We’ve had a number of events recently that have shaken many Americans to the core. The reality of evil was pressed home in painful fashion. Sadly, most Americans aren’t prepared to face the reality of evil. If people are considered basically good, then we essentially think such things should not happen here where we are educated and prosperous. Those things only happen there, wherever there may be. But not to us, not on our shores.
There are a number of books that have tried to tackle this problem. Some good. Some bland. And some quite horrible, like the sadly popular book by Rabbi Kushner about the God who wants to help but really can’t. He also assumes there are good people.
“To come to grips with the problem of evil and suffering, you must do more than hear heart-wrenching stories about suffering people. You must hear God’s truth to help you interpret those stories.”
Randy Alcorn has released The Goodness of God: Assurance of Purpose in the Midst of Suffering for this reason. It is a shorter version (120 pages) of his book If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering. It makes a readable, meaningful book that you can hand out to people who are suffering, or struggling with the suffering of others. He covers lots of ground in succinct fashion, including illustrations and examples to help people understand his point. It is not dry and academic. He writes of his own suffering and how he had to make sense of it. He believes any faith that doesn’t prepare you for suffering is not a biblical faith, and our churches must do a better job teaching biblical theology to prepare people for suffering.
“The pain of suffering points to something deeply and unacceptably flawed about this world we inhabit.”
He begins with Tragic Choices which looks at the origins of evil and suffering. He defines evil as “the corruption of good”, for we can make no sense of evil part from good. He distinguishes between primary evil (what we do) and secondary evil (things that happen which we don’t like). He brings us back to the Garden and the great rebellion. He brings us to the free will defense; if we are to be free and freely love God we must also be able to freely hate God. Due to Adam’s sin, the world has been subject to frustration, the curse, which is the root of all the natural evil (for lack of a better term) we experience: hurricanes, earthquakes, drought, etc.
“God could hate evil and yet permit it in order to carry out an astounding far-reaching redemptive plan in Christ, one that would forever overshadow the evil and suffering of this present world.”
He then moves into the reality of our personal evil with What’s Wrong? I Am. He presents the case for Adam’s sin and sinfulness being passed on to us (see Romans 5). Unless we see that we too are evil, sin will always be out there. We will only be victims (sometimes we are victims) instead of also perpetrators. We must come to grips with a biblical doctrine of sin if we are to make sense of suffering.
He also provides Alternative Answers, briefly presenting how others have tried to answer these questions. He includes things like imaginary evil, an imaginary God, God’s limited power (the Kushner defense), limited divine knowledge (Open Theism), and limited divine goodness and love. All of these offer us a deficient worldview.
In Clashing Worldviews, Alcorn investigates relativism and atheism. He also turns things on their head by examining the “problem” of good. Again he is brief and to the point.
He returns to biblical theology with The Great Drama, illuminating the narrative of Scripture. This is the flow of redemptive history which was progressively revealed in the Scriptures. There are points when I would state things more strongly, with biblical precedent. For instance, “God allowed Jesus’ temporary suffering so he could prevent our eternal suffering.” That is a weak, permissive statement that is quite out of step with how it is presented in the Scriptures. It was foreordained (Acts 2), and he was sent for this. But he does point us to the fact that God has suffered. Christ suffered in all his earthly ministry, culminating on the cross. The Father did not spare his only Son (Romans 8).
“Extreme evil can wake us up to the reality of both good and evil, testifying to the invisible realities of God and Satan.”
He then moves to the question of Why So Much Evil?. This addresses why God allows evil and delays justice. He draws on sources like C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. The point Lewis makes in the quote is that we don’t want more love from God, but less. Love wants the best long term good for us, and that involves suffering to some degree. To remove suffering means we settle for less character and good long term. He brings up the necessity for meaning to endure suffering from Frankl, and returns to the discussion of freedom. He also reminds us that God often restrains evil, that bad situations could have actually been much worse.
