“Why do bad things happen to ‘good’ people?”

Here is a worthy entry over at Serviam, which I thought good to pass along as food for your own examination of conscience.  My emphases:

There is another excellent piece over at The Integrated Catholic Life this morning.  This one is penned (keyboarded) by Dr. Peter Kreeft and deals with the subject of evil.  When people have asked me why an all-loving God allows good things to happen to good people, I have always said three things:

  • So that a greater good can come from it.
  • Our goal is not to be comfortable on Earth but to respond to each day as God desires us to so that we can be comfortable with Him in heaven.
  • Faith seeks understanding, it does not require it.

Dr. Kreeft poses several questions and addresses them and points out that “hell is a result of God’s love,” but I was struck in particular by this:

First, who’s to say we are good people? The question should be not “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but “Why do good things happen to bad people?” If the fairy godmother tells Cinderella that she can wear her magic gown until midnight, the question should be not “Why not after midnight?” but “Why did I get to wear it at all?” The question is not why the glass of water is half empty but why it is half full, for all goodness is gift. The best people are the ones who are most reluctant to call themselves good people. Sinners think they are saints, but saints know they are Sinners. The best man who ever lived once said, “No one is good but God alone.

Read the entire piece here.

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35 Responses to “Why do bad things happen to ‘good’ people?”

  1. catholicmidwest says:

    “So that greater good may come of it” can’t be a satisfactory answer because you cannot do a bad thing to get a good result.

    Rather, bad things can happen to human beings because human beings are not God. Being a “nice” human being has rather little to do with that basic fact.

  2. catholicmidwest says:

    What human beings can do is “redeem” the bad that happens to them by acts of courage, faith and goodness. Or they can buckle and fall into despair. That has everything to do with who we are as individuals and what we choose to accept or deny. But bad things can still happen.

  3. Stvsmith2009 says:

    I think sometimes people fall for the mistaken idea, that because they are Christian nothing bad should ever happen to them. They think that they should never suffer or have any misfortunes befall them. Christ suffered and endured more than any of us ever have or ever will. Which is why we should offer up our suffering in unity with His suffering.

  4. catholicmidwest says:

    Stvsmith2009:
    I know. It’s what happens when the “Big Santa Claus in the Sky” idea collides with the “But I’m Really a Good Person” idea. Scary.

  5. What a perfect blog entry for me to ask for prayers for the repose of a soul, if I may. This morning I was asking myself “why” this person, “why” so young, “why” to such a wonderful young couple, all the while knowing that God has a plan. Anyway, I read somewhere many years ago that the devil invented the word “why”.

    My sister in law’s brother, Kevin, who is about 43, woke up this morning about 2 am and found that his wife , Kaye, was not in the bed. He got up to look for her and found her in the bathroom; she’d passed away. Kaye was about 43 as well. We suspect a heart attack but do not know yet. Please pray for the repose of Kaye’s soul and that Kevin will recieve comfort. My first thought was, “Oh, this was a wonderful couple, how could this happen to such good people.” I have to keep emotion out of this for the most part and concentrate on praying and knowing that God has a plan etc. Any prayers from you all would greatly be appreciated.
    God bless

  6. Tony Layne says:

    @ catholicmidwest:

    “‘So that greater good may come of it’ can’t be a satisfactory answer because you cannot do a bad thing to get a good result.”

    That’s to argue that, by giving man free will in the full knowledge that he would misuse it, God did a bad thing, which I’m certain wasn’t your intent. You know as I do that at times the most morally good choice will have some evil consequences (consider the neutral military euphemism “collateral damage”). We don’t intend them any more than God intends for us to do evil; we are responsible but not guilty. That’s the principle of “double effect”.

    As for not doing evil to achieve good ends, that’s true as a matter of policy, and 99.9999% of the time we can adhere to such a rule, even if it’s hard. But consider an extreme situation where an evil must be intentionally performed to prevent a greater evil from happening. Is there no measure of disparity between the two evils beyond which doing the lesser evil is permissible? Here we’re talking a choice that puts a moral gun to one’s head. I’m not arguing that the end justifies the means but that circumstances may periodically and practically deprive one of the choice not to do evil.

  7. Gabriel Austin says:

    The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl points out that suffering [along with guilt and death] are necessary triad, the elements of what it means to be a human being. These are how we learn what it means to be human.

