Elchanan Poupko

Answers to Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Illustrative: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, set to present the Humanitarian Award to IsraAid's Meira Aboulafia at the TOI Gala in New York City, January 2015. (Blake Ezra/Courtesy)

Every few weeks, I do one of the most meaningful things I can. I go to Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital to donate blood. Walking the busy streets of New York, I get to see the hustle and beauty of the city’s Upper East Side. I see the beautiful buildings filled with luxury apartments teasing the skies, yellow cabs rushing to Broadway shows or important business meetings, and children playing in Central Park. Then, it all stops. I walk into a hospital that attracts cancer patients from around the world, where suffering is the norm rather than the exception. 

There is something surreal in the contrast between the opportunities for a life of seemingly endless pleasure and the suffering that is treated inside the hospital. Contrasts like these make us all wonder: why is there so much suffering in the world? No matter what it is that we believe or don’t, there is something about suffering that is very unsettling to the human soul. There is a part of our innermost self that says, “Something is wrong with this; this is not supposed to happen.” None of us simply accepts suffering. 

This is why the question of human suffering has troubled every philosopher and theologian. Countless pages have been written on the topic, and many theories have been postulated. And yet, we are still left wondering. 

In this article, I will outline some of the basic answers given to this question and give my theory and mission statement on why it is that bad things happen to good people—known in academic circles as the question of theodicy. I write “mission statement” because I believe that the way we address this question is not merely academic; it is life-altering. Our response to the question of suffering can set our minds on helplessness and despair or prepare us for a fight for our future. Our approach to this question should be a mission, not just academic. My hope is that seeing what has been said and what perspectives are out there–as well as the psychological and spiritual implications of each approach– can empower readers to tackle this often crippling question head-on. 

So here is an overview of some of the most common approaches to the greatest–most difficult–most answered–least satisfied–question of all time: how can a kind, good, and loving God create a world in which there is so much suffering, and what challenges each of these schools of thought has faced.

The Answer: Suffering is a Natural Outcome of Free Will

God created humans with free will. This belief is followed by the understanding that this allows God to withdraw from the consequences somewhat and allow us to make our own mistakes and learn our own lessons. For example, if someone smokes continuously despite doctors’ warnings and then gets lung cancer, while it is a tragic situation and while other smokers didn’t get cancer, the connection between the smoker’s free will and the outcome is pretty obvious. 

The concept of free will is easiest to address when our own obvious bad choices result in our own suffering. It is far more difficult to understand when someone else’s poor choices result in the suffering of someone who did not make the same choice. For example, what of someone killed in a car accident in which a drunken driver ran someone over? The drunk driver made a very poor choice; they should not have gotten into their car while drunk. And yet, the person who suffered from that bad choice had nothing to do with making it. 

This approach is logical and makes a lot of sense, yet it cannot be satisfying to those who encounter suffering, which is of other people’s making. A family would find little comfort in hearing that a loved one was killed in a car accident because of the driver’s bad choice. The driver made a bad choice, but why did our loved one have to be there at that time? 

Most explicit in this approach are the words of the great Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, who elaborates on the central role free choice plays in the Abrahamic faith (Mishneh Torah, The Book of Knowledge, chapter 5—translation from 

Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his. This is [the intent of] the Torah’s statement (Genesis 3:22): “Behold, man has become unique as ourselves, knowing good and evil,” i.e., the human species became singular in the world with no other species resembling it in the following quality: that man can, on his own initiative, with his knowledge and thought, know good and evil, and do what he desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good or bad. Accordingly, [there was a need to drive him from the Garden of Eden,] “lest he stretch out his hand [and take from the tree of life].” 2 A person should not entertain the thesis…that, at the time of a man’s creation, The Holy One, blessed be He, decrees whether he will be righteous or wicked…Each person is fit to be righteous like Moses, our teacher, or wicked, like Jeroboam. [Similarly,] he may be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, miserly or generous, or [acquire] any other character traits. There is no one who compels him, sentences him or leads him towards either of these two paths. Rather, he, on his own initiative and decision, tends to the path he chooses.

This was [implied by the prophet,] Jeremiah who stated [Lamentations 3:38: “From the mouth of the Most High, neither evil or good come forth.” Accordingly, it is the sinner, himself, who causes his own loss. Therefore, it is proper for a person to cry and mourn for his sins and for what he has done to his soul, the evil consequences he brought upon it. This is implied by the following verse [ibid.:39]: “Of what should a living man be aggrieved?” [A man of his sins.] [The prophet] continues explaining, since free choice is in our hands and our own decision [is what prompts us to] commit all these wrongs, it is proper for us to repent and abandon our wickedness, for this choice is presently in our hand. This is implied by the following verse [ibid.:40]: “Let us search and examine our ways and return [to God].” 3 This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests the totality] of the Torah and mitzvot as [Deuteronomy 30:15] states: “Behold, I have set before you today life [and good, death and evil].” Similarly, [Deuteronomy 11:26] states, “Behold, I have set before you today [the blessing and the curse],” implying that the choice is in your hands. Any one of the deeds of men which a person desires to do, he may, whether good or evil. Therefore, [Deuteronomy 5:26] states: “If only their hearts would always remain this way.” From this, we can infer that the Creator does not compel or decree that people should do either good or bad. Rather, everything is left to their [own choice].4 Were God to decree that an individual would be righteous or wicked or that there would be a quality which draws a person by his essential nature to any particular path [of behavior], way of thinking, attributes, or deeds… how could He command us through [the words of] the prophets: “Do this,” “Do not do this,” “Improve your behavior,” or “Do not follow after your wickedness?”

This issue is almost automatically connected to the magnitude of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:

People often ask: where was God in the Holocaust? It is the wrong question. The real question is: where was man in the Holocaust?

Where was God? In the words, “Thou shalt not kill.” In the command, “Do not oppress the stranger.” In the plea, “Your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.” God never promised to save us from ourselves. Instead, He taught us how to save ourselves. He spoke of the sanctity of life, the way of love, the paths of peace. But when God speaks and we do not listen, there is no guarantee against catastrophe. For though He exists everywhere outside us, He exists only in the space we make for Him.

Problems with This Answer

Needless to say, those who lost beloved relatives in the Holocaust, myself included, will find little solace in hearing that our relatives were killed because of the Germans and their accomplices’ disregard for the biblical commandment of “thou shalt not kill.” 

