Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 1, 2012

When Bad Things Happen for Good Reasons

By N.S. Palmer

For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of whether or not claims of God’s existence are true.

Instead, let’s ask if such beliefs are helpful.

Just as in other areas, details matter. There are different ways of believing in God, and they are not all equally helpful.

Deism is the view held by American founder Thomas Jefferson. It contends that God exists and created the universe, but since then has left it alone to run by natural law. This is similar to Aristotle‘s idea of an “unmoved mover” that created the universe but is barely aware of it. As a well-educated man, Jefferson had of course read Aristotle.

A more flexible variant of deism has been proposed by Israeli physicist Gerald L. Schroeder in his book The Hidden Face of God.

If all events in the universe are governed by natural law, then frequent Divine intervention to set aside those laws would create chaos. Schroeder sidesteps that problem by arguing that God built an element of indeterminacy into the universe, allowing both for human free will and for occasional tweaking by God:

God, having introduced this level of indeterminacy into the system, allows the world to operate within that range. With humans, it shows itself as our ability to exercise our free will choices. According to the Bible, only when events get way off course does God manifestly step in and redirect the flow. Other than that, it all looks natural. (The Hidden Face of God, Chapter 1)

Now, I’d like to make three observations about this.

First, Schroeder seems motivated by quantum physics, in which certain events do seem to be “indeterminate” — that is, unpredictable based on prior known causes. So far, so good.

Second, whether events are indeterminate or causally predictable seems to depend on the frame of reference from which they are viewed. When events have unseen causes, they might appear to be indeterminate but they’re really not. Thus, indeterminacy refers to our knowledge of the world, not to “the world itself.”

Third, the idea of one event causing another is not as simple as people usually think. The Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that causation is simply repeated connection of two events that are close to each other in time and space, one of which (the cause) regularly precedes the other (the effect). We explain the connection by telling a story about other factors that “make it happen.” If we can verify that the other factors are always present, then we think that we’ve verified the causal connection. But this kind of verification just pushes our causal explanation back a step from the original events.

In any event, let’s get back to the original question. Is belief in God helpful? The kind of belief that I have in mind is this, though it’s obviously an anthropomorphic cartoon of transcendent realities:

  1. God is infinitely good, infinitely knowing, and infinitely powerful.
  2. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe.
  3. As a result, nothing happens except by God’s action or at least with His permission.
  4. As a result, God only makes or allows good things to happen.
  5. God created us and loves us.
  6. Therefore, in particular, God only makes or allows good things to happen to us.
  7. However, bad things seem to happen. Lots of them happen to us.

That’s called the “problem of evil:” The technical term is theodicy.

From this problem, atheists conclude that God doesn’t exist. If the universe is just a nightmarish charnel house, then we have plenty of problems, but explaining God’s existence isn’t one of them.

But there’s another possible conclusion to the problem of evil: That what seems bad from our limited frame of reference is really good.

There’s obviously no way to verify that conclusion or its atheistic counterpart. But let’s consider its practical implications.

Suppose that I hold beliefs 1 through 7, and something bad happens to me. Because of my beliefs about God, I believe that what happened — however disappointing or unpleasant — is actually good.

How do I then analyze the situation? As follows:

  1. This experience seems bad but it’s really good.
  2. Therefore, I need to understand how and why it’s good.
  3. What is this experience intended to teach me?
  4. How does this experience challenge me to become a better person?
  5. Did I do something wrong that led to this experience?
  6. How can I do better in the future?
  7. How can I improve myself as a result of this experience?
  8. What general lessons can I draw from this experience?

This is a much more productive way of thinking than simply crying “woe is me” and brooding about the meaninglessness of life.

I don’t go as far as pragmatists such as William James, who argued that saying a belief was true just meant that it was useful.

But there’s something to be said for holding beliefs that help you become a better person and lead a happier, more productive life.

Copyright 2012 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. In the words of the rock band Rush,

    Why are we here?
    Because we’re here
    Roll the bones
    Why does it happen?
    Because it happens
    Roll the bones

    • That’s essentially Richard Dawkins’s explanation. But Rush argues the case more convincingly. 🙂

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