By Legal Eagle

“Acts of God”, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, random acts of violence…they are all terrifying. We can’t predict when such things will happen, and we can’t easily control them. It is for this reason that airplanes are more scary than cars. Although statistically, many more people have car accidents than have airplane accidents, we are not in control when we are a passenger of an aircraft. It is also for this reason that a random senseless massacre attracts more media attention than a war.

Ever since I was little, I have wondered why bad things happen to good or innocent people. No religion has ever been able to answer this question adequately for me. Why would a loving God allow this to happen to His people? The book of Job attempts to answer this question in part.

Many religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) say that God must allow free will. The great medieval Rabbi Maimonides (aka the Rambam) posed the question as follows:

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows everything that will happen before it has happened, so does He know whether a particular person will be righteous or wicked, or not? If He does know, then it will be impossible for that person not to be righteous. If He knows that he will be righteous but that it is possible for him to be wicked, then He doesn’t know everything that He has created. …God’s existence is beyond the comprehension of Man. …[W]e do not have the capabilities to comprehend how the Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows all creations and events. Know without doubt that people do what they want without the Holy One, Blessed Be He, forcing or decreeing upon them to do so. Do not accept this fact solely because of religious acceptance, but out of common sense. It has been said because of this that a man is judged according to all his actions – if they are good or bad. This is the principle on which all prophecies are dependant.

(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Teshuva 5:5)

So Maimonides said that God must allow people free will, otherwise the universe cannot exist. If God decides who is good and bad beforehand, it is impossible for anyone to grow and change and learn. What is the point in behaving well towards others if this is so? But if we can decide whether we behave in a good or a bad way, God can no longer be omnipotent and omnipresent. So God must allow us free will.

All well and good: but I am by nature a meddler. I want to help people. I feel empathy. I sit and consider: if there is a God, how can He bring Himself not to meddle? What about cases where people die not because of their own actions, but because of a terrible accident, a freak of nature, a terrorist plot, a psychopath? How can God bring Himself not to intervene? Perhaps He did intervene, but I just don’t know how what His “big picture” is. Still, it seems unfair to the blameless victims.

I think of these questions in the light of the recent terrible shooting at Virginia Tech. How can someone do that to his fellow human beings, in cold blood? I even feel guilt in the rare moments when I squash a spider. I am freaked out by the notion that I can cause it to transform from “living” to “not-living” within a second. What terrible disconnection happened in this guy’s brain that he did not feel that horror? This is something I have never understood. It is why I will never be sympathetic to suicide bombers or organisations which condone terrorist attacks. I don’t care what the cause is. I abhor such behaviour, because it suggests a total lack of empathy towards innocent human beings.

What about other terrible events which happen daily, but which do not receive so much coverage (eg, people starving to death, people dying in wars)? I read an interesting idea the other day which said that we find it harder to “connect” with starvation and wars in distant places in the relatively peaceful, prosperous Western world. In contrast, I find it very easy to imagine how it must have been at Virginia Tech; indeed, I taught a class at a university campus today. We can easily “connect” with the familiar environment within which the events took place. It is the random nature of the event which is unfamiliar. It both fascinates and terrifies.

Certainly, I think that it is necessary to try to control gun ownership of civilians, but even that will not entirely prevent such tragedies. And it is hard to see how control of gun-ownership would work in the USA, where a culture of a “right to bear arms” is so prevalent. At the least, I think it should be tried, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Even if other students had been allowed to bear arms, would they have been able to shoot down this guy? Such an argument seems fallacious to me – who is going to take a gun along to a German tute? Surely it’s better to try and prevent the tragedy happening in the first place? Of course, by restricting gun ownership, one restricts the freedom of all because of the lunacy of a few, but I’d rather have that than allow the lunatics to have semi-automatic weapons. {How come some on the “Right” are in favour of extreme limitations on various freedoms in response to the terrorist threat, but would balk at extreme limitations of gun ownership in response to the threat of a random loner-lunatic? Just a thought – I’d be interested to read any comments.}

It is in the nature of such things that I will never really get an answer to my question of Why? I cannot know all creations and events, and I cannot know the secret heart of humankind. All I can do is express my sympathy to those who suffer.