“How can God allow such a thing to happen?” they will demand to know. How can we believe that God controls and intervenes in what happens in this world and did not intervene in our tragedy? Pharaoh and the Egyptians made really bad choices, and yet God intervened. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah made some really bad choices, and God intervened. Why the selectiveness?

In summary, while this answer does make some sense of this question, further explanation is still needed. 

Constructive Uses of This Belief

While this belief leaves many difficult questions unanswered, it diffuses some of the question of why bad things happen to good people and can help us maintain a connected spiritual relationship with God. Realizing that God created a beautiful world and that sometimes that world is negatively affected by human choices can help us reconnect with God. It can also help us take more responsibility for our actions. If we believe our actions make no difference, we are less likely to make the right choices. 

Take, for example, the case of the smoker, or a sick person who keeps on eating unhealthy and even damaging food. If they don’t believe their actions have consequences, what change can they put into effect? If we believe everything has already been preordained by God, we are less likely to improve our condition. To illustrate this, there is a well-known joke about a Calvinist—a group that does believe in predetermination—showing up at the gates of Heaven. He sees that there are two lines going in. One has a sign that reads “predestined,” and the other, “free will.” He naturally heads to the predestined line. As he waits in line, an angel flies over and asks him “Why are you in this line?”

“Because I chose it,” he replies. 

The angel looks surprised, “Well, if you ‘chose’ it, then you should be in the free will line.”

So our Calvinist, now slightly miffed, obediently wanders over to the free will line. Again, after a few minutes, another angel asks him, “Why are you in this line?”

He sullenly replies, “Someone made me come here.”

Free will is at the bedrock of taking charge of our own lives and destiny.

If we believe our free will and personal choices make a real difference for bad—but also for good—we are more likely to do what is right for us. We are more likely to take real action and make a positive difference in our lives. Will this always work? No. My father passed away suddenly at the age of 69. He ate well, would swim more than fifty laps in an Olympic swimming pool, and always focused on being healthy. He nonetheless suffered a sudden death. Bad things can happen even if we make great attempts to ward them off. Nonetheless, it is imperative that we put in our fair share of effort and make the right choices. 

The Answer: Pain as a Punishment

One of the more common, yet understandably less popular, answers to the question of suffering is the notion that suffering comes in response to sin. In this view, suffering can come as a punishment for our personal or collective mistakes. One does not need to dig deep into the Bible and other religious doctrines to find this belief. Accepting that our bad deeds will be followed with harsh consequences lies at the foundation of the vast majority of religions. 

The very first human story in the Bible tells us of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden and are commanded not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The snake seduces Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, Eve shares the delicious fruit with Adam, and the three of them—Adam, Eve, and the snake—are severely punished. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve is cursed and told that she will from now bear children with great pain, and Adam is cursed and told that he will have to earn his bread through his hard work and the sweat of his brow. A simple, clear disobedience is followed by punishment. 

It is important to note that in this worldview, the person who is suffering the pain does not have to be the one who has sinned, and yet they can be held responsible for someone else’s actions. This is apparent in the Biblical narrative as nations are punished as a collective. In this view, individuals that make up a larger group end up suffering for the sins of the collective. Be it individual Egyptians who did not necessarily enslave the Israelites being punished with the Ten Plagues, or individual Israelites who had not necessarily sinned being punished in the book of Judges with suffering and enslavement, punishments can be collective within this perspective. 

Problems with This Answer

The problems with the idea of suffering as punishment are twofold. The first is theological, the second is practical. The ideological difficulty with believing in pain as a punishment comes with the suffering of the righteous. This is expressed most strongly in the biblical account of Job, a story we will explore in detail later in this book. Job is most known for his suffering, and yet there is another side to Job, a side fundamental to the story: Job is a righteous man. He never sins. Job does many good deeds and is very charitable. Job is the kindest person you could meet. The Book of Job starts off:

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was sincere and upright, God-fearing and shunning evil.” 

Job is therefore unsurprisingly baffled by the horrible fate and losses he experiences. So much so that he states:

“Instruct me, and I will be silent, and allow me to understand where I have erred.” 

It is hard to ignore the feelings of indignation. Job is sure he has done no wrong, and yet he suffers so much. The notion of suffering being a punishment for sin does not sit well with us when looking at cases of righteous people who withstand often unimaginable suffering. 

The question is amplified tenfold by the suffering of children, the horrors of the Holocaust, and so many other mass killings, plagues, and natural disasters. Is all that suffering a punishment for wrongdoing? Is there any way to correlate the loss of the purest souls to tragedy and torture with sin? Innocent babies, mothers, and children lost to hate, persecution, and genetic disease: it seems unthinkable to connect those forms of innocent suffering to any kind of sin. 

This question echoes in my mind far more powerfully when passing through Boston’s Children’s Hospital, the pediatric wing at the Sloan-Kettering cancer hospital in New York, or the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. How is it possible to see such suffering through the lens of punishment while looking at so many pure, innocent, and angelic children suffering so much? 

Constructive Uses of This Belief

To properly look at constructive uses of this belief, it is essential that we remove all judgment; we must appreciate that different individuals find different things appealing in different ways. What is inspiring and empowering to some may be reprehensible and unthinkable to others. Each of us is on our own spiritual path, and that shouldn’t negate the journey of others. With that in mind, here are some constructive aspects of the belief in pain as a punishment. 

One of the most difficult aspects of suffering is the realization that it could have been avoided or that it is arbitrary and for no reason. Some people find great meaning knowing what it is that they are suffering for, even if it is a punishment. There are those who find meaning in knowing that their suffering is allowing them to atone for something they have done wrong. Having some kind of meaning, even a negative one, can help people cope more easily with their pain. 

Another constructive way of viewing suffering as punishment can be the potential for self-improvement it offers. This ideal view of suffering as leading to self-improvement is thematic throughout the five books of Moses and very poignantly at the end of the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 30):

“And it will be, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children,”

The message is clear: if suffering is caused by sin, self-improvement can help alleviate it. This approach, however, can only be approached with great caution. Seeing sin as a punishment from God can reinforce a wrong belief that God is angry or even hates us. This can lead to very depressing and counterproductive feelings. As studies show, believing that we are being punished by an angry God carries real health risks. It is also spiritually dangerous. When people stop being spiritually optimistic and believe they are doomed, they tend to abandon even more of the morals they believe in as they sink into despair. 

