Why, oh Why?
This article is a compilation of a three-part blog entry that I wrote in late 2004, and which I "tweak" from time to time with clarifications and additional insights. It lacks eloquence, but it is an accurate snapshot of someone (me) trying to find a new insight or two for an age-old question: why bad things (sometimes) happen to good people and why good things (sometimes) happen to bad people. While I am not totally satisfied with its content, I have decided to post it in hopes that it may help others who are thinking on the subject of evil and suffering.
I spoke yesterday with one of the finest young men I have ever known and, for some reason, I asked him if he had ever considered being a preacher. I have known him for a long time, and I've wondered from time to time whether he is "supposed to be" a preacher. He surprised me when he said that he had considered it a lot until his grandfather, also a preacher, was killed years ago in a car accident (a result of a drunk driver crossing over into the wrong lanes of an expressway). I knew his grandfather to be a fine man and I understood how this young man could get perplexed at why a good preacher could be so senselessly killed. Because of the impact his grandfather's senseless death had on his life, and the impact Vickie's senseless death has had on me, I decided last night that it is time for me to collect my thoughts and summarize some of what I have read about why bad things (sometimes) happen to good people and why good things (sometimes) happen to bad people. This is not a subject that can be completely dealt with in one setting. The fact is, there is as the best minds throughout history have wrestled with it and lost. But, nonetheless, there are many important insights we can gain from asking the question.
Many people will tell those who have lost a loved one to read the book of Job in the Bible. Reading Job can be a useful exercise, but don't expect to find the answers you are looking for there - in fact, you can only expect it to raise more questions. But, that can be good. When you get to the end of Job, you find that God gave no reasons for Job's torment and no answers for the seemingly senseless suffering that so many endure. I have indeed read what the very best minds have had to say on the subject over the centuries, and indeed none have really found an answer. If you try to figure it out on your own, you will see that there are physical forces that act on and around us, there are forces that we call consequences (that we pay for our actions and inactions), and there are probably spiritual forces (both good and evil). Nobody understands how these three forces intermingle in our lives. John Polkinghorne, world-class physicist, fellow of the Royal Society, and an Anglican Priest in his second career, suggests that chaos and complexity theory can give us insights on how God could significantly influence complex systems with only minor "information input." Others suggest that God actually acts at the atomic level in ALL events to actualize an outcome, with this being the reason why there is quantum indeterminancy. There are other theories (including materialism, of course, which suggests that God does not act within the world at all). I tend to share Polkinghorne's view, in that I personally believe that God lets his created act on its own within the bounds of physical laws, with some "occasional adjustments" made by God (for example: in answering some prayers, and perhaps in speeding up evolution with an occasional gentle nudge (as suggested by theistic evolutionists), and certainly in one-time miraculous events such as the resurrection of Jesus). But, of course, none of us really knows.
Some people are relatively content that they can't figure these things out, and just go on trying to do what they believe they should. Some people let the questions overtake them and keep them from heading in a direction they may have felt was right. I don't know if the young man I mentioned is "supposed to be" a preacher or not, and I'm pretty sure he doesn’t know either. I do know he set the issue aside because he could not answer a question that nobody has ever been able to answer.
Sometimes people get killed by drunk drivers. When we ask why God didn't stop it from happening, we often forget to ask an equally relevant question: how many times DID God keep it from happening? I have thought about both of these questions a lot after Vickie passed away, and also after my dad passed away. We'll get more into that in the next segment. There are some things I'd like to say that involve talking about other people, and I really need to get permission to do so. I hope they will let me say all that has happened, that we have all learned from, but I do have some homework to do to pull it off.
When people lose a loved one or find out they have a terminal illness, it’s pretty common to want to blame God. I have certainly blamed Him for taking Vickie from me and our kids and grandkids, and I can say that I carried on that blame game for far too long.
But, I've also cried about it later when I thought about how thankful I should be (and am) to have Vickie in my life for so many years, and when I realized that it might not have been God's "fault" that she passed away and that He did not necessarily "take her away from me:" It could be that Vickie's smoking (for which I am largely to blame), the stress we had from finances (for which I am largely to blame), the stress from trying to raise our oldest granddaughter, and so on, contributed to something that God didn't want to happen anymore than I did. If you have a terminal disease you may wonder whether you have done something to deserve it, and you probably have friends that wonder that. If you’ve lost a loved one, you may wonder whether God is punishing you or them or someone else in your family. We look for a reason for things that happen. This is human nature. I learned a long time ago, in studies of human performance that I was involved in, that there are almost always at least three causes for any single event, be it a small event or a large one. Sometimes the causes are too many and too subtle for us to understand.
