Why do bad things happen to good people?
If someone in history ever knew the answer to this age old question, then surely it must have been Barabbas. Barabbas was a murdering insurrectionist [Mark 15:7], one who, along with others, was in prison and under sentence of death on the day that, despite his innocence, the Jewish religious leaders were calling for Jesus to be crucified.
It was the feast of Passover and a custom of that time allowed the Roman governor to release a prisoner according to the wishes of those attending the festival. And so, having found no basis for the charges against Jesus, but wishing to appease an increasing hostile crowd, Pontius Pilate asked those gathered which of the two prisoners they wanted him to set free.
And, stirred up to do so by the chief priests and elders, the answer the crowd gave him was ‘Barabbas’.
‘Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”’ [Matthew 27:22-23]
And so it was that when three men were later led out to be executed, Barabbas was not numbered among them. But Jesus was – just as Isaiah had predicted hundreds of years previously. [Isaiah 53:12] The two criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus may have been Barabbas’ fellow insurrectionists, receiving the death penalty that, guilty of the same crimes, Barabbas had been sentenced to as well. Be that as it may, what we can be sure absolutely sure of is this: on that first Good Friday an innocent Jesus was nailed to the cross that had previously been prepared for a guilty Barabbas.
Jesus took Barabbas’ place that day, bearing the punishment he deserved. Jesus suffered for Barabbas – so that Barabbas didn’t have to.
Why then do bad things happen to good people? If someone had asked that of Barabbas, watching perhaps what was taking place, maybe he’d have answered like this: ‘So that good things can happen to bad people’. Because as darkness covered the land for three long hours that afternoon, [Luke 23:44] the worst possible thing happened to the best person that ever there was. And a murderer went free.
Vitally important for us to recognise though is that Barabbas escaping death and being set free is a wonderful picture of the gospel, the good news by which we too can be saved. All of us are guilty of something and all of us, therefore, have a price we ought to pay. But whilst the Bible rightly tells us that ‘the wages of sin is death’, it goes on to declare that ‘the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ [Romans 6:23]
So it wasn’t just Barabbas who’s place was taken by Jesus on that first Good Friday. Jesus hung on a cross as a substitute for all who, confessing their sin, gladly accept the forgiveness that was secured through Jesus’ sacrificial giving of himself. Jesus’ death pays the penalty for their wrongdoing too, atoning for their sin and, by satisfying God’s need for justice, sets them free from the fear of death.
Which is why the crowds next words have greater significance than they intended when they themselves said them. After Pilate famously washed his hands and declared himself innocent of shedding Jesus’ blood, the people said to him
“His blood be on us and on our children!” [Matthew 27:26].
Whilst they no doubt meant nothing more by their words than merely to accept responsibility for what was about to happen to Jesus, to have Jesus’ blood upon them echos the events of the Passover, the very event they had come to Jerusalem to celebrate.
The origins of the Passover are found in the book of Exodus when the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt. Back then, as an act of judgement on those who were oppressing his people so badly, God sent ten plagues, the last of which would result in the death of the first born son in every household in the land. But to avoid this fate falling on his people too, God told the Israelites to slaughter a lamb and then daub its blood on the frames of the doors to their homes. This would identify those households that contained God’s people and ensure that, when the angel of death arrived, he would, on seeing the blood, ‘pass-over’ them and spare their inhabitants his deadly ministrations.
The events of that fearful night were highly significant in the history of Israel and so it was that it was remembered annually. But the real significance of Passover was what it pointed forward to, to the events that were even now being played out as Jesus was being sentenced to death. For five days earlier Jesus had entered Jerusalem and, like the many, many lambs that had arrived in the city with him, he had come in order that he too might be slaughtered – not in remembrance of events long past, but in fulfilment of them. Previously recognised by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world [John 1:29], Jesus came to die, not for his own sins for he was sinless Son of God, but for the sins of the people, for those who, with his blood upon them, would thus be spared the judgement they themselves deserved. For God, on seeing the blood of Jesus that would figuratively cover them, would thus be able to justly ‘pass-over’ the guilty because their sin had already been paid for.
By saying ‘may his blood be on us’ the crowd were, therefore, not only admitting their guilt in calling for Jesus to be crucified but also unwittingly acknowledging their need to avail themselves of the benefits that his death would bring about. And their words also display the extent of God’s mercy, mercy so great that it extends even to those so scornful of his love.
Why then did this bad thing happen to Jesus – not just so a good thing could happen to Barabbas but in order that a good thing could happen to all who, having opposed him, deserve nothing but condemnation. I include myself in that number. As such a bad thing happened to Jesus in order that a good thing could happen to me.