Another downside of seeing suffering as a punishment is that it can dissuade us from pursuing what is most important to us at difficult times: making sure we get better. Focusing all our energy in soul-searching and self-blaming can distract us from the sacred physical/emotional/spiritual mission of getting better. 

Focusing on the spiritual aspects of our lives we may have gotten wrong or what we can improve even as we face loss and suffering is a very tight rope to walk. The potential pitfalls are abundant. However, benefits to self-improvement and finding meaning in our suffering are also possible outcomes of this approach. 

Times of difficulty call on us to remain as positive as possible. We must make sure we remember God loves us, that we can always improve, and that we focus all of our strength on being as strong as we can be. No matter how hard things have gotten, God does love us, and we are to do our best to fight the good fight—and win!

The Answer: Suffering as a Cleansing Process

A common yet challenging belief across religions is that suffering cleanses our souls from materialism and/or previous iniquities. This sentiment is reflected throughout religious literature and is found in the book of Psalms (94:12):

“Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord, the one you teach from your law.” 

Things get even more explicit in the book of Proverbs (3:11):

“My son, despise not the discipline of the Lord, and do not abhor His chastening, for the Lord chastens the one He loves, as a father placates a son.”

Suffering is seen here as a blessing, a way to get closer to God. This outlook is also at the foundation of why some religions even go so far as to have rituals that include self-inflicted pain, or self-deprivation. As all major religions place great value on life, health, and a commitment to productivity, all agree that this approach must be thought of with much caution.

Problems with This Answer

The belief that pain is a positive and cleansing force within us carries with it the danger of abandoning the sacred ideal of life itself and the spiritual productivity that comes with it. Our bodies don’t feel pain as a mechanism meant to punish us; pain is there to protect us. Pain tells us when our body should stay away from something and when something is a danger to our bodies. If we felt no pain when we put our hands into fire or ice, our situation would be dire. Take for example, the curious case of Ashlyn Blocker from Paterson, GA. NBC reported in 2004:

Ashlyn Blocker’s parents and kindergarten teachers all describe her the same way: fearless. So they nervously watch her plunge full-tilt into a childhood deprived of natural alarms.

In the school cafeteria, teachers put ice in 5-year-old Ashlyn’s chili. If her lunch is scalding hot, she’ll gulp it down anyway.

On the playground, a teacher’s aide watches Ashlyn from within 15 feet, keeping her off the jungle gym and giving chase when she runs. If she takes a hard fall, Ashlyn won’t cry.

Ashlyn is among a tiny number of people in the world known to have congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, or CIPA—a rare genetic disorder that makes her unable to feel pain.

“Some people would say that’s a good thing. But no, it’s not,” says Tara Blocker, Ashlyn’s mother. “Pain’s there for a reason. It lets your body know something’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. I’d give anything for her to feel pain.”

The untreatable disease also makes Ashlyn incapable of sensing extreme temperatures—hot or cold—disabling her body’s ability to cool itself by sweating. Otherwise, her senses are normal.

Ashlyn’s case reminds us that, difficult though it may be, pain is what gives us life, allows us to live longer and better lives, and keeps us out of harm’s way. Of course, there are millions of people experiencing chronic disease who would give anything to be in Ashlyn’s position, but everything else being equal, everyone agrees that pain is in our body to help it, not to harm it. 

That is why our bodies want to avoid pain; pain helps us stay away from extreme heat, cold, and sharp objects that can hurt us. Seeing pain as an ideal has the dangerous potential of desensitizing us to this life-saving alarm system. Actively embracing pain can encourage us to abandon life with all of the spiritual, emotional, and physical potential it holds for us. 

Sure, in some situations, pain is unavoidable due to unwanted diseases and life circumstances, and we can most definitely hope the pain is helping us overcome our materialism or cleansing us of something wrong we may have done, but that is not to say we should voluntarily embrace pain, nor should we cease doing our best to fight it. 

A study done in 2011 sheds a new perspective on this topic. Science Daily reports:

Psychological scientist Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland, Australia and his colleagues recruited a group of young men and women under the guise they were part of a study of mental and physical acuity. Under this pretense, they asked them to write short essays about a time in their lives when they had ostracized someone; this memory of being unkind was intended to prime their personal sense of immorality—and make them feel guilty. A control group merely wrote about a routine event in their lives.

Afterward, the scientists told some of the volunteers—both “immoral” volunteers and controls—to stick their hand into a bucket of ice water and keep it there as long as they could. Others did the same, only with a soothing bucket of warm water. Finally, all the volunteers rated the pain they had just experienced—if any—and they completed an emotional inventory that included feelings of guilt.

The idea was to see if immoral thinking caused the volunteers to subject themselves to more pain, and if this pain did indeed alleviate their resulting feelings of guilt. And that’s exactly what the researchers found. Those who were primed to think of their own unethical nature not only kept their hands in the ice bath longer, they also rated the experience as more painful than did controls. What’s more, experiencing pain did reduce these volunteers’ feelings of guilt—more than the comparable but painless experience with warm water.

According to the scientists, although we think of pain as purely physical in nature, in fact, we imbue the unpleasant sensation with meaning. Humans have been socialized over the ages to think of pain in terms of justice. We equate it with punishment, and as the experimental results suggest, the experience has the psychological effect of rebalancing the scales of justice—and therefore resolving guilt.

What emerges from this study is: a. pain does help alleviate feelings of guilt; b. if we look at our pain through the lens of punishment, we will be willing to endure more pain; c. we will feel that pain more intensely. This suggests that while thinking of pain as something that is cleansing us can lead to us feeling able to endure that pain for longer, it can also lead to us feeling that pain more strongly.

If, for unfortunate reasons, we are to confront pain and must go through it, we should do everything we can do ascribe meaning to it and not go through it as if it is an arbitrary and cruel reality. Approaching pain as an ideal must only be approached ex post facto—if it has already taken place. However, short of that—especially when confronting multiple challenges—we must attend to our greatest responsibility: improving. 

