Why Bad Things Happen to Good People
I am not a scientist, certainly not a theologian, so I will speak from neither of these perspectives.
Still, I may be able to comfort you in understanding why bad things happen to good people. Even more, to understand some cosmic questions, such as the origin of life and the meaning of our existence, as I have myself been comforted the past 40 years.
Essentially these questions come down to the role of religion in our lives. And religion has as its first principle the belief in God.
But how could a God, one who created a world of such wonder, where an ordinary blade of grass is a marvel of engineering (photosynthesis, genetics, hydraulics), where the higher orders of animals contain multiple universes of astonishing wonder (the digestive system, the reproductive system, the nervous system, the brain, the eye, the heart), and finally how could a God who created a world full of galaxies and stars billions (“…and billions” – RIP, Carl Sagan) of miles in breadth – how could a God of such power allow such suffering on Earth.
Suffering not only on a vast level – war, drought, flood, slavery, the destruction of the native people of both Americas, the Holocaust, the famines in China under Mao, the purges under Stalin, and more recently, the Cambodian killing fields, the Tutsi machete massacres, the Islamic slaughters in Algeria … but one has to stop somewhere.
No, inexplicable is also suffering which strikes individually: the kind father or good husband slain by a drunk driver. The infant torn apart by a neighbor’s dog. The woman raped, the child born with severe handicap, the young and healthy stricken with paralysis or disease.
What made all this suffering most confounding was to remember that many of the drowned, starved, slashed, diseased, gassed, and burned had a prayer on their lips as they passed away.
How could a God ignore such suffering?
And yet, what but a God could have created this wonderful world we inhabit?
This contradiction must be resolved. And not by platitudes like “we cannot fathom God’s ways” or “our suffering in this vale of tears will result in endless paradise in the afterlife.”
For me, faith was not convincing. Faith requires the denial of observation and reason, a path I could not take.
But science also failed to provide answers, especially on the question of creation.
My own epiphany came in a freshman college class on American History, strangely enough, where we learned about deism.
Deism was the belief of some of our Founding Fathers. Deism pictures God as a master clockmaker (I always pictured him as gray-haired, a little balding, a little pudgy, a pencil behind one ear) puttering around in his workshop, where what he likes to do most is build clocks.
After designing a new clock, the clockmaker constructs it using gears, springs, levers, and whatever else he might take from his stock of spare parts. At times, not finding the needed part, he might take it out of a clock already built, one of the many clocks ticking away on a shelf in the workshop.
The master clockmaker puts the new clock together, winds it up, makes sure it is working well. Probably takes a moment to admire his handiwork, as craftsmen do.
Then he puts the clock, still ticking, up on a shelf, and goes on to build another clock. And later another, and another.
I am sure you have guessed by now that deists see our small part of the universe as akin to one of the clocks. Its gears, springs, levers, etc, are the natural laws — of mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, etc — which make our universe function.
Darwin’s theory of evolution simply describes the condition of our clock with the passing of time.
The natural laws — the scientific principles — within our clock are also, of course, the same as found in the other clocks. Of course they are, as all the clocks are made of the same store of parts.
Until a clock winds down, it will tick on, its immutable natural laws set in motion by the master clockmaker when he designed and constructed it.
Our own clock will run until the main spring finally unwinds, or until the clockmaker stops it to use some of its parts for another clock. In terms of our humble solar system, scientists say our clock has been ticking about five billion years. They guess our Milky Way galaxy has run 11 to 13 billion years, and the entire universe about 15 billion years.
These estimates are based on the Big Bang Theory, which I find incomprehensible, if not ridiculous, when pursued to a logical conclusion. That is, OK, what was before the Big Bang? And how could the entire universe have been compressed to such a tiny point in space?
And, by the way, who or what created the point?
These are questions beyond the power of science to answer. The answer to them all is basically “it is not possible to understand … the best we can do is to give it a name: God.”
That takes care of creation. But is it clear now the futility of praying for help? Praying to whom? The clockmaker?
The clockmaker is in another part of his workshop, engrossed in another project. It isn’t that he doesn’t care about the pleas and prayers coming out of a clock, even when cried out by millions. No, it’s that they are much too weak to be heard. (I’d also like to think he can’t hear them because, like me in my workshop, he sets the volume of his music or good NPR program pretty loud.) God just can’t hear us. This is why prayers cannot be answered, and are a waste of breath. Prayers that seem to have been answered are nothing but coincidence or explainable by natural laws.
It also helps us understand why an innocent, righteous life can have such a tragic end. Or, on a more mundane level, why the lottery isn’t always won by the devout.
It just doesn’t matter to God what happens in our insignificant part of his workshop. While our clock is quietly ticking away, the master clockmaker is working on new ones, and has long ago forgotten ours.
Then finally, what of our souls, what of the afterlife?
It pains me to say, I believe they are figments of our imagination, desperate attempts to gain meaning in our existence. I wish I could find comfort in the belief of a blessed afterlife, but think the Old Testament had it right with “from dust to dust.”
What place, then, for religion? To each his own. Religion can help teach morality to our children, and can guide us in ethical and charitable living. Unfortunately, history has shown too often that religion also divides us, has brought us to war, justified ghastly atrocities, and blinded us to reason and reality.
Obviously, if you believe the concept of deism, you don’t believe in any religion.
For me, this clockmaker concept (which, curiously, I’ve never heard expressed since that long-ago freshman class) explains how such a powerful God could create our wonderful world, yet be unmoved by the suffering of the creatures in it. This concept has helped me avoid countless hours wasted in worship and helped me understand much of the misery we read of in the news.
Deism has brought me much comfort over the years. I hope it helps you as well.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.