  1. B-)
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I suppose that the one aspect of the “if someone else in the room had a gun, it could have stopped sooner” argument is that it always presupposes that the “someone” with a gun is going to be able to, in such an environment of panic and stress, actually be able to shoot sufficiently well to stop the first gunman without setting off more panic. I think the same argument applies in the debate about arming pilots on planes – it presupposes that said pilot will be a sufficiently good shot to hit a moving target from a fair distance, in the midst of rampant confusion, and not, for example, put a hole in the plane (in which case they would perhaps be more useful in the Airforce than flying a civilian jumbo). Great in theory and probably reassuring in the world of “what ifs” but premised too much on the hero being able to shoot as well as a Hollywood action hero, who never has to pay the price for his/her heroics like Professor Librescu in Virginia, and never does collateral damage.

  2. Iain hall
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    I take particular note of your comment about the ability of someone else having a gun being able to actually take the scum bag out because just having the tools is not enough military and police take a great deal of training to be able to reliably hit their intended target and lots of discipline to overcome the natural reluctance to kill.
    This is the sort of tragedy that any teacher like your self will respond to with “there but for the grace of god go I” and perhaps a more efficacious prophylactic would be vigilance for the disturbed individuals rather than an emphasis on the methodology of killing(guns) an interesting piece on RN yesterday pointed out that all of the killers of a similar ilk like this chap ,Bryant or Knight all have a rather distinctive psychology; they are loners with a very big chip on their shoulders who seek infamy to counter their insignificance.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Being a person who believes in God –

    God is the creator of all things.
    We are here because God has willed. God can do as he wants. Both good and bad come from God, life and death, health and illness, poverty and wealth, happiness and sadness. God can use whatever trials he wants to test mankind. Our destiny lies in God’s hands.

  4. peter
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    You ask:

    How come some on the “Right” are in favour of extreme limitations on various freedoms in response to the terrorist threat, but would balk at extreme limitations of gun ownership in response to the threat of a random loner-lunatic?

    Please point out these “extreme limitations”. Do you changes to detaining prior to a criminal hearing? Or extended time to be allowed to interorgate prior to charging? I see neither as extreme.

    While I am in favour of gun control, and abhor guns with a passion, it is wrong to mix aims to reduce the risk of terrorist attack with aims to reduce a civilian taking a weapon and going nuts.

    I cannot understand the desire to kill many people. I can understand someone fantasising about it and their mental imbalance meaning they don’t stop themselves from acting out the fantasy.

    I believe “free will” is a perfectly good explanation for evil, together with we are all born with the capacity for evil, and it is only our free will they we exercise which either keeps it under control or not.

    To a buddhist, your killing of a spider is equivalent to killing a human – they do not distinguish between animal and human.


  5. Aimee
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my attempt to answer why, from God’s point of view, he doesn’t stop bad things happening. This world which God created perfect is broken and cursed because of mankind’s rebellion against God’s sovereignty. We all want to be God of our own lives, we walk away from God and he doesn’t force us to stay because he created us with free wills and for our wills to be truly free our actions have to have consequences – what we choose is what we get, even though we choose things that are bad for us and for other people. We organise our lives and civilisations entirely without reference to God or his principles for living, and build a box from our own imagination to put in the God that we want, picking the parts we like and excluding the parts we don’t, and then we mostly forget about him. But God is real and you can’t make him up into Santa Claus because that’s the way you want him to be, he is who he is.

    It’s ironic that we manage to get through life just fine without God and don’t want to accept his authority or odd unjustifiable rules for our lives, but when the lives and civilisations that we have chosen suddenly break into our consciousness with the realisation of just how broken they are, we turn to the box where we put God and wonder why he doesn’t fix it. God is not a genie to answer our commands and fix up our messes as if they’d never happened and as if our choices don’t matter.

    Job’s story gives good insight into who God is (and is also a study in paradoxes). God didn’t cause the terrible things that happened to Job – but God was in ultimate control and allowed it to happen. God didn’t answer Job’s question about why he suffered – but God vehemently defended Job’s right to ask the question and to express his honest doubts. God doesn’t owe us anything – but God promises to give us everything (if we will have faith in him as God of our lives).

    Suffering is a horrible but undeniable consequence of living in a broken world. Sometimes suffering can draws us away from self-reliance and thinking we have control over our lives and back into a relationship with God, which from a Christian worldview is the thing that will last after everything else is finished with. God’s perspective is that this world isn’t the end of the story, but I can understand that if you believe it is it would be horribly unjust and feel as if wrongs were never redressed and suffering were meaningless.

