Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

As I held my daughter for the first time, all I could tell myself was, I will never let anything happen to this child. As if on cue, my brain immediately issued a grim reminder of the futility of such an oath. The tragic reality of our world is there is little we can do to fully shield our loved ones from harm. Bad things happen, and they often happen to the most innocent among us. In those perilous moments, the universal exclamation is "why?"

The question "why do bad things happen to good people?" has vexed minds for generations. The question is actually a piece of a broader theological issue known as The Problem of Evil, a philosophical conundrum that seeks to reconcile the coexistence of a good and powerful God with true evil. A problem that, in the minds of many, has yet to be sufficiently addressed.

The Big Question
The simplest answer to our marquee question, why do bad things happen to good people, is this: they don’t. Bad things do not happen to good people. Not because bad things don’t happen, but because of the second part of the question. You see, “good people” do not exist. In His Word, God has made this reality plain, establishing it as a key component of Christ's gospel. According to Scripture, God alone is good (Mk. 10:18), and man is not.

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.

–Romans 3:10-12.

As humans, we are born at a disadvantage. The Apostle Paul describes our original condition as one of sinful death (Eph. 2:1). Meaning, until we receive the light of Christ, we are lifeless bones clamoring after sin, a fact the Bible revisits frequently (Ps. 51:5; Ro. 5:12).

This disparity between God’s goodness and humanity’s sinfulness is the reason Jesus had to come. He is the only one who can bridge the gap. If we were truly good, we wouldn't need a savior. But because we're not, we need salvation more than we need air.

Speaking of Jesus, He is an exception. As the perfect Son of God, Jesus is the only human who is truly good, making His death a genuine instance of bad things happening to a good person. So, unless we’re asking why Jesus was crucified on the cross, the question, why do bad things happen to good people is broken. It’s like asking, why do the Denver Broncos play at City Park? The question sounds good enough...until we remember one important detail: the Denver Broncos do not play at City Park. The question is doomed from the start.

Since our question is flawed, it needs revision. So let's try this: Why do bad things happen to bad people? This more accurate version has the makings of a more straightforward question. A thief is not confused when he is jailed, and there is little surprise when the house built on sand collapses into the sea. Those are the natural consequences—those are just.

The human situation is very similar. We are criminals in God’s court, having broken all of His laws (Jas. 2:10). We therefore deserve punishment; we deserve bad things.* In fact, the Bible explains we deserve worse than we receive—we deserve death (Ro. 6:23). Do you know what it is called when people don't receive the punishment they deserve? It’s called mercy. As children of Adam, we are born into a coalition of sinful rebels who at every moment deserve death for our failure to honor God. And yet we do not receive it. Instead, God showers us with blessings and spares us from the full consequences of our sin. That's mercy, and God grants it even to those who remain in conflict with Him.

In short, if death is what we deserve, then everything short of death, every hot slice of pizza, every laugh, is a gift. When this fact hits home, it will fundamentally transform how you experience the world. Though we are sinful, the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in mercy.

*This is not a message of shame. The point isn't to convince the reader he or she is a bad person per se, but to instill in you an appreciation for your lack of goodness. In the Church, we call this “total depravity.” Total depravity is our condition, not of maximum wickedness, but of comprehensive wickedness. Meaning, our sin contaminates our person through-and-through. It taints us, and Isaiah 64:6 teaches us that whatever goodness we do have is tainted as well. Meaning, ultimately, we must repent of even our goodness. This is the spiritual reality of mankind and the reason for the gospel.

The Problem of Evil
That said, a spiritual contrast between good and evil isn’t what most people have in mind when they ask why bad things happen to good people; the reasons are usually more personal. People want to know why grandma’s memory is fading and why she can no longer brush her hair. They want to know why hurricanes destroy entire cities, and why children are born blind. As thoughtful Christians, we must remember that painful, faith-testing adversity is at the root of these questions, and have pity.

In November 2013, I traveled to Kentucky to watch my friend Adam marry his high school sweetheart, Kayla. Adam was a great friend and a tenacious learner and Marine, the perfect pedigree for flight school with which he was nearly finished. That weekend, in a small chapel in their hometown, Adam and Kayla Satterfield were married with much celebration. It was a very sweet occasion for everyone. Tragically, one year later, we returned to the same chapel to bury Adam with military honors.

In term of physics, helicopters shouldn't really be able to fly. The fact they leave the ground at all is a testament to the advances of modern engineering. The problem is, helicopters don't glide well. And if you take away their oil and the blades stop spinning, the result is always catastrophe. Sometimes things just go wrong. Maybe you know about this.

As Christians, we have a sensitive nose for evil. We're aware of where it comes from, who’s behind it, and the degree of its influence. But we know something else, too. We know of a God of unmatched power and goodness who is sovereign over every event—good or bad—and is working for the good of His Church (Ro. 8:28). What can be difficult is the pairing of these two realities harmoniously.

As mentioned, the problem of evil investigates the coexistence of evil and a good and powerful God. On its face, this problem can be troubling. The thinking goes, if God is good, then He must desire to rid the world of evil. And, if God is all-powerful, then He must also be able to rid the world of evil. So why hasn't God done what He desires and can do? we wonder. Hence the “problem” of evil.

Skeptics often use this type of argument to challenge the reality of God. Without straying off topic, you should know that these attempts to disprove God’s existence wind up doing the very opposite. In appealing to the existence of evil, skeptics affirm God's existence by identifying an objective moral standard of which He alone can be the source. In short, without God, good and evil could not exist. Everything would be ethically neutral. But since good and evil do exist, God must exist. Still, Christians are not immune to the difficulties posed by the problem of evil.

God's goodness and God's glory
Because God is good (He is the standard of goodness), everything He does is also good. Further, because God is perfect, His priorities are perfect. God's number one priority is of the greatest importance, Himself. He, His glory, is His focus. To humans taught to renounce self pride and to adopt radical humility, this can sound strange. Is God self-centered? we might ask. Indeed, it would be wrong for us to behave likewise, putting ourselves first. Such is idolatry. But an idol is something we substitute for God. It's a sinful mistake we make, not God. God's greatest interest can be (and must be) Himself. Behind everything He does is the pursuit, magnification, and expression of His glory. And believe me when I say this reality is good news for you and me. It's for this reason God created the world, why He allowed it to fall into sin, and why He chose to redeem it. It's difficult to understand, but God purposes every wicked individual and every tragic event for good and for His glory.

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.
- Exodus 14:4

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” . . . What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.
– Romans 9:17, 22-23

In the second passage above, Paul describes two sorts of vessels, vessels of wrath, like Pharaoh; and vessels of mercy, His chosen people; both as instruments of God’s glory. In the former, God displays His glory in His patience, power, and wrath. And in the latter, in His love and mercy. The point is, nothing will escape. God will reveal His goodness and glory in all things, good or bad.

Case Studies 
Joseph was the son of Jacob, and one of many children. But Jacob favored Joseph most of all, something that earned Joseph his brothers’ jealousy. One day, because of their resentment towards him, Joseph’s brothers seized him, stripped him of his clothing, and threw him into a pit. After a short while, the brothers noticed a caravan headed towards Egypt and decided to sell Joseph as a slave. They sold Joseph for 20 shekels. He was 17 years old.

What happened to Joseph was evil. To be sold by one’s own family would be such a traumatic experience that I struggle to comprehend it. However, pay close attention to Joseph’s words a few chapters later. Through God’s providence, Pharaoh had grown fond of Joseph, and elevated him to a position of authority over all of Egypt. And because of the great famine in the land, Joseph’s brothers, who thought Joseph dead, found themselves kneeling before their young brother as he said to them, “As for you [my brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

God meant the wicked betrayal of Joseph’s brothers for good. When I read this, I always hear John Piper's excited emphasis on the words “meant it.” Piper says, “Don’t let anyone tell you He meant ‘used.' God meant it [for good].” Piper is highlighting the fact that God didn’t (and doesn’t) just turn bad things around into good things. God intends for them, denoting purpose and control. God, in His divine sovereignty, meant the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers for good. Which, in this case, was the promotion of His servant Joseph for deliverance of the region from famine, and the reconciliation of his family.

The Bible describes Job as a man who feared God and shunned evil. The Scriptures call him “blameless” and “upright.” Even so, Job was the victim of some of the Bible’s most miserable circumstances.

