Book Review: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold Kushner

An examination of why people have to suffer

Cover When Bad Things Happen to Good PeopleWhen Rabbi Harold Kushner’s son, Aaron, was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with progeria. Progeria is a devastating disease that causes rapid aging. Most victims die in their early teens. Aaron died two days after his 14th birthday.

Until Aaron’s death, Kushner believed that the world was a fair place. God rewarded and protected good and punished evil. He controlled every moment of our lives. God had the power to make anything happen.

Aaron’s death made it impossible for Kushner to hold on to those beliefs. As he pieced together a new system of faith, he worked on the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The book was published in 1981 to great acclaim. People of all religious beliefs could relate to it, though it spoke most strongly to Jews and Christians.

After much thinking and studying, Kushner came to the conclusion that God is not omnipotent and cannot meddle in day-to-day affairs. Instead God created a world with immutable natural laws. For instance, if the weather conditions are right, a tornado occurs and people might get hurt or killed. If a fault line moves, there is an earthquake. God cannot intervene to save one person while another dies. People do not die based on good or bad behavior.

Similarly, Kushner argues that God gave humans free will. He cannot command or control them. He cannot prevent good people from being killed in a home invasion or a terrorist attack when bad people decide to strike out and hurt others.

Man kisses the coffin of a child


So, what good is God if he can’t stop bad things from happening? According to Kushner, God’s purpose is to provide solace and strength during difficult times. He writes, “The God I believe in does not send us the problem. He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.”

Kushner also talks about the power of prayer. Rather that influencing God to choose one outcome over another – there is nothing God can do – prayer brings families and communities closer together. Neighbors in a prayer chain, for example, might make it a point to visit their afflicted friends or arrange for the community to prepare food for a bereaved family.

Unfortunately, everyone will have to deal with hardships sometime during their lives. When tragedies occur, we need to find a way to make sense of them so we don’t feel bitter and cheated. Even if your way of understanding the hard times is different from Harold Kushner’s, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is still a book that can bring you comfort.

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