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Where was God when tragedy strikes?

Why doesn't God prevent needless suffering and death?

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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 crushed:

bullet An innocent child runs out onto the street after a ball and is killed by a truck.
bullet A man is accidentally killed in a hunting accident.
bullet 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.
bullet 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 comforting.

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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:

bullet Omnipotence: God is all-powerful. He can cause anything to happen. He 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

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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:

bullet 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.

bullet 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 ancestors.

bullet 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 Bibles:

"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."

bullet 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:

bullet 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).

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet Proverbs 12:21: "No grave trouble will overtake the righteous, but the wicked shall be filled with evil." (New King James translation)

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 be resolved.

bullet 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:

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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 unfolded.

Kushner decided 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 Kushner quotes:

"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."

bullet 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.

bullet There is no God; "Stuff happens:"
bullet 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.

bullet Other Atheists simply have no belief in God. God is not part of their world view.

bullet 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:

"God gently 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 occurring. 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.

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Related essay on this web site:

bullet Theodicy: Why doesn't God prevent evil and suffering?

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A book which may be helpful for persons impacted by a recent tragedy or loss:

bullet 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

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  1. Harold S. Kushner, "When bad things happen to good people," Shocken Books, (1981; reissued 1989), Page 4. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store's Marketplace sellers often have used copies for sale for as little as $0.01 plus shipping.
  2. Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) Job 1:8; King James Version, with updated English.
  3. Ibid, Job 40:2
  4. Ibid, Job 40:8
  5. Op Cit, Kushner, Page 17-18.
  6. Sheela Pawar, "Basis Synopsis of Process Thought," Center for Process Studies, at:
  7. Peter McWilliams, Harold H. Bloomfield & Melba Colgrove, "How to Survive the Loss of a Love." Prelude Press, (Reprinted 1993). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store's Marketplace sellers often have used copies for sale for a few dollars, plus shipping.

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or Home page > Religious information > God > here

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Copyright © 2003 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-JUN-1
Latest update: 2012-JUN-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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