As the text describes, God gave Satan permission to test Job’s faith. Without delay, Satan went on to destroy Job’s servants, livestock, home, and even his children, all on the same day. All to which Job faithfully responded with thanksgiving and praise. But Satan was just getting started. Unimpressed with Job’s perseverance, Satan sought permission to harm Job’s body directly, a request God granted, saying, “. . . he is in your hands; but you must spare his life” (Job 2:6).

Satan curses Job without mercy, reducing him to agony. Eventually, all Job can do is sit in misery, scraping his wounds with pieces of broken pottery, longing for death. Job’s friends, who should have been comforting him, instead assumed he had invited this trouble upon himself. In their counsel, Job's friends added to his misery. In the end, Job lost everything, including an appropriate perspective of God’s wisdom and sovereignty. Yet, despite the immeasurable pain and the wickedness of Satan, God revealed the goodness of His plan. In allowing Job to be tested, God sharpened and refined Job’s faith, multiplying his understanding of the God he loved. God then restored Job’s livelihood, granting him a life and provisions exceeding what he even had before.

Then Job replied to the LORD:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

- Job 42:1–6.

Last, we turn our attention to Scripture’s most compelling example. The vicious mocking, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Never has there been—and never will there be—a greater act of wickedness perpetrated on the face of earth. The unjust execution of Christ is a scandal of cosmic proportions. It is infinitely wicked and threatens to tear at the very fabric of our universe. Yet God meant it for good.

Yet, it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin.

- Isaiah 53:10a

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
- Acts 4:27-28

God revealed in the heinous crucifixion of His Son the greatest act of love the world will ever know. Temptations to romanticize the blunt realities of Jesus’s death, fast-forwarding to the resurrection, must be resisted. We need to remember that Jesus is a man. His experience of injustice and death was as real, perhaps even more so, than anyone else’s. The cumulative pain between Father and Son as Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world is incalculable. But even in this was God's glory manifest and His goodness revealed. In Jesus, the good news of the gospel is proclaimed and the glory of God shines like the sun. God did not manipulate wicked events for good. He meant them for good, and He always does.

Evil entered the world at the fall, humanity inviting its consequences upon the earth and into our lives. God didn't create the world this way; our sin has brought it about. In response, God could have left us to endure the pains of sin alone and without relief, but He didn't. God has chosen instead to overflow with mercy for His creation, even to an extent for those who reject Him. In the end, God will fully rescue His people and condemn the wicked. And based on what we've learned today, both events will be good.

I hope it's clear that the problem of evil isn’t really a problem, but simply a lack of perspective. We mistakenly situate ourselves among the good, and then—unsurprisingly—struggle to understand how God could let anything bad to happen to us. Perhaps one way we should think about it is this: evil isn't God's problem, it's ours. God isn't weak or immoral for allowing bad things to happen; He's gracious and compassionate for not allowing things to be as bad as they could be, and because He gives us good things instead, namely, Himself.

So, what does this all mean? In a conversation during one of our Vision for Life podcast episodes (number 53), Autumn Gardner and Hunter Beaumont are discussing hopefulness for the persecuted Church. Autumn says, "We can acknowledge that believers [in persecution] have a living hope, not in a glib way, but in a way that perhaps acknowledges that that is their best hope and what will sustain them." In reply, Hunter has this to say: "And that’s our best hope too."

I reference this exchange because of how impacted I was by Hunter's comment. No matter what your experience of personal misfortune—whether you're on the run for your life or simply battling habitual sin—our one true hope is the same across the board, Jesus Christ. He is what Autumn and Hunter mean when they refer to a "living hope," which is how the Apostle Peter describes the Messiah in 1 Peter 1:3. Jesus is alive, He is with us, and He is preparing a place for us in His Father's house from which nothing in this world can keep us. In the end, there is no greater hope than this. And like Autumn said, it isn't a glib "at least you have Heaven to look forward to" pat on the back for those suffering. Like Paul, we can find genuine comfort now in the intimacy we have with Christ and in our everlasting life with Him (2 Cor. 2:4; Ro. 8:18).

Like Job, we have to come to terms with our limited perspective. I may never understand how my friend Adam's untimely demise contributes to God's glory or to His overall good and sovereign plan, but I trust that it does. There's a chance you and I will never fully understand how our own painful circumstances are being redeemed, but we don’t have to. Instead, we can look to Scripture for examples of God’s wisdom and power and the promises of Christ which await us. Our best hope is our living Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who reigns over all things and exists as a constant reminder that even disaster can be a blessing.
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