Summary: Who do bad things happen to good people? There are no easy answers; yet Jesus teaches there is not always a direct link between misfortune and sin. And every calamity is a wake-up all for all of us.
Debunking the Just World Theory
[Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for sermon outline in Word.]
In a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip sometime back, Calvin says to his dad, “Why can't I stay up late? You guys can!” Then with a wide-mouthed protest he declares, “IT'S NOT FAIR!” His dad replies, “The world isn't fair, Calvin.” Walking away with a sour look on his face, Calvin says, “I know, but why isn't it ever unfair in my favor?” Do you ever feel like Calvin?
Sometimes Veterans with PTSD suffer from life being unfair. In therapy, they struggle with something called the “just world myth,” which says that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Sounds nice and tidy, right? Actually, we all start developing this myth the moment we’re old enough to get in trouble. A toddler reaches for the stovetop, and a mother slaps her hand and says, “No!” Or a child starts toward the street, and a father says, “No” loudly. In both examples, the lesson is that if you do the wrong thing, you will be hurt. And if you do the right thing, you will be spared from hurt. Parents seek to shape their child’s behavior to keep them safe.
Then we grow up. And we keep thinking, “If I do the right thing, I won’t be hurt, but if I do the wrong thing, I will be hurt.” And at some point, we learn it doesn’t always work that way. This past week I had a memorial gathering for a student psychologist a year after her death. I led the first memorial service a year ago; yet leadership felt the other students and staff were still processing her death, and asked for another memorial gathering. I read a scripture and a poem or two and gave a prayer. We opened it up to sharing. And one provider described the anger many of us felt over this untimely death. The psychology fellow was bright, resourceful, compassionate, energetic, full of life, and full of faith. How tragic, to be cut down in her youth! Bad things sometime happen to good people.
I tried to capture some of the right and wrong questions we ask in times of tragedy. They were the same ones asked in Jesus’ day. Look at #1 on your outline:
1. The question is not why good people get murdered.
The psychology fellow I mentioned was murdered. Some people in Jesus’ day believed that if a person died under horrible circumstances, then they must have deserved it. The case involved Pilate, who was known to be downright cruel in his treatment of the Jews. Look at verses 1-3:
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!’” (vs. 1-3a).
Apparently, some Jews had come to Jerusalem to sacrifice animals to God, and for whatever reason, Pilate made sure they were part of the sacrifice, too. Maybe Pilate thought them to be rebels. We don’t know. We have no historical evidence of this event outside of these verses, although the event fits Pilate’s reputation. Jesus said there is no absolute link between people’s level of sin and their suffering of horrible deaths.
Notice what Jesus did NOT say. He did not say there are no consequences to our sin. A person recently had a lung removed because of a lifetime smoking habit. Sin affects our health in a myriad of ways, and not just physically. Sin affects us relationally, mentally, and yes, spiritually. Elsewhere, Jesus told a man healed of blindness, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). Sometimes our sin leads to dire consequences. At the very least, it will lead us to feel distant from God. Yet, just because someone dies a violent death does not mean they did anything to deserve it. And additionally,
2. The question is not why good people die in accidents.
Jesus brings up a natural accident in verse 4. He says, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” (vv. 4-5).
Again, we have no historical evidence of this accident apart from this scripture. Scholars think maybe it was related to construction near the Pool of Siloam, but we’re not sure. Jesus makes the same point as he did with murder: there is not always a causal link between people’s sin and the way they die. Good people die in accidental deaths. Bad people die in accidental deaths. The real question is #3...