Is God Omnipotent?

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

By Gerald Alper

When Arron Kushner stopped gaining weight at the age of eight months, his parents became concerned. When his hair started falling out after he turned one year old, they began taking him to specialists. Their son's condition, they would eventually be told, was called progeria, rapid aging. Aaron, it seemed, would grow to about three feet in height. He would have no hair on his head or body. While still a child he would begin to look like a little old man. He would die in his early teens.

It was the kind of tragedy for which Harold Kushner, a young rabbi who was already the head of a local congregation in a suburb of Boston, had been trained to handle. A religious man all his life who had never doubted the existence of God, the goodness of God, the wisdom of God, it was his job to explain the inexplicable to the families of dying children whose lives have been cut short before they had really begun. To the mother of a little girl who had been run over by a bus on the way home from school. To the woman whose body slowly but surely, one function after another, was being crippled by multiple sclerosis. The answers he offered were the answers he had always believed. Whatever happens happens for a purpose. Although it may look otherwise now, virtue will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished. The righteous will be protected. For those who hold their faith, the goodness of the world will surely one day be revealed.

It is at this crossroads in his faith that Harold Kushner makes a daring choice. Deciding that a God who is all good and all-powerful could never willfully punish an innocent child, he arrives at the radical conclusion that God is not omnipotent. God does not want, never wants bad things to happen to good people. God always wants to help but he cannot always control what happens. Therefore, Harold Kushner triumphantly asserts, God does not cause suffering or withhold cures for cancer or any other horrible disease.

No challenge is greater to the believer who wants to defend the goodness of God than the history of the genocides that have been perpetrated. Harold Kushner's explanation for why God allowed Hitler to kill 6 million Jews rests on the supposed necessity for free will. If there were no free will, it could not be just to punish the wicked and reward the virtuous. If a mother does not allow her child to make a mistake, if the child chooses the right path only because he or she has to, there is no free will. Analogously, if God is to allow all people, even a demented, evil genius like Adolf Hitler, to have free will, he cannot intercede.

That, of course, does not mean, as Kushner is quick to emphasize, that God wants Hitler to kill 6 million Jews for some higher purpose (or as a punishment, perhaps, for a heinous lapse into heathen secularism). No, God once again is as grief–stricken as we are, but he has no choice but to wait and see what happens.

Yet, how can it be possible that a God powerful enough to create molecular biology, quantum mechanics and general relativity physics can think of nothing even to slow down a process of genocide? Why is it necessary for God to wait patiently as Hitler systematically kills each and every Jew before he can begin to punish him? Once Hitler has made the decision to exterminate the Jews — penned the order, say, to carry out the infamous final solution — isn’t that freedom enough to choose evil? Why can't God stop him at that point?

A moment's thought shows it is not true that a person needs to complete an act before he or she can be said to choose. Suppose someone in cold blood, deciding to murder an innocent person, has taken a gun and just squeezed the trigger? Hasn’t he chosen? Why can't God at that moment or at any of an infinite number of possible intermediate points between the inauguration of the evil act and its completion intervene — when intervention is what is desperately needed? When people are about to become victims of unconsciously brutal crimes, they do not pray to their God to respect the free will of their would-be perpetrator. They pray for exactly the same thing that a hurt or frightened child wants when they run to their parents — for immediate hands-on help. And if Kushner is right, if it is existentially imperative that we respect the right of good people and evil people alike to exercise their free will, shouldn't truly religious people not only be pacifists but refuse to intercede in someone's commission of even the most monstrous act?

I do not doubt that Harold Kushner would be the first to abjure such absurd conclusions to be drawn from his ideas. Yet, I believe, they follow quite logically for anyone who takes him at his word, carefully thinks through the consequences and then looks at the outcome. He says that free will is necessary in the world. If he really believed that, he would not be so concerned about the adverse effects of early education. He would recognize that when free will is at stake — as Dostoevsky so famously pointed out in Notes from the Underground — the evil, perverse man will do exactly as he wants, in spite of (or because of, in defiance of) the consequences. He would realize that to allow free will to exist is not the same thing as allowing crimes to be committed; that free will means freedom to choose, not freedom to recklessly carry out shameless acts.

It hardly makes sense that a God who could create the laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity theory, which in turn created the cosmos, and could single-handedly mastermind the Big Bang, could be as powerless to deter the ravages of disease as Harold Kushner is forced to claim. How could he not be responsible for creating plagues such as cancer and AIDS? Harold Kushner says God feels as bad as he does and is blameless as he is that his son was afflicted with progeria. But just what did he do to help? Did he somehow communicate to Harold Kushner, deliver a message of some kind, containing invaluable advice? Did he hint at a cure for progeria that was at least somewhat ahead of its time?

The impression remains that nothing could shake Harold Kushner's faith. If the Holocaust didn't, if September 11 didn't, if all the pogroms carried out against the Jews in the past two thousand years didn’t, what would? A War of the Worlds? The faith, it seems, of Harold Kushner is indispensable – as is true for just about all deeply religious people. They would no more change their religion than they would change their sexual orientation. When Harold Kushner says “It can't be there is no God" because there would then be "no purpose to life,” he seems to be saying, “I won't accept that.”

Over and over again injustice and unfairness are portrayed as bad things happening to good people. The implication is that it is not unjust for bad things to happen to bad people. But why is it okay for anyone to get progeria, for an infant to get Down syndrome, or AIDS, or cancer? How does that fit in with a supposedly infinitely good and merciful God? What is the necessity for there being punishment for bad people? Why not loving, nurturing discipline instead? How could an eternity in hell, if hell exists, ever be rationalized (as it was for nearly two thousand years) as the merciful act of a just God? Why wouldn't justice be, say, a day in hell? Or at least no more than the equivalent number of evil hours spent during a lifetime.

The bitterness that Rabbi Kushner felt and overcame resonates in a strange way with my patients; all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, would feel cheated by life. All of them would feel that bad things happen constantly to good people, that life is unfair, that life is hard and that justice is almost never evenly distributed. If I had only one book in the Bible to represent their unconscious philosophy of life it would be the book of Job.

For readers who want to read more, please see my new book God in Therapy. What We Believe When No One is Watching (iBooks, Alper).

Published April 30th, 2016

Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.