As a schoolboy I recall singing the old Easter hymn, ‘There is a green hill far away’. Perhaps you do too. Don’t make the mistake though of thinking that it’s a children’s song – it’s not. Because a bad thing happened to Jesus so that a good thing could happen to you as well. Do you remember the words?
‘There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where the dear Lord was crucified,
who died to save us all.
We may not know, we can not tell,
what pains he had to bear,
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there’
Besides Jesus ‘there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.’ But paid it he did. And so on Good Friday, whilst mourning the fact that our sin necessitated his dying for us, we can look forward to celebrating his resurrection on Easter Day, the rock solid proof that his sacrifice was sufficient to secure our salvation.
And that’s why, even on this most sorrowful of days, there remains a place for rejoicing.
What follows is an adapted version of what I posted last Good Friday. I believe it to be as true today as it was then.
Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Happy, yet always sad.
As in years past, Easter approaches with difficulties continuing to surround us, they remain a part of what all our lives are made up of. The war continues to rage in Ukraine, many continue to struggle in the aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and there seems no end to the troubles that are daily brought to our attention. Even so, it is still the case that there are things for which we can be grateful, things that, though they do not nullify our ongoing distress, can, nonetheless, cause us to smile. Similarly, how ever good our lives may be at present, there remain those things that persist in pulling us down. The truth is that sadness and happiness coexist, neither one ever entirely absent, each simultaneously intensifying and diminishing the other. There is for all of us, pleasure in our sadness, heartbreak in our delight. I see it on the news, I see it in my patients, I see it in myself – genuine causes for sorrow sat alongside sources of real joy.
Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Happy, yet always sad.
Perhaps we cannot know what happiness really is without knowing the pain of sorrow and, for sorrow to be fully realised, perhaps it requires us to have had the experience of knowing what it is to be truly happy. If so, if we are to be happy, it must be alongside our sadness. Likewise, we must not insist that all sorrow is gone before allowing ourselves to be happy any more than we should deny our sadness simply because there are things for which we can be happy.
Life is not black or white, it is a kaleidoscope of grey. Paradoxically we can be happy and sad at the same time. We can smile even as we cry.
Today is Good Friday – a day like no other, a day on which I find it helpful to ponder such things. For me it helps to make make life more meaningful, more understandable, more bearable. Perhaps it will for you too.
Because even the eternally happy God knows what it is to weep.
One Maundy Thursday, some years ago, a good friend of mine hesitated to return my good wishes for the upcoming Easter break because, he said, he understood that Good Friday was a day for Christians like me to be miserable. It got me thinking to what extent he was right.
Paul, writing in his second letter to the Corinthians, describes Christians as, ‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ [2 Corinthians 6:10]. If such a paradoxical existence was the reality for Christians back in Paul’s day, it is surely no less true a reality for Christians living the 21st Century. The name we give ‘Good Friday’ is itself a paradox – for how can we apply the adjective ‘good’ to describe the day of Christ’s crucifixion?
But whilst it is a day on which Christians should grieve over their sin and what Jesus had to suffer as a consequence in order to secure their redemption, it is at the same time a day for rejoicing in the triumph of his sacrifice as we anticipate and remember his subsequent resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ – it was the experience of Paul and it was the experience of Jesus himself the ‘man of sorrows’ [Isaiah 53:5] who, despite being ‘very sorrowful even to death’ [Matthew 26:38] in the Garden of Gethsemane, nonetheless endured the cross ‘for the joy that was set before him.’ [Hebrews 12:2].
Suffering, then, is not the end of joy – it can even be the passage to joy. It’s not a contradiction – but it is a paradox! A paradox that the second of the two criminals who were being crucified alongside Jesus, understood. Here is a man who is about to die the most painful of deaths and who knows he is totally undeserving of salvation. But not only does he still ask to be remembered by Jesus, he does so when the one he is asking is hanging on a cross and about to die too! Hear his remarkable request.
‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ [Luke 23:42].
Unlike the religious rulers, the Roman soldiers and the other criminal who was being crucified that day, the second criminal didn’t see Jesus’ death as a sign of defeat. He continued to speak of Jesus as one who was coming into his kingdom. For him Jesus’ death didn’t mean an end to all the kingdom and salvation talk. In stark contrast to those who mocked Jesus who were looking to him for a salvation FROM death, the second criminal saw that the salvation Jesus was bringing about was one that was brought about THROUGH death.
He saw that Jesus’ death was not the end of Christ’s kingdom, but rather its beginning.
This is a profound truth – one that we would do well to try and grasp.
Far then from simple, the second criminal’s faith was one that was truly remarkable. And we should not be surprised therefore when, as a result, Jesus responds to his request with these words:
‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’ [Luke 23:43].
Jesus saw in the second criminal somebody who got it! Somebody who trusted the power of God despite seeing what, to unspiritual eyes, was nothing but weakness. Somebody who saw victory where most saw only defeat. Somebody who understood the paradox of Good Friday.
That suffering is not irredeemable,
That sorrow is not incompatible with joy and
That even the darkest nights can be followed by the brightest days.
‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’?
It was the experience of Paul. It was the experience of Jesus. It was the experience of the second criminal. And it will be our experience too.
Some of us are sick. Some of us mourn the loss of loved ones. Some of us worry over our future. Some of us have experienced great tragedy in our lives – some recently, others longer ago but who still feel the pain of it just as keenly as if it had happened yesterday.
There is indeed much today for us to be sorrowful over. Some Christian types can sometimes well meaningly suggest we should always be happy. ‘Smile’, they say, ‘Jesus loves you’. But though they are right to proclaim the truth that God really does love us, they are wrong to suggest that we should never be sad, for even the eternally happy God knows what it is to cry. [1 Timothy 1:11, Luke 22:62]. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, his grief no less intense for knowing that he would soon bring him back to life. [John 11:35].
Perhaps, then, even God knows what it is to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
So it’s not wrong to be sad, it’s simply normal. The Bible never tells us to masochistically rejoice about our suffering. But it does tell us to rejoice in our suffering.
Because despite our sorrow there is still much for us to rejoice about! We truly are loved with an everlasting love, a love that transcends our current struggle, a love that means that we too can be sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
As we suffer we can rejoice because of the Gospel. The good news is that Good Friday was followed by Easter Day, that on the cross Jesus died for our sins, bearing the punishment we deserve, and that when he rose from the dead Jesus proved the sufficiency of his sacrifice. By it we are justified, counted righteous, declared to be ‘not guilty’.
Some of us grieve over our unrighteousness and can not even lift our eyes to heaven. We beat our breasts and cry out, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’ [Luke 18:13] But because of Jesus’ work on the cross on our behalf we are made right with God – regardless of our current situation.
Not because of our worth – but because of his grace.
Not because of what we do – but because of what he did.
Not because we are lovely – but because he is loving.
So, if you’re sorrowful today, remember you’re not alone, God weeps with you. And know that, because of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, ‘Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.’ [Psalm 30:5].
It’s Good Friday – but Easter Sunday is coming. Because of what took place over those two days nearly 2000 years ago, we can know real forgiveness for all those sins that we so bitterly regret, no matter how great they might have been
But if that were not enough to rejoice over this Eastertide, we can also look to the future with a certain hope. Suffering is all too real today but the day is coming when God ‘will wipe away every tear form [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away.’ [Revelation 21:4]
‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18]
Oh that we would all be granted a faith like that of the penitent criminal who was assured of things hoped for and convinced of things not seen. [Hebrews 11.1] Oh that in the sadness of the nighttime we would all be able to look forward to the joy that comes with the morning. [Psalm 30:5] And oh that we would all believe that, irrespective of how things seem, God is doing all things well [Mark 7:37] and will one day ensure that everything is as it should be.
It’s Good Friday – but Easter Sunday is coming.
I pray that we would all know happiness this Eastertide – even those of us who are sorrowful.
Especially those who are sorrowful.
To read ‘What becomes of the broken hearted? Sorrowful yet always rejoicing on Palm Sunday’, click here
To read ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things? Rejoicing, though temporarily sorrowful, on Easter Day’, click here.
To read “Why do bad things happen to good people – a tentative suggestion”, click here
To read “Luther and the global pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross”, click here
To read ‘T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life’, click here
To read ‘Real Power’, click here
To read ‘Foolishness – Law and Gospel’, click here
To read ‘The Promise Keeper’, click here
To read ‘The Rainbow’s End’, click here
To read ‘True Love?’, click here
To read “Hope comes from believing the promises of God”, click here
To read, ‘But this I know’, click here
To read ‘I’ll miss this when I’m gone – extended theological version’, click here
To read “Suffering- A Personal View”, click here.
To read ‘On being confronted by the law’, click here
To read ‘The “Already” and the “Not Yet”’, click here
To read ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac – Law or Gospel?’, click here
To read ‘Rest Assured’, click here
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