  8. Gail F says:

    “So that greater good may come of it” — if someone told that to me after something terrible happened, I’d slug him.
    I’m pretty sure I know what the writer meant, and a blog post is a difficult way to get a complex point across. But the way this is worded, God permits something bad happen in order that He can bring about a greater good. I think a better way to think of this is that God lets bad things happen because that is the way he set up the world, and that at the same time he can always bring about good from the worst situation (there is nothing so bad that God can’t bring something good out of it), but that the first is not the prerequisite to the second. To say so is to take the Muslim position that all things that happen are the will of Allah, and thus that if something happens it is by definition good. And many things happen that are bad.

    As Jesus said, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. As your mother said, life isn’t fair. For details, see the Book of Job.

  9. webpoppy8 says:

    I hate the phrasing of these questions. It sounds very unconverted to me.

    Jesus was a good person. A REALLY good person.

    Bad things happened to Jesus. REALLY bad things.

    Stop whining.

  10. The way I look at it, bad things happen because a) we live in a fallen world and b) because we have free will.
    We may choose good, but others may not, and the decisions of others can affect us in good or bad ways.

  11. chatto says:

    I’m sure you avid Chestertonians spotted the GKC reference to Cinderella – he makes this point in ‘Orthodoxy’ in the chapter called ‘The Ethics of Elfland’. Good to know that Dr. Kreeft is a fan of the big man, as well as The Big Man.

  12. Tony Layne says:

    @ Gail F:

    “Reality has hard corners, surprises, and terrible dangers in it. We desperately need a true road map, not nice feelings, if we are to get home. It is true, as people often say, that ‘hell just feels unreal, impossible.’ Yes. So does Auschwitz. So does Calvary.”—Peter Kreeft

    I understand what you’re trying to say—and what you’re trying to not say. But God could have chosen to not give us free will, or to prevent us from misusing it (which comes down to virtually the same thing as not giving it to us). Since He has perfect foreknowledge, He must have foreseen the misuse. Moreover, He is under no moral obligation to provide that greater good to us, His creatures. Therefore, the statement still remains true: God did permit evil to bring about the greater good.

    You’re right, I wouldn’t want to say this to anyone grieving after tragedy or trauma either. But as Dr. Kreeft points out, our faith is full of hard, angular, uncomfortable truths. We Catholics split God’s Will into the positive and the permissive, but it’s still God’s Will. It’s not a point of faith limited to Islam; according to Prof. Roy Schoeman, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, the Talmud says, “As we bless God for the good, so we must bless Him for the evil.” At the end of the day, we don’t know what God knows, nor do we fully know all His plans even in the light of revelation, nor are we fully equipped to judge what He does and what He doesn’t do. Rather, we trust in Him, that after everything both fair and foul, beautiful and hideous, delightful and horrible, what He has in store for us will more than make up for what we have lost or suffered.

  13. charo says:

    When people have asked me why an all-loving God allows good things to happen to good people, I have always said three things:

    - Not to be nit-picky but I think you meant bad things happen to good people, unless I am missing something.

  14. S. Murphy says:

    Semperficatholic: adding my prayers to yours.

  15. Tony Layne says:

    semperficatholic: I’m sorry for your loss. I’ll say a prayer for Kevin and Kaye.

  16. tianzhujiao says:

    Semperficatholic: I also pray for the repose of the soul of Kaye.

  17. robtbrown says:

    Tony Layne,

    I’m afraid you’ve endorsed Proportionalism, the approach of Charles Curran. You might want to read Veritatis Splendor, which is based on malum intrinsecum (intrinsic evil).

    Man can never morally do evil, even if it is the lesser evil. To say otherwise is relativism. The maxim is a lesser evil is never a good (contra laxism), and a lesser good is never an evil (contra rigorism).

  18. robtbrown says:

    The question of evil is subtle, but the distinction has to be made between ontological evil and moral evil.

    A man is walking through a forest, and the wind blows a big limb off of a tree, which hits and kills him. That is an ontological evil.

    A man is walking though a forest, and someone who wants to kill him, breaks a big limb off a tree, which hits and kills the walker. That is both ontological and moral evil.

    Ontological evil is part of the plan of Creation, in which God manifests His Wisdom both in the goodness of things themselves and in the Order of the Creation (cf Finality). Grass, cows, and men are all good. It is good for cows to eat grass–but evil for the particular grass, which ceases to exist. It is good for Men eat to cows–but evil for the cow, who dies. The principle of the higher good is manifest.

    This principle applies also to the life of man, who is subject to evil so that he may be ordered toward the higher good, which is not merely natural but also supernatural.

    Also: St Thomas (in the Summa Contra Gentes) does not agree that God could have created man without free choice. Freedom of choice is found in rational creatures, but St Thomas says that it is necessary that intellectual creatures be found in the Creation. Otherwise, there would be no finality to the Creation.

  19. Andrew says:

    robtbrown:
    “Otherwise, there would be no finality to the Creation.”

