Posted by: aediculaantinoi | May 4, 2013

When Good Things Happen To Bad People…?!?

I’ve got a small stack of posts I’d like to do of a more reflective or theological nature, or that are reviews of things I’ve seen recently. (Perhaps I’ll eventually do some book reviews as well…once I get the books concerned read! Free time to read–what a novel concept!) I’ll start with this one, because it’s more of an open question than one which I have any useful answers on–but, it’s an open question that I don’t find very many people asking, and that in itself is pretty interesting in its own way.

I’ve talked about theodicy on here on a few occasions before; it’s a common theological question. If you’re not familiar with theodicy (from theo + dike, which basically means “divine justice”), it’s the question of pain and suffering for the most part. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Or, on a more cosmic scale, how can evil exist in a world created by a just and loving deity or deities? It’s more of a question for monotheism than for polytheists, granted, because most polytheists don’t think of the world as being created by a singular deity or even a set of deities, and those deities probably wouldn’t be considered entirely perfect or entirely “good.” It’s a complex set of questions, certainly, but lots of people ask them all the time.

What does not get asked, however, can be thought of as “reverse theodicy,” in a sense. Such questions which are almost never asked include the one in my subject line above: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” And I wonder, why not? Why aren’t these questions asked? If the gods are just, then how is this explained? It almost gets to the heart of the term “theodicy” more cogently to ask these questions than it is to ask their general form of “bad things, good people.” The term itself means “divine justice,” and what justice is there at all if people who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and in various other ways do things that are harmful to others, to the world, and to themselves end up being prosperous and successful, all on the backs of people who are harmed by their dishonest and unjust practices?

Now, of course, there are some immediate, “duh!” answers to these sorts of things that many people would suggest. A big one that I suspect many would come up with is that because we’re “not supposed to judge,” we shouldn’t have opinions on the bad people, who in the privacy of their own homes might be very nice to their families, their lovers, their secretaries, and so forth. But, it’s nowhere in my own ethics derived from my knowledge of the polytheistic cultures that I am familiar with that one shouldn’t judge others, or judge in general–judgement is, indeed, the only thing that can allow a person to decide that they are being abused or discriminated against, for example. While such judgements may not extend to a moral evaluation of the person involved, based on their actions the person who offends in such instances has demonstrated that they have no love for virtue or justice in acting in abusive or discriminatory ways. Judging that a specific set of actions by a person has crossed a line is what saves our lives a lot of the time, so I’m totally for it.

Another thing people might say is that virtue is its own reward, and that those who are acting in unjust ways are dying inside and are slowly becoming hollow human beings with sick souls, if indeed they have any souls at all after having caused such destruction and turmoil for their own gain. Perhaps; but, it’s an awful lot more difficult to suggest that goodness is its own reward when one is poor and dying after having done good, while those who are manifestly unjust sit in untold luxury and privilege to the point that they don’t even comprehend that there is suffering in the world.

And, yet another thing that many people might say is that we should have compassion for everyone, the suffering as well as those who cause suffering. That’s a wonderful ideal, and a very Buddhist thing to say…but I’m not a Buddhist.

(Yes, in the “Prayer Against Persecution,” we do enunciate some of these desires, through Antinous’ guidance, to not lack compassion towards ALL others; but, there is a time for compassion and there is a time for action on quite a few occasions, and “compassion” often gets misunderstood as being “all-forgiving,” which I don’t think it necessarily is or should be.)

The big question that all of this sidesteps around, of course, is that if justice does come from the gods, and is supported by the gods, then why is it so often lacking in the world, especially in those cases wehre injustice causes a ton of suffering for some people, but a huge amount of luxury, richness, and prosperity for those who inflict such suffering and cause such injustice?

For my own part, I can’t imagine that this situation pleases the gods, particularly those most concerned with justice. But, if that is the case, then “they’ll get it in the end” is not much of a consolation to those who are suffering meanwhile. It brings up and highlights once again the ultimate answer to the other version of questions of theodicy, as outlined by Rabbi Harold Kushner: namely, that the gods must therefore not be omnipotent, even though they may support love, justice, and virtue.

I don’t know–what do all of you think?


  1. Maybe good things do only happen to good people. Meaning that if anything good happens to someone, that proves their goodness. Consequently, bad people have very, very bad things happen to them – because they deserve it. Bad people! Bad! It’s always possible that the gods have a morality very different from our own. It would certainly explain why the world behaves the way it does.

    • Hahaha! “You got cancer, AIDS, and shingles so it must be that you’re a really bad person.”

      Extending this, does mortality mean that mortals are bad in some sense? Or is death a great gift?

