Thursday, January 21, 2010

If God is Good... Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil

Reviewed by Chris Tennant

If God is Good... Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil is the latest book from author Randy Alcorn, whose previous book Heaven enjoyed enormous popularity. In If God is Good Alcorn tackles the question that both believer and non-believer alike wrestle with, "If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, sovereign, holy and loving, why does He allow evil and suffering?" Or as St. Augustine succinctly presented the dilemma: "If there is no God, why is there so much good? If there is a God, why is there so much evil?"

Written with a pastoral heart, Alcorn carefully explores principles laid out in Scripture and reinforces them with numerous real life accounts of people dealing with suffering. Because it is not merely a collection of philosophical and intellectual arguments, this book serves not only to teach but also to comfort. (For a more scholarly approach to the subject of theodicy, consider reading D.A. Carson's excellent book How Long, O Lord?). Readers expecting quick and trite answers will be disappointed, because the truth is, there are none. If God is Good runs on the long side at 512 pages but remains completely accessible throughout, despite delving into topics such as the sovereignty of God and human will.

The book is divided into 11 sections which are comprised of several short chapters each. The book begins by presenting the problem of evil and suffering, including its origin, nature and consequences. Having a proper, Biblical perspective of sin is imperative for starting any discussion on evil and suffering. Alcorn's emphasis on how lightly we take sin and just how wide the chasm is that separates a holy God from sinful creatures is a powerful reminder for us all. As C.H. Spurgeon rightly pointed out "too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Savior".

Several sections are dedicated to showing why popular worldviews are simply incapable of providing a framework for understanding evil and suffering. One of the most relevant to our present day is the so-called prosperity gospel which promises health and wealth to those with sufficient faith. Of course when these temporal expectations are not met the result is a profound disappointment in a God who did not keep his "promises". The importance of having a Biblically based worldview is vital. Even a cursory reading of the gospels should be enough to discourage us from any notions of a suffering-free life in this fallen world (see John 16:33).

Alcorn also explores how some have attempted to excuse God, or get Him “off the hook”, from the evil and suffering by limiting one or more of His attributes. For instance, by denying God's omnipotence some have been able to excuse God for the evil in the world. While God remains all-knowing and knows when evil is about to occur, they argue that he is nevertheless powerless to do anything about it. Apart from breaking from Scripture which reveals God as all-powerful (see Isaiah 46:9-11) this presents us with a God who is not only unable to deliver us from suffering, but also who cannot deliver us through suffering.

The focus of the book then shifts to showing how Christianity alone provides a worldview that is big enough to include the evil and suffering around us. The clearest picture we have of God's good and perfect will being accomplished through evil and suffering is Christ's redemptive work on Calvary. God allowed Jesus' temporary suffering so he could prevent our eternal suffering. Christ's atonement guarantees, for the Christian, the final end of evil and suffering. This leads to a very readable discourse on divine sovereignty and human will.

Vital to any discussion of evil and suffering is the subject of Heaven, a place where God's eternal grace is extended to unworthy but grateful children, and Hell, where God's sovereign justice is administered to evildoers. If we do not have a sound Biblical understanding of Heaven, we rob ourselves of a source of hope and joy (see Colossians 3:1). This is where Alcorn is uniquely qualified and particularly effective, having written the definitive book on Heaven. In fact, the name of Alcorn's own ministry - "Eternal Perspective" - speaks to his desire to establish a sound theology of Heaven and eternity in the church today.

God allows suffering to make us more Christ-like. In preparing us for eternity “God doesn’t simply want us to feel good. He wants us to be good. And very often, the road to being good involves not feeling good”. Among other things, suffering ought to make us more thankful, cultivate humility, expose idols in our lives, remind us of our inability to control our life, prepare us for eternity and provide a means by which we grow in joy, compassion and hope. The book concludes with a section of practical applications for living meaningfully in the midst of suffering. A large part of that is cultivating an eternal perspective in our lives. As Alcorn reminds readers, for the believer, this life is the closest they will come to Hell. For the unbeliever, this life is the closest they will come to Heaven.

If God is Good is a remarkable achievement in that is provides a comprehensive yet accessible treatment of perhaps the most difficult question that we face as we live out our lives between "paradise lost" (Eden) and "paradise regained" (Heaven). The best summary is given by Alcorn himself, who writes that "the answer to the problem of evil is a person and a place. Jesus is the person. Heaven is the place."

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