04/08/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Five Spiritual Mysteries: #2 Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen?

In every spiritual tradition, different as they are, God is taken to be the moral compass for human beings. He may or may not be a punisher. He may or may not sit in judgment, watching and weighing our every move. He may or may not be a He, since the God of Judaism, for example, is without form. But in some way the notion of good and evil, right and wrong, the light versus the dark, goes back to a divine source.

In secular society this link isn't as strong, and for someone with no religious beliefs, morality has no connection to God. Yet the connection has been crucial for at least two thousand years in the Judeo-Christian world. In the Indian spiritual tradition, particularly Vedanta, God is not personified. The deity is conceived as cosmic consciousness. One of the strongest arguments offered by atheists is that a just and loving God doesn't exist. If God did exist, why do bad things happen to good people? If there is divine love, how can the Holocaust even be conceivable? For opponents or religion as well as mild, everyday doubters, a God who sits back and permits wholesale suffering is on shaky ground.

Is there a deeper mystery here, or have we been duped into accepting a myth, as militant atheists insist?

We must approach the question without assumptions, and as it happens, both sides of the debate stubbornly cling to a large number of assumptions. Sometimes these preconceived notions overlap, which further muddies the waters. Here are some preconceived ideas that you may well believe:

1. God is human and has human traits.
2. God shares our human sense of time and is watching us minute by minute.
3. God's reasons cannot be understood by human beings.
4. The divine notion of right and wrong is the same as what we call morality.
5. There is an eternal cosmic war between God and Satan.
6. God and Satan represent absolute good and absolute evil.
7. God doesn't need to justify his judgments to us here down below.

I think most people have been exposed to these seven assumptions one way or another. Each one is a double-edged sword, offering proof of God to believers and a source of ridicule for militant atheists. Yet none of these assumptions stands up to the demand for proof that we've become used to in the age of science. They are articles of faith; in some cases they are the inheritance of archaic ages. Insofar as militant atheists accuse religions of fostering cultural mythology, their case is pretty credible. What is Satan, for example, but an inherited myth?

If you think that God is like a loving Father sitting above the clouds, or a punishing patriarch quick to anger, either conception is a projection. The infinite has been reduced to the finite; a mystery has been unraveled by turning it into a human predicament. To feel that you are a good person who is suffering unjustly is a very human predicament, and it's just as human to cry, "Why is God doing this to me?" But there can be no credible answer if we stay within the limits of everyday morality. A loving father who arbitrarily punishes his child would be guilty of abuse -- he would be a very bad human father, in fact.

So the question of why God allows bad things to happen isn't a simple human question, even though the answer makes a tremendous difference to how humans live their lives. It's a spiritual question, a mystery that requires deeper thought. In the world's wisdom traditions, the following possibilities exist.

- God knows the true nature of our souls and treats us accordingly.
- God set the universe in motion and then walked away from his creation.
- God has a larger view of good and evil than we can comprehend.
- God is transcendent and can only be understood in a state of higher consciousness.

Depending on which of these views you accept, God's relation to bad things changes radically. A God who knows your soul and is treating you accordingly is a God who puts the whole burden on the believer. The believer must figure out how to avoid sin and live virtuously, while God peers through an X-ray machine into every crevice of the believer's life, exposing secret darkness and hypocrisy. At the other extreme, a God who created the universe and walked away delivers no judgments of any good, neither punishing sin nor rewarding virtue. The cosmos operates mechanically, and we are caught in the machinery, subject to accidents and the grinding of it gears.

Yet all four conceptions have the advantage, if we are intellectually honest, of doing away with a God who is simply a human being in disguise, a projection of human traits write large. In the next post we'll see which line of reasoning leads to the best answer of how God relates -- if at all -- to the bad things that happen to us.

(To be cont.)