    I don’t get it. What is “finality”?

  20. robtbrown says:

    Finality (final cause) is the end or purpose for which a thing acts –omne agens agit propter finem (every agent acts for an end).

  21. Ringmistress says:

    @catholicmidwest:
    ““So that greater good may come of it” can’t be a satisfactory answer because you cannot do a bad thing to get a good result.

    Rather, bad things can happen to human beings because human beings are not God. Being a “nice” human being has rather little to do with that basic fact.”

    The part you quoted is not Dr. Kreeft’s argument, but the summation of Dr. Kreeft’s argument by the referring poster.

    That being said, I think the argument stands because, there is a difference between commission of evil and permission of evil. God does not make bad things happen to “good” people, or any sort of person, in the positive way. Rather he permits bad things to happen to them. He is not committing an evil act so that a good may come about. He is permitting (rather than preventing) because he sees the bigger picture. This is not unlike a parent allowing a child to hurt himself (rather than rushing in to save him) in a minor way, so that he gains a knowledge that prevents greater harm down the line. I am not burning my child when I don’t grab him every single darned time he grasps at the flame of a candle. But if one of those times his tiny grasp results in a burn, he suddenly had a very good knowledge of what “hot” means, and will be far more likely to heed me when I tell him something far more dangerous is “hot”. And this is fundamentally different from deliberately burning him to teach him a lesson.

    I also am a bit confused by the wording of your second paragraph. You say that bad things can happen to human beings because human beings are not God. But Christ is God, and VERY bad things happened to Christ. And he did not prevent them. Rather, he saw that the evil of deicide and of the suffering he endured would bring about the far greater good of salvation. He didn’t make men kill him. Those men chose that for themselves. He permitted them to do so. He did not stop them from choosing to do evil. But he used that evil to his ends, effecting the sacrifice that would allow them to ultimately repent (as some of his murderers did, like the Centurion with the lance) and be saved.

    And so, while Dr. Kreeft makes a very clear point that we should wonder far more why good things happen to bad people, we also have reason for understanding why God’s omniscience allows us some understanding of his permission of evil with regard to innocents. Perfect example. A baptized three-year old is free from original sin and incapable of committing mortal sin. Save concupiscence, he is as innocent and good as they come. Does it not cause doubt when such an innocent is harmed by a willful malefactor? It is only in accepting that God in his omniscience permits that evil because he can in his sovereignty turn even that to His ends that we can not accuse God of bad intent in creating us free.

  22. Ringmistress says:

    @ robtbrown

    I will leave it to Tony Layne to clarify if he was espousing proportionalism or not. However, I think he was making a point that was in reference to a case where there is no morally good choice. I think the Prisoner’s Dilemma is the classic example. It’s the no good options case where there is no action you can make that is not in fact a positive evil, including the action of making no choice. Whatever you do, including nothing, you commit an evil. Therefore you must act in such a way as to choose the “lesser evil”.

    Most of these sorts of questions are the moral dilemmas that are usually exist only in thought experiments. But they exist to test the extremes of a theory. We are not allowed to positively choose evil. So the question is posed, what if we are placed in a situation where no matter what we do, we must choose evil? I think that was what he was trying to articulate.

    Though what that has to do with God’s gift of free will with the knowledge that we would misuse it, I have no idea.

  23. robtbrown says:

    Ringmistress says:

    I will leave it to Tony Layne to clarify if he was espousing proportionalism or not. However, I think he was making a point that was in reference to a case where there is no morally good choice. I think the Prisoner’s Dilemma is the classic example. It’s the no good options case where there is no action you can make that is not in fact a positive evil, including the action of making no choice. Whatever you do, including nothing, you commit an evil. Therefore you must act in such a way as to choose the “lesser evil”.

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma does not concern intrinsic evil.

    Could I have an example of someone committing evil who makes no choice because the choices are evil?

  24. Gail F says:

    Tony Layne: I also think I understand what you are trying to say and trying not to say. But I think you are flirting with Calvinism here.

  25. Tony Layne says:

    @ robtbrown: No, I’m not endorsing proportionalism. In context, I was speaking of unique, extreme cases where an unqualified morally good option is practically unavailable, an exclusive dilemma where to refusal to do a lesser evil allows a greater evil to occur—the “moral gun at your head”.

