Why do bad things happen to good people?
Every philosopher has to deal with it at one point or another. It’s one of the few questions that will never be definitely answered, quite possibly because answers don’t exist. Christian theologians have wrestled with this question for millennia, but no one has managed to come up with a satisfactory explanation.
This, my friends, is the problem of evil.
Evil exists in the universe. Some people will try to deny it with a sort of “everything happens for a reason” philosophy, but it’s always possible to come up with a counterexample that can’t be explained away. Sure, if you lose your job, maybe the ensuing period of unemployment allowed you to spend more time with your family and cultivate your true passion as a muffin-baker (leading to you eventually opening the award-winning muffin shop on Spring Street). But if a child is abandoned by its parents on the roadside, and subsequently catches pneumonia and dies a painful death, can anyone really say there was a reason for that? Can anyone find a way to make that child’s death somehow necessary for a greater good that came out of it?
Most people can’t. And even if they can, you can always come up with another layer of suffering that countermands whatever explanation is offered. The problem of evil is inscrutable and unsolveable.
But just because it can’t be solved does not, by any means, imply that we shouldn’t think about it. A lot of good can come from trying to solve impossible problems (as with Alexander the Great and his famed Gordian Knot). I, personally, am of the opinion that reflecting on the problem of evil–and trying to come to some kind of an answer–will help shape anyone’s understanding of the universe as a larger whole.
There are, generally speaking, two kinds of evil: malum culpae and malum ponae. The first, as is implied by the word culpae (think “culpable”) is evil for which someone is directly responsible. This is the kind of suffering where you can point a finger and say that it’s someone’s fault. (For example, if my wallet is stolen, well, the person who stole it is culpable.) In a broader sense, we can talk about malum culpae as a sort of divine retribution, the kind of evil that happens to bad people because they had it coming all along (in which case the evil is their fault, the same way my stolen wallet is the thief’s fault). If the parents of the aforementioned abandoned child are driven mad with guilt and end up dying scared and alone, the less forgiving souls among us might be inclined to say that those parents deserved what came to them. So their suffering, while still a form of evil, is somehow all right.*
But then there’s that other, nastier type of evil. Malum ponae. Evil that happens in such a way that no one is to blame and no justice comes out of it. Think of the pneumonia-child abandoned by the side of the road. Or, if you want to take the classic Judeo-Christian example, you can refer to the Book of Job. (Job was a righteous, pious, and generally studly man, but the God of Abraham killed off his family and his livestock, left Job financially ruined, and gave him a nasty case of boils–all of this, ostensibly, to test Job’s faith.)
Sometimes, bad things just happen. There’s no foreseeing them, no understanding them, and often there’s no real good that comes out of them. Sure, as we progress with our lives, everything may turn out okay, but it’s a bit of a mistake to then think that because the events following Cataclysm X were okay, Cataclysm X itself wasn’t actually all that bad. The whole philosophy of “everything happens for a reason” tends to gloss over the painful bits, whitewashing the suffering in life to contribute to a belief that the universe, as a whole, is good and benevolent. It’s possible to believe in a just universe without invalidating the experience of human suffering, but the two often go hand in hand.
Personally, I tend not to believe in a benevolent divine order to the world. I’m too acutely aware of the suffering that happens here, much of which has no human cause and has no possible solution. For that reason, when I’m thinking about the problem of evil and the way that the universe is structured, I often turn my thoughts to the Justice card from the Major Arcana.
At first, Justice may seem to fit better with malum culpae than with malum ponae, for obvious reasons. Justice is about, well, justice. Retribution. Just desserts. And so on. But we can take our understanding of the card deeper.
Justice is, as the saying famously goes, blind. That is to say, Justice is impartial. This card suggests a universe that doesn’t really care who we are, what we’ve done, or even what we deserve. Justice will mete out what it will, for good or for ill, and we have no say in the matter. Under Justice, our universe may be balanced (between life and death, between good and evil, and so on), but it is also uncaring, impersonal, and, well, cruel.
This is part of the reason I tend to prefer the RWS ordering of the Trumps where Justice is numbered 11. It’s a beautiful bridge between the fateful Wheel of Fortune (which sees all men’s fortunes change) and the more distinctly retributive Hanged Man. The Wheel of Fortune brings good luck and bad luck into our lives, but does so almost out of spite. The Hanged Man brings suffering, but only when we deserve it and need to learn from it. But Justice walks the line between the two. Justice is indifferent.
Everyone has to conjure up their own response to the questions posed by the problem of evil. Much of that response consists of understanding how we think the universe is ordered–whether it’s fundamentally good, fundamentally bad, or somehow in between. Personally, I tend to think of our universe as an indifferent one. Wonderful things can happen here–charity, kindness, community, and all the other love-and-light stuff we all know about–but so can terrible, terrible things. And one does not necessarily exist to balance out the other. They both simply are.
Hence, Justice. Did Job deserve the suffering inflicted upon him by his God? Certainly not. Does the injustice wrought by said God make him (Him) evil? I don’t think so. It just makes him sort of messy and grey, and it means that we can’t rely on his creation to be either consistently good or consistently evil (or even consistently in equilibrium between the two).
My interpretation of the Justice card is a fair bit different from the way many other people tend to see it. My take on Justice can be critiqued as fatalistic and too close to other cards (like the Wheel of Fortune) in that it invites querents to resign themselves to their fates and assures them that the universe really doesn’t give a damn about what happens to them or whether said happenings are deserved. What’s important to realize, though, is that Justice’s impartiality can be liberating. The energy of Justice allows querents to step away from their own subjective viewpoints and their own emotional biases regarding what they do or do not deserve. I’ve often seen Justice show up in readings where my querents were starting to sink into self-pity; in those cases, the card almost chides, “No, you don’t deserve what’s happened to you, but it still happened. So stop whining and get up and do something about it.”
Justice’s universe is unkind and, perhaps, not fair, but as my father is still fond of saying, life’s not fair. Recognizing that–perceiving the world through the lens of Justice–shifts the onus of morality from the universe to the individual. The universe itself cannot be relied upon to dole out justice (uncapitalized this time, because I’m talking about the concept and not the card), and so we as humans are burdened with the responsibility of making our world just.**
Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t know, and I never will. But they do happen. Justice, for me, is a constant reminder of that fact, followed by a challenge: What are you going to do about it?
*This is how a lot of fundamentalist Christian ministers try to explain away the problem of evil. There was an earthquake in Haiti? It must have been because of all the sinners there. You get the idea. On a less radical level, this is the kind of idea we see in the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of karma.
**This is remarkably similar to what I’ve talked about in my previous posts on Existentialism and Tarot.