Why Bad Things Happen to Good People 


Born in 1946 in a Displaced Persons Hospital in Germany, I came to this question as the child of Auschwitz survivors. My father and mother had been married to another spouse before the war, had lost all seven of their children but one. After liberation, they found each other and began life anew.

They didn't speak of their experiences to us children. We could see numbers tattooed on their forearms and hear our mother's nightmares, but we must have been thought too young to have their experiences shared with us. In fact, they never were.

Still, from about ten or eleven years old, the question often came to me: How could mankind be so cruel?

Eventually it became phrased as: How could God allow mankind to be so cruel?

It all comes down to God, doesn't it?


For who else could have created our enchanting, astonishing world? Where an ordinary blade of grass is a marvel of engineering ... photosynthesis, genetics, hydraulics.

Where the higher orders of animals contain universes of astonishing complexity ... the digestive system, the reproductive system, the nervous system, the brain, the eye, the miracle of DNA.

Who else but God could have created a world full of galaxies and stars billions (“…and billions” – RIP, Carl Sagan) of miles in breadth?

How, then, could a God of such infinite power allow such unjust suffering on Earth?

Suffering not only on a vast level -- wars, of course, but also drought, flood, slavery, the destruction of the native people of both Americas, the Holocaust, the Armenians in Turkey, the famines in China under Mao, in North Korea under the Kims, the Cambodian killing fields, the Tutsi machete massacres, the Islamic slaughters in Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East....

No, also inexplicable is suffering which strikes us individually. The kind father or good husband slain by a drunk driver. The infant torn apart by a neighbor’s dog. The woman raped, the child born with severe handicap, the young and healthy stricken with paralysis or disease.

What makes all this suffering most confounding is to remember that many of the drowned, starved, slashed, diseased, gassed, and burned had a prayer on their lips as they passed away. 

How could an all-powerful God ignore such suffering? 

And yet, what but an all-powerful God could have created this miraculous world we inhabit, and see but glimpses of through our telescopes and microscopes?

This contradiction is what must be resolved.


The resolution for some is "we cannot fathom God's ways."

Or it is a belief in an afterlife, where justice is given the good to enjoy in Heaven, while the evil spend eternity in Hell.

Neither explanation was helpful to me. Faith was not convincing. Faith requires the denial of observation and reason, a path I could not take.

But science also failed to provide answers, especially on the question of Creation.

My own resolution came, strangely enough, in a freshman college class on American History, where I learned for the first time about deism.

Deism influenced or was the belief of some of our Founding Fathers. Franklin, Jefferson and Paine, among others.

Deism pictures God as a clockmaker puttering around in his workshop. (In my own mind I see an elderly man, a little pudgy, balding, with a carpenter's pencil in his flannel shirt pocket.)  His hobby, what he enjoys more than anything else, is to build clocks. 

Our master clockmaker will engineer a new clock, one he's never built before. Then he will construct it using gears, springs, levers, and whatever else he needs from his stock of spare parts.

Sometimes, not finding the needed part, he gets it from disassembling a clock already built, one of the many clocks ticking away on the shelves of his workshop.

The master clockmaker constructs the new clock, winds it up, makes sure it is working well. Probably takes a moment to admire his handiwork, as craftsmen do.

Then he puts the clock, still ticking, up on a shelf. After which he goes on to build another. And later another, and another, and another....

A deist, at least this one, sees our small part of the universe as akin to one of the clocks. The clock's gears, springs, and levers are the natural laws - physics, biology, chemistry - which make our universe function. 

The natural laws, the scientific principles, within our clock are the same as found in the other clocks. Of course they are, as all the clocks are made of the same store of parts. And by the same clockmaker.

Until a clock winds down, it will tick on, its immutable natural laws set in motion by the master clockmaker when he designed and constructed it. Darwin's theory of evolution helps us understand life in the clock with the passing of time. 

