When Bad Things Happen to Good People – Harold S. Kushner

When Bad Things Happen to Good People – Harold S. Kushner

   In the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold S. Kushner writes conversationally to the sufferer and establishes himself as someone who has “skin in the game” as he recounts how his son Aaron suffered from a disease called Progeria (“rapid aging”) which led to his premature death. Kushner knows suffering, his son knew suffering, and now he aims to share with his readers the answer to, as he calls it, the only question which really matters: “why do bad things happen to good people?” (9). Unfortunately, this “inspirational #1 bestseller” should not inspire most Christian sufferers, though they should leave having compassion for a man who lost his son and desperately wanted to make sense of his child’s pain and his loss. Since Kushner declares the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” as the only one that really matters, this book review will focus primarily on his answer to this question.

   Harold S. Kushner is a Jewish Rabbi who wrote this book from a purely Jewish perspective, only using Old Testament Scripture, which limits its usefulness to the Christian sufferer. I suppose one shouldn’t go into an Italian restaurant and expect to find sushi on the menu, and a Christian shouldn’t read a secular book written by a Jewish Rabbi and expect to find New Testament Scripture used to support his propositions. However, the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament was written for the Christian’s learning (Rom. 15:4), so a Christian can hardly be blamed for thinking that there would be real value in reading a Rabbi’s understanding of Old Testament Scriptures pertaining to God and suffering. Yet even Kushner’s hermeneutical approach to the Old Testament will likely leave Christians scratching their heads, like when he questions the validity of several Old Testament accounts that involve miracles (64-65) and when he offers this critique of the Psalmist of the ninety-second Psalm:

If I could meet the author of the Ninety-second Psalm, I would first congratulate him on having composed a masterpiece of devotional literature. I would acknowledge that he has said something perceptive and important about the world we live in, that being dishonest and unscrupulous often gives people a head start, but justice catches up to them….But having said that, I would be obliged to point out that there is a lot of wishful thinking in his theology….I cannot say Amen to his claim that ‘the righteous flourish like the palm tree.’ (17)

It appears from these words and other statements found in his book that Kushner does not believe that all Scripture is inspired of God, a fact established in the Old and New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16). One could only assume if he believed in complete, verbal inspiration of Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21), he would be more reluctant to critique the Psalmist, knowing he is actually critiquing God. This undermines his creditability as someone who can deliver unbiased, hermeneutically sound conclusions concerning Scripture. If some accounts in Scripture are untrue and Psalm 92 is imperfect, what other Scriptures should be disregarded? Better yet, what other Scriptures has Kushner disregarded as he developed his answer to the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?”

   Why do bad things happen to good people? Kushner concludes that God is not omnipotent

[all-powerful] (48-52). His conclusion is based on the account of Job which he determines is about a person “so good, so perfect, that you realize at once that you are not reading about a real life person” (37). His understanding of the Book of Job is very curious at times. For instance, he nonchalantly writes that God destroyed Job’s house, cattle, and children and inflicted Job with physical torture. However, the Bible clearly states that Satan is the one inflicting pain and suffering on Job, not God (Job 1:12; 2:6-7). Without “getting into the weeds,” Kushner sets forth three propositions which he believes most everyone would like to believe when reading Job:

A. God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without His willing it.

B. God is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.

C. Job is a good person.

He then states that we can believe all three propositions to be true when Job’s life is prosperous, but when Job begins to suffer, “we have a problem…we can now affirm any two by denying the third” (43). Kushner writes that Job’s friends rejected proposition C, Job rejected proposition B, and the “anonymous author” of the Book of Job rejected proposition A. He believes that the “anonymous author” rejected proposition A based on the “answer he put into God’s mouth” in chapter 38-41 (47). He rejects the notion that God’s answer to Job is that He is so powerful that He doesn’t have to explain Himself because “…that is precisely what Job has been claiming throughout the book: There is a God, and He is so powerful that He doesn’t have to be fair….Why is Job so apologetic if it turns out that God agrees with him?” In other words, Kushner, to expunge what seems to be the most natural interpretation, equates explanation with fairness. It is entirely possible to summarize God’s answer to Job as “I am all-powerful and do not owe you an explanation” without having to concede that God is agreeing with Job that He is unjust (not fair). Job was apologetic because he hadn’t just asked for an explanation from God; he had questioned God’s justice and wanted God to explain himself (Job 42:2). There is nothing that God says to Job in chapters 38-41 that would even begin to suggest that God doesn’t view Himself as all-powerful. In fact, everything God says points to His omnipotence [Creation: Job 38:4-21; Weather: 38:22-38; Preservation of animals: 38:39-39:30; Justice for men: (40:2-14); Control the wild beasts (40:15-41:34], yet Kushner uses God’s words in chapter 40:9-14 to suggest otherwise. In Job 40:9-14, God is recorded as saying:

Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?… Look on every one that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked in their place. Hide them in the dust together….Then will I also confess unto thee that thine own right hand can save thee.

From this, Kushner surmises God to mean “’if you think it is so easy to keep the world true and straight…you try it’” and then pens these words, “It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims. But could man, without God, do it better?” (49). If he believes God is not omnipotent, I would like to ask Kushner a different question, could man do any worse? Once God’s omnipotence is removed, I could justifiably put my faith in another man and expect similar results. Both would lack the wherewithal to perform perfectly because they both lack the power to effect any change. It is true that God is saying in effect to Job, “you try it,” but not because God lacks the power to control the world perfectly; rather, He can and Job can’t. For this reason, Job should stop demanding an explanation and start trusting in God’s omnipotence that allows Him to carry out perfect justice. It should also be noted that proposition A is misleading. One can believe that God is all-powerful without believing that He causes everything that happens in the world and nothing happens without His willing it (Eccles. 9:11). For example, the sin that occurs daily is not caused and is not willed by God; yet it happens. Nevertheless, Kushner believes that Job teaches that God is not all-powerful, and “If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us.” With all due respect to Mr. Kushner, I can believe that God is on my side when “bad” things happen, without conceding that my God is overwhelmed with the world He created. I can believe this truth because the Bible clearly teaches in other passages that God is omnipotent and on His people’s side, and any interpretation of Job must fit within this framework (Jer. 32:27; Matt. 19:26; Job 42:2; Heb. 1:3; etc.). Kushner disregards all other Scripture regarding God’s omnipotence to draw a conclusion that he believes is comforting to the sufferer.

   While Kushner’s motives appear to be pure as He desperately tries to understand God and lift the burden of resentment sufferers may feel toward God, he does so at the expense of God’s omnipotence and Scripture (Bible). It is my belief that it is unnecessary to sacrifice God’s omnipotence, as taught in the entirety of the Bible,  to make sufferers “feel better.” For this reason, I rate this book a “don’t bother,” I wish I hadn’t. Yet I Trust.

By | 2018-06-21T06:29:00+00:00 September 15th, 2015|Don't Bother|1 Comment

About the Author:

As a child I always dreamed of the day in which I would establish my own blog and share way too much personal information with as many people as possible…well, not exactly. In fact, this whole blogging thing goes against my instincts. However, after getting hit with Multiple Sclerosis in 2014 during my second, located, Christian ministry, I decided to ignore my instincts and created a blog aimed at helping Christians and their loved ones deal effectively with pain and suffering. I hope by providing truthful resources and ways to connect with others in similar situations we will accomplish something great . So join me…let’s do this people!

One Comment

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    PaulH February 17, 2016 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    Thanks Jeff for these reviews. One of the most frustrating things about chronic disease is all of the misinformation. I appreciate the logical and biblical review of these topics.

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