Why Do Bad Things Happen to People?

[This post is in a weekly devotional series called Everything New. Sign up here if you’re interested.]

Suffering is often the direct result of the sinful things humans do to each other. The first murder occurred just four chapters into the Bible. What’s worse is that it was a brother killing his own brother. Why did bad things happen to a shepherd named Abel? It was because Cain chose hot, bitter jealousy. It was because Cain had the opportunity to live in harmony with God, but he took his God-given ability to choose and listened to the dark side of his nature.
God doesn’t murder. People do.

C.S. Lewis speculated that 80 percent of the world’s suffering is caused by the immoral choices of human beings. Several years ago I was in the Ethiopian countryside looking over vast fertile fields. The grain was laid like great sheets across the hills, shifting in color and shadow as it was pushed this way and that by the breezes. Women wearing red and yellow and green walked along the road, hunched over with large baskets on their backs. I recalled the severe famine of Ethiopia in the 1980’s. My guide told me that Ethiopia is fertile enough that it could feed the whole of Africa.

There was a drought in those days, and the crops were affected, but in the end it was sinful human beings who hoarded the available grain and prevented its distribution-purely political and tribal manipulation. That was the reason why hundreds of thousands of people died in the famine. God did not cause people to shrivel up and die of malnutrition. Cruel human beings did. And it is not the way things are supposed to be.

People naturally ask, “So why can’t God prevent people from causing the suffering that they do to other people?” The answer is that he could, and someday he will. He will decisively interrupt the affairs of the world, bring a curtain down on history, and judgment will come, along with a new creation in which there are no more tears and no more pain. But in the meantime, God allows human beings to exercise a quality that is one of the most noble things human beings possess, and also one of the most dangerous: freedom.

Freedom is one of our most cherished attributes. Why did the young men emerge from landing crafts on the beaches of Normandy and run up the beach in the face of leveling gunfire? Why did they throw themselves toward the vicious teeth of a powerful enemy? Why did they lay down their lives, many of them never to take another step toward age 20? It was for freedom. Trapped in a battle, but struggling toward freedom. It was because we need to be free to live. It is because to be human means to be free. It is because that’s the way God made us-it’s the way things were meant to be.
But the very meaning of freedom is that we are free to choose the good and we are free to choose evil. It is, in fact, the only way freedom works.

Now think about how we experience this every day with our growing and developing children. If someone asked you, “So, when exactly did you lose control of your kids?” the right answer would be, “What makes you think I ever had control of them in the first place?” A parent realizes with the passing of years that parenting is not about control, but about training. Even if you physically constrained a child, you would not really control him or her, because a human being, no matter what age, asserts the drive to act freely. He or she may comply on the outside, but crossed arms, knit brow, and stiffened lips reveal an independent will inside. Parents realize that their teenagers are progressively moving toward independence. How could it be any other way? Soon the kid will be an adult and will have to make daily decisions that will come out of whatever ethical and moral fabric has developed in his or her consciousness. With that freedom of choice the adolescent will make good decisions and bad decisions-and that will continue through every phase of life that follows.

To be human means to have freedom, whether we use it or abuse it. (That does not mean we are uninfluenced by forces without and within. The fact of free choice does not mean that we are entirely self-determinative. We are profoundly influenced by God, by other people, by temptation, compulsion, and addiction. But in the end, only we are responsible for the choices we make.)

Why do bad things happen to innocent people? Frequently it is because human beings act carelessly, cruelly, and maliciously toward each other. Of course it leaves us asking, why? Why must this be? Why would a young man abandon a baby at a rest stop? Why would somebody have his wife murdered? Why would somebody drive by a house and fire a gun randomly at it? Why would someone kill someone for a wallet or a jacket? Why would somebody fly a jetliner full of innocent people into a skyscraper? There is no good answer because there is nothing of goodness in this. It is, at its core, unanswerable because it is nonsensical. But even without a rational explanation for what is in essence irrational, this piece of reality does fit with everything else we know about reality. The foolish and dark use of freedom is a fracture in the world that can be traced from one end of the human race to the other; it runs to the heart of human nature. There is a terrible consistency in this randomness.

Could God have created humanity without this awesome power to choose? Yes, he could have, but then we would be robots and not human beings. We would not know a single moment of chosen love or devotion or goodness. We would not be able to worship God, or love our children or our friends. We would be incapable of understanding grace instead of greed, light instead of darkness.

God wanted to make a certain kind of creature as the last step of the creation. He created human beings invested with this incredible privilege and power, the life-giving and life-taking power of freedom. The misuse of freedom has set into human nature a series of fault lines that goes not only through humanity, but through the whole creation as well. Like us, the whole of creation groans “as in the pains of childbirth,” it is “subjected to frustration,” and it “waits in eager expectation” for God’s final redemption when the bondage will end, and the adoption of sons and daughters of God will be complete (see Romans 8:18-39).

Excerpt from Putting the Pieces Back Together: How Real Life and Real Faith Connect. Free DVD available now.

Next time: How God helps us when we suffer.

23 thoughts on “Why Do Bad Things Happen to People?”

  1. Imust be really bad then as I am going through some really horrible stuff at the moment and feel abandoned by God. My experience does not match up with what the Bible says or what you say in this article. Why is that????

    1. Eve –
      I am so sorry to hear that you are going through horrible things and that you feel abandoned by God. Many people would say the same thing. Even Jesus on the cross repeated the words of the Psalms “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
      God does not abandon us, even though suffering may make it feel that way.
      Please know that in today’s article I was not saying that all suffering is the result of direct human sin, and certainly not that when we suffer it is always because we have brought it on ourselves.
      Whatever your struggles are today, I pray that you will find moments of solace from God, that you will find one or two people who can be concerned for you, and that you will take this time of your life step by step and know that you are not always going to be in the place that you are today.

  2. Donald L. Thompson

    I believe God gives us free choice. What happens we our choice do to something even when it is
    contrary to God’s will, we must suffer the consequences.

  3. I understand the reasoning here but find this really offensive to those who cancer suffer from things like cancer or any other disease that is hereditary. Is it really because people are evil that they get sick? Small children get leukemia because someone else is sinful? That just seems so wrong. A child that dies because their heart just was not developed has nothing to do with someone being sinful. A kid that falls and breaks their arm while playing is not always the fault of an evil person, they just fell. What a major failing to leave that out of this piece. Sometimes bad things happens and its not anyone’s fault. Why do we humans feel like someone is always to blame Life happens…in things mentioned here it true,but in the cases I mentioned it is so not.

    1. Christine – I’m glad you raised this. You are absolutely correct that a lot of suffering is not the result of people hurting each other. You are anticipating next week’s article when I will talk about that. This week I started with the statement: “Suffering is often the direct result of the sinful things humans do to each other.” Often, but not always. We do live in a world where we have things like disease and natural catastrophes which are not direct human causes. Romans 8 talks about the whole world groaning in its suffering until that day when God renews it all.
      Sometimes disease is human-caused. And all suffering that comes from violent crime is human-caused.
      I’ve been a pastor for 30 years and have mourned with so many people who suffer. I experience that in my own family. What I do want people to know is that not all suffering is the direct punishment of God. Sometimes that is the case (see Psalm 38, for instance), but much of the world’s suffering is because of the mistakes of the human race. That biblical truth is what will make us champions of justice and do whatever we can, in Christ’s name, to lessen the evil things people do to each other.

  4. I think it is funny that this message would come up now! I was just discussing the purpose of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. I believe that one of the purposes of the tree was God’s way of demonstrating that he has given man free will. Of course Adam and Eve disobeyed but that is because humans are fallible. I also believe that this (the fall of man) was necessary in the grand scheme of things because how can one see the brightness and splendor of the light (God) when they have not seen the darkness (sin) as a comparison? My point is this, yes because of our free will bad things happen to good people but sometimes these things are necessary and God brings good out of the bad. I liked that scripture he had mentioned- Romans 8:28- And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[b] have been called according to his purpose.

    Any thoughts?

  5. Freedom of choice is a big responsibility. I believe that God will punish those who choose evil. Just think, if everyone lived according to the ten commandments, what a different, wonderful world we would live in.

  6. Michel J. Manuel

    I like your title : “Why bad things happen to people,” the title did not say: why bad things happen to good people for the Bible says there no one who is just, not just one. It is by the grace of God and his mercy that we are not wiped out of the face of the earth because our human nature (our heart) is “desperately wicked.” I find solace in your well thought out article which confirms what already believe that God will altogether put an end to all this suffering and madness by the second coming of Christ. God bless and keep up the wonderful work you’re doing.

  7. Thank you for one of the best commentaries that I’ve read in ages. As well as speaking straight to my heart, and as an article it was something that I agreed with so much, it gave me additional food for thought.

    1. Glad it was helpful, Chris. Although when you open this topic you realize how wide-ranging it is and how many questions there are. We’ll build on this in the next couple of weeks.

  8. we do not know God’s plan..We do not think like He nor Do we understand His ways….We do know that He is love and goodness and in control… Hebrews 11:1 Faith in action ..
    I too feel fear when I do not think God is near.. That the worst fear is not knowing Him at all..
    fear is from evil and that drives humans in so many ways…. stress alone kills.. every answer is in Gods word His help for us is in there..If we choose to go there…

  9. I respect where the poster is coming from but I think it is the wrong question.

    The correct question in my view is why do Good things happen at all? Why is there any good in the world at all? … Then the answer becomes very simple, because there is a Good God who desires Good things for people.

    If we were the product of random chaotic processes then there would be no good in the world at all because there is no such thing as Good, only relativism.

    1. Ty – you echo the comment of Augustine who said: “If there is a God, why is there so much evil?” then you also have to ask, “If there is no God, why is there so much good?”

  10. Allows is not a word used in the Hebrew or Greek. If we say God allows things like suffering
    that would not be correct.The word allow is used three times in the Greek. Look it up.
    Also you might look up 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, also John 10:10. Their is Gods truth and our “truth”.
    To me it seems that God only does things that of His true character. The devil is a liar, John 8:44.

  11. God has created man in HIS own image and likeness, and HE honours our freewill… but man… has lost himself to evil.

  12. Shara Sagraves

    Christine – I was reading your response this morning. Your thought touched me and I just wanted to respond to what I feel the Lord has revealed to me. This is a fallen world that is brought on by sin. Sin from Adam & Eve, inhearited sin, imputied sin and our own sin. God does not want us to die from cancer, children die from undeveloped heart’s, etc.. God loves us and He wanted a world that would glorify him. We can only do that by having a relationship with Jesus, for he took on our sins so that we can spend eternity with him. We will have that perfect world in heaven with no cancer, no pain and no more tears. It is Jesus that delivers us from all unrightousness.
    God Bless You Darlin.

  13. While reading this, all I could think of was scriptures about predestination and the story of Job. How Job did not have a choice, and how it was not because of humans that everything was taken away from him ; however it was because satan question God.(Job 1) So God knew and allowed the enemy to attack Job. Therefore I believe God allows bad things to happen to all for His purpose , and for individuals that are going through have a testimony and can encourage others .For God will never give you more than you can handle.(1 Corinthians 10) And its through our tough times that we need to be the most faithful to God because with out one knowledge of evil one would not know the goodness of God .Which relates to the beginning in Genesis the tree of knowledge of good and evil which Adam and Eve was forbidden to eat from for now we have the knowledge of good and evil .(Genesis 2) : )

  14. I believe that satan has also been given the freedom to enter our thoughts and offer evil that is our free-will to accept or reject. It is through our surrender to the Lordship of Christ-who defeated satan- that we in turn defeat satans evil offerings. Stated another way-those embrace the evil that is presented them-make satan lord of their lives-how sad…

  15. This is so true. There’s enough food in the world to feed all people…but because of selfishness there are people who die of hunger while others die of overeating.

    I especially liked the part where it said: “Could God have created humanity without this awesome power to choose? Yes, he could have, but then we would be robots and not human beings. We would not know a single moment of chosen love or devotion or goodness. We would not be able to worship God, or love our children or our friends. We would be incapable of understanding grace instead of greed, light instead of darkness.”

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