    The classic scenario is the “ticking time bomb”: A nuclear bomb is hidden inside a major city. There isn’t enough time to evacuate the city, or to do a building-to-building search. You have a person in custody who knows where it is, but refuses to reveal the location. Do you torture the person’s family, counting on the emotional stress to break down his resistance? The “double effect” principle doesn’t allow for a “yes”, and the scenario offers us the hidden option to attempt the search anyway in the hope that one of the search teams will find it with enough time to disarm the bomb. But, if we can take probability as a quick-and-dirty test of reasonableness, how reasonable is to bet all your chips on the search teams’ success? To refuse to decide, in this case, allows the greater evil to occur.

    Keep in mind that I’m not trying to force a “yes”, because I’m truly looking for a satisfactory answer. The answer may still be “no”, in which case it becomes another hard, angular point of Catholicism we must willingly embrace. Or, like the “just war doctrine”, we may have to surround a “yes” with a bodyguard of non-negotiable qualifications and caveats. In any case (Gail F, please take note), since I’m not speaking of predestination or making an “act evil, actor evil” equivalence, I don’t see how I’m “flirting with Calvinism”.

  26. robtbrown says:

    Tony Layne,

    Even if you’re not endorsing Proportionalism, you are in fact endorsing the type of example Proportionalists give to support their arguments. This method can easily be applied to any situation. For example, a poor family has 5 children. The mother knows that having a 6th will make it harder to feed the other 5, so abortion is chosen.

    In your example, it is not certain that torturing someone or his family will cause him to give up the information.

    BTW, according to the Double Effect the secondary effect must be accidentally related to the primary effect. Any military strike is morally obligated to minimalize as much as possible any collateral damage. For example, a factor making guidance systems must be destroyed. If there is one day when fewer people will die, circumstances between tactically and strategically equal, then there is moral obligation to strike on that day.

  27. Tony Layne says:

    @ Ringmistress: You’re quite right—I too have yet to hear of a “no way out” scenario that wasn’t extreme or artificial in its construction. As I said at the beginning, 99.9999% of the time, there will be a moral option present, or the person responsible for constructing the dilemma will be working with an inverted hierarchy of good such that one of the “evils” will actually be a moral good.

    As for what this has to do with God’s foreknowledge? I freely confess to having led everyone down a rabbit hole, though that wasn’t my intention. I think where I got side-tracked—and this may be where Gail F’s charge of “flirting with Calvinism” comes in—is the question of whether failing to intervene in order to prevent evil constitutes passive cooperation in evil. While I was composing this answer, I had to go pick up my mother from the hospital (lumbar shot, nothing dramatic), which gave me time to think. And I don’t think failure to intervene is necessarily passive cooperation: intentionality does count for something. Though I’m still not clear on the “moral gun to the head”, I think the solution lies in that direction. Any thoughts?

  28. robtbrown says:

    Should read:

    BTW, according to the Double Effect the secondary effect must be accidentally related to the primary effect. Any military strike is morally obligated to minimalize as much as possible any collateral damage. For example, a factory making guidance systems must be destroyed. If there is one day when fewer people will die, circumstances being tactically and strategically equal, then there is moral obligation to strike on that day.

  29. Dr. Eric says:

    I think Superman would beat The Flash in a race (although in my Dad’s comic book they tied). This is about as plausible as the” would you kill a terrorist to find out where the bomb is?” scenario.

  30. Tony Layne says:

    @ robtbrown: “Endorsing the example”? Not quite. For, as I’ve said, the example is highly constructed. It depends on the tacit agreement that X people suffering is “better than”/”less intrinsically evil than” Y people dying (where X < Y). Where do we get a dipstick to measure the intrinsic evil of an action? It also depends, as you rightly point out, on the presumption that the torture will extract the information in time … or, at least that it’s m0re probable. (Using sodium pentothal on the person possessing the information would be faster and more effective … and wouldn’t involve innocent bystanders.) Its only value as a “thought-experiment” is that it tries to set up a forced choice where a good choice is unavailable. And as you yourself point out, most such forced-choice scenarios are false dilemmas.

    If you’d like to go sidebar on the matter (so we can return the blog to Fr. Z’s intents), please feel free to drop me an email.

  31. robtbrown says:

    Tony Layne,

    1. Are you endorsing it? You’re saying, as the Proportionalists and Laxists do, that there are exceptions when one can deliberately commit acts that are instrinsically evil.

    2. Thought experiments are fine because they can demonstrate a principle. Their weakness is that often they don’t consider all angles. .

    BTW, Sodium Pentathol is only 100% effective in the movies.

    3. What is the dipstick by which we measure the evil of an act? Acc to St Thomas, it’s primarily the moral object, which is the proportion between the action and its effect. The genus and species of the act must also be distinguished.

    I recommend the Ia-IIae Q 18 (I had an entire course on it at the Angelicum).