“Ironically, those who most value freedom to choose are quickest to condemn God for allowing evil and suffering.”
He then tackles God’s Control and Our Freedom, sorting out God’s sovereignty and our choices. It is a subject many people have trouble sorting out in their minds. I often hear that if God is sovereign, we must be puppets. This takes a very human perspective on the divine-human relationship. I will enforce my will on my unwilling children at times. That is not what we mean by God’s ordaining whatsoever comes to pass. First, he defines sovereignty. Then, based on our differing natures shows that God is more free than we are. We are unable to do all we may want to do. But God, being infinite is wisdom and power, can. Because He is good, all He wants to do is good. Apart from Christ we are prone to evil (Eph. 2:1-5 among other places). In regeneration we become open to a wider variety of choices. We now want to do good. We make real choices in either case. God does no violence to our will (though He often restrains our sin often), but has ordained all that comes to pass in light of His purposes and our nature. He brings His purposes about thru our choices.
“God calls us to neither victimization nor fatalism, but to faith in his character and promises.”
He tackles the problem of prosperity teaching in Are We Promised Prosperity?. In addressing suffering, you have to address this false teaching that has captured the hearts and minds of so many people. You really have to cut large sections of the Bible out to maintain such a theology. You have to act like Thomas Jefferson, editing his Bible to remove miracles to fit his worldview. The case is strongly made by the fact that the prophets (especially Jesus) suffered because they were righteous. If we seek to live godly lives, as Paul tells Timothy, we should expect persecution. Not prosperity (though some may experience that like Job and Abraham did- though they had plenty of suffering too).
The Wold We Long For addresses what he calls God’s 2-part solution to suffering: heaven and hell. Americans struggle with the doctrine of hell, often because we think people are basically good. But the people who suffer in hell are not basically good or even remotely innocent. They are guilty of cosmic treason against the all loving, wise, holy and just God. Right now, being finite and flawed by sin, we are not capable of really assessing the “rightness” of hell. It is a place of justice, and that is all that is meted out there. He also points to the continuity between life on earth and our experience of heaven (if we are in Christ by faith). We are being fit for that existence now.
“Our happiness in heaven won’t be dependent on our ignorance of what happened on Earth- it will be enhanced by our changed perspective on it.”
He continues that thought with Wanting More Clarity. The great news is that God isn’t as concerned with giving us answers as with giving us Himself. Many of the specific answers will have to wait. But the God who suffered offers to meet with us, console us and bind our wounds. It is only near the end of the book that he brings up Romans 8:28. He likens it to a recipe in which the individual ingredients of a cake don’t taste all that good, but together they taste great. The ingredients of our lives may not be seem good, but God is putting them all together to make us like Jesus. And that is good. But first there is suffering. Then will be glory. God offers to sit with us, but also holds out the hope of eternal glory in many places. We should not withhold that from others. But we do that as we sit with them in their pain instead of using it to avoid their pain.
The book concludes with What We Can Do, which gets to the issue he raised at the beginning of the book. It focuses on how we can prepare ourselves to meet the suffering that awaits us in our unknown (to us) future. He recalls a conversation with Darrell Scott, whose daughter Rachel was shot and killed in Columbine. She was killed because she said “Yes” when asked if she was a Christian. He speaks of being prepared. As a result, he was able to continue trusting God in the midst of inconceivable pain because he had that solid footing. He gives some practical steps before he closes with a call to believe the gospel.
As I noted, Alcorn is succinct in this book, but that does not mean it is superficial. He covers lots of territory, and quickly. But for a suffering soul, lengthy treatise are out of the question. In his discussion of sovereignty, how he expresses this may a bit too weak for Calvinists and probably too strong for Arminians. That is a minor thing in light of the fact that he reminds us that our lives are in the hands of God, not ourselves, Satan or demons. Or randomness. This is a good book to keep on hand to give to those who are suffering, or love someone who is.
[I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of this review.]