Could God have mysteriously intervened and prevented Vickie's passing? I think so. Could He have mysteriously intervened to have prevented the death of my dad and the death of the grandfather of the fine young man I discussed in the previous post? I think so.
But, I also think there have been plenty of times in years past when He did mysteriously intervene for Vickie and for me. One example occurred on September 16, 2000, almost exactly a year before Vickie passed away (September 7, 2001), when a vein in her neck ruptured while she was in the hospital recovering from relatively minor throat surgery. It is rare for a doctor to keep a patient overnight in the hospital for this type of surgery, but he did so just to be extra thorough. I'm glad he did, because a vein in her neck ruptured around 11:00pm that night. If Vickie had been asleep, she would have died then, because she wouldn’t have noticed the bleeding (she noticed some blood coming out of her ear). As it was, it was a close call, and she was in intensive care for three days.
To go back much farther, almost exactly 20 years earlier (to another early September event), Vickie was in a very serious motorcycle accident and could have lost her life then. She was in a coma for two weeks and needed a lot of surgery. Someone had the idea to ask a church group to perform a laying on of hands on her while she was in the coma, and she soon came out of the coma. Of course a lot of people would say that we could thank the fine doctors for her coming out of a coma, to which I would respond: that is possible, but the hospital wasn't really all that good. In fact, during one of her surgeries there, a doctor let an infection get into one of her leg bones (a very serious condition), an infection she had to live with until the week before she passed away, when the doctors who were replacing her knee completely removed the infection. (She had many surgeries prior to this, but none attempted to remove the infection, because it is a difficult procedure in and of itself.)
I could list a lot of times when Vickie and I had some very close brushes with death, but I think you get the point: We try to blame God for letting our loved ones die, without realizing how very many times he may have kept them from dying, times we might not even know about.
That doesn't keep us from wondering "WHY, WHY, WHY?"
One thing you will sometimes hear Christians say is that "all things work together for good for those who love God," or something like that, referring to a passage in Romans in the Christian Bible. Some people think this phrase means that "it's okay that your loved one passed away because it is what God had in mind and there is a reason for it, and a good reason at that." But, apostle Paul knew that God doesn’t turn someone into a remote controlled robot when they become a Christian, and that God doesn’t control every aspect of their lives. Instead, most Bible scholars believe Paul was saying that "while some things happen that are not good, and perhaps not as God willed, God can bring SOME good from the events if you trust in Him and do your share." In essence Paul said that we can respond to an event in such a way as to bring some good out of it, and also that God sometimes works miracles around such bad events. I now want to get into a couple of examples of such miracles that involve both Vickie's and my dad's passing.
I saw Vickie about three months after she passed away. It was in the middle of the afternoon, I was as awake as I have ever been, was driving home at the time and was actually not grieving at the time, and what I saw was as real as anything that I have ever seen (not a "milky" or transparent appearance). As I got close to our driveway, I saw Vickie driving our brown 1984 Mercury Grand Marquis that we got the year we were married. She looked as beautiful as ever, but she did not wave at me, or really even acknowledge me - she had a happy but determined (focused) look on her face. The car she was driving was the middle car in a procession of three cars, and I could even see our car in my review mirror after we passed each other. I have not talked about this in public before, because people just do not believe this kind of thing unless they have had a similar experience. I personally am an avid skeptic, having advanced degrees in engineering and minors in math and physics, so I would not have believed that such experiences were possible if I had not experienced it myself. There is some incredible symbolism to Vickie driving the Mercury, symbolism that I didn't appreciate until I started piecing it together later. First, you should know that we no longer owned the Mercury - we had given it to Vickie's mother a couple of years earlier and it was non-functional at the time of this event. Second, the Mercury symbolized our love for each other because I got the car for her so she would be safe - it was a large car, and after nearly losing her to a motorcycle accident, I was not going to take any chances. And, it did symbolize safety. Vickie loved that car, too. Anyway, all of this gave me more incentive to get back to my Christian roots, instead of dabbling in atheism as I was at the time, and to work on a web site in which I could share some of what I learned with others (the http://www.dkeener.com/keenstuff/big.html web page). By the way, I continue to look for brown 1984 Mercury GMs to this day, and have only seen one since that day. I would give everything I own to see Vickie again. Even an hallucination would be welcome. But it just hasn't happened. I am grateful for the one time, though.
