NOTES on Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (born 1935): When Bad Things Happen to Good People

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When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold S. Kushner. New York: Avon Books, 1981.

When Bad Things Happen to Good Peopleis a book of theology and philosophy that became a best seller. At Ohio University, philosophy professor Donald Borchert used it in a course titled “Stories and the Pursuit of Meaning.” One story that people use to bring meaning into their lives is a religious story. Often, people believe in an omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-good) God, but this seems inconsistent with the presence of evil and suffering in this world.

The book’s author, Rabbi Harold Kushner, has experienced evil and suffering. Aaron, his son, was diagnosed with progeria (rapid aging) at the age of the three and died an early death — he died two days after his fourteenth birthday. Because of that experience, Kushner decided to write this book.

Kushner expresses much dissatisfaction with the traditional answers that people give to those who suffer. One common assumption is that people who suffer must have done something awful to deserve their suffering. This assumes that God punishes evil-doers by inflicting them with suffering. But certainly a three-year-old child would not be capable of doing much sin in his short lifetime. (And a three-year-old has not reached the age of responsibility.) And it seems that a rabbi — a man of God — would not deserve such evil and such suffering — and even if he deserved to suffer, why should such a disease be inflicted on an innocent child? Kushner completely rejects the assumption that people who suffer must have done something awful to deserve their suffering.

Instead, Kushner turns to the Book of Job in the Bible and looks for an answer to his question. Job is a good man, but he suffers. After being prosperous for a long time, suddenly many evils happen to him. He loses his wealth, his children die, and boils cover his skin and torment him. And Job becomes angry at God.

Kushner writes that in the ancient biblical system of law “if a man is accused of wrongdoing without proof, he may take an oath, swearing his innocence. At that point, the accuser must either come up with evidence against him, or drop the charges.” Job swears that he is innocent, and God appears to him out of a whirlwind, saying,

Where were you when I planned the earth?

Tell me, if you are wise.

Do you know who took its dimensions,

Measuring its length with a cord? …

Were you there when I stopped the sea …

And set its boundaries, saying, “Here you may come,

But no further”?

Have you seen where the snow is stored,

Or visited the storehouse of the hail? …

Do you tell the antelope when to calve?

Do you give the horse its strength?

Do you show the hawk how to fly?”

Kushner’s interpretation of the Book of Job revolves around three statements, which many people would like to believe:

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

Of these statements, we can affirm any two, but we can affirm only two. Statement C we can accept. Job is truly a good person. Therefore, Kushner writes, we must give up one of two affirmations of God. Either God is not all-powerful or God is not all-good. Kushner quotes these lines from the Book of Job:

Have you an arm like God?

Can you thunder with a voice like His?

Youtread down the wicked where they stand,

Bury them in the dust altogether …

Then will I acknowledge that your own right hand

Can you give you victory.

Kushner interprets this passage as God’s “saying ‘if you think it is so easy to keep the world straight and true, to keep unfair things from happening to people, youtry it.’ God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even He can’t bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims. But could man, without God, do it better?”

So Kushner denies that God is responsible for everything that happens in the world. Some things happen for no reason at all, including things, such as diseases, that cause suffering. There is some similarity in the views of Kushner and the Christian C.S. Lewis here. Both believe that natural evil such as deaths due to tornados and earthquakes occurs because there are uniform laws of nature that make no exceptions for good people. However, uniform laws of nature are necessary if we are to have science. In addition, moral evil such as murders occurs because God has endowed people with free will, which includes the freedom to choose to do evil.

However, there is a difference between the views of Kushner and of Lewis. Lewis believes that we can affirm that God is all-powerful; however, this does not mean affirming that God can do things that are intrinsically impossible. For example, God can’t create a square circle. In addition, if God wants people to develop souls, then He can’t create a world in which there is no evil — such a thing would be intrinsically impossible. Instead, God must create a world with uniform laws of nature that don’t make exceptions for good people (a good person who steps off a cliff will fall to the ground just as fast as a bad person), and He must create a world in which people have free will, including the freedom to choose to do evil (as, for example, Hitler did). Nevertheless — and Kushner agrees with this — God is on the side of good people.

So why do we need God if God is finite? According to Kushner, God helps us by giving us strength and courage. Therefore, all of us need God. Kushner regards as a proof of God’s existence the many people he has seen who, having drained all their strength, suddenly find new strength to draw upon.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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