Multiple studies show that increased levels of pain can increase disease and decrease our chances of recovery. All major religions share a view of a God of life who is life-affirming and who created us in His image so that we can do good in this world, act in kindness and love to others, and fulfill a unique mission that only we can fulfill. It is incumbent upon us to do our maximum to improve things. No matter how desperate we are, there are always things that can be improved. Seeing suffering as a cleansing process risks the danger of complacency. Pain and suffering should never be seen as our friends. We must fight them off so that we can get better. 

The dichotomy of how to approach pain can be seen in two conflicting ancient Talmudic tales. The first is told of the great rabbi, Rabbi Yohanan Son of Zakkai.

The Talmud opens with the statement: 

“the salt sweetens the taste of the meat and renders it edible, so too in the covenant mentioned with regard to suffering, the suffering cleanses a person’s transgressions, purifying him for a more sublime existence.”

One would expect that such high praise of the spiritual meaning of suffering would be followed by a full-on embrace of suffering by those desiring spiritual elevation. That is not what happens. The Talmud continues:

“Rabbi Yohanan fell ill. Rabbi Hanina entered to visit him, and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? [referring to the spiritual rewards of suffering.] Rabbi Yohanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. 

Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.”

Just imagine the good rabbi laying in a dark room, perhaps hot with fever, having some time to contemplate the spiritual meaning of the universe, knowing full well that his suffering would enhance his spiritual status. Despite Rabbi Yohanan’s full outstanding commitment to spirituality and full recognition of the great spiritual value of suffering, Rabbi Yohanan fled it as fast as he can. He stated unequivocally, “I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward.” Why? 

Perhaps because he couldn’t bear the pain, or perhaps—as the Talmud suggests—because pain and suffering prevent us from actively engaging in virtuous activities we can only engage in when we are fighting our hardest to do better.  

Another thing to be cautious of when looking at suffering as a form of cleansing is the danger of destructive guilt. After all, if it is cleansing us, there must be something that needs to be cleansed. Seeing suffering as a form of cleansing can rush us down the rabbit hole of looking for what it is that we are suffering for—often manufacturing one look too deep. Sifting through every possible wrongful thing we may have done can have us blaming ourselves for things we didn’t even do. This can lead to a vicious cycle of negativity and us having negative thoughts like, “I am such a sinner; of course, I deserve this.” Or “after all the wrong things I have done wrong, it is no wonder God is punishing me this way!” This type of thinking can lead us to spiritual and personal despair and diminish our belief in ourselves and a positive self-image, all essential ingredients for us to continue being who we are. 

Take, for example, the story of an eleven-year-old child who went to an eye exam and was told that he would have to begin wearing glasses. Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book, shares the story of this child, both of whose parents wore glasses. The child told his parents why he deserved this “punishment.” The boy recalled that a week before he had his eye examination, he and two older friends of his were picking through a pile of trash to find a copy of a magazine with inappropriate content. The boy blamed himself and assumed that this was why he had to begin wearing glasses, in spite of the obvious reason, i.e., his genetic predisposition to bad eyesight. 


As humans, we often seek to blame ourselves immediately, just like that child. If by doing so, the child found himself taking a path of not looking at content that made him feel guilty or which contradicted his values, then he took a negative experience and made it empowering and positive. If, however, the more likely thing happened, and the child went on to feel lower self-esteem, engage in self-blame, be depressed, and not seek the best way to move forward, then this approach ended up being destructive and negative. 

So whenever taking this path of seeing sins as cleansing and atoning, we need to ask ourselves where this path is taking us. We need to make sure it does not lead to a downward spiral of self-blame, low self-esteem, and unproductive harping on the past. We then also need to make sure embracing pain does not cause us to be complacent and content with suffering. What is most important at this point is that we fight back. 

Constructive Uses of This Belief

[And] many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 

‘Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?’ (Deuteronomy 31:17)

Despite the challenges it presents, the belief that suffering is part of a cleansing process can be used in a positive way. It can motivate the correction of wrongs we have done; it can help us look within, or pursue relationships that we have abandoned. Seeing the spiritual role that pain and suffering play in our lives can help us attend to non-physical aspects of our lives. The belief in pain and suffering as spiritual cleansers does not have to be driven by guilt or in response to any sin; detachment from material pleasures and physicality are universally considered to be spiritually motivating. 

The challenges we go through can be cleansing and empowering, not only on a spiritual-metaphysical perspective but from a secular and psychological one too. Helen Keller, the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree and an inspiration to millions through her courage and resilience, wrote in her journal:

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

These inspiring words echo the notion that even in the darkest of moments, there is something good. It highlights the fact that each and every bit of pain and suffering we go through transforms us. It makes us into deeper, more insightful, and more sensitive people. Is this because we chose this path? Of course not. The path of suffering and pain is one that we fight hard to stay off of; however, once we have experienced it, it can be used to take us onto a new path. 

Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes in her book:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen…

And so, as we encounter the vicissitudes of pain and suffering, we can try and do our best to get something out of it. To find purpose in it. We can look to make the most of it and recognize the transformative experience we had just been through. We can stop for a moment and remember the words of Dr. Kübler-Ross: “Beautiful people do not just happen.” 

No tragedy has hit the American people as badly as the Civil War. The pain and the loss of the war, which consumed the lives of two percent of America’s population are incalculable. And yet, when Abraham Lincoln looked at the losses, he noted, in his Gettysburg address, “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

The scourge of suffering can sometimes be unstoppable. What we make of it can also be immeasurable. It is for us to make sure that the pain not be in vain. 

The Answer: “It’s All for the Best.”

The next theological approach to suffering is the one taken by C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, where he writes:

But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. … What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because I know He is good”? Have they never even been to a dentist?

This belief is famously echoed in the Talmudic story of the first-century rabbi, Rabbi Nahum Ish Gam Zu. The Talmud shares the following about Rabbi Nahum:

“And why did they call him Nahum of Gam Zu? The reason is that with regard to any matter that occurred to him, he would say: This too is for the good [gam zu letova].”

So devoted was Nahum to his belief that everything is for an ultimate good, that no matter what happened, he always proclaimed, “this too is for the good.” It became so part and parcel of who he was that everyone who knew him called him the man who says, “This too, is for the good.” 

