Randy Alcorn. