Why do bad things happen to good people? Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, reflecting on this problem, suggested that if God was truly all-powerful, He wouldn’t allow evil to exist; if He allowed evil to exist, then God couldn’t truly be all-powerful.1 There probably isn’t a bigger question in religion; so much so it even has its own sub-branch of theology called “theodicy”.2
The horrors of Auschwitz
For years my long-suffering wife has put up with my morbid fascination with the darker side of history. She has accompanied me on several macabre trips, including the Western Front and D-Day beaches of France; Napoleon’s Waterloo in Belgium; Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia; the Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam; and Gallipoli in Turkey.
Yet the place that scares me most is Auschwitz, the Nazi death factory in Poland where 1.1 million people (mostly Jews) were exterminated during the Second World War.3 While there were bigger and more gruesome genocides in history, it is the detached clinical proficiency involved in murdering six million Jews during the Holocaust that raises the most questions about an all-powerful and loving God.
Importantly, why would God let these children of Abraham face such annihilation? And why would God allow advanced and civilised Germany, the land of Luther, Mozart, Beethoven and Einstein, to turn its famous industrial know-how into industrialised slaughter?
Explanations I don’t like
There are a number of Christian clichéd answers I find inadequate. They start with second century “church father” Irenaeus,4 who influenced 17th century Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, saying this is the “best of all possible worlds”.5 God deliberately created mankind like weak children and wants us to suffer as this is how we supposedly develop.6
Then there is 16th century John Calvin, influenced by fifth century bishop Augustine of Hippo, whose notions of predestination suggest suffering is all part of God’s will.7 To me that simply makes God a sick puppet-master and we His helpless puppets.
While there are elements of truth in these explanations,8 they fail to justify a God of love in light of horrors we see on the nightly news.
Job and the great controversy
To be honest there is only one explanation that makes sense to me—the idea of a great controversy between God and Satan. The Bible teaches there was a war in heaven caused by Lucifer and his angels, who were cast down to Earth.9 They were permitted to stay and wreak havoc because Adam and Eve gave up their right to rule, making Satan prince of this world.10 While other denominations have glimpses of this concept,11 the Adventist Church rightly emphasises it as a fundamental belief.12
Probably the best illustration of this theme is found in the book of Job, that seminal book on suffering. Job demonstrates this controversy is essentially about free will over choice of worship; suffering is caused by Satan, not God; humans struggle to see the bigger picture behind the conflict; and like all wars, including cosmic ones, there is “collateral damage”13 where innocent people suffer.
Jesus expressed a similar concept in Luke 13:4: "Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?"14 Sometimes bad stuff just happens in this broken world.
An idea that possibly expands on this great controversy theme is the notion: "God has no hands except from our hands."15 Seventh-day Adventist pioneer Ellen White similarly observed, "While Christ is the minister in the sanctuary above, He is also, through His delegates, the minister of His church on earth."16
God gave dominion to humanity, creating us in the divine image, with delegated sovereignty over Earth.17 Since that sixth day of creation this has been a human planet—for better or worse. Therefore, we are not mere bystanders in this cosmic war but play vital parts as soldiers, battling evil spiritual forces not made of flesh and blood.18
God’s miraculous interventions still rely on human actors for, "Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets."19 The Bible also says, "We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us."20
This means God remains intimately involved in the world but usually in an indirect way through His Spirit. As Elijah discovered, God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire but in the gentle whisper.21 Even God’s most direct interaction with this world required Him to take human form in the person of Jesus Christ.
The importance of prayer
Thus, prayer plays a vital part in this. Prayer doesn’t simply convince God to help us, as if He doesn’t know what we need22 or would otherwise give us a scorpion when we asked for an egg.23 Rather, prayer is necessary because it permits God to act without violating human freedom.24 It is also the relational conduit by which the Spirit leads us to be someone else’s answer to prayer.
This is beautifully explored in the story of Gideon. In Judges 6:13 Gideon complains that God let the Israelites fall into captivity, asking where the miracles are that He had used in the past to free Israel from Egypt. In verse 14 God gives His answer: "Am I not sending you?"
God’s hands at Auschwitz
So where was God at Auschwitz? He was there through Oscar Schindler, a German, a drunk, womaniser, member of the Nazi party and profiteer of slave labour, who nonetheless saved 6000 Jews from the gas chambers.
God was also there through Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, member of the German Resistance and true German patriot, who smuggled himself back into Nazi Germany as everyone else was fleeing it. He was eventually executed by the Gestapo for the failed plot against Hitler.
Schindler and Bonhoeffer demonstrate that God can use both the flawed and righteous alike, if we listen. So when we begin to complain about God allowing evil to exist, consider God’s reply to Gideon—"Am I not sending you?"
- My paraphrase of Hume’s statement from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).
- E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford Uni. Pres., 2006), 581.
- “Auschwitz Concentration Camp”, Wikipedia, retrieved May 15, 2014.
- R. Ellwood and G. Alles Ed., The Encyclopedia of World Religions (New York: Facts on File Pub. Inc., 2006), 446.
- This phrase found in von Leibniz’s work, Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, (Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal, 1710).
- See esp. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Institutio Christianae religionis, 1536).
- For the benefit of suffering for learning see Deut. 32:11 and for predestination see Rom. 8:29.
- Rev. 12:12.
- John 12:31, 14:30; Eph. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:4.
- Notably in the notion of “Christus Victor”, the ‘classical’ way of explaining Jesus’ atonement as a ‘cosmic-redeemer’: supra n2, 44.
- SDA Fundamental Belief #8 “The Great Controversy”.
- Orwellian description probably first coined in the USA during the late 1960s.
- This and all other texts are in the NIV.
- This saying is either attributed to modern German theologian Dorothee Sölle or 14th century nun Teresa of Avila. In any event, this author does not otherwise endorse their theology: <http://www.anotherpartofme.com/god-has-no-hands/>, retrieved 15 May 2014.
- Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, 393.
- Gen. 1:26.
- Eph. 6:11-12.
- Amos 3:7.
- 2 Cor. 5:20.
- 1 Kings 19:11-13.
- Matt. 6:8.
- Luke 11:12.
- Consider even Jesus “couldn’t” do (Gk. ouk adunato ekei, lit. ‘not able there’) great miracles in His home town because of the people’s disbelief: Mark 6:5.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, WA, and member of Livingston Seventh-day Adventist Church.