Nahum’s path was not abandoned. His student, the leader of the Jewish people during the second century, was Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud shares the following story about Rabbi Akiva, echoing the same deep belief that everything that happens is for the better:

It was taught… in the name of Rabbi Akiva: One must always accustom oneself to say: Everything that God does, He does for the best. Like this incident, when Rabbi Akiva was walking along the road and came to a certain city, he inquired about lodging, and they did not give him any. He said: Everything that God does He does for the best. 

He [Rabbi Akiva] went and slept in a field, and he had with him a rooster, a donkey, and a candle. A gust of wind came and extinguished the candle; a cat came and ate the rooster, and a lion came and ate the donkey. He said: Everything that God does, He does for the best. That night, an army came and took the city into captivity. It turned out that Rabbi Akiva alone—who was not in the city and had no lit candle, a noisy rooster or donkey to give away his location—was saved. He said to them [his students]: Didn’t I tell you? Everything that God does He does for the best.

In this story, Rabbi Akiva shows himself to be a practitioner par excellence of the belief that everything that happens is for the best. Believing that everything is for the best does not mean we believe it will show itself to be good in the very near future. Sometimes it can mean we believe a hardship will be for the better in a year from now, ten years from now, or perhaps not until after we are no longer in this world…but it is still for the best. 

A parable often given to explain the belief that everything is for the better tells of a man who bursts into an operating room where open heart surgery is being performed. He sees a man with a white coat walk over to a sleeping person with a tray of sharp knives and cut the person open. “Stop!” he yells as a staff member holds him back. He then sees the surgeon take a small chainsaw and sawed through the chest bones of the helpless patient. He is terrified. How can someone who calls themselves a doctor be doing this to an innocent person? Does he not care for the life of this innocent person? A wise member of the medical team finally convinces the observer to stand by and watch to see what will happen.

After many hours go by, and the wound is stitched up, the observer is finally able to understand what happened and that the medical team was actually saving the patient’s life rather than cutting the person up. 

This parable is used to highlight the idea that sometimes things can seem very difficult—or outright terrible—and yet, they can eventually lead to a great deal of good. Believing that everything is good does not need to mean we see what is actually good right away—it can be terrible at the time. It does mean we believe that eventually, it will or at least can end up resulting in something good. 

I am reminded of a story I heard from a colleague of mine about a Jewish family living in Berlin in the 1930s. As Adolf Hitler’s government began its persecution of Jews, Jews were banned from holding government positions and practicing as doctors or lawyers and were forbidden from using parks and public transportation. The Cohen family decided they could no longer live in Germany. Life was intolerable. It was time to leave. 

They were Polish citizens. They decided to pack up all their belongings and escape to neighboring Poland. After packing up, to her horror, Mrs. Cohen realized that she could not find her Polish passport. The Cohens were informed that on that same night, there would be a group leaving for Israel, which was then under British rule. 

During the years of the Holocaust, the British government did not allow Jewish immigration into Israel, something that significantly raised the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The Cohens did not have many options; they could either remain in Nazi Germany and endure Hitler’s regime or attempt to penetrate the British blockade on Israel. They decided to fight their way into Israel. 

They were told they would not be able to bring anything beyond what they were wearing and a small suitcase with few belongings. In the dark of the night, they made their way out of Nazi Berlin, boarded their ship, and began their long journey to the shores of Israel. 

As they approached Israel, they were told that due to increased British surveillance and the high risk of approaching the shores, they would need to leave their belongings behind and take with them just one item. In fact, they would need to jump from the deck of the ship and swim to the shores of the Promised Land. 

Mrs. Cohen, clearly not knowing much about Middle East weather, decided she must take her fur coat with her. She put the coat on and slipped her hands into the pockets. Sure enough, right off the shores of Israel, she found her lost Polish passport in the pocket of her fur coat. 

The pain and frustration were deep. “Why couldn’t we find that passport in Germany?” “Why did we have to travel this far when we could have just traveled to nearby Poland?” The questions were abounding, though there was not much time. They needed to jump off the ship and start swimming—fast. 

Not much time passed before the Cohens were thanking God for something they had just been upset about. In September 1939, Germany moved to conquer Poland in their infamous Blitzkrieg, after which they went on to annihilate the Jews of that country. Had the Cohen family gone to Poland, they would likely have perished in the Holocaust. 

This is just one of the millions of stories in which something that is thought to be bad ends up being for the better. We see it so many times in our own lives. Things that we thought were bad at the time ended up being for the better. 

People of faith who believe in the soul outliving the body have an easier time accepting negative events being for a later good. They recognize that the window during which events can be realized for the better extends beyond our own lifetime. Things can end up having been for the better, not in our own lives, but in the lives of our children, our families, communities, or generations to come. It is possible and likely that this ultimate goodness will take place only once our souls are separated from our bodies. It can end up being good for our own souls, the souls of others, or the actual lives of others we love and care for. 

“Things Could Have Been Worse” and Negative Visualization

Considering the greater picture does not have to come in the form of positive good. A subset of the belief that “everything is for the better” is the belief that it could have been worse. People of faith can have an easier time believing that everything is for good because of the understanding that this outcome can be the better one. When we encounter a difficult situation, some argue that it is important that we recognize that perhaps something worse was meant to happen and that this is the better outcome. We won’t always be able to recognize and understand in this life what could have happened otherwise, but we can acknowledge that possibility. 

This approach is found in what is known as the philosophy of Stoicism. This ancient philosophy would include things such as “negative visualization,” in effect asking the person to imagine how things could have been worse. 

Psychology journalist Steven Handel writes:

Do you remember when you were young, and you never wanted to eat your vegetables?

Mom would tell you to eat your spinach because you’ll grow up big and strong, but you just stuck up your nose and demanded dessert. Mom would then tell you, “Hey, you should be happy with your spinach; there are some kids who are starving right now and have nothing to eat.”

This is a classic example of the “things could be worse” argument. Most people don’t like to hear it, especially when it’s coming from someone else. However, this concept does touch on the important idea of seeing the “bigger picture” in your life—focusing on all the things you do have to be grateful for.

According to the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the philosophy of Stoicism used to teach a similar mentality about life.

The Stoics believed that one could live more happily by freeing oneself from excessive desire. This even included exercises such as “negative visualization,” where Stoics would vividly imagine worst-case scenarios such as the death of a child, financial catastrophe, or ruined health. By doing this, the Stoics believed you could learn how to better appreciate what you already had but might be taking for granted.

When taking the “it could have been worse” approach, there are precautions that need to be taken. As Dr. Allison Belger points out, believing that “things could have been worse” should not come at the expense of validating our feelings or acknowledging how difficult a situation may be. Bad situations are really bad. Other people’s pain does not automatically take away from our pain. Our pain is our pain, nobody else’s. We are the ones dealing with it, and we are the ones feeling it. Does it help at times to reflect on other situations and gain a better perspective on what we are going through? Sure. But in no way does that belittle what we are going through. 

Problems with “Everything is For the Best” Approach

There are theological and practical problems with the belief that everything is for the better. The first is the issue of free will. It is hard to place the responsibility of cosmic good on God when we are affected negatively by someone else’s bad choice. To say that a child being abused by a cruel and heartless adult is part of a Godly plan is outright reckless. To say that someone being a victim of rape, murder, or theft is a result of God’s plan and not the result of someone’s evil choice is untenable. God gave humans free choice, and part of that power is the power to choose evil.

Another catch in the belief that everything is for the best is that it can embrace determinism, the belief that everything has been decided before we even approach it. Believing that everything is already set and decided can stifle efforts on our part. 

There is an old Jewish folk story about an 18th-century rabbi in Russia who used to say about everything, “this too, is for the good.” Once, when the Czar of Russia’s soldiers, known for their brutality and cruelty, stormed his town, he said, “This too is for the good.” When his colleague heard this, he told him, “I am so happy you didn’t live in the times of Haman and Queen Esther; if you had lived then and heard that Haman intended on killing all the Jews, you would have said that this too was for the best—instead of taking the approach of the righteous Mordecai who did his best to counter the evil decree.” 

This story highlights the detrimental role the belief that everything is for the best can have on our lives. In times of difficulty, we must do our best to fight hard for the best outcome we can possibly get. Of course, we should do our best to remain positive about what we can no longer change, but we should spare no effort in fighting for what we can change. We are here to make a difference with our actions. 

Then there is the emotional perspective. When we encounter trauma, disease, and real tragedy, it is almost impossible to see the good that is there. Coming from someone other than ourselves can even make this notion even cruel and tortuous. Hearing people say, “It is probably for the best” after losing a loved one can be even more painful than the loss itself. It is surely painful when we hear it from others, but it can also be painful when it comes from our inner selves. It is at those times that the words of C.S. Lewis echo through our minds: “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

Mette Ivie Harrison was told that she had cancer. Following this terrible news, she attended church meetings and other religious gatherings. In these meetings, people would share with the group how they found their personal tragedy was for the better and made them into better people. She wouldn’t take it.

She writes:

I don’t believe that God designs tragedies for us. I don’t believe that He gives people cancer or MS or Parkinson’s or any host of other illnesses specifically because He knows that this specific suffering will be good for us. I can’t believe this because it feels too much like sadism to me. I cannot imagine inflicting upon any of my children such a trial just because I believe that it would make them stronger or kinder, and I feel that my relationship with God is very much the same as my children’s relationship to me, although there are certainly differences.

Believing everything is for the best brings comfort to some. To others, it is not palatable. When encountering chronic diseases, embracing the belief that everything is for the best is often unthinkable. This is why suffering and tragedy need a multidimensional approach, one that acknowledges that there is no one approach that is for every person in every situation. 

King Solomon teaches in the book of Ecclesiastics (chapter 3):

Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven…A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and time of dancing…A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak. 

Sometimes silence—verbal or mental—is all we can offer ourselves. Grief is a necessary component of human emotion. Sometimes saying that is just unthinkable to us. So when can this be a useful perspective? Let us see in the next section on constructive uses of this belief. 

Constructive Uses of Believing “Everything Is for the Better”

The belief that everything is for the best can be a powerfully positive one. It helps us look beyond the here and now; it elevates us beyond the seeming negativity of what we encounter. It allows us to consider future positive elements of what we are going through and propels our perspective to consider more optimistic perspectives in the future. Considering future positive aspects of a difficult situation can help put our predicament into perspective.

While this perspective is hard to use when we are first hit with terrible news, it can be useful and helpful once we are trying to make sense of a hard reality. It helps us recognize that even as we feel hurt, injured, and broken, God is not out there to get us; to the contrary, God is there to help us.

Why should you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way has been hidden from the Lord, and from my God, my judgment passes”? Do you not know if you have not heard an everlasting God is the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the Earth; He neither tires nor wearies; there is no fathoming His understanding. Who gives the tired strength, and to him who has no strength, He increases strength. (Isaiah 40)

To believe that everything is for the best is not to deny the existence of good and bad, as Spinoza and several other philosophers did, nor does it mean to accept things as they are, a belief the ancient philosophers of India espoused. To believe that everything is for the best is to believe that there is good, there is hope, and that even a bleak darkness can one day turn into light. 

To believe that everything is for the best is to reject determinism. It is to be optimistic, positive, resilient, and to have faith in a better future. It is to see bad for what it is and to agree that it is bad. What it boils down to is the realization that it does not all end here. To believe that everything is for the better is to believe that there is a bigger picture waiting to be seen. It is to recognize that we are suffering and that what we are going through is horrible. But it also means to remain steadfast in our belief that terrible situations can lead to something good. It is to believe that we don’t accept anything bad and that we will fight until we make sure we can see a good outcome for what we are going through. 

The Answer: God has “Left”

The most famous approach to the question of suffering in this generation has been written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Kushner, whose son was diagnosed with progeria (early aging) leading to his death at the age of 14, addresses the question of suffering in detail. As a first-hand witness to the most unthinkable suffering—a child born with a chronic, incurable disease—Kushner got to meditate about the meaning of suffering when there is no apparent cause. In the case of an innocent child, the question of suffering amplifies itself a thousand fold as we can all feel the inexplicable pain of suffering before one had the chance to chart their own course and make their own choices. 

Following his child’s course of suffering, Kushner made sense of the question of suffering by writing his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In this book, Kushner argues that we need to accept that although God has created this world, He does not control every aspect of it. 

Can you accept the idea that some things happen for no reason, that there is randomness in the universe? 

Laws of nature do not make exceptions for nice people. A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumor or an automobile gone out of control. That is why good people get sick and get hurt as much as anyone. No matter what stories we were taught about Daniel or Jonah in Sunday School, God does not reach down to interrupt the workings of laws of nature to protect the righteous from harm. This is a second area of our world that causes bad things to happen to good people, and God does not cause it and cannot stop it.

For me, the earthquake is not an ‘act of God.’ The act of God is the courage of people to rebuild their lives after the earthquake, and the rush of others to help them in whatever way they can.

In this view, God is no Gordian; He gives no guarantees and anything is possible regardless of who we are or what we do. Bad things happen due to flaws in nature, human behavior, or bad luck while God stands by and watches. We should not trouble ourselves looking for reasons. We should focus on what we make of our circumstances rather than possible causes for those circumstances. We should do our best to make meaning of our suffering. It is for us to make sure our own suffering—or the suffering of those who we love— leaves a positive impact on this world. 

Problems with Believing “God is No Gordian”

While Kushner’s observation about the need to find meaning in every experience of pain and suffering is very true, answering the age-old question of theodicy by saying God is detached from this world runs contrary to the major Abrahamic faiths. Major faiths are predicated on the belief that God sees our suffering and can intervene to help us. We hope, we are outraged, we try and do better, we make promises, and most importantly we pray, because we believe in an omnipotent God. We believe God is looking, watching, feeling, and hurting at the sight of our suffering. 

Nothing is more central to the narrative of liberty and Exodus, than human dissatisfaction with suffering—and a God that intervenes and cares. 

Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor. God heard their cry, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew. (Exodus 2:23-25)

These passages—the same passages that inspired millions of slaves across the world to fight for a better future—describe a God who cares, listens, and empathizes. They describe a God who knows what is happening in this world, intervenes in its affairs, and listens to those affected by worldly events. The story of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt describes a God who cares about good and evil and who rejects pain and suffering. 

The Bible is riddled with a notion that changed the course of civilization; we are introduced to a compassionate and caring God who intervenes. The Hebrew Bible came into a world that believed in determinism and preordained fate, going on to shake the world’s thinking by challenging that belief. At the epicenter of the Abrahamic faiths is the notion of hope and a God that sees, cares, and intervenes. 

This revolution of hope is reflected beautifully by the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks:

The ancients believed that human destiny lay in the stars or blind fate, what the Greeks called Ananke. Spinoza argued that our lives are governed by natural necessity. Marx claimed that history was determined by economic interests. Freud held that human behavior was shaped by unconscious drives. Neo-Darwinians argue that we are governed by genetic codes hardwired into our brains. Freedom, in all these theories, is an illusion.

This view is challenged in the opening chapters of the Bible. For the first time, God is seen as beyond nature, creating nature by a free, un-coerced act of will. By creating human beings in His image, He bestowed something of that freedom on us. Alone among created life forms, we too, are capable of being creative. The biblical narrative is the ongoing drama of human freedom.

The first four narratives are tragic. First Adam and Eve, then Cain, abuse their freedom. That is then repeated on a global scale by the generation of the Flood and the builders of Babel. People use their freedom to transgress boundaries or deprive others of their freedom. So a new beginning becomes necessary…

Human beings are the only life form capable of using the future tense. Only beings who can imagine the world other than it is, are capable of freedom. And if we are free, the future is open, dependent on us. We can know the beginning of our story but not the end. That is why, as He is about to take the Israelites from slavery to freedom, God tells Moses that His name is ‘I will be what I will be.’ 

The very notion of religious hope, prayer, and sense of an ongoing relationship with God are based on the belief that God, sees, hears, and feels our pain. We turn to a God we believe cares about what takes place in our lives, because we believe he can intervene. We believe that no matter what the laws of nature may be, there is a guiding force, guiding the history, nature, and trajectory of our world. Does this mean nature and facts have no meaning? Of course not. There are many aspects of nature for which prayer and personal pleas do not apply. If a person prays to win last year’s lottery, that is a prayer in vain. The issue is over and nothing can be changed. If one were to pray that they grow wings and suddenly start flying, that would also be prayer in vain. God can, and has, changed the very course of nature with miracles, such as the splitting of the Red Sea after the Exodus or with the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Yet on a day-to-day basis, God does not outrightly break the laws of nature, nor can we hope for those to happen. God created this world so that the basic rules of nature not be violated. 

Constructive Uses of “God is No Gordian”

While there are many things about Kushner’s approach that must be questioned, his perspective makes an important point with regard to meaning-making and suffering. Suffering needs to have meaning. Viktor Frankl (1905 –1997), the world-renowned psychiatrist who lived through the horrors of Auschwitz, writes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:

[Any] attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all…efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.

As humans, we need meaning. As British author Karen Armstrong put it, we are “meaning-seeking creatures.” Believing our suffering has no meaning at all makes suffering all the more difficult. We must find meaning in our suffering. Regardless of what role we believe God may have in our suffering, we must find meaning in that suffering. Whether it is by inserting retroactive meaning into something by making sense of it or by injecting new positive meaning into a tough situation, meaning is essential. If we want to win our war on suffering, we must arm ourselves with meaning. 


The God of Nature—and Providence 

While the world’s great faiths reject the notion that God is no Gordian, they accept the belief in a framework of nature. We believe in a compassionate God who cares. We also believe in the laws of nature. King David states in Psalms:

“How great are Your works, O Lord! You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your possessions!” (Psalms 104:24) 

The laws of nature and their mind-blowing exactness are a testimony to God’s wisdom. If the laws of nature were not predictable, we would not be able to leave our homes in the morning or make any decisions. We believe nature is fixed, with few exceptions, something that lets us lead our lives in a predictable way. We also believe that within the framework of nature, God can intervene and help us out. We do not think God will split the Red Sea for us, although He can, but we do believe He will help us recover from difficult situations. We don’t ask God to violate the laws of nature; we ask for help within the framework of nature. 

The question then becomes, what do we consider an outright violation of the laws of nature, and what is not? Is praying to be cured of cancer asking for a miracle? What about asking to beat the odds and win the lottery? This question is what is many times at the core of our struggles when we face a dire circumstances. We ask ourselves, will prayer even help? 

The answer to this question will vary from individual to individual, belief system to belief system, and situation to situation. We see how, within the basic parameters of nature, situations vary. What is considered a violation of nature for some is a mere outlier to others. And then there are anomalies. Things that some would call an open miracle and violation of nature, while others would consider it miraculous but within the confines of normal. Take the following case as an example. 

