40 Years Later: Revisiting When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Forty years ago, Harold S. Kushner wrote the highly acclaimed and very popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People in response to the death of his 14 year old son Aaron, a victim of progeria, a genetic disorder that causes accelerated aging, resulting in death before age 20. Aaron’s sickness and death were understandably devastating to Kushner and his family and as he poignantly describes, it caused him to reevaluate his view of God as the all good and all-powerful creator of the universe. The way Kushner describes his dilemma is to take three statements which he believes sums up the situation, using the book of Job as his basis. 

  • God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without God willing it.
  • God is just and fair and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.
  • Job is a good person.

Kushner has a problem because he can’t see any way that all three conditions can be met in situations like his, where his son is suffering so intensely.  This is not a new problem. This is the same dilemma posed by Epicurus some 23 hundred years earlier, who noted that if God can’t stop evil, He is not all-powerful. If He can stop evil but doesn’t, God is not just. Epicurus reasoned that since evil obviously exists, God must either not care about human affairs or does not exist at all. 

Since then, millions of other people, when confronted with evil and suffering in their lives, have come to the same conclusion. Rabbi Kushner was not willing to give up his view that God exists and that God is just. Nor was he willing to concede that he or his son had done anything to deserve punishment: they were good people. That left the good Rabbi with seemingly one solution to solve the dilemma: to deny that God was all-powerful. Kushner offered up a God who could create a universe but has no power to alter it after the fact other than to provide strength, hope and courage in times of need. This solution was  a stroke of genius because it preserved the vision of a loving God while removing any responsibility for anything that was onerous from him by creating a concept of fate to which even God is subservient .

Rabbi Kushner sold over four million copies of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, not because it was true, but because many people desired it to be true. The Rabbi’s solution to the problem of evil has great appeal to those who felt guilty because they saw suffering as a punishment for evils they committed or who were angry at God for punishing them unjustly. To find a solution that eliminated the feelings of guilt and/or anger was freeing and the fact that the solution required an impoverished God was a small price to pay. In fact, a supportive, yet largely ineffective God was perfect for the humanists of modern society, who had been arguing against the power of God and worshiping the secular successes of mankind for centuries.

No matter how comforting it might be, Kushner’s solution simply does not ring true to Christians and others who recognize that God is indeed all powerful and that He definitely has healing powers, as demonstrated multiple times by Jesus Christ.  This is not to say that the Rabbi and his millions of like-minded followers had it all wrong – their instinctive view that God is just and that suffering is not always or even usually a sign of the guilt of the sufferer were correct as shown in the Book of Job.  The problem for Rabbi Kushner and also for Epicurus is they don’t recognize that their values are not aligned with God so they judge justice based on a completely different standard.

God made man in his image so that man could eventually become like Him and share in His life of eternal joy.  As St. Catherine of Siena said to “those who are scandalized and rebel against what happens to them”: “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.”  This is the key to understanding the problem of evil.  Once it is clear that God is both just and all-powerful, then the obvious solution to the problem of evil is that God must be able to use evil and suffering to bring about the salvation of man.  In fairness to both Kushner and Epicurus, this solution is made much more obvious for Christians because of the role the suffering of Jesus has in our redemption.

This new solution to why bad things happen to good people requires a re-evaluation of how we view evil and suffering. Saint John Paul II provides the critical insight in his Apostolic Letter, Salvifici doloris.  Contrary to common assumptions, evil does not oppose good. In fact, evil only exists as the absence of good, like darkness is the absence of light and silence is the absence of sound. As St. John Paul II explains, “Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the goodness of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation, or distortion of good.” St. Thomas, echoing St. Augustine, agrees, describing evil in his Summa Theologica as the privation of good, like darkness is the absence of light..

The other major insight is that suffering , a creation of God, actually serves a good and loving purpose in God’s providential plan. Far from the evil that most people attribute to it, suffering is actually an evil detector. By that, I mean that suffering is our ability to sense evil (better understood as the lack of a necessary good) that threatens our existence. Suffering is persistently uncomfortable to motivate the sufferer to avoid the evil by attaining the necessary good. For instance, when we need food, we feel hungry which motivates us to eat. Breaking one’s leg is bad; the pain merely tells us it happened and motivates us to stay off it until it heals.

There are four tasks of suffering to bring us from sin to salvation, each teaching a higher level of love. The first is to use simple feedback loops like those described above to instill moral virtue and teach proper self-love. As we become more practiced in virtue, we become aligned with God and learn to love Him. We then progress to love of neighbor as suffering provides opportunities to love and be loved. The final task of suffering is to teach us to love as Jesus did so we can share in his glory as we understand and accept our own suffering for the benefit of others.

These all come into play in a case like the Kushner’s.  It is easy to see from a distance that Aaron’s role in life, like that of all children born with fatal disabilities, is to suffer for the benefit of others. As was discussed above, everything God makes is good for its intended purpose so we must assume that disabled children were made that way for a very specific reason. For parents who are willing to accept that God is using their child and his (her) particular condition for the good of other’s souls,  they can experience the joy of playing a role in someone’s salvation.   This is doubly true of the innocent children themselves.  If they accept it as part of  God’s plan, and knowing nothing else, this would be typical, then they share in the suffering of Christ and it should be redemptive for them.  They are in effect martyrs to save those around them. 

Being the parent of a fatally disabled child is very, very difficult, but it teaches one to love profoundly, not because of what the child can or will do but because they are a child of God entrusted to one’s care.  Parents like Rabbi Kushner also share in the suffering of their child whenever they comfort the child even when it hurts so much to see their child suffer.  This is also redemptive love. Finally, Aaron’s life and death propelled his father to write a book that gave peace to millions and opened the door for follow-on work like Why All People Suffer to fill in some of God’s plan that was missing or misunderstood in the original.

In the end, bad things don’t happen only to good people, indeed all people suffer. This is not, as Rabbi Kushner presumed forty years ago, because of God’s inability to help us. It is a loving God helping us to become like Him so we can live with Him in eternal joy by directing, protecting and perfecting us through the four tasks of suffering. The truth is that the all-powerful God  uses suffering to lead us to a life in abundance and once we understand that, we can  have true joy, not just the peace of mind that was satisfying to audiences forty years ago.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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Paul Chaloux was born in Maine in 1960 to Paul and Dolly Chaloux, the oldest of 6 children. He grew up in Northern Virginia and attended public schools. After graduating with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Virginia in 1982, Paul worked for over 30 years as an engineer, manager, and strategist for IBM in upstate New York. While there, he also served as a catechist for 15 years at St. Columba Parish in Hopewell Junction, NY.  In 2015, after earning a master’s degree in religious education from Fordham University and retiring from IBM, Paul was accepted into the PhD program at the Catholic University of America to study Catechetics, with the goal of teaching future catechists.  However, his plans changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s Disease just after moving to Washington, DC for his studies.  His new neurologist, after learning that Paul was studying theology, asked him why people suffer. He had no answer since it was not his intended field of study, but the question intrigued him enough to cause him to take up the subject. Five years later, having earned his PhD in moral theology, Dr. Chaloux wrote Why All People Suffer for general audiences as a follow on to his dissertation, The Grace Concealed in Suffering: Developing Virtue and Beatitude, which he defended at CUA on March 5, 2020.   Dr. Chaloux currently teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America and serves as a catechist at St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, Virginia. He has been married for over thirty years to his wife Sue and they have 4 adult children and 2 granddaughters.

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