Why does God let bad things happen? IS God there? Moving towards understanding God

J. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners narrates how ordinary Germans were willingly involved in the near extermination of Jews in the 1930s and 40s. Reading of the inhuman treatment meted out to the old and young, one cannot but ask the question: where was God when all these events were happening to God’s ‘chosen people’? The Hebrew Bible attests that God always protects God’s people, yet God was significantly absent in these events. Then if we look back into our history of, say 500-600 years, we are left with further shocking questions.


We may mention just a few, out of the thousands, where God has not intervened: the practice of slavery; casteism in India; genocides like the killing of the local inhabitants of the Americas by the invaders; colonialism;  the Black Death of the 15th century; major events like the horrors of Hiroshima, the Bhopal tragedy, killings in Rwanda, Vietnam, and other places;  World Wars and smaller wars where millions have been killed; the horrible treatment of war prisoners at Abu Ghraib; female infanticide in India; the treatment of women and laity in the Churches and their inferior position. We may add also the co-existence for centuries of enormous luxury on the one hand and abject misery for the millions on the other hand.  Besides these human caused horrors there are tornadoes, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunami, floods and many other natural “catastrophes” which kill many people. In these and similar events involving millions of people God’s presence comes in question

 The inadequacy of our understanding of God’s Doings.

 Christianity has appropriated the language and ways of thinking of pre-Christian era.  The authors of the Hebrew Bible believed that nothing happens apart from God’s plan, knowledge and permission: God makes the sun to rise, etc. The fact is that the Hebrew authors used various stories, as is normal in most cultures, to keep the people faithful to Yahweh and the covenant. As this purpose was not always kept in mind many stories of God punishing, rewarding, etc. were taken as literally true.

This way of looking was not just an Old Testament mentality. Paul takes so much of the OT as literally true and bases his theology on that reading of the OT. For example, his views on the place of women in the church (1 Cor 11.7b-8, 1 Tim 2.13-14, etc.) are based on a literal reading of Chapter two of Genesis. The Popes down the centuries, up to 1950s, kept up this literal reading of the Bible. Atheism is also partly a result of such a discrepancy between what is claimed about God and what is seen as happening.

 History may not be ignored, though often we do just that. The obvious fact is that in enormously important and weighty matters affecting millions of God’s children, God has not intervened to solve, to rectify, or improve any of these humanly important happenings.

 I intend no disrespect to those who truly believe that God does intervene in this way and solves all problems.  I am fully aware that many holy people are declared blessed or saint in the Catholic Church on the basis of the miracles, in answer to their prayers, seen as the otherwise unexplainable interventions of God in history.

 Understanding his empowering presence :Moving towards a more Credible Language

   If we want to speak to enlightened and educated people and expect them to continue to believe in God, we have to speak a more credible language about God’s doings. God has left the world completely in our hands to look after, to care for, to nurture and to improve, as Gen 1.28ff tells us. Hence the Bible says that after God put Adam (humankind) in charge of creation “God rested” (Gen 2.2), though this also is not literally true, these words direct us towards a solution in our God language. God, however, is not like a retired engineer who after completing a building goes away for good. God is right within us, empowering, enabling us to be our own creators, and be channels of God’s infinite and creative love to one another. Humans have been doing precisely that:  hence we have freedom movements, all the progress in medicine, scientific discoveries, etc; we have people like Gandhiji, Mandela, Mother Teresa, John XXIII, and others who have affected human history.

 The Bible calls God a compassionate one, a “suffering-with-us” God, for God does not force God’s children created as sharers of God’s freedom and love-ability.  That is why God is, strictly speaking, “not allowing” anything that happens – everything happens according to its natural laws of cause and effect. The whole of creation is interconnected and inter dependent; what one person does affects others. If God has created creators after God-self, it is but natural that they be fully responsible for what happens on earth. In fact most of the problems are created by humans. Children are born handicapped due to what happens to and in the mother when the child is in her womb.  So God cannot be held responsible for what happens on earth.   If a consecrated virgin is raped on a day when she can conceive, she will become a mother, and God does not prevent that from happening. We remember too that God did not intervene when God’s innocent Son was brutally murdered.

 If we hold that God intervenes, as he is supposed to have done in Sodom and Gomorrah, God would have punished the world a hundred times over, seeing the cruelty and inhumanness humans practice and the sexual perversity and promiscuity that rule the world today. If God is supposed to intervene and rectify things, in no way can we understand all the happenings in history, especially events like the Holocaust, the present world with enormous problems; floods and draughts, the ecological disasters like global warming, female infanticide, the Church’s changing stand on various issues like religious freedom, ecumenism, relation to other religions, the question of salvation, etc. One would rightly say that all these are human-made problems. As we see from history, all human-caused or other disasters have to be solved by humans alone, be they slavery, casteism,   or any other. While affirming our responsibility, I do emphasize and acknowledge the divine as present within each one of us, without forcing us, but enabling and empowering us to be creators of ourselves and of our world.

 It is high time that  we use a language that makes sense to today’s questioning, searching people, emphasizing our full responsibility, in total dependence on God, the loving source, the fountain within that keeps flowing life into us, but without forcing, intervening in our freedom and creativity. This is what we find realized in Jesus: in total dependence on his Abba, he was fully responsible for what he had to do; and he told his disciples to be responsible through the examples he gave them (the birds and lilies who are very hard-working – Matt 6.25ff), and by telling them, “you give them something to eat” (Mk 6.37), instead of asking them to pray to the Father, as one would have expected him to do, as he himself had told them that the Father gives whatever they ask for (e.g. Lk 11.1-13).

 Only when we come to be an adult Christianity, can we expect to stop the emptying of the churches in Europe. The solutions of yesterday, just as the language of yesterday, cannot satisfy the people of today and solve the problems of today. 

 To conclude, then, there are many areas that need to be re-thought.  We need to discover a way of speaking about God and God’s ways with us in line with what we see in reality, in our history; the language inherited from over 2000 years ago cannot satisfy the people of today. Obviously, we do not deny God’s right to intervene in history when, where and how God wills. However, we cannot just ignore history. God cannot be seen as one of the causes along with other finite causes, but as the transcendent Mystery that envelops and sustains us from within, as the source of infinite power within us, as the source of everything – a source which does not replace the finite causes, which does not intervene in the created freedom of humans, and which enables each one to be his/her own creator. Then, prayer will have to be seen not as a mechanism to inform God of our needs or obtain favours from God, but as a love relation to praise and thank God and to become aware of who we are, and to be in touch with and be recreated by  the source, the fountain, the divine within us.

 I am fully aware that my position raises many questions about many of our practices, including novenas and the saint-making system – we need to carry on reflecting and dialoguing. We may not consistently ignore the data of history.

(About the author: Fr Joseph Mattam,SJ, a Jesuit from Gujarat, professor of theology, author of seven books and editor of 11 books.")

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *