Chapter 8 - Why do bad things happen to good people?

"Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?" It is an incredibly common question.

This question is so common, in fact, that there is a well known book by that title written by Melvin Tinker. There is another, even better known book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner. Even more popular is the book When God Doesn't Make Sense by James Dobson.

For James Dobson to weigh in on this, it must be an important question. And that makes sense -- it is a total paradox for any believer, and rightly so.

In his book, James Dobson opens with the story of Chuck Frye, a gifted student who graduated from college and was accepted to medical school. Frye had decided to work as a medical missionary and Dobson says, "If permitted to live, Chuck could have treated thousands of poor and needy people who would otherwise suffer and die in utter hopelessness. Not only could he have ministered to their physical needs, but his ultimate desire was to share the gospel with those who had never heard this greatest of stories." Unfortunately, despite fervent prayers from his parents, family and friends, Frye contracted and then died of leukemia shortly after starting medical school. As Dobson puts it, "how can we make sense of this incomprehensible act of God?"

We see this kind of thing all the time. For example, we read about a woman who is a devout believer. She is so devout that she goes to church three times a week. She gives her time and money to charity. She is constantly helping others. She wears a crucifix and a WWJD bracelet. She walks with Jesus. Then one day a car jacker forces his way into her car. There is a Bible sitting right there on the front seat next to her, but it does not matter. The car jacker shoots her in the head and dumps her body in a ditch. Her family is left to pick up the pieces in bewilderment.

When we ask, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" the essence of the question is simple. If God is looking down upon us from heaven and answering our prayers, how could he allow these horrible things to happen to true believers? How could he ignore their prayers? If someone lives a good and faithful life, and if a person is doing God's work, then why would God allow bad things happen to that person? Why doesn't God -- the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing creator of the universe -- protect a person who is going to church every Sunday, putting plenty of money in the offering plate, following the commandments, praying faithfully and so on? The case of Neva Rogers in Chapter 1 is a perfect example of the problem.

The reason why this question is so puzzling is because the question makes two assumptions:

  1. God exists

  2. God keeps score
In other words, the question assumes that God is sitting in heaven looking down on us, answering our prayers and keeping track of who is good and bad on a minute-by-minute basis. We assume that God keeps a record of "goodness" and "badness" for each of us. Under the Standard Model of God, the reason why God is keeping score is so that he can decide whose prayers he should answer and who should go to heaven once they die.

But what if we were to approach the question from the opposite angle? What if we hypothesize that God is imaginary?

As in chapters 5, 6 and 7, once we hypothesize that God is imaginary, the paradox and the mystery evaporate completely. If there actually is no one in heaven answering prayers and keeping score, then one would expect bad things to happen to good people all the time.

When you look at it this way, everything makes sense. Whether you are good or bad is irrelevant. In the real world that we live in, things like cancer, hurricanes and serial killers would have no way to know whether you are good or bad, nor would they care. Therefore, bad things would happen to good people just as often as they happen to everyone else.

Bad things happen to everyone

To get a clearer picture of what is going on here, let's take a simple example. In the real world, what are your chances of getting cancer if you are good? We find that they are the same as your chances of getting cancer if you are bad. That is easy to prove statistically -- believers get cancer just as often as non-believers who have the same risk factors.

Why might that be? It is because any given cell in every human body has some probability of turning cancerous, and that probability is the same regardless of religious background. There are many different paths to cancer, but let's focus on one of them and use it as an example: cosmic rays.

Every hour of every day, your body is bombarded by about half a million cosmic rays. These cosmic rays have some probability of altering the DNA in a cell in your body. If a cell is altered in a certain way, the cell can turn cancerous and a tumor begins to form.

The cosmic rays in nature have no way of knowing whether you are good or bad, nor do they care. Everyone gets hit by the same number of cosmic rays whether they are good or bad. Therefore, everyone has the same probability of getting cancer from cosmic rays. Your goodness or badness has no influence on cosmic rays. Since God is imaginary, he will not protect you from cosmic rays if you are good. Therefore, cancer happens to good people in exactly the same way that it happens to bad people.

You actually can change the probabilities in certain cases. You do have some control over cancer. A person who smokes increases his probability of getting lung cancer. A person who likes to lie on a tanning bed increases her probability of getting skin cancer. A pilot or an astronaut gets hit by more cosmic rays and increases the probability of cancer. So by not smoking, staying on the ground and remaining pale, you reduce your cancer risk. But no one can eliminate the threat of cancer. You cannot stop the half million cosmic rays that will hit your body in the next hour.

If God is imaginary, these cosmic rays do not care whether a person is good or bad. In the same way:

  • A hurricane does not care if the people in its path are good or bad
  • A deer does not care whether the driver is good or bad when she leaps out onto a highway at midnight and crashes through a windshield.
  • Fat molecules do not care whether you are good or bad as they attach themselves to your heart's arteries and create the conditions necessary for a heart attack.
  • A volcano does not care whether good or bad people will be buried in its lava when it erupts.
  • And so on.

What we find in the real world is that a hurricane causes just as much damage for believers as non-believers. We also find that God does not divert hurricanes away from devout nations -- hurricanes hit the United States every year, often with devastating results, despite the fact that the large majority of Americans believe in God.

The thing for you to notice is this: If we assume that God exists and that the Standard Model of God is true, then the question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is a complete mystery. Our world makes no sense. However, if we assume that God is imaginary, there is no mystery at all. Our world makes complete sense.

That lack of mystery is one way we can know, for sure, that God is imaginary. All evidence points toward the fact that God is imaginary. God is not reaching down from heaven and arbitrarily modifying the laws of probability on behalf of believers. We know that, with certainty, by analyzing the statistics. Nor is God sitting in heaven answering the prayers of believers. Statistics show us that as well. Therefore, bad things happen to good people all the time. Hurricanes, volcanoes, forest fires, tornadoes, tsunamis, car crashes, diseases... they do not care whether you have been bad or good. They are equal opportunity disasters. We can prove this both with common sense and statistical rigor.

God's plan

One of the things running through your head right now may be "God's plan." This is the way that believers traditionally explain things like cancer, hurricanes and car accidents.

For example, when God ignored the prayers of Neva Rogers and allowed the Red Lake gunman to shoot her in the head four times (see chapter 1), she died as part of God's plan. Her death had a purpose. God called her home for a reason. When two-year-old Ranika baked to death in a church van, her death was part of God's plan too (see chapter 4). You know how this works -- even if something bad happens, it is actually good because it is part of God's plan.

You can see how pervasive "God's plan" is by looking in inspirational books and magazines. For example, if we look in the book A Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, we find this remarkable paragraph in Chapter 2:

    Because God made you for a reason, he also decided when you would be born and how long you would live. He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death. The Bible says, "You saw me before I was born and scheduled each day of my life before I began to breathe. Every day was recorded in your book!" [Psalm 139:16]
There is also this:
    Regardless of the circumstances of your birth or who your parents are, God had a plan in creating you.
Under this view of the universe, God plans everything.

Take a moment and think about what Rick Warren said. Rick said, "He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death." Let's examine one incredibly simple implication of this statement. What this means is that God pre-planned every abortion that has taken place on our planet.

If you think about this simple implication for a few moments, you will begin to realize how impossible "God's plan" is. If the concept of "God's plan" is true, you can first of all see that God wants us to be aborting children. Every single abortion is planned by God, so God must be doing it for a reason. Second, you can see that both the mother who requests the abortion and the doctor who performs it are blameless. Since it is God who planned the abortion of the child (God chose the "exact time" of the death, according to Rick Warren), the mother and doctor are simply puppets who are fulfilling God's plan. You can also see that all the believers who are fighting against abortion are missing the point. They are actually fighting against God's plan, and their fight is completely futile. God is the all-powerful ruler of the universe, and his plan is for more than a million children a year to die in the United States through abortion. [ref] Each one of those abortions was meticulously planned by God, so fighting against abortion is a totally wasted effort.

You may be thinking, "God does not intend for us to perform abortions!" But if you believe what Rick is saying, then you are obviously incorrect. If God exists and God has a plan for you, then God is actually the direct cause of every abortion on earth. If you find that notion to be uncomfortable, I would agree with you. Unfortunately, that is the logical outcome of God's plan.

In order to better understand God's plan, let's look at one of the biggest global events that humans have ever witnessed: World War II. According to Encarta:

    The human cost [of WWII], not including between 5.6 million and 5.9 million Jews killed in the Holocaust who were indirect victims of the war, is estimated to have been 55 million deadó25 million of those military and 30 million civilian.
In addition, according to Encarta:
  • 61 countries participated in WWII
  • 1.7 billion people participated in WWII
  • 75% of all human beings alive at the time participated in WWII
World War II was obviously a major disaster -- perhaps the most horrific event the world has ever seen. It is safe to say that nearly every human being on planet Earth prayed to God that this war would end.

There is also Adolph Hitler. He was evil incarnate, and Hitler is well known for the atrocious things he did. It is interesting to look at Adolph Hitler in the context of prayer, and understand how people try to reconcile an all-loving, prayer-answering God with such a hateful man.

Consider this statement: "Hitler is part of God's Plan." Think about what Rick said:

    He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death. The Bible says, "You saw me before I was born and scheduled each day of my life before I began to breathe. Every day was recorded in your book!" [Psalm 139:16]
Rick also says:
    God never does anything accidentally, and he never makes mistakes. He has a reason for everything he creates. Every plant and every animal was planned by God, and every person was designed with a purpose in mind.
If God has a divine plan for each of us, then he had a divine plan for Hitler too. It is when you stop to think about it deeply that the contradictions hit you.

For example, simply think about what "God's plan" would actually mean. Since God is an all-powerful being, God's plan would, of necessity, need to be all-inclusive. Hitler and WWII would fit as one tiny piece in a supreme plan of massive proportions. Under an all-encompassing plan like this, the 60 million people who died in WWII all died for specific reasons -- each death had meaning -- and each death would have rippled through the world causing countless side-effects, also all part of God's plan. God's master plan would include everyone and everything, including Hitler and WWII.

Now let's imagine that you say a prayer in this sort of universe. What difference does it make? God has his plan, and that plan is running down its track like a freight train. If God has a plan, then everyone who died in the Holocaust died for a reason. They had to die, and each death had meaning. Therefore, Holocaust victims could pray all day, and they would still die. The idea of a "plan" makes the idea of a "prayer-answering relationship with God" ridiculous. Yet people attach themselves to both ideas, despite the irresolvable contradiction.

Think about what God's plan means for you personally. If the plan happens to say that you will get hit by a bus tomorrow, or that terrorists will blow you up, or that you will be shot in the head four times, then that's what will happen. It would be the same with any disease. If you contract cancer this afternoon and die three months later, that is God's plan for you. Praying to cure the cancer is a waste. God plans for you to die, so you will die. He has pre-programmed the exact time of your death. There is nothing you can do to change the plan -- no amount of prayer will help -- because your death will have meaning and your death will cause side-effects that are also part of the plan.

Who will you marry? You actually have no choice in the matter. God has pre-planned your wedding in minute detail. Rick Warren says, "God knew that those two individuals [your parents] possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom 'you' that he had in mind. They had the DNA God wanted to make you." Therefore, your spouse was pre-chosen by God for you so that you would create the children who are a part of his plan. You also have no choice in the number of children you will have -- God has pre-planned their births.

In addition, this sort of universe means that Hitler is blameless. Hitler was not "evil," because Hitler had no free will at all. Hitler was simply an actor forced to play his role in God's plan. God planned for millions of people to die in the Holocaust -- he planned their deaths in exact detail according to Rick Warren. Hitler had to kill those people. Hitler was God's puppet in making that those millions of deaths happen right on schedule.

In the same way then, every murderer is blameless. Since God has planned each of our deaths in exact detail, murderers are actually essential to God's plan. Why do we punish them? We should be rewarding them for doing their God-planned duty. What if you get raped tomorrow and get pregnant? God did that because he planned the exact time of that child's birth and death. God actually pre-planned your rape, and the rapist was God's puppet. Rather than hating the rapist, we should celebrate God's plan.

Do you believe that murderers and rapists should be rewarded? Do you believe that Hitler was sent by God to kill millions of people in the Holocaust? Do you believe that God is the direct cause of every abortion on this planet? Do you believe that you have no choice in your spouse or the number of children you have? Probably not. But that is what believers are saying when they say, "it is all part of "God's plan."

You should be able to see reality now. The statement "It is part of God's plan" is meaningless. when you sit down and think it through using your common sense, it makes no sense.

Understanding the illusion of religion

You may have believed in God's plan your whole life. There's a very good chance that you own a copy of Rick's book -- it has sold over 20 million copies.

The problem is, what Rick proposes is impossible. If God has "planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death", what that means is that you have absolutely no free will. Humans have no control over anything. We are simply puppets executing the plan. It also means that prayer is absolutely pointless.

You can understand the illusion simply by using your common sense. Work through the implications of what Rick Warren says. As soon as you think about it, you will begin to see what is actually going on. As you think about it more and more, it becomes obvious that God is imaginary.

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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