But, as incredible as this was, I tended to "brush it off." I had been reading about parallel universes and had read that it is possible (though highly, highly unlikely) for parallel universes to occasionally intersect. So, I assumed that what I saw was the "Vickie of another universe." (The theory of parallel universes is one of several theories that attempt to explain some of the mysteries of quantum mechanics.)
But, something happened a few months later that was more convincing to me. Vickie visited my brother a few months after "my event" and actually talked to him for several minutes about how wonderful her afterlife is (she completely controlled the conversation and apparently could not hear him, or did not let his attempts to talk interrupt her). I am reprinting here the e-mail he sent to me in June 2002 telling me about this, an e-mail he waited two months to send, because the event overwhelmed him:
This convinced me even more than my own experience did because my brother is even more skeptical than me and he has absolute integrity. Moreover, he is stoic and very unemotional, yet he was brought to tears in describing this to me when we talked about it some time later. We were in a hospital cafeteria (dad was having surgery related to his cancer), and I asked him "okay, I want to know the truth, no matter what it is: did Vickie really visit you?" It was moving to see someone who almost never sheds tears, even under circumstances that make many of us cry like babies, tell me tearfully that he had indeed been visited by Vickie and that it still sends chills down his spine at times. I also have no doubt that Vickie visited him because she knew, as God knew, that I would begin to doubt the reality of her visit to me, and knew that I would trust David's mind more than my own. David is the only person she could have visited that I would have believed - not my son, not my mom, not anyone else - I would have dismissed it as delusion or even something fabricated to make me feel better. Not so with David. (I also think God knew I would have a heart attack if Vickie visited me in such a direct fashion.)
So far I havenít really talked about what good came of this. Now is the time. As dad approached the end of his earthly life, he became bedridden in a hospital and we started reading the journals he had been writing (more on that in another post). One thing that stood out in those journals was that dad was concerned that David had never been saved, and dad so much wanted to see him saved before leaving this earth. David was not a Christian, although he believed there is some sort of god (and thought that there might even be many gods). By this time, I had become agnostic again, as I could not make sense of dad's suffering the way he was. David found out what was in dad's journals and e-mailed me asking what he should do, as he sure wasn't going to fake being saved, no matter how much it meant to dad, because David just doesn't fake anything. (He and I would never make it as politicians.) I replied to his e-mail with a couple of thoughts, and I won't repeat the language I used. But, I basically told him that he needed to try to figure out what message was involved in Vickie's visit to him, because there was some kind of message there, if it indeed happened, because she sure could have visited me as "easily" as she visited him, and that I sure couldn't figure it out. (I had begun to doubt that Vickie really visited him, because that is my nature, and I was subtly implying this back to him.)
David was saved two days later, with just dad and David together with David at dad's bedside. Dad's mind had pretty well gone and he could not speak at all, but when David was saved, he squeezed David’s hand, smiled, and acknowledged that David was saved. Dad had told mom a few days earlier that he had dreamed that God was going to bring about a great victory for them, and I think he knew David would be saved. They had prayed for it for close to forty years.
Obviously, there is a lot of intensely personal material here, and I deeply appreciate David letting me share something that is intensely personal for him, too. I am sharing it because I hope it helps those who have lost a loved one or who have a terminal illness. You are not going to be able to figure out why things happen the way they do, but you can sometimes find some good come out of tragic events. Sometimes the good involves miracles, and sometimes it just involves you working on your own trying to do the right thing.
There is more to say on this subject of "WHY, oh WHY?" I'm not sure what aspects we'll get into next, and I may take a diversion from this for a few days to collect my thoughts some more.
When people find out they have a terminal illness or when they lose a loved one, one thing they think a lot about is "purpose." I have certainly thought a lot about it ever since Vickie passed away: "Was there some divine purpose in her passing? Is there even any such thing as purpose? Did she get to finish her earthly purpose? What is my purpose now? " For many, many years I felt very strongly that my purpose in life was to take care of Vickie and to be the best possible husband for her that I could be. I felt that with every fiber of my being, and I still feel it. So, did I fulfill my purpose, or did I fail at it? Or, do I have more than one purpose?
And my dad thought a lot about purpose when he found out he had incurable cancer. His thoughts on it are scattered throughout the journals he started writing. By the way, a lesson learned: I wish I had kept a journal. So very often in my search for meaning, I have retraced a path that I had already traveled - perhaps keeping a journal and referring to it would have kept me from rambling around so much. It was clear to me in reading dad's journals that they were of immense value to him, and they have been of immense value to his surviving family, too. So, if you are living with the loss of a loved one or have a terminal illness, I think you would do well to consider writing a journal.
