I’m always interested in answers to the question of why bad things happen to good people, though a pastor I know always says this is the wrong question. He says a better question would be why good things ever happen to anybody! Somebody else recently pointed out to me that in Christian theology there are no good people. Not precisely so, I say, and one might also say then that there really are not bad people either.
But more (many more) people are asking why bad things happen to good people, so we’ll go with that. Rabbi Evan Moffic provides two biblical responses and one addition of his own in his post The Hardest Question We Ask of God. I like the simplicity of the response, and it’s a good summary. I suggest you read that post before you read the rest of this one. (And while you’re there, get his free ebook Judaism Demystified. It’s just 32 pages and it covers the most common questions I hear about Jews and Judaism.)
For any who are wondering, the whole Deuteronomic history, and especially Samuel-Kings exemplifies the first response, while Job (and Ecclesiastes, in its own way) exemplifies the second. In Christian theology, Rabbi Moffic’s third option might be seen in some applications of process theology (see Bruce Epperly’s Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God—I can’t resist a commercial!).
I’d like to add two notes, one on Christian theology and one as a personal response.
For many Christians, the response to bad things happening to good people is the devil. The devil does the evil things. This blurs the distinction between the first and second answer, in that while bad things come as consequences of someone’s action, it is not God’s action that is in question, thus the mystery remains of where, when, and why God permits such things. This tends to result in a great deal of misreading of the book of Job by Christians. Satan (hasatan-the adversary/accuser) is not here an independent entity as in much Christian theology. He has access to the court in heaven, and acts in concert with God, at least. I don’t find that the idea that the devil caused something helps very much, but some do.
My personal observation relates to the death of Jody’s and my son James, who died of cancer at age 17. Jody and I find comfort in different explanations, but I think both are explanations that would fall under Rabbi Moffic’s second point. For Jody, God is in control, but the why is a mystery. She believes that she sees God bringing good out of bad, but she doesn’t expect to understand this side of heaven. I, on the other hand, tend to see God involved in less detail. God is the one who ordained certain physical processes, and when the causes come together, cancer results and often kills. James died not because of some specific will of God that he die, but rather that nature functioned as God ordained. God and the people who knew and loved James bring good out of what happened to the extent we can. Feed in a bit of Rabbi Moffic’s point 3 there as well!
What’s interesting to me is that Jody and I have taught together in churches a number of times during James’s illness and since his death. One might think that having two people explain this so differently to the same audience would just be confusing, but that isn’t the case. Some people resonate with one explanation, and some with the other. The critical thing is that people find a way to live with grief and loss.