  6. Legal Eagle
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi Peter,

    I should have been clearer in my comment – that’s the problem with little side thoughts – I get side-tracked, and don’t have time to explain such thoughts properly.

    I was not really thinking of the Australian right, but of the American right. As far as I can see, many of the Australian right are prepared to countenance strict gun control, but the situation is quite different in the US.

    I guess I was comparing the extreme sanctions visited on people in Guantanamo Bay (held for years without charge and without trial), which seems to me to be an illegitimate incursion into personal freedom, and against the principle of habeas corpus. My view is that this is extreme.

    I suppose the personal freedoms of gun lobbyists will not be affected by rules against terrorism for the most part, whereas their personal freedoms will be affected by gun control laws designed to prevent random loonies. I see gun control measures as less extreme than something like Guantanamo.

    But stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, I see both as a case where extreme measures are taken to minimise a risk to society…it’s interesting to think of the parallels and the differences.


  7. Legal Eagle
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    P.S. I have a funny story about Buddhism and killing spiders.

    When I visited Laos, I stayed in a jungle hut. As I was settling down to bed, I saw that I had a “friend” right next to my head – an extremely large and furry grey spider. I went and got the night watchman. Initially, he didn’t understand.

    LE: “There’s a giant spider in my room!! It’s furry and grey.”

    Night watchman: “Yes?”

    LE: “I can’t sleep with it next to my head.”

    Night watchman: “Why not?”

    Anyway, he eventually swiped at the spider inexpertly with a rolled up newspaper.

    “There, it’s gone!” he said.

    “I don’t think so,” I said suspiciously.

    “No, gone!” he repeated.

    The next night, as I settled down to bed, my “friend” was back (limping slightly). I went and got the night watchman.

    “See, you didn’t kill it!” I said.

    He looked down at the ground. “I am a Buddhist, I cannot kill a spider.” I felt really bad.

    “You should have told me!” I said. “Do your principles prevent you from king-hitting the spider out of the hut into the jungle?”

    He smiled. “No!” All’s well that ends well: my spidery friend went back to the jungle whence he came, the night watchman’s Buddhist principles were intact and I could get a good sleep.

  8. -
    Posted April 20, 2007 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    I think the American gun culture is a good thing.

    Think about it this way, if another student at Virginia Tech had a gun, they could have shot the killer down.

    When the guy from Monash Uni killed two of his fellow students – if both the deceased had a gun, things would be different.

    Same as in Columbine High School – if a teacher had a gun, they could have stopped the massacre.

  9. -k.
    Posted April 21, 2007 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    If, If, If.

    As someone who was at Monash on the day of the shootings, I don’t believe others having guns would have ended the situation any sooner. If anything, I think it would have inflamed the situation.

    The mass hysteria, panic and fear that raged throughout the campus that day (particularly when several hundred of us were told that he was ‘on the loose!’ and herded, then locked into the Union building) meant that no one was in full control of their faculties. We were panicked, suspicious and nervy. A gun-toting vigilante could have quite easily killed the wrong person/s.

    Besides, as Iain says, having a gun doesn’t mean one knows how or is prepared to use it. In the heat of the moment, would you have decent aim? And could you really bring yourself to kill someone? If a student burst into my classroom waving a gun around, I don’t know that I could shoot him/her. Let’s hope I never need find out.

  10. Posted May 1, 2007 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I really enjoyed it, and it brought up some great questions. I wanted to make 2 comments…

    First of all, I don’t personally own a gun, but I’m not in favor of stricter gun control laws. If they want to look at redoing the system for those who are mentally unstable, I think that’s good, but I don’t think stricter laws for law-abiding citizens are the answer. They already follow laws. People who go on shooting sprees don’t.

    But anyway, the main point I wanted to make was in reference to your broader question “why”. I happen to agree 100% with Aimee. It’s very easy for us to forget that God is eternal. He’s concerned with a much bigger picture than the one we see. And as Aimee said, he knows that when this physical life is over for us, the story doesn’t end there.

  11. Posted May 1, 2007 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    why? hardly is relevant in many situations. After the recent church scandal in Canada regarding Native residental schools …Religous leaders
    stay away from our children. Multi-generational epidemics of sanctioned and church protected pedophilia proves religion and children should not mix

    Stay out of our bedrooms. Work on correcting your own dysfunctional sexual urges

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  1. […] How could this God love us, yet allow such terrible things happen to His people? (I’m still wondering, by the way.) If the gods are amoral and fickle, this problem disappears, although such gods are […]

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