Episode 34: Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? (Part 1)
Today and tomorrow, for the first time in the long and storied 34 day history of this podcast, we are going to do a two-part episode. The reason for this is that we are going to grapple together with a big question that has vexed the hearts of humans for thousands of years: Why does suffering happen? This question is quite apropos for today’s Bible readings (and for tomorrow’s reading also), so it should fit in well. Today we read Genesis 35, Job 2, Mark 6 and Romans 6. In the Genesis passage, Jacob decides to follow Yahweh, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly, and to put away the other idols and gods from among his entourage. Romans 6 features a beautiful theological passage from Paul about becoming slaves to God and leaving behind our slavery to sin. In our two focus passages for today, Job 2 and Mark 6, we see two incredibly righteous and GOOD people (Job and John the Baptist) suffer horribly. What’s worse, although both men exemplary lives that stand out even among the other saints of the Bible, neither man knows why they are going through the extreme suffering they are going through. John the Baptist is beheaded and dies alone in prison, not really understanding his situation at all, and Job is afflicted with the loss of his family, his wealth, his possessions and his health, and is at a complete loss to explain why. Both of these situations raise our big question of the day: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Let’s read Mark and Job together, and then discuss the situation.
In order to get at an answer to this big question, we should consider how we do Bible theology, or more specifically, how do go to the Word of God to answer life’s biggest questions? Here are three things to remember in seeking answers to our questions from the Bible:
- Rather than just focusing on one single verse, we must consider the whole counsel of God. Put another way, to answer the question of what happens when we die, we must attempt to survey all that the Bible has to say about this question, and not just one verse. The reason for this is that while every passage in the Bible is true – not every passage in the Bible is the COMPLETE truth. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul describes love, and we learn that it is patient, kind, and not at all jealous. All of these are true statements about love, but they aren’t the ONLY true statements about love in the Bible. In order to find out the complete teaching of the Bible about love, we have to go to other passages. In doing so, we find out in the Song of Solomon 8 that not only is love patient, kind and longsuffering…but it is also POWERFUL – as powerful as death. (Song of Solomon 8:6) Therefore, in order to have a complete understanding of love from the Bible’s perspective, we need the truths in 1 Corinthians 13 AND Song of Solomon 8, among many other passages also. Similarly, to gain a biblical understanding of suffering, and why it happens, we have to survey the whole Word. That is the process of developing a biblical theology – it involves finding out all of what the Bible teaches and reveals about a particular topic.
- Our second task is to account for the difference between Old Covenant passages and New Covenant passages. The New Testament must take precedence over the Old Testament, and it must interpret it. Consider Hebrews 7 and 8, and note how the New Testament/New Covenant has surpassed the Old.
Hebrews 7:18-19, “So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable 19 (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”
Hebrews 8:7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second one…13 By saying a new covenant, he has declared that the first is obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old is about to pass away.
This does not mean that the Old Testament is not the Word of God, or that we don’t need it, but we are no longer living in Old Testament/Old Covenant times, now we are living in the age of the New Testament.
- Finally, With humility, prayer, and the leadership of the Spirit, we must keep returning to the Word of God so that our theology and understanding does not drift from truth. We should hold our theology with a degree of humility and repeatedly keep returning to the Scriptures to test and confirm that we are walking in the truth. Like an unmoored ship, we humans have a tendency to drift away from truth, and we must discipline ourselves to return – over and over again – to the authority of the Word of God.
So, with that understanding in mind, back to our question: Why do BAD things happen to GOOD people? This question has been asked in various forms for literally thousands of years. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher that lived 300 years before Jesus, and for him, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by peace, freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain. Supposedly Epicurus helped to formulate what has been called the Epicurean Paradox/Riddle of Epicurus “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”
In answering this question, I want to point out a fundamental disagreement between Epicurean theology and biblical theology: Epicurus sought to avoid all forms of suffering and fear while The Bible PROMISES the experience of suffering, John 16:33 “You will have suffering in this world.” and The Bible COMMANDS it. 2 Timothy 2:3 “3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
Some read Epicurus for the first time and marvel at how modern he sounds…and his philosophy is very similar in some ways to modern atheism, though less sophisticated. However, I find it lacking and pollyannaish. Living a life that seeks to avoid suffering is like living a life that seeks to avoid air, or death or things that smell bad. Unrealistic and impossible. While many Christians and preachers have a pollyanna-type theology that is quite shallow and doesn’t reckon well with suffering, The Bible itself does NOT approach death and suffering in an unrealistic, pie in the sky way – but in a gritty and realistic way…with hope. Further, the Bible speaks of suffering FREQUENTLY.
SO – here’s our question, but before we get too deep into an answer, we need to make some adjustments. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is a bit of a flawed question from a biblical sense. Yes, John the Baptist was a great human being – the greatest human being born in history, according to Jesus. Yes! Job was a great guy also – the Bible says he was the greatest man in his area of the world. The better and more accurate question is: Why do bad things happen to SEEMINGLY good people – or COMPARATIVELY good people. ( Remembering that Romans 3:10 notes that there isn’t even ONE fully righteous person.)
Part 1 of this question is: Why do bad things happen? Why is there suffering in the world? The Bible gives a clear answer to that question and the answer is THE FALL.
16 He said to the woman: I will intensify your labor pains; you will bear children in anguish. Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you. 17 And He said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘Do not eat from it’: The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.”Genesis 3:16-19
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned.”Romans 5:12
SO – ALL suffering has its root in the Fall in the Garden of Eden. SIN causes suffering. But why do comparatively good people suffer? Why is there so much tragedy in the world? Time to dig deep into the teachings of the Bible on suffering – and why suffering happens. As we do, note these three characteristics of the Bible’s teaching on suffering:
- The Bible does NOT shy away from talking directly about suffering. You simply cannot spend much time studying suffering in the Bible and walk away thinking you will be immune to it.
- The Bible does NOT promise freedom from suffering for the most devout followers of Jesus. Instead, it promises JUST THE OPPOSITE.
- The Bible gives a myriad of reasons for suffering, and doesn’t always seek to offer explanations for why seemingly good people are going through bad things. Jeremiah – the longest book in the Bible – is about a faithful prophet that never has one conversion or moment of seeming fruitfulness in his ministry. Why? It is never fully explained, and yet Jeremiah is obviously quite faithful to the end. Job is a whole book devoted to suffering, and it is about a good man that suffers horrific suffering. Job NEVER knows why. The call of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 1-4 (4th longest book in the Bible) indicates his ministry will be a ministry of repeated suffering.
And that is enough for a beginning answer about suffering. Tomorrow we will continue grappling with the question of why bad things happen to seemingly good people, but I want to close with a testimony/story below from pastor David Platt. Platt wrote the best-selling book Radical, pastored the church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and was the head of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board for a time. Below he tells the story (during a sermon on Job!) of how he came to be pastor of one of the largest churches in Birmingham while still in his twenties:
I was thinking this morning, even as I was preparing and looking over this text again, of the purpose of God in suffering, even in my speaking in front of you about the purpose of God in suffering. It was almost three years ago to the day when Heather and I were living in New Orleans and hurricane Katrina came and sent our house under water, about ten feet of water in our one-story house there and our world turned upside down. I remember us sitting at a shelter in Central Louisiana, and we had set up a video projector where we were showing the news on the side of a wall.And it was one of those times, after Katrina had happened, when they were doing helicopter flyovers in the city of New Orleans. And I had been telling Heather, “Heather, I’m sure our house is fine, everything’s okay.” You know, giving her all the assurance that I had no authority to give whatsoever, just what you say during those times. And we see this helicopter flyover our neighborhood and we see this gas station, and we think, well, that gas station looks familiar, and it’s about two or three blocks up from where our house was and it was up to the top of the building with water. And it was one of those times when Heather and I lock eyes and we realize our life has just turned upside down.And so we are not going be able to go back home for a while, forever really as it came to be, because a few months later I start filling in preaching with this church in Birmingham, Alabama, and they invite me to come back a few more times, and long story short, here I am. That’s the picture of the purpose of God. Three years ago I never could have imagined as I was sitting and looking at our house under water that tonight I’d be talking to you about the purpose of God in suffering as the pastor of this church in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s got a purpose, it’s sometimes different, but it is always good, never oppressive, always good.David Platt, “The Gospel, God’s Purpose, and Suffering,” in David Platt Sermon Archive (Birmingham, AL: David Platt, 2008), 1566.