You may have wondered from the previous post (Part 2) whether I was suggesting that the "purpose" for Vickie's and dad's passing was so that my brother could be saved. If you came away with that impression, I gave you the wrong impression. I noted that some good has come from Vickie's and dad's passing, indeed some wonderful good, but I do not suggest that they passed away specifically so that the good could happen. I believe God CAN and sometimes does bring some good out of bad events, events that might not even have "supposed to" have happened. But, to suggest that Vickie and dad passed away for a specific purpose is part of a worldview that assumes that there is a purpose for everything that happens. I do not believe that there is a purpose for everything that happens. If all events that occur have a purpose, we would have no purpose and nothing to do, for everything would be predetermined and could not happen in any other way. If you look at the world around you, you will quickly notice that we control a lot of what happens in the world. A lot of what happens is just plain senseless because a lot of it is caused by senseless deeds.
However, I do believe we each have a purpose in this world, and perhaps multiple purposes. I have thought a lot about this and I have read a great deal on it. I think that sometimes we may know what our purpose is, and I think that sometimes we do not.
As I noted earlier, I always viewed my purpose as being Vickie's protector, and after she passed away, I wondered whether there are still things I need to do to protect her or to help her. I was raised in a Protestant Christian home and had never considered purgatory to be a possibility, but I began to wonder a lot about it. Although the great author and theologian C.S. Lewis was Protestant (Church of England), he wrote that he believed in purgatory and viewed it as necessary. Some days I believe in it and some days I don’t. (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a premier Catholic theologian [now Pope], suggests that purgatory should be viewed not as something that takes place in time but as something that could occur in the twinkling of an eye as the departed gaze on Jesus. At that moment, all of their sins are cleansed and purged.)
But, it is not my intention to debate this area of theology, and it has become irrelevant for me: I pray every day for Vickie (and for dad), not necessarily because I believe in purgatory, but because I could never come up with a satisfactory answer as to why a person would not pray for their loved ones, no matter where their loved ones are.
My wondering about my purpose has not only led me to pray for Vickie, it has also shaped a lot of what I have done over the past three years. For example, I have arranged Catholic masses for Vickie, I have had an Anglican priest conduct a service at her tomb, I have arranged for a Buddhist master in Tibet to conduct a prayer ceremony for her at his monastery, I have written articles about Vickie and dad and my struggles with faith, and I have started this blog. Based on the feedback I have received, some good has come out of these efforts. But are they my purpose, or am I just trying to Force some good to come out of something bad? I honestly do not know. Perhaps my purpose in life has already been fulfilled and I'm just being kept in the game. I don't really think God looks at each person and says: "Okay, you've finished your purpose on earth, so I'm taking you out of the game now." (I do not believe God acts like some football coach who sends a player into the game to perform a specific action, and takes the person out of the game as soon as the action is done.) And, as I noted earlier, we may have multiple purposes. Perhaps we have one "really big one" and after that our purpose is just to try to help people each day through all the little things we do every day.
Perhaps our purpose in life coincides with the talents we have, and everyone has talents. Some people are very talented at math and physics (Einstein, for example), some with communicating with others, some with leadership abilities, some with artistic talents, some with managing money, and so on. I suspect that, more often than not, our purposes in life line up to some degree with the talents we have. But, I don't think there is always a one-to-one correlation. For example, of all the things I do, the thing I do best is playing the guitar finger style, but I don't think it has any relation at all to my current purpose or to any purpose I have had for the past twenty years or so (I have played for 40 years, and I think there was a purpose in the first 20 years of it). But, if you are struggling with purpose, as I am, you might want to look over what your talents are, because the answer may well lie there (no guarantee, of course, but it's a starting point).
Well, I think we'll draw this post to a close for now. In summary, if you are struggling with the question of WHY and if you are wondering about purpose, it may relieve you a little bit to know that everyone else struggles with the answers, too. The best minds throughout recorded history have dealt with these questions, and I have not found anything in any of their writings that helps me understand WHY or purpose any better than I have been able to explain it so far. A few things stick out in my mind as worth emphasizing: (1) everything we do matters and sometimes God gets the blame for the cumulative results of human actions and inactions, (2) God CAN sometimes act to bring good out of bad events, and sometimes does, (3) we may not ever really know our purpose in life, but that does not mean that we do not have one, and sometimes the best we can do to bring it to fulfillment is to just do the best we can do, and (4) as Jesus said: much is required of those to whom much is given.
