If a good God exists, then why do bad things happen?
It’s a question that believers have asked for millennia. The question is so old, in fact, that it earned its own technical name, “the Problem of Evil,” and each attempt to answer it is called a theodicy. Many have lost their faith over the problem of evil and the failure of theodicy, and I get that. Personally, I can’t live with a notion of God that either diminishes the goodness of God or trivializes the unspeakable suffering which permeates our world.
To my surprise, I recently discovered that the weird and disturbing book of Deuteronomy can be read as an attempt to answer the Problem of Evil. Deuteronomy, of course, is no abstract treatise attempting to rationalize the existence of evil “in general.” But like me, Deuteronomy’s writers looked back on the destruction of the past and asked, “Why, God?”
Although Deuteronomy is set as a speech delivered by Moses, mainstream scholars think that much of the book was written and re-written first during Israel’s exile in Babylon, and later when the Israelites returned home after the Babylonian empire crumbled.
In that historical setting, Israelites were facing two major questions: (1) If God cares about us, then why were we pillaged and deported by the armies of Babylon? (2) Now that we’re finally going back home, how can we avoid another exile? These people needed to make sense of the goodness of God in the midst of their tragedy. They faced a specific case of the Problem of Evil.
For the book of Deuteronomy, the answers all come back to God’s rules. According to Deuteronomy, God will protect and bless Israel if it follows the Law (a set of rules that is almost as long and dry as an iTunes Terms and Agreement statement):
If you will only obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God.
The opposite is also true:
If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, then the LORD will overwhelm both you and your offspring with sever and lasting affliction and grievous and lasting maladies.
Deuteronomy, read in this way, gives a confident answer to its own particular Problem of Evil: the horror of its invasion and exile occurred because the people didn’t follow God’s rules. God is still good, because God will bless Israel as long as it follows the carefully spelled-out rules, and God will forgive Israel’s past failures if the nation repents.
Props to the writers and editors of Deuteronomy for honestly facing the challenging God-questions of their day and giving the best answer they could find.
Unfortunately, their answer to their tragedy won’t work for my question and our tragedies. I don’t think that bad circumstances are God’s measured retribution for the sins that people commit. I can’t imagine that cancer victims “deserve it,” nor do I think that Syria imploded because its general population was especially naughty.
Deuteronomy can’t provide an answer that will work for me, but it loudly affirms that my question, the Problem of Evil, is worth trying to answer.
For more on my ongoing “God Project,” start here. If this project seems interesting to you, find “Follow blog via email” at the bottom of this page. If you enter your email address into that box, you will receive an email update with each blog post (typically one per week).