him.
The book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)
describes how God entered a wager with Satan. Satan bet God that Job, a man who was "perfect
and an upright man, one that fears God and shuns evil..." 2 would curse God if he suffered sufficient loss, pain, and misfortune. God
allowed Satan to destroy Job's house, kill his cattle, and kill all of his
children. When Job complained to
God about the unfairness of his suffering, God answered that it was not
proper for humans to criticize God, 3 to "disannul
[God's]...judgment" or "condemn" him. 4 Job
finally admitted that he had "uttered that I understood not; things too
wonderful for me, which I knew not." His faith in God was
unshaken, even though he could not understand the reasons for the death of
his children, and his pain and tribulation.
It was the result of sin in the Garden of Eden: When God
created the world, it was good. There was no sin, no death, and no
tragedy. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, sin entered the world for the
first time. Death, disease, pain, and senseless tragedies were the result.
They are with us still. We have all inherited the sins of our original
The good die young: God sometimes decides that people are to die before
their time because they are good, and pleased God. He takes them up into
Heaven so that they would not be polluted by the evil which surrounds them in the
world. The following quotation comes from the Wisdom of Solomon
4:10-15. It is one of the apocryphal books, which are not found in all
"There were some who pleased God and were loved by Him, and
while living among sinners were taken up. They were caught up so that evil
might not change their understanding, or guile deceive their souls. For
the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire
perverts the innocent mind. Being perfected in a short time, they
fulfilled long years; for their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore
He took them quickly from the midst of wickedness. Yet the peoples saw and
did not understand, to take such a thing to heart, that God's grace and
mercy are with His elect, and that He watches over His Holy ones."
The bad die young: The tragedy is the result of personal sin.
Some Christians believe that people who lead good lives live long on the
earth and do not die until they are elderly. Conversely, those who have unconfessed sin
in their lives die young because their actions stir up the wrath of God.
God is viewed as a righteous judge who delivers justice to people; they
get exactly what they deserve. The early parts of the Hebrew Scriptures
(a.k.a. Old Testament) often reflect this belief. For example:
Exodus 20:12: "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long
upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee." The commandment
promises a long life to those who honor their parents. It implies that
those who do not honor their parents will die young. (King James Version).
Job 2:9: "...curse God and die." Job was suffering with
painful "boils from the sole of his foot onto his crown." (KJV) His
wife suggested that he end his suffering by cursing God. She expected that,
if he did so, God would immediately strike him dead.
Job 4:9: Eliphaz, one of Job's friends, commented: "...who
ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off? Even
as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the
same. By the blast of God they perish..." (KJV) That is, God causes
the death of those who sin, and extends the life of the righteous.
Proverbs 12:21: "No grave trouble will overtake the
righteous, but the wicked shall be filled with evil." (New King James
Later in the Hebrew Scriptures, people began to realize that there
was no correlation between a person's good behavior and long life.
Scoundrels often lived long lives and were wealthy. Good people often
died young and poor. In later books of the Bible -- for example Daniel -- the authors started to emphasize life
in heaven or hell after death where injustices in the present life would
Our theology is mistaken: Rabbi Harold S. Kushner was faced
with a personal tragedy when his young son Aaron (1963-1977) was diagnosed with progeria.
This is a disorder in which the son aged rapidly and died in his early
teens. Kushner describes how that on each birthday, he and his wife
"would rejoice in his growing up and growing in skill. But we would be
gripped by the cold foreknowledge that another year's passing brought us
closer to the day when he would be taken from us." 1 Moved by a
desire to make sense of his son's condition and by a concern for
other parents in a similar situation, he wrote a very popular book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." 1
Traditional Christian theology teaches that God
is omnipotent (he is all powerful and can prevent or cause any action),
omniscient (he knows everything that is happening and is about to occur) and omnibenevolent
(all good, kind and loving). Kushner reasons that we cannot believe that
God has all three of these attributes. He can logically have only two:
If God knows of the tragedy, is all loving, and does nothing, then
he cannot be all-powerful. If he were, he would have prevented the event.
If God knows of an impending disaster, has the power to
prevent it, and yet does nothing, then he is not all-loving. He doesn't
care enough about humans to prevent it.
If God has the power to prevent the disaster and is all loving, then
he cannot be all-knowing. He must have been unaware of the tragedy as it
to accept the first -- and to him the least worse -- option: that God is not
omnipotent. This is a radical idea, but one that brought him, and
thousands of others, peace.
Suffering is needed to help us overcome our own faults: Rabbi
"one of the great Orthodox Jewish teachers of our time,
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. 'Suffering comes to ennoble man, to purge
his thoughts of pride and superficiality, to expand his horizons. In sum,
the purpose of suffering is to repair that which is faulty in a mans
personality'. Just as a parent sometimes has to punish a child whom he
loves, for the child's sake, so God has to punish us."
God isn't available to prevent tragedies: Deism was the faith of most of the U.S. founding fathers. It is
becoming increasingly popular today. One main reason for this is that it
neatly solves the problem of theodicy. Deists believe that a transcendent God created the world and the rest
of the universe billions of years ago. He gave the universe a set of laws to govern its
behavior, and set it in motion. God then departed, and hasn't been seen since. Their
belief is in a God who does not answer prayer, and is basically unaware of personal
tragedies and other events on earth. Accidents simply happen. God does not
cause them, nor does he prevent them.
There is no God; "Stuff happens:"
Strong Atheists assert that
there is no God. One of the evidences that they often cite for this belief is the apparently
unsolvable theodicy conflict.
Other Atheists simply have no belief in God. God is not part of
their world view.
Agnostics suggest that there may be a God, but that on the basis of
current knowledge and evidence, we cannot be certain that God either
exists or does not exist. They feel that they must withhold a decision on whether God exists.
All three groups believe that events unfold due to perfectly natural causes,
with no input from God.
God is present but uninvolved:Process
Theology is a view of God which is based on the writings of Alfred North
Whitehead and other theologians and philosophers. They replace the traditional view of a immutable, omnipresent, omniscient
and omnipotent deity with a God who is in process. He is
constantly changing, learning, and evolving along with humanity. God
affects history indirectly through gentle persuasion, and not directly by
coercion. He does not intrude directly in human activities; he does not
violate the laws of nature by creating a miracle. Rather:
persuades all entities towards this perfection by providing each of them
with a glimpse of the divine vision of a better future. And yet all
entities retain the freedom to depart from that vision." 6
God does not
interfere with the unfolding of events to prevent tragedies from
Again, accidents simply happen. God does not cause them, nor does he
prevent them. But he can use the results of tragedies to promote good.
A book which may be helpful
for persons impacted by a recent tragedy or loss:
Peter McWilliams, Harold H. Bloomfield, Melba Colgrove wrote a book
called "How to Survive the Loss of a Love." It is for widows, widowers,
persons trying to get over a broken relationship -- in fact anyone who is
grieving because of a loss. It was published in 1976 and sold nearly two million copies in its
first edition. 7