Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen?
22 August 2020
A multiple-choice question about God bubbled to the top of my Facebook feed. It asked, “Why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening?” And it offered four options as answers:
a) God can’t stop bad things.
b) God won’t stop bad things.
c) God causes bad things.
d) God doesn’t exist.
This isn’t a new question, of course, especially at challenging times. Pandemics, economic crises, civil rights protests, and divisive political elections always seem to have a way of provoking such questions. And we have all of that and more going on now. So it’s not surprising to see the question asked.
But I couldn’t choose one of the four options. That’s not because I disagreed with all the answers. It’s actually because I agreed with all of them to some extent. And I’d like to explain why.
God Can’t Stop Bad Things
First, I don’t think God can stop all bad things from happening. I do think God is powerful – more powerful than we have the capacity to imagine. But this isn’t primarily about the power of God, or about our agency to disregard or disobey God. It’s more about logic.
In order to observe “bad things,” we must have a concept of “good things.” We can’t possibly know anything about one without knowing something about the other. As the Book of Mormon points out while interpreting the story of Adam and Eve, there must be “opposition in all things.” The concepts of good and evil are unavoidably and inseparably connected.
If we want to live in a good world, we have to risk bad experiences. If we want to know the love of God, we have to know that which isn’t the love of God. Logically, there’s just no other way. The word “God” wouldn’t even have meaning in a world without the possibility of “bad things.”
God Won’t Stop Bad Things
That leads to the second option. I think God can stop some bad things from happening, but won’t. As I mentioned before, I trust that God is more powerful than we have the capacity to imagine. But that doesn’t mean God’s goal is merely to stop bad things.
Think about it. If God’s goal is just to stop bad things then the surest solution would be to annihilate the world. Nothing bad happens in a world that doesn’t exist. And, as I’ve already pointed out, bad things always happen in a world where good things can happen.
So if God created the world, as I trust to be the case, the goal couldn’t have been to stop bad things. Surely God is far beyond intelligent enough to know that bad things would happen in our world. The goal, then, must have been something different. The Pearl of Great Price claims that God’s goal was and is to help us gain “immortality and eternal life,” or the kind of life that God lives.
God Causes Bad Things
That ties in with the third option. It might sound strange, but I do think God causes bad things. I don’t think the bad things, themselves, are the direct intent. But, as the Bible points out in the voice of God’s word:
“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.”
Sobering as it may be, it’s just the truth. If God created the world then God created a context that enables bad things. But that’s still consistent with the goal to help us gain the kind of life that God lives. And I can’t imagine any other way for God to create more Gods.
When I imagine God, I imagine a genuine creator, not just a copy of some other creator. When I imagine God, I imagine a being of sublime compassion, gained in part through the pain and suffering of intimate acquaintance with bad things that happen. And if I suppose the goal is to help us all become like God, I can only imagine that God gives us real opportunities for real creation and real compassion. And that means God also intentionally exposes us to the real risks that are inherent in those opportunities.
God Doesn’t Exist
Finally, it may sound heretical at first, but bear with me. I think bad things also happen because, to some extent, God doesn’t exist.
For millennia, humanity has imagined God in many ways. We’ve written and interpreted scripture in many ways. One common understanding, both in ancient times and still today, is that God can and eventually will stop all bad things from happening. But I don’t think that kind of God exists or even could exist, for reasons I’ve already explained.
On the other hand, I do think we’re children of God, with sublime potential. I do think God is working to create more Gods. And I trust that God will continue to advance that goal through time and throughout eternity. But that implies that God, in the fullest sense as a divine community, is always coming into being – our godhood doesn’t yet exist to some extent.
We Can Do Good Things
So, again, why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening? Well, why don’t you and I stop bad things from happening? Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we won’t because we recognize the necessity of risk, even if it makes us indirectly complicit in some bad things.
But most importantly, we have the opportunity to work with God to make good things happen. Jesus Christ invites us to be one with him, to love and to create as part of God. And the Bible says that we can become joint heirs with Jesus in the glory of God, but only if we’re willing to “suffer with him.”
Bad things do happen. So far as I can tell, they always have and always will, whether in life on Earth or anywhere else. As depicted in scripture, sometimes even God weeps in heaven. But our trust, as children of God, is that we can learn from the experience and grow in our capacity to love as God.
When we’re filled with that love, we’ll move forward with confidence in a better world, even when bad things happen. We’ll share that love with others, especially when bad things happen. And, as Joseph Smith described it, we’ll “comprehend even God” when our love shines in the darkness.