Dialogues With Myself
How Can God Be Both Good and Powerful?
Written as a review of Harold Kushner’s bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People: published in BYU Studies, Fall 1983.
[p.93] “If you see a blind man, kick him; why should you be kinder than God?” That bit of folk wisdom from Iran seems cruel, but it captures a common response to evil and suffering by those who think God controls everything and does so with perfect justice: The victims must deserve it. It is less direct, but as cruel, that parents I know about could stand in a church meeting and give thanks that their son had “miraculously” survived an automobile accident because of his righteousness, in the presence of the parents of their son’s friend, who did not survive that crash.
Harold Kushner, a rabbi whose own son’s death radically changed his thinking about God, has written When Bad Things Happen to Good People “for all those people whose love for God and devotion to Him lead them to blame themselves for their suffering” and by implication for all those, like Job’s “comforters,” whose theology leads them to blame the victim—or those like Job, who blame God himself.
The book is written by a thoughtful and humane man, from the power of his own pain and the realism earned by much counseling of others in grief. It is designed to help victims and their families and pastors with specific examples and arguments which can help prevent the person who has been hurt by life from compounding the damage by also hurting himself or letting herself be hurt by others misguidedly trying to help. the book’s success has been demonstrated by many months on the bestseller lists and by a growing volume of letters and calls of gratitude to Kushner, with many requests for more of the same [p.94] kind of help. But the book’s central thesis breaks new ground in a way that has put Kushner at odds with both traditional Christian theologians and his own Jewish colleagues. His answer to what he calls the only question that really matters, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is that they happen in situations not within God’s total control: God is good and fair but not omnipotent.
As a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America points out, Kushner’s idea is a “radical break” with the Judeo-Christian past: “All the traditional answers say that God is in some way responsible for suffering” (Time, July 19, 1982, p. 80). But much of the book’s power comes from Kushner’s effectiveness in showing just how unhelpful, even cruel, such “traditional answers” (however satisfying to theologians) have been to those actually suffering: 1. Pain and loss are God’s punishment of the wicked. (Fine, if you are a normally sinful adult, or even a rabbi merely trying to live righteously, but what about the innocent child born with progeria or “rapid aging,” as Kushner’s son Aaron was, or struck with horribly painful bone cancer?) 2. The child (or mother) was needed on the other side; God has a more important mission for them. (A loving God would at least take them without pain. Besides, you mean God needs my wife more than I and my six small children do? And more than he needed the wonderful single woman down the street? That’s like saying to my daughter, “It’s your fault that your mother died. If you had needed her more, she would still be alive.”) 3. She is happier there, freed from this world’s sin and pain. (Then why keep any of us here so long? Are you saying that I should rejoice and thank God that my daughter was killed in an airplane collision? That it is just my own selfishness that makes my sorrow? That what looks like evil really isn’t?) 4. God has some inscrutable purpose in doing this to you; if you could see the big picture, you’d understand. (But that’s hypothetical; we don’t see any such big picture in 250 randomly gathered lives snuffed out in an airliner disaster. Besides, if a human artist or employer made children suffer so that something immensely impressive or valuable could come to pass, we would put him in prison. Why then should we excuse God for causing such undeserved pain, no matter how wonderful the ultimate result might be?) 5. But suffering can be educational; it even ennobles us. To a primitive, doctors performing an operation might look like they are torturing the patient when they are really helping him. This accident that has made you a paraplegic will also make you more sensitive. (What right do you, [p.95] who can walk out of this hospital and drive a car and play tennis, have to tell me it is in my best interest to be paralyzed? It’s obvious that not all trouble and suffering improves people, and if it could, why doesn’t your all-powerful God precisely control what he sends each person so that we are all improved, in fact, all made perfect? And if that’s what we think he’s doing, why should we interfere, why try to prevent suffering or do away with the pain?) 6. Well, God only let this happen to you because he knew you are strong enough to bear the loss of your son. (You mean, if only I were a weaker person, Aaron would still be alive? I have seen many people’s faith and lives destroyed by such tragedies. If God is a perfect and all-powerful tester of us, why does he miscalculate so often?)
If none of the traditional answers are satisfying to the victims, what can we say then? Why do bad things happen to good people? Kushner finds the key in the book of Job, which he reads as a rejection of the traditional answers in favor of a tough but realistic alternative suggested by God himself as he sides with Job against his “comforters.” Kushner claims that the Book of Job gives an unusual answer to the old problem of theodicy (How can we justify an all-powerful God, or believe in his justice, when he allows evil and innocent suffering in his creation?): The three statements, 1) God is all-powerful and causes all to happen, 2) God is perfectly just, and 3) Job is a good person, can all be accepted without contradiction only while Job is healthy and being blessed. The Book of Job is about which statement to reject when bad things happen to such a “perfect” man (and by implication, whenever they happen to children). Job’s visitors (and all of us when we in some way blame the victim) reject number 3, but Job knows he is good and will not deny his own integrity in order to hold the world together theologically—”Though he destroy me, yet will I maintain my ways before Him” (Job 13:15).
Job rejects statement number 2; he affirms that God, being absolute, is not limited by our notions of goodness: “Behold he snatches away and who can hinder Him? Who can say to Him, What are you doing?” (Job 9:12). But Kushner wonders how we can genuinely love God if he is “too great” for human considerations of morality: “The problem with such an answer is that it tries to promote justice and fairness and at the same time tries to celebrate God for being so great that He is beyond the limitations of justice and fairness.” Kushner thinks [p.96] that the author of the Book of Job has God appear out of the whirlwind not to reinforce Job’s position by asserting that he doesn’t have to explain suffering to his ignorant and weak creation, man, but rather to teach Job that it is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims (Job 40 and 41). In other words, the author of Job gives up statement number 1, that God is omnipotent, the cause of everything—and Kushner agrees:
If God is a god of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. … Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. … We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted.
It is unfortunate that this resolution to the problem of evil should be seen as utterly new, because, of course, it is the one revealed nearly 150 years ago to Joseph Smith. In fact, Kushner has one passage that could have come almost directly out of the “King Follett Discourse”: Like the Prophet, he analyzes the first verses of Genesis and finds that the original Hebrew describes God working with material already in existence. Then Kushner writes, “This is what it means to create: not to make something out of nothing, but to make order out of chaos.” Joseph Smith understood that the elements, our core intelligences, and the laws that govern the development and interaction of intelligences and elements have all existed co-eternally with God. He did not create from nothing and cannot annihilate what exists; he can only shape and mold (“organize”) the elements according to eternal laws and can only help intelligences to progress as they in their agency allow.
For Kushner, as for Mormons, the existence of evil is explained by the incompleteness of God’s creation and thus his limited control of the universe: “Suppose that Creation, the process of replacing chaos with order, were still going on.” Tragedies do not reflect God’s choices; they occur because chaos still continues “in those corners of the universe where God’s creative light has not yet penetrated.” Evil is “that aspect of reality which stands independent of His will, and which angers and saddens God even as it angers and saddens us.”
But Kushner’s formulations lead him back toward an explanation for evil as least as old as Augustine: evil as “privation,” the mere absence of good. Kushner is refreshingly straightforward about some of the logical implications of that position—and especially helpful in suggesting practical applications of the idea in counseling situations, but he really has no better answer than traditional theologians to the obvious [p.97] next question: Why didn’t God complete the universe? Why is it left less than perfect and thus shot through with evil?
Kushner makes a valiant try, pointing out that the Sunday School stories of miracles that imply a God willing and able to make exceptions to the laws of nature for nice people also imply a frighteningly imprecise universe: “A world in which good people suffer from the same natural dangers that others do causes problems. But a world in which good people were immune to those laws would cause even more problems.” He confesses recognition of the logical trap he is approaching: “If God was designing a world for our maximum benefit, why could He not create unchanging laws of nature which would not do any harm to any of us, good or bad?”
Why not, indeed? And Kushner’s attempt to answer, without a more complete theology like that revealed to Joseph Smith, leads him into serious trouble and a troubling cop-out. He tries to point out the beneficial aspects of pain. (It warns us to draw back from injury or over-exertion, etc., is “the price we pay for being alive.”) But, recognizing that he is still not answering the ultimate question of why God designed things that way, he confesses,
I don’t have a good answer as to why there is sickness and disease, why germs and viruses and malignant tumors in the first place. … I don’t know why people are mortal and fated to die, and I don’t know why people die at the time and in the way they do.
And finally, apparently because he does not have a sure faith in a life after death where justice can finally be done and the results of our sufferings become positive, Kushner succumbs to a kind of Stoic minimalism, asking us to be courageous and helpful to one another in the face of what remains a mystery:
Many of us … will come to the point where death will be the only healer for the pain which our lives have come to contain. … It is one thing to explain that mortality in general is good for people in general. It is something else again to try to tell someone who has lost a parent, a wife, or a child that death is good. … We can’t explain it any more than we can explain life itself.
Kushner is more helpful than most Judeo-Christian theologians, then, in facing up to the evidence that God is limited by natural law, human nature, and human freedom. But he is really no better at explaining how things got that way, why God has created such a universe—or didn’t create a better one. And therefore Kushner’s [p.98] speculations lead him to positions that, despite the practical values of his book, alarm me as much as they do the traditional theologians. He seems to have adopted a kind of wishfully sentimental Deism: “It may be that God finished His work of creating eons ago, and left the rest to us. … God has created a world in which many more good things than bad things happen.” He restricts God’s power much more than the Bible, or the needs of his basic position, would require: “God does not want you to be sick or crippled … but He can’t make it go away. That is something which is too hard even for God.”
Kushner recognizes the danger of meaninglessness in his removing God as a cause and cure of our suffering: “Have I made it harder for people to accept their illnesses, their misfortunes, their family tragedies by telling them that they are not sent by God as part of some master plan of His?” And he brings God back in as some kind of psychological aid, aid given not directly but merely through “the knowledge that we are not alone,” through belief that God, though not obviously doing anything, is “at the side of the afflicted and downcast.” But then Kushner seems to contradict his Deism by suggesting that God “helps by inspiring people to help,” for instance, by becoming doctors and medical researchers (and rabbis?) and that in some way, though “God may not prevent calamity, He gives us the strength and perseverance to overcome it.”
However, the greatest limitation of Kushner’s position is revealed at the end of the book, when he reviews Archibald MacLeish’s version of Job in the play J. B. and apparently approves its presumptuous existentialism:
J. B. cannot turn for help and comfort to a God who is described as making man imperfect and then punishing him for his imperfections. … He forgives God for not making a more just universe, and decides to take it as it is. He stops looking for justice … and looks for love instead.
Kushner then asks us “to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all.”
The advice to love and live instead of blaming is good, but such intellectual underpinnings are extremely weak. And modern man has been much more inclined to anger or indifference rather than forgiveness toward such a strange God: He cannot build a better universe or interfere in this one but is to be thanked and worshipped for providing in some mysterious way some only occasionally effective aid—”the [p.99] ability to forgive and the ability to love” and thus (at least for those of us not maimed by God’s strange universe) the ability “to live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in this less-than-perfect world.”
Mormon theology provides a crucial intellectual underpinning for Kushner’s good practical counsel. It empowers a secure confidence and gratitude toward God instead of requiring us, as Kushner does, to “forgive” him or to belittle his power by merely hoping he is helping in some vague way. Mormon doctrine effectively answers the traditionally unanswered question, “Why did God make such a universe where natural laws, human nature, and human freedom limit him?” The crucial new understanding given to Joseph Smith was that natural laws and the essence of human nature contained in “intelligences,” including their need and capacity for freedom, have existed co-eternally with God. He did not create them out of nothing and can only affect them within limits imposed by themselves. But he can act with great power within those limits to lift all intelligences—who will—to become like himself. And that in turn explains God’s traditionally unexplained purpose in creation: to act in love to give other beings like himself more of the freedom and creative power he possesses.
Evil is indeed privation, the less than perfect condition of humans and the harmful effects which humans thus have on each other in their ignorance and sin and which inexorable natural laws have on them in their ignorance and lack of power. But that privation is a given in the cosmos, not something built in or intentionally left out by God, and it is something God is working with all his power to remove through his creative acts and through helping us progressively respond to those acts. God does all that Kushner recognizes him as doing in our mortal lives—and much more, including using his perfect understanding of natural law to bless us individually as we let him. That includes provision of a “mortal probation” that extends far beyond this life, beyond the accidents of death and condition that unfairly limit the opportunities for choice and growth of some. A long pre-mortal life and continued individual existence and growth after death are the guarantees, in Joseph Smith’s theology, that there will be equal opportunity for every person to develop to his full potential. That revealed understanding is missing from traditional thought, which therefore must try to justify God in terms of the obviously unequal conditions of this life.
On the Mormon view, then, there is not a rational or emotional need to excuse God. He can be trusted and worshipped in full confidence that [p.100] he is at least as good and loving as our highest standards, the very ones he taught us, require. God is doing all that can be done, given the nature of things, to help us overcome evil as we progress in the struggle with it; he in no sense created evil in order to do that, but in choosing to help us progress God had to bring us into a condition where there were new things to learn and choices to be made. That condition, unavoidably, is one where evil results from our imperfections and imperfect choices. And God only takes on such a responsibility because he has the immense power to provide absolutely sufficient means, here and hereafter, so that he can assure each of us that the evil can be overcome, if we will.
Yes, there is remaining mystery, as there is in all attempts to explain the ultimate, but the troubling mystery in Mormon thought centers in the nature of the universe, not in the nature of God: How did such a universe, with its own basic, unchanging laws, and such beings as God and men, with their potential for “eternal increase,” come to be? Joseph Smith’s answer, that they didn’t come to be, but always were, both thrills me and multiplies the mystery.
What value then is Kushner’s book? It can be very useful to anyone who must try to help the suffering or grieving, which includes us all. Its basic message is that of the Book of Mormon prophet Alma: Rather than explaining or blaming, we should “mourn with those that mourn … and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). And it gives many practical suggestions about how to do that. It also helps us see the advantages, if we do not want to be like Job’s “miserable comforters,” of holding the universe, not God or the victims, responsible. And, with the additional strength of the Mormon understanding, it can, much better than traditional theology, help us see satisfactory reasons for not holding God responsible for the nature of that universe, while still acknowledging his powerful, pervasive efforts for good—his hand in all things.