«Dr. Steve Lemke provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary “Why do good things happen to good ...»
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? 1
Dr. Steve Lemke
provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics,
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
“Why do good things happen to good people?” Now, by asking that question, we
have already set the teeth on edge of any good theologian among us because it is a poorly
framed question. First of all, none of us are really good people, are we? We’re not
righteous, for “there is none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10; c.f. Ps. 14:1, 3; 53:1, 3; Isa.
64:6; Rom. 3:12, 23).2 No one of us can claim to be truly and completely good except God (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). None of us are so good that we deserve to be exempt from the vicissitudes of life. Secondly, it is difficult in some situations to know that something is indeed a bad thing, because God may work a blessing out of what we initially took to be a bad circumstance. We realize in the end that it was not really a bad thing after all.
But let us suspend those theological reservations for the present, because this is a question raised repeatedly in the Bible. Job, Jeremiah, Asaph, Habakkuk, Peter, and James raised this issue, just to name a few. And this is a question that, not adequately answered, has been a hindrance to faith for many persons who have suffered loss. I am addressing today many persons who were deeply and personally impacted by hurricane Katrina, as was I. Perhaps your minds turn immediately to the impact of that disaster on your own personal lives. But I am directing these remarks not just to the impact of Katrina on persons, but to all the many kinds of suffering that invade our lives.
What challenges confront you in your life? Are their problems or health issues that you face in your family? Are you struggling with relational issues? Do financial challenges weigh upon your spirit? Do you wonder how you will ever have the time and energy to complete all these academic assignments on the syllabi you’ve just received in your courses while you work two jobs and serve in a ministry?
If you are here, it is because you feel called into the ministry. You have came here as an obedient response to God’s leadership and direction in your life. And yet, you suffer all these challenges. Some of you had just arrived on the seminary campus, in obedience to a very clear sense of God’s leadership, only to have most of your possessions destroyed by the flood waters that followed hurricane Katrina. Why does God allow such things to happen to His people? This is the same issue that Asaph, a psalmist in the court of David, struggled to
understand. The words he penned under the inspiration of the Spirit of God in Psalm 73:1reflect his consternation about this problem:
Truly God is good to Israel, To such as are pure in heart. But as for me my feet 1Given in chapel at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary August 31, 2006 one year after Hurricane Katrina.
Scriptural quotations are from the New King James Version of the Bible.
had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the boastful; when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, But their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; Nor are they plagued like other men.
The claim in verse 1, “Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart,” is An example of one of the oft-repeated themes of the Old Testament, usually described as “Deuteronomic Theology.” Deuteronomic Theology asserts that righteousness pays -- that God blesses the faithful and opposes the ungodly. For example, in Deut. 30:16-18, the people of God are told that if they do good and obey God’s commandments, statutes, and laws, then He will bless them, but if they are disobedient then God will punish them. That central affirmation of Deuteronomic Theology is often repeated in the Wisdom literature of Scripture. In fact, the Psalms begin with just such an affirmation, with a contrast between how God will bless the righteous man but the way of the ungodly man will perish. In fact, Psalm 2 and Psalm 73 stand in interesting apposition to each another. Psalm 1 is the beginning of the first of the five books within the Psalms (Psalms 1-41), and Psalm 73 is the beginning of the third book within the Psalms (Psalms 73-89), the first ten of which are attributed to Asaph. In the construction of the Psalms, then, Psalm 1 and 73 are set as bookends in apposition to each other. Psalm 1 affirms that God is going to bless the righteous man who meditates on God’s law day and night, like a tree planted by a river of water. God is going to bless his life, such that he brings forth fruit in due season and whatsoever he does will prosper. But it is not so for the ungodly, who shall be like the chaff which the wind drives away. They will not stand on the day of judgment.
Psalm 73 begins by echoing this same theme of Deuteronomic Theology: “Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart.” That is the “Sabbath School” answer that Asaph had been taught by since he was a child. You know that in Sunday School, whatever the question is, a good answer is ”Jesus.” A boy was once asked once in Sunday School, “What is it that has a fuzzy tail, eats nuts, and lives in trees?” The boy answered, “It sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer must be Jesus! So much for “Sunday School” answers. The Sabbath School answer that Asaph had been taught was that God is good, especially to the righteous. Asaph was mirroring the Deuteronomic Theology of Psalm 1.
But then Asaph took a detour from the theology he thought he was supposed to believe. He protested, “But as for me....” It becomes immediately apparent that an immense gap has opened up between the standard Deuteronomic Theology to which Asaph paid lip service, and his own experience. His beliefs and his experience were not matching up very well. In verses 2-12, Asaph cited counterexample after counterexample that seem to indicate that God does not always bless the righteous in Israel and punish the ungodly. In fact, God seems to be letting the ungodly get away with their unrighteousness. These counterexamples flowed from Asaph’s pen like a creek overflowing its banks after a heavy rain. This inconsistency between his belief system and his experience seems to have been ٠ JBTM Vol. 4 · 26 Katrina Anniversary Edition pent up within him for a long time, and he just can’t take it anymore. “But as for me.... ” “But as for me.... ” Have you ever asked that question? “Why me Lord?” “Why did this have to happen to me? We can understand why things would happen to an unrighteous person, of course, but why would You let it happen to a righteous person? Why would You send or allow Katrina to hurt us that badly, to hurt Your churches, to hurt Your work along the Gulf Coast? Why would You allow that to happen?” Do not feel guilty about challenging God with that question. Many other saints have asked that question. When Job experienced extreme hardship and loss in his life, he cried out to God, “Lord, what’s going on? I don’t understand! Why?” The book of Job drives this issue home because Job was a particularly righteous man, but in spite of that he lost almost everything. Throughout the book, Job kept asking the “Why?” question. Likewise, the book of Habakkuk takes this issue to a national level. Habakkuk is told by the Lord that the unrighteousness of Israel was going to be punished by their being captured and exiled by the Babylonians. Habakkuk is stunned that God would use an ungodly nation to punish His own people. Habakkuk protests: “Wait a minute! I realize that Your people have been unrighteous, but at least we are better than the Babylonians! Why would You do that? Why would You allow an unrighteous people to chastise a comparatively righteous people?” Habakkuk was asking the “Why?” question. And when the Apostle Paul suffered from his thorn in the flesh, he kept praying for God to remove the thorn in the flesh so that he could be much more effective in God’s service, but the answer was “no.” Paul was also asking the “Why?” question.