Our own clock will run until the main spring finally unwinds, or until the clockmaker stops it to use some of its parts for another clock. In terms of our humble solar system, scientists say our clock has been ticking about five billion years. They guess our Milky Way galaxy has run 11 to 13 billion years, and the entire universe about 15 billion years. 

These estimates are based on the Big Bang theory, which has the universe beginning at some point "infinitesimally small, infinitely hot, infinitely dense" and expanding from there. I don't find this scenario believable. I can't get my head around the entire universe being compressed to such a tiny point in space. Nor does the theory tell us what was there before the infinitesimally small point?

And, of course, who or what created the point?

These questions are beyond the power of science to answer. Humanity, at many places and at many times, has simply said "God." And which is good enough for me.


So deism and the idea of a master clockmaker have brought me to accept a concept of Creation and to understand the many miracles of the universe we inhabit.

It also lets me see the futility of expecting justice in this world, or of praying for help.

Praying to whom? The clockmaker?

He is in another part of his workshop, engrossed in another project. It isn't that he doesn't care about the pleas and prayers coming out of one of his clocks, even when cried out by millions. No, it's that they are much too weak to be heard. (I’d also like to think, and I'm not being entirely flippant, he can’t hear them because, like me in my workshop, he sets the volume of his music pretty loud.)  

God just can't hear us. This is why prayers cannot be answered, and are at best a waste of breath. (At worst, they're a costly reliance on an external power instead of developing internal strengths.) Prayers that seem to have been answered are nothing but coincidence or explainable by natural laws.

Not expecting supernatural intervention also helps us understand why an innocent, righteous life can have a tragic end. Why the lottery is won by anyone, not only the devout. Why a Stalin and Mao can die in bed at old age, why a Pol Pot or a Mengele escape justice.

It just doesn’t matter to God what happens in our insignificant part of his workshop. While our clock is quietly ticking away, the master clockmaker is working on new ones, and has long ago forgotten us.


Then finally, what of our souls, what of heaven and hell? 

It pains me to say but I believe they are figments of our imagination, desperate attempts to gain meaning in our fleeting existence. I wish I could find comfort in the belief of a blessed afterlife, but think the authors of the Old Testament were wise almost beyond comprehension: "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

What place, then, for religion? Religion can help teach morality to our children. It brings us together in community, ceremony, ritual. It comforts us in times of deepest grief, and can guide us to ethical and charitable lives.

Unfortunately, history has too often shown that religion also divides us, brings us to unnecessary war, justifies ghastly atrocities, blinds us to reason and reality. 

To each his own, I say. Religious belief is a personal choice that I would not impose on others. Nor would I expect it be imposed on me as the law of the land.


The clockmaker concept helps me understand how such a powerful -- God, let's call it -- could create our wonderful world, yet be unmoved by the suffering of the creatures in it, and letting bad things happen to good people.

Curiously, in my seventh decade now, I’ve never heard this concept expressed since that long-ago freshman class.

But it has helped me avoid countless hours wasted in worship or debate, and has helped me understand much of the misery we read in history books and newspapers.

Deism has served as a blueprint, a foundation, for most of my life. I hope it helps you as well.

-- Steve Kohn


12 January 2014. Years after writing the above, I read in the Wall Street Journal a wonderful review by Dara Horn of Moshe Halbertal's "Maimonides." In the review, this paragraph catches me:

"It is this concept -- that God's perfection itself prevents divine interventions and 'miracles' ousting the natural order -- that vaults Maimonides' thought out of the world of mere piety and into the realm of philosophy. Followed to its logical conclusions, the idea of a perfect God demands a belief in a God who reveals himself not through violations of nature, but through nature itself. This sanctification of nature turns Judaism into a rigorously rational faith.

Consider, for instance, Maimonides' idea of divine providence. God's protection, he insisted, doesn't come from divine intervention in human affairs, but rather through the divine gift of human intellect, which affords talented humans the capacity to solve human problems. As a physician, Maimonides couldn't believe that physical suffering was an act of divine will -- because if that were true, then how could he cure a disease?"


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