At 3-years-old Harold Kushner’s son Adam was diagnosed with an incurable genetic disease, progeria, which causes premature aging. He died of old age in 1977, at 14-years-old. Later, Rabbi Kushner published a book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People,1 which wrestles with one of life’s ultimate questions: Where is God, especially when bad things happen?
Kushner’s answer, I think, is better than most. But I believe that as a Seventh-day Adventist, I can give a fuller answer–one we should be sharing it with a world that is starving for meaning, especially during this time of political, social, health, and financial unrest.
The End and the Beginning
In the Bible’s final book of Revelation, we read about a war in heaven: “Michael [Jesus] and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon with his angels fought, but they did not prevail” (Rev. 12:7, 8).2 As a result of losing that war, the dragon “was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (verse 9).
This story about the war in heaven gives the dragon many names, including one that points us back to the Bible’s first book and a sad scene in a beautiful garden. The name is “serpent”—“the serpent of old”—and the garden is the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 3 tells the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. We note that “the forbidden tree,” the tree God forbade them to eat from, brought not only death but also a knowledge of both good and evil (Gen. 2:9, 17; 3:5, 7). They had always known good, but now they saw both sides—good and evil, contentment and disaster, dignity and shame: “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7).
Since that day we are all born with the exposure to, and the sad experience with, both sides—the knowledge of both good and evil. The experience of mental suffering and physical discomfort is part of that knowledge. The whole world is full of disease and death. And an understanding of how good and evil interact is paramount to understanding why there is pain and suffering.
Bible Stories of Good and Evil
The Bible is full of stories of the interaction of good and evil. Sometime good wins; other times, evil prevails. Let’s review a few stories:
Job—In this story (Job 1-42), God and Satan have an intense conversation about Job. They note his life and wealth, and Satan accuses God of playing favorites. Job becomes a living specimen for experimentation in this argument. As we know, God wins in the end—a good example of good versus evil. Job shunned evil (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3) and was steadfast in his faith. Still, many bad things happened to him through no fault of his own. Key lesson: sometimes there are larger issues than regular human eyes can see.
Samson—In this story (Judges 13-16), Samson’s mother receives instructions from an angel about how Samson is to live: no fermented drink, no unclean food, and no razor to his head. But Samson grows up to be a bully. He does many extraordinary things as he leads Israel for 20 years. His eye for women finally gets him involved with Delilah, who betrays him to the Philistines. They gouge out his eyes and tie him up, the once powerful man reduced to an animal’s work, treading wheat for his masters (Judges 16:21). But in a last-ditch effort God answers Samson’s prayer, and Samson kills thousands of Philistines and himself as well (verses 26-30). Key lesson: evil may look good at times, but it will catch up with you. God may be with you regardless of your actions; but you may end up suffering the natural results.
John the Baptist—John the Baptist is imprisoned by Herod for telling truth that hurts the king (Matt. 14:3, 4). John dies when Herod decapitates him to honor a promise made in the heat of vulgar passion (verses 6-9). Key lesson: sometimes bad things happen to good people because of other people’s actions.
One More Story
Let’s do one more exploration, a look inside the New Testament, a look at Jesus Himself.
A man born blind—Jesus’ disciples ask Him whose sin made the man blind (John 9:2). Jesus answers: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (verse 3). This story makes us uncomfortable. Was this man blind just to have Jesus show off? Or should we be listening for more? What Jesus says, in context of everything since Genesis, is that this poor man’s blindness from birth is only one more witness to the chaos sin causes, the knowledge sin brings. Jesus shuts down the whole blame game—not the son; not his parents. Sin and its wretched consequences may abound, but evil cannot triumph over the reality of good. God’s grace—saving, healing, perfectly restoring—will always be more than we altogether will ever need.
So quit pointing at people; quit your personal pity party. Start looking to God; start claiming His power to overcome. Key lesson: we are more than conquerors—over Satan and all his cruelties; over sin and all its consequences—through Him who loves us supremely and saves us completely (Rom. 8:37).
Now we know why bad things happen to good people. And we know that before too long bad things will end, because we’re going back to Eden, and we’ll soon be home!
1 Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor Books, 2004).
2 All Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.