A physician in a large hospital shared with me that they once had a patient who was fully brain-dead and on life support. The patient had left a very specific living will saying he did not want any kind of life support and that if he were ever in a situation in which he could not live on his own, he would like to be taken off support even at the cost of death (DNR/DNI). 

Since the scan showed a brain image with irreversible damage and no option for recovery, the family and medical staff started to prepare for the termination of this patient’s care and death. They booked a funeral home, and members of the clergy were busy writing eulogies. Everything was prepared.

The medical staff disconnected the patient from life support. Suddenly, the patient gasped. He started choking, and with that came the last jolt of strength, giving him the power to struggle for his life. He continued coughing and gasping for air more and more. A few minutes after that, he woke up and began speaking to the people around him. 

The doctors were shocked. They sent him for a fresh scan of his brain, something that left the doctors even more shocked. The patient’s brain was still dead. The patient was sent home to his surprised and unsuspecting family. At the time these lines are being written, the neurologist who took care of this patient gets disbelieving phone calls from fellow doctors who have re-scanned this patient’s brain. The brain still shows up as dead, as the doctors cannot believe what has happened. 

The initial doctor, responding to the questions of whether or not if this case will be written up in medical academic journals, has said there is nothing to write up. This case is a medical anomaly. There is nothing that can be generalized from this. It is an outstanding exception, or as religious people would call it, a miracle. 

Can we tell every person with a relative whose scans show brain death that there is hope? Can we tell them a miracle will happen? No. Absolutely not. Miracles do happen today, but they are a great exception. God runs this world through the laws of nature. Yes, He makes some exceptions, but there is a reason God chose nature as a rule and not the exception. 

The Talmud tells a story about a man whose wife died and, with no modern baby-formula solutions, did not have a way to feed his own young children. The Talmud (Shabbat 53B) says that a miracle happened for this man, and he was able to easily nurse his children the same way a woman can breastfeed. 

Following the story, Rabbi Yosef of the Talmud said, “What a great man this person must have been since God made such a miracle for him.” [Rabbi] Abbayeh responded and argued the opposite, “How unacceptable this man is, for God has had to change the order of creation for him.” Rabbi Yosef saw the glory of God in changing of nature—showing that hand of God. Abayeh did not agree with that approach. God is not a magician. God’s greatest glory is most manifest in nature itself, not in the changing of it. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and many other major figures in the Bible never saw a miracle. There are times when God’s showmanship is important and comes to prove a point, but as a whole, God’s greatest wisdom and glory can be found in nature itself. 

God is part of nature, yet guides it. He set up the most magnificent and brilliant system possible. Part of the brilliance is that this system can be self-sufficient and runs in accordance with consistent and logical laws. When we pray, we see God as a guiding force that acts within a certain set of parameters. To better understand this, we can think of this universe as a computer and of God as the programmer. Yes, the programmer can do lots of things with the computer, but it needs to remain within a system of codes, programs, and directives. If the computer had no rules to it, it would not operate. The brilliance of the computer is that once the rules are installed into it, it can do so much—by following those same rules. 

Sir Martin Rees is a British Royal Astronomer and former president of England’s Royal Society. Rees highlights in his book Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe the unfathomable precision inherent to the creation and maintenance of this universe. Rees highlights just six numbers, implied in the creation of the universe, that could not have been even slightly different. Had they been any different, the world would not exist. Rees writes,

The cosmos is so vast because there is one crucially important huge number N in nature, equal to 1,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. This number measures the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. If N had a few fewer zeros, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist: no creatures could grow larger than insects, and there would be no time for biological evolution. 

Another number, E, whose value is 0.007, defines how firmly atomic nuclei bind together and how all the atoms on Earth were made… If E were 0.006 or 0.008, we could not exist. 

Rees provides other examples of the wisdom that is embedded in this world and our existence. But it’s not just the cosmos that shows this.

Take something as small as insects. There are between 20-30 million (!) different kinds of insects. We usually find them all very unlikeable. What would happen, we sometimes wonder, if insects just didn’t exist? Wouldn’t that be nice? Well, it would not take long before flowers and trees would go unpollinated, and they would dry up. The land, in many cases, would go unturned, a job usually done by ants and worms, and the next thing you know, it may be the end of the universe as we know it. 

God is the God of nature, laws, and predictability. This is not to say he does not intervene. God is constantly guiding, intervening, and altering the course of events. That is all within the confines of nature. We pray because we believe things can change. We hope because we are certain things don’t have to be as bad as they are, and we yearn because we know this world was meant to be better. We believe this not just because it is psychologically convenient and socially necessary. If we believed in determinism, this world would be a whole lot worse than it is now. But we also believe in it on a real level as well. The cornerstone of religious belief is a caring and loving God who does control the course of nature. Yes, He is the God of nature, but He is also the God of compassion, love, kindness, and life. No matter how difficult our situation may be, we lift our eyes unto the mountains to see from whence our help may come. We believe things can change—even as we recognize the glory and the often difficult character of nature. 

What Rabbi Sacks Knew At the End of His Life

I wrote this chapter sometime in 2018. I wrote it after many days, weeks, and months of research, reviewing academic and religious sources, and reviewing what was said. Two years later, during the COVID pandemic, I saw of video with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that shook me to the chore. What I did not know at the time was that Rabbi Sacks was terminally ill with cancer and would die less than a year later. Speaking of why bad things happen to good people, Rabbi Sacks said: “God does not want us to understand why bad things happen to good people because if we ever understood, we would be forced to accept that bad things happen to good people and God does not want us to accept those bad things. He wants us not to understand so that we will fight against the bad and the injustices of this world. And that is why there is no answer to that question because God has arranged that we shall never have an answer to it”.

Of all the answers that I reviewed, this was the one that resonated with me the most. Why? Perhaps it was the weakness I saw and Rabbi Sacks’s face and the time, but I did not know its meaning. Perhaps the fact that he was battling the disease of cancer and fighting for his life at the time or knowing a few months later that he died was it. Realizing that this question was on his mind not as an academic topic but as an existential thought. Most importantly, it was seeing the faith, the hope, and the belief in what he went by in his own life, being lived up to until the moment of his death. 

This article is from Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s upcoming series and book on why bad things happen to good people and coping with adversity.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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