    4. How to know what is intrinsic evil? You might want to read Veritatis Splendor. I also recommend Servais Pinckaers’ Ce qu’on ne peut jamais faire. La question des actes intrinsèquement mauvais. Fr Pinckaers, for years a Dominican prof at Fribourg, died a few years ago. He is reputed a prime contributor to the middle part of Veritatis Splendor.

  32. DHippolito says:

    I wonder whether this whole discussion has devolved into an exercise in pseudo-intellectual masturbation.

    I say that because one thing clearly is missing: the fact that God loves us despite what happens to us, and loves us more profoundly than we can ever imagine. Those who embrace His Son’s sacrifice for sin as their own become His adopted sons and daughters. That is an indescribable privilege that institutionalized Christianity gives lip service to but hasn’t really embraced, let alone taught. When we suffer, God wants us to turn to Him to be our Light amidst the darkness. We forget that God is the quintessence of purity, and out of that purity flow His mercy, compassion, tenderness, grace and empathy. Christ Himself embodied that very purity.

    I lost my dear mother last year at this time to a vicious cancer (is there any other kind?). I’ve had so many questions about why God did not heal my mother, a Godly woman, why He did not silence the doubting doctors and chaplains, why she endured the anguish she did. So I’m not addressing this question as a superficial, sentimental pollyanna.

    Through being involved with some charismatics and a Christian grief support group, I’ve learned that my questions, though legitimate and natural, aren’t the only response. One can have those questions and yet trust God for comfort, peace and wisdom in the midst of pervasive, excruciating emotional and spiritual travail. Otherwise, Psalm 23 (as well as most of the other psalms) is absurd.

    It’s not merely a matter of God supplying the answers; it’s a matter of God being the Answer, as it were. No theological or intellectual analysis can compare with the comfort of God’s embrace of the brokenhearted and the vulnerable. Any church that forgets that has become salt without flavor.

  33. disney1957 says:

    For the last year I have been wrestling with my faith, with why? why? why? My whole life has been filled with sad and tragic events, including sexual molestation by a Catholic Priest. I just got back from a retreat sponsored by the Archdiocese of Atlanta for trauma survivors. A very wise priest said, “Why are you obsessed with asking why, when there is no answer to satisfy you? How is it working for you to keep asking why rather than to move on with your healing?” I was caught up short, BUT pondered his question. I was asking “why?” so I could make sense of my life, so I could try to control my life so bad things won’t happen again. Guess what folks? That is NOT living in faith! That is NOT trusting God. You have a choice – to get stuck asking why or to trust God to stand beside you in your pain and healing and move on. I may get the answer to why in heaven – OR I may not care any more! Thank you Fr. Stewart!

  34. DHippolito says:

    disney1957, did Fr. Stewart give you any help in learning how to trust God or did he just speak words? This is one of the things I find so distressing about the “compassion” many people give. It’s not compassion at all; it’s just rhetoric so that the person offering the advice could feel more comfortable about himself. Take it from my personal experience: People who openly share their grief make others uncomfortable because those others often don’t have the integrity or compassion to deal with a hurting soul. Therefore, they try to intellectualize everything so they can distance themselves from your pain. Maybe Fr. Stewart should understand that you ask “why?” because you’ve been deeply hurt by people you trusted — people who claimed to act with God’s authority.
    One thing I should mention: Don’t confuse God with the Catholic Church, or any church.
    God is the quintessence of purity, out of which flow His mercy, grace, compassion and tenderness…as well as his anger as sin, at the molestation and exploitation of the innocent and at all unrighteousness. God is far holier and far more compassionate that any priest, Pope, bishop, pastor, theologian or evangelist. The problem of people abusing the authority that God gave them is nothing new, nor is it limited to the Catholic Church. Read Ezekiel 34, Matthew 23 and 1 Samuel 2-3. God, shall we say, is not amused by such abuse.
    If the sad and tragic events you mention involve the death of loved ones, have you considered any grief therapy? Go to griefshare.org, type in your Zip code and you will see places in your area that offer such therapy. I’ve been involved in a program for a month (it’s three months long) and, while it has opened some wounds, it also has been a boon for me, emotionally and spiritually.
    May God grant you His comfort and peace, and may He make His presence known to you in a unique, powerful way as you wrestle with your faith and your emotions. God bless you always, in all ways!

  35. DHippolito says:

    One more thing, disney1957. Never stop asking “why?” God is not offended by such questions. Indeed, His Son tells us to “ask, seek and knock.” He also tells us, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Answers won’t come immediately. They might not come for a very long time. But by asking, you might come upon some insights that not only could help you but other people, as well, and give you greater understanding about God.

    Take care. You will be in my prayers.