      Which leads me to wonder what we mean by “good things” and “bad things”. Is it just “absence of suffering” and “suffering” (a definition that seems to lead to Buddhist answers)? Is it “getting what I want” vs. “getting what I don’t want”?

      I dunno, I don’t know that I buy theodicy at all. I think that tsumi and miasma are better descriptions of how and why bad things happen, and good things are more or less the absence of bad. There are gods whose interests include Justice (which I think of as Irish cóir < Celtic *ko-ueros “in accord with truth”), but they aren’t the source of Justice. Justice is life moving toward its most perfect, ideal state of Truth. That “Truth” is the state in which the world matches up with Pangloss’s description, “the best of all possible worlds”. Therefore, those gods involved in Justice are those who attempt to aid the world moving toward that state of Truth.

      • I agree with your latter points–I think that’s a good way to envision this. (Although given that one of the words for “otherworld” in Old Irish also means “peace,” I think there’s a bit closer of a connection between some of these things, whether via the gods or the realm in which they dwell or the energies with which they are in contact as a result of being in such a realm, etc.)

        I know death, and its avoidance, is the cause of probably the most suffering of all, and yet I don’t think it’s a great evil. That having been said, it is evil to move many more people toward death against their will than to seek to avoid doing so, which is the ultimate thing that makes a great deal of corporate greed so wrong.

        The first set of statements you made is, in fact, what many religions have believed about people who suffer throughout history, and which some still do (even if they do not say so loudly). I have never been able to buy that, because as a person who is living with multiple diseases, and who got them when I was a kid, I don’t think anything I’ve ever done deserves the universe saying “this will make your life difficult, your continued existence inconvenient for you and your family, and will prevent you from having many experiences you may otherwise have had.” So, the “bad things” side of the equation has no argument whatsoever on my part.

        What I’m really trying to get at here, though, is how it is that the people who are obviously the most corrupt, immoral, and lacking in compassion for other humans are the ones who seem to be running the world, for the most part. Does that fact simply make the other shoe drop on the “bad things to good people” arguments, and reinforce the lack of omnipotence of deities, or does it signify something else? If the former, okay, then that’s the end of this conversation; if the latter, then what does it signify? That’s what I’m trying to parse out here…and am not really having much luck with, alas. 😉

      • Interestingly, I think, the obvious polytheist answer ends up looking very similar to the Gnostic answer to this question: there are more gods than the purely Just ones, and the gods of the people who are performing (what the rest of us see as) injustice are the ones who have a certain amount of control over the physical world. Mammon has a great deal of influence over the material world through his control of certain social customs, for example. The more violent gods wield a measure of control over the material world for very obvious reasons (and I have been thinking on those matters for a long time now, starting with the cannibal gods like Baxbaxwalanuksiwe, Wendigo, and the like, all the way up to modern ones like Caitlín Ní Uallacháin; the short version is that their power derives from physical action, but it is an action that doesn’t require the sorts of precision, and therefore time, that physically creative gods require – but I digress).

        Does this mean that it is incumbent on the pious to suffer injustice (or to perpetrate it in the names of the “unjust” gods)? Of course not. As we know, the power of an immortal is not the primary point of attraction for mortals. Also, the powers of those gods is not necessarily used for injustice: money can be used to move wealth from one social class to another in any direction, not just from the poorer to the wealthier. Violence properly directed can be used to prevent violence indiscriminate (or even, it is said, to redress previous injustices). And so on.

        Uh, I think I lost the plot there somewhere. Whatever: polytheism. Yep.

      • I like where you’re going with this…the answer parallel to Gnosticism does make a lot of sense.

      • Ah, I remember where I was going.

        So, institutional injustices are matters of justice from the point of view of those who benefit from them. This is why it is so very difficult to demonstrate privilege to those who benefit from it.

        On the other hand, personal bad things that are unrelated to larger matters of justice and social organization are generally due to miasma/tsumi – that is, there is a sort of spiritual pollution that exists independently of social forms. It is not (necessarily) moral in character, occurring to the good and the bad, to the rich and the poor (as the song says). Where does miasma/tsumi come from? Good question, one which I don’t know the answer to, though I imagine it has something to do with the Erinyes (also, are the Erinyes the chthonic forms of the Moirai? Or is that moving too far in a Tibetan Bon interpretation, where the “evil” gods are just the “good” ones seen through the filter of our own sins?).

        And I lost the plot again.😉

      • Well, if you have any further thoughts, I’d love to hear them…

        I don’t know that miasma or tsumi really “comes from” anything, other than simply existing–I don’t think there’s a kami of tsumi, or a god, daimon, or other divine force responsible for miasma. I think the Erinyes are there to, in certain respects, clean it up and be a deterrent to it getting out of hand, and not so much those who cause it; but, they certainly have a track record of responding to it, at least in mythology. (If only they did with the Wal-Mart CEOs and such today…wouldn’t that be something?)

      • Yeah, building on what I just wrote below, miasma/tsumi seems like an unraveling of the proper order (*H2ártus, in PIE terms) of the cosmos. That would make the Erinyes into something like protectors of the cosmos from that breaking down of Truth/order, like antibodies against the infection of chaotic breakdown. Or actual Chaos, perhaps, intruding into the nicely ordered cosmos? But that seems a little too much like a comic book – though maybe that’s a good thing, considering the status of comic books as the best exponents of a modern mythology?

      • Yes–I think that makes sense, too.

        I don’t know that Chaos itself is necessarily encroaching, and if it is, if it’s a bad thing–sometimes, the most chaotic of deities (Eris, Set, Loki, and even Gwydion and possibly Lug in some cases, etc.) often do the most interesting and useful stuff in the course of their chaos-stirring.

      • For that matter, Woden (oath-breaking is certainly chaotic, if anything is)!

      • Yes–it’s interesting how some of *Lugus squares well with Loki, and some squares well with Odin…including in this particular regard!

    • Perhaps–but, I find “their ways are different from ours” explanations a bit lacking, personally, because there is an emphasis so often in many things from polytheistic sources that suggests, if not outright declares, that the gods taught humans how to be virtuous, etc. So, unless ancient sources on these matters are completely and utterly useless, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt on that. Maybe not every single one of the gods operates that way, but a number of them do, I think.

  2. I do agree with that penultimate conclusion – I don’t believe that the gods are omnipotent. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re capable of affecting the world and the people in it, because I surely do. (Even if it’s just on the level of appearing to a mortal and saying, “Hey, build me a temple on this spot,” and having that request fulfilled.) Or that they can’t sometimes intercede on our behalf. (Even if it’s just on the level of showing you what to do to get out of a bad situation, how to heal yourself, etc.) But they are not responsible for what human beings do, and I don’t think they could transform the economy or the criminal justice system or systematic racism on their own, and certainly not without being specifically asked to help out.

    • That’s my argument exactly–which is why the “you can’t be pagan and worship Jesus” argument (which, in its most recent iterations, has declared that the deity in question is totally wrong and evil and is responsible for the bad actions of all of its worshippers throughout history) doesn’t work for me or make sense to me. I know this from personal experience: not everyone claiming to worship Antinous is a virtuous or upstanding individual. 😉

  3. Here’s a thought I’ve had from a sort of Kemetic perspective on why the gods aren’t omnipotent, which may also have to do with specifically *why* they cannot change things easily.

    Ma’at (with a little “m”) is (among other things) the order of the Universe, which gods, human beings, and indeed, all of ordered creation, depends on.

    (This is where it becomes specifically my perspective)

    The Universe is a very complex and interconnected system. (Actually, just about *everything* is, it seems!) Human beings can’t change something in it without changing a whole bunch of other things they didn’t mean to change, causing all manner of problems that nobody could have predicted. How much more true could this be for a god? for pantheons? Assuming the following were even possible to attempt: If a god were to try to change too much too fast and violate the way things are supposed to work, e would wind up destroying Creation, taking eirself and the other gods with em.

    (Didn’t feel like stringing pronouns with slashes, so just went with Spivak.)

    • This idea of a universal order, ma’at, is very similar to general Indo-European ideas, too. In India, we have rta, which reconstructs to PIE *H2ártus (or *xártus/*khártus, since H2 seems to resolve to chi), and has cognates in Germanic wyrd and (conceptually, if not linguistically) in Irish dán.

      • I’d personally advocate for fir (can’t do acute accents at present) as a potential semantic cognate in Irish, as “truth/justice/cosmic order.” But yes, that makes sense…

      • Yes, fíor (in the modern spelling) is the better semantic cognate. Dán is more for personal fate, n’est-ce pas?

      • Indeed!

      • Ooh! Thank you for the parallel! I think it must come from observation. Things work a certain way 99.9 percent of the time, and it’s understood that this is how they’re supposed to.

    • As Spivak pronouns are my own preference due to my gender atypicality, I’m all in favor of using them whenever possible!

      I think that makes a great deal of sense. It also jives with a Hindu version of the same sort of idea that I heard in the Hanuman animated film, when Lord Ram tried to get the ocean god to part to allow him and his army to get to Lanka, and then it wouldn’t, so he threatened it with an arrow, and the ocean god appeared and explained that if he violated the laws of nature in that way, everything within the ocean would die, therefore he couldn’t allow it, and he instead came up with the clever solution of allowing rocks to float on the water if they had Lord Ram’s name written on them. Anyway…it’s a good idea, and one with precedent elsewhere.

      • Spivak pronouns are my favorite gender-neutral pronoun. They mesh with English’s structure, and they sound good, too! I actually picked them up from the science-fiction website Orion’s Arm. They actually use more than just Spivak, for several genders of human and non-human beings.

        As for the idea of being unable to break the cosmic order, I’m glad that the idea exists in the Hanuman film. I really want to see this movie, now that I know about. I’m also glad that, as Faoladh pointed out, the concept of cosmic order exists in other cultures.

        I’ve read (and seen) so much about how complex systems in nature refuse to respond in simple predictable ways to our half-blind tinkering that, extending this to the gods comes naturally. Especially so, if (at least in Egyptian theology), the gods *depend* on this cosmic order for their own existence as well. I’m not sure whether it’s a case of “they can’t do it even if they wanted to” or “they don’t do it because it would be suicidal, and omnicidal”, but I’m not sure if there’s much of a difference.

        And I’m left wondering why so many people still believe in any sort of omnipotent deity. Clearly popular ideas aren’t necessarily so because they’re *good* ideas.

      • Indeed–as I like to term that particular logical fallacy, the “fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong” fallacy (i.e. just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good, right, useful, artistic, etc. If further examples are necessary, I give you Justin Bieber!).

        Hanuman is a really great film, and I show it in my World Religions classes when we do Hinduism, not only because it is a good condensing of parts of the Ramayana, but it is also faithful to the text and doesn’t water it down or delete parts of it for kids/sensitive viewers, AND most importantly, it gives tons of daily devotional practices in it without commenting on them. They’re simply integrated into the background, almost, and it is assumed one will know what these things are and that they’re a part of everyday life, even for the avatara of Vishnu. And, some of the music is really awesome, too!

      • Drat, I was in such a rush typing my earlier reply that I forgot to add one more thing:

        I wonder if this “Don’t destroy the cosmic order” thing (” Preservation of Cosmic Ma’at”? ) is why magical workings, when they work, tend to give results probabilistically, and typically in the forms of weird coincidences, rather than in reality-breaking forms like fireballs and shape-changing.

        (I think stories of magicians having done shape-changing or making wax crocodiles come to life and eat adulterous wives could have been the ancient equivalent of the show “CSI” for forensic detectives who are able to “enhance” grainy security footage and get perfect photos of perps, or miraculously get DNA evidence in ways that make real forensic detectives groan.)

        I wonder if this is also why gods tend to manifest themselves in these more subtle ways, that to do much more than that would either be impossible, or would blow reality into steaming, chaotic bits.

        I offered to Hermes a little over a week ago, and he obviously never appeared to me in physical “flesh-and-blood” form, but manifested in a string of “coincidences” related to his spheres of influence, and a distinct sensation of being smiled upon by the god.

      • That makes sense to me!

  4. […] therefore not be omnipotent, even though they may support love, justice, and virtue.” – P. Sufenas Virius Lupus exploring the topic of theodicy at Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of […]

  5. Not to beat a dead horse, but I definitely agree with Faoladh that Gnosticism in many ways has a similar concept of theodicy that paralells a possibility for a pagan interpretation on a more transcendental (vertical) scale than holarchic (horizontal) level which would be more appropriate for Pagan religions.

    Because Godhead is so far removed from the ontological picture, the process of emanation gets disrupted at a certain point where other emanated aspects of Godhead (the AEons) start to act out of synch with creation. This is illustrated mythically in our narrative of the fall and repentence of the Sophia who, having chosen to create without her syzygy’s aid, resulted in the creation of Ialdabaoth/Saklas/Samael who was hidden away on a cloud and removed even from his mother. thinking himself to be the only being in Creation he did what comes naturally to all things and set about making his own imperfect playground from what he found laying around, including humanity.

    Now, it’s important to recognize that Ialdabaoth and Co. aren’t evil necessarily, but ignorant of their origins while the Aeons have seen fit to imbue humanity with the spiritual RNA that somehow gets activated and tells us to, “Go home by any means necessary.” Here, things basically turn into a game of snakes and ladders, where the Gnostic tries to jump over the Archon grids and find ourselves home and, presumably, come back and drag the archons with us.

    How this may mirror the pagan/polytheist perspective – as opposed to the mitigated monistic perspective of the Gnostic – is that there may be deities and entities which may fulfill a spiritual ecological niche to test us (think the monsters of Greek mythology and the heros) on the part of the gods who may recognize our successes and decide to reward us accordingly. Just some thoughts.

    • Re: beating a dead horse–leave Borysthenes out of this! Hadrian’ll kick your ass if he finds out you’ve been beating HIS dead horse! 😉

      But, yes, thank you for your thoughts. It makes sense!

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