September 7, 2005 Update:
Subsequent to my writing this article, there have been two enormous disasters (natural evils) that have caused many people (myself included) to doubt that there is a god, and to especially doubt that the loving God of Christianity exists: the December 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina of August 2005.
After the tsunami, I became an atheist, again, for a while. Something inside of me kept trying to draw me back to Christianity, but I resisted. I didn't really stay an atheist for long, because the arguments for the existence of God are compelling, but I resisted believing in the God of Christianity. I would occasionally "cave in," but would find a way to search for "other gods." I simply would not accept, for any length of time, what the Christian theologians had to say about the problem of evil and suffering, because I had set up an emotional block to those viewpoints. I didn't want to believe what the Christian theologians had to say, because I didn't wantto love a God who would let the tsunami happen (the same God who allowed my wife to die). And, of course, no amount of logic can overcome emotion. The highly acclaimed theologian Gary Habermas had warned me, almost three years ago, about the power of emotional doubt and how it can starve out reason (Gary had studied this for a personal as well as a professional reason, in that his first wife also passed away). His warnings were valid then and they are valid today. It's sad that we can convince ourselves that our reasoning capability is not impacted by emotional blocks, and we can have those blocks so well-ingrained that we do not really even recognize that they are there: we think we are being perfectly logical and reasonable, but we are shutting out arguments and facts that we don't want to hear. Sad.
Finally, after watching hours of TV coverage on the aftermath of Katrina, I decided to give the Christian theologians "one more chance:" I browsed through my bookshelves until I found J.P. Moreland's and William Lane Craig's Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. (I'm not sure why I was drawn to that book - I have had it for a couple of years and have barely done more with it than skim a few sections.) I began reading their discussion of the problem of evil, which begins on page 536 of the book. They presented a well-reasoned account, a very well-reasoned account, of how evil and suffering are not at all incompatible with the loving God of Christianity. (I wish I could summarize their work in a short way and present it here, but there is no way I could do it justice - it is a prolific account that bears reading in its entirety. By the way, Moreland's and Craig's discussion does not prove that the God of Christianity exists – the discussion shows that the existence of evil and suffering are not valid arguments against the existence of such a God.) I can only say that their reasoning overcame my emotional resistance, even though they made no emotional appeals (in fact, a real problem that I have with their work is that it is so clinical and dry and unemotional). So I knew I had to update this article. During the past 50 years or so, a lot of deep philosophical thought has gone into the problem of evil. I appreciate the insights that have resulted from this. I wish everyone could benefit from the insights. Once we are confronted with evil or suffering or injustice, we often take the emotional position of not wanting to believe that God could allow these things. Facts and reason can only go so far when we are in a state like this, and it's unfortunate that we do not allow reason to take equal stage with emotion.
I have also learned that doubt is a part of the human condition. I had thought that I must be one of the worst doubters in the world, because of losing Vickie, and maybe I am. But it is human to doubt. Joesph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) explains this so well in his Introduction To Christianity. On page 42, he notes that Saint Therese of Lisieux “grew up in an atmosphere of complete religious security; her whole existence from beginning to end, and down to the smallest detail, was so completely molded by the faith of the Church that the invisible world became, not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself.” He then goes on to say that we have found occasional wording in her diaries about a desperate loss of faith, a feeling of complete and utter desertion (a feeling that would go away, but that could come back to haunt her at some future point). He then discusses the example of the atheist who wonders, from time to time, “but, what if it's really true?” (Something I've done when I was an atheist.) It's human to doubt, even for saints and even for atheists.
Ours is a complicated world. We know, for example, from our studies in the mathematics of chaos (chaos theory) that a butterfly's flapping its wings in China can lead to a hurricane forming in another part of the world. But, when we watch a butterfly flapping its wings, we cannot possibly predict whether that butterfly's flapping will lead to a hurricane or not. Similarly, we know that good sometimes arises out of disasters, but we have no way of assessing how good comes out of it anymore than we can really assess how much suffering it causes: the suffering can play out immediately (and over time) and the good may not occur for centuries, and perhaps never matches the amount of evil that brought it about (or maybe exceeds it). The only thing we can really know is that the good almost certainly will not come about without direct human effort.
December 2005 Update
The CNN website recently had an article about a theory that the 700,000 ton Taipei building is contributing to increased earthquake frequency in that region of the world. (Imagine 700,000 Tons!) When you consider this and consider that we also displace a lot of earth in building other skyscrapers and roads, and when you also consider how we are contributing to global warming, you can see that we, humanity in general, should probably be taking the blame for a lot of "natural disasters."
© 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Bruce Keener