So, the “Why?” question is not a bad question to ask. We have no trouble with Deuteronomic Theology when God is good to his own, or when He punishes evildoers.
Nor do we have a problem with sinners suffer the consequences of their sins. We figure that they deserved the punishment they got. Deuteronomic Theology is absolutely true in this sense. God does bless the righteous, and punish the ungodly. But the problem arises is in what we shall call extreme Deuteronomic Theology, which attributes a one-to-one correspondence between righteousness and blessing, on the one hand, and sin and suffering on the other. Thus, in extreme Deuteronomic Theology, every time something bad happens, it is because of a sin; and every time something good happens, it is a reward for some good deed we have done. This kind of Deuteronomic Theology is a commonly held misconception of many people. Whenever something happens, they assume that they are being blessed because of their righteousness, and if something bad happens they assume that they are being punished for their sins.
If you’ll allow me to digress just a moment and utilize the language of my discipline of Philosophy, the logical problem with extreme Deuteronomic Theology is that it commits a simple logical fallacy. A valid argument (a mixed hypothetical syllogism) would reason in the
These basic affirmations of Deuteronomic Theology are valid and true, as affirmed in Scripture. However, while those who affirm extreme Deuteronomic Theology use language that sounds very similar to this valid argument, in fact their argument is invalid because it
commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent:
Scripture calls extreme Deuteronomic Theology into question in a number of occasions. Job’s so-called friends, who imbibed deeply of extreme Deuteronomic Theology, challenged Job to confess his sins, reasoning that he must have been guilty of terrible sins since he had experienced such devastation in his life (Job 3-37). In the end, however, God rebuked the “friends” of Job and blessed Job (Job 42:7-12). Likewise, speaking to people who were desperately dependent on the weather for the success of their crops, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that God sends the sun and the rain on both the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). God does not just bless the agricultural needs of the righteous.
There are three specific examples in the Gospels in which Jesus specifically addressed this issue of extreme Deuteronomic Theology. He first addressed the issue of moral evil, when people hurt other people. Evidently some people in the crowd were talking about a recent event in which some Galileans had come down to Jerusalem to worship. For reasons we do not know, Pilate had sent a squadron of soldiers who attacked these Galileans. The crowd, assuming extreme Deuteronomic Theology, evidently assumed that this was God’s punishment for these sinful Galileans. Jesus asked them if they supposed 3 If the invalidity of this argument is not immediately obvious to someone who has not studied Logic,
note the following parallel invalid argument: the consequent:
Obviously, many other kinds of animals have fur than just dogs, so the conclusion of the argument is clearly invalid. Likewise, not all suffering is divine punishment. For example, Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not a divine punishment, but an instrument God used to bless Paul by teaching him dependence on God rather than on the flesh in his ministry.
٠ JBTM Vol. 4 · 28 Katrina Anniversary Edition that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered such things (Luke 13:1-2). If extreme Deuteronomic Theology were true, then this would account for why they suffered in this way. But Jesus said, “I tell you, No. But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”(Luke 13:3). These people had walked many miles to come to Jerusalem to worship God. They did not suffer because they were ungodly. They suffered because we live in a fallen world in which anyone can suffer such a tragedy. Jesus specifically rejected the explanation of extreme Deuteronomic Theology regarding moral evil.
Jesus then addressed the issue of suffering due to natural evil—suffering that comes from natural disasters such as wind storms and floods. He referenced another fairly recent incident, in which the Tower of Siloam fell on eighteen unfortunate people. Again, Jesus asked if their suffering in this way indicated that these eighteen were the worst sinners in Jerusalem (Luke 13:4). This reminds me of the fact that the police in some cities hosting a Super Bowls have conducted an ingenious “sting” operation in the weeks before the big game. The police send notices to all the people in the area against whom there are outstanding warrants. The notice announces that the recipients have won free Super Bowl tickets. The would-be “winners” are instructed to come to a hotel ballroom at a particular time and place with identification to confirm their identity in order to receive their Super Bowl tickets. When the “winners” confirm their identity, of course, what actually happens is that they are arrested and taken to jail. In a similar way, Jesus was asking His hearers if these eighteen people were in essence the victims of a divine sting operation. God works through mysterious ways to attract all the eighteen most wanted sinners in Jerusalem to the northwest corner of the Tower of Siloam at 3:30 one afternoon. The sinners are told they will win tickets to the Olympic Games. And then God smacks the tower down on them and wipes them all out with one blow. Jesus was asking, “Do you think that is the way God works?” His answer again was, “I tell you, No” (Luke 13:5). These people were not the worst eighteen sinners. They were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Anyone of us in this fallen world could experience a tragedy like that. Again, Jesus specifically rejected the explanation of extreme Deuteronomic Theology regarding natural evil.
The third example Jesus addressed was physical evil—a physical disease or disability.