This afternoon on the way home from work, I caught part of a radio program in which Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) was being interviewed. Kushner was weighing in on a tragedy that befell a family here in Massachusetts last week: twin two-year-old girls drowned in their swimming pool, presumably while their mother was inside with a 9-month-old baby brother. It is difficult to imagine the enormity of the family’s loss, and our hearts break with them. This is every parent’s worst nightmare come true.
Kushner, who lost his son to progeria in the 1980’s, made several good points. He observed that grieving parents are incapable of consoling one another as they would had the loss been a parent or sibling, and often lash out. He advised the parents to seek counsel from others, and mentioned several bereavement support groups. He noted that the death of a child is something one never really “gets over”, but they may expect to get to a point where they can enjoy life again. He also very wisely cautioned others against offering advice; seeking to minimize the tragedy; or rationalize it away (“Talk less; hug more”.) Seeking solace from those parents who can truly empathize in their grief will also lead to their ultimately being able to offer that same compassion to others. This, in turn, will counter, in some small measure, the devastating helplessness that they felt when their daughters drowned.
Is God Sovereign?
However, when the interviewer turned the line of questioning to “Can we blame God?”, Kushner essentially denied the concept of a sovereign God. (Obviously, as a Jewish rabbi, Kushner’s view of God and redemptive history differ significantly from the Christian position to begin with. We needn’t get into soteriology or dwell on self-evident doctrinal differences between Jews and Christians). In fact, what I found interesting was Kushner’s low view of God’s omnipotence and omniscience; and his de facto denial of man’s depravity and the effect of sin’s outworking in the world (hamartiology).
Kushner stated that just as God cannot be “blamed” for tragedy, (which is true, of course; calamity is a result of the fall of man), neither can one say that tragic events are “His will”, orchestrated by Him, or permitted by Him. That is a disappointingly humanistic worldview, and would be natural coming from a secular psychologist, a Deist, an agnostic, or perhaps Oprah. But follow it to its natural conclusion: if God did not have foreknowledge of a tragedy, then He is not omniscient. This is “open theism”, and it is heresy. (See Job 37:16; 1 Jn 3:20; Heb 4:13; Mt 10:29-30). Further, Kushner maintains that when people credit or praise God for good events, blessings in their life, or sparing them from disaster, they are actually just putting a “theological face” on their relief at not being the unfortunate victims.
The idea of an omnipotent God is also distasteful to Kushner. He passionately said, “Given a choice between a deity that is all-good but cannot control what will happen, and an omnipotent creator who allows the death of innocent children, I find the compassionate god much more comforting! Where do we get the idea that power is the highest virtue?” (I was driving at the time and thus did not take down the precise quotes, but that was pretty close).
What disheartens me is that Kushner, who certainly embodies the godly qualities of compassion, empathy, and love for his fellow man – especially the hurting – does not seem to realize that these attributes of God IN NO WAY negate His power, omniscience, or sovereignty. If God is not sovereign, He is not God. Kushner seems to be setting up a false dichotomy: if God is sovereign, He allowed those poor children to drown. That would be, in his mind, evil. Therefore, God would not be all-good. If God is all-good, He would not have allowed small children to climb into the swimming pool and drown. If He is good, and had foreknowledge of the incident, He should have done something. He did nothing. Therefore, He is not all-knowing.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that God is both all-good, and in His sovereignty, knew what would happen to the girls. He did not intervene (for reasons we cannot understand, and should not try to speculate upon); and tragically, they died. An additional truth here, which should not be glossed over too lightly, is that His heart is as broken as those of the parents’. God is close to the brokenhearted and is moved to compassion by our grief. (See Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3; John 11:35; Hebrews 4:15). By contrast, Kushner seems to imply that by allowing what is such a horrific tragedy that the human mind recoils, God is callous or indifferent to human suffering. It is arbitrary; unfair.
Are People Really Good?
Why does the notion of God allowing terrible events seem so repugnant to Rabbi Kushner? A word he kept using was “innocent”. ‘What kind of God would allow two innocent girls to drown?’ I would counter, 'the same kind of God Who let His innocent Son suffer and die on a Roman cross for my sins'. While I agree with Kushner that no family deserves what these folks are going through, if we really get down to the nitty-gritty, there’s a flaw in his argument for ‘innocence’ (not just of the girls; but of all victims of tragedy): none of us is truly innocent. Only Christ was, and God not only allowed Him to suffer; He ordained it (Isaiah 53:10-11). Does the atonement mean God is unjust; uncompassionate; indifferent?
Even without getting into a debate about Penal Substitution, we can see from the Torah, Law and Prophets alone that we are all, from birth, guilty sinners who inherently deserve nothing but eternal separation from God. We are, in fact, guilty through Adam’s representative act (federal headship), and are born corrupt and therefore oriented toward sin. This is NOT to say, of course, that individual sin is the reason for calamity (the Lord Jesus emphatically dispelled that notion in Luke 13:4); but that when sin entered the world, part of the consequence was misfortune and tragic circumstances. Ultimately, this is the reason for earthquakes and other natural disasters; bloodshed; famine; genetic mutations; childhood illnesses; and the ultimate curse: death (both physical and spiritual). See Genesis 3:14 ff.
Kushner, as the name of his book implies, seems to see human beings as basically good. This is part of the problem with his view of God: he does not see man’s true position in relation to Him. Because he hold a flawed, high view of man, of necessity his view of God’s sovereign will is skewed. While God is completely holy and completely loving, we humans strike out on both counts. Throughout the entire Scripture, the inherently evil condition of man is set out over against the impeccable nature of God. As I have explained before, the term “total depravity” doesn’t mean we are as bad as we can possibly be; it means that there is no part of our being that has not been tainted by the effects of sin. The following are just a small sampling of some of the verses pointing to man’s natural condition: Ecc. 7:29; Rom. 5:7-8; 5:12,19; Psalm 143:2; 2 Chr. 6:26; Isaiah 53:6; Micah 7:2-4. He also stated that expressing anger at God is fine; and that He can take it. Let's be clear: being angry with God is a sin. It is, in essence, denying that He is perfect, and putting one's self in the seat of autonomy. Jerry Bridges, in "Respectable Sins", equates blaming God/being angry with Him to blasphemy. At best, it is certainly unbelief.
I should note that I have not read Kushner’s book; my observations are based solely on the radio interview he gave today. As a biblical counselor knee-deep in theology coursework that deals with some of these particular issues, flags go up when a man-centric worldview attempts to understand God through a faulty hermeneutic. Because there is often truth mixed in with erroneous beliefs (both about God and man), the idea of a compassionate yet impotent god may seem more palatable. Many listeners probably swallowed the whole message, without comparing Kushner’s view of God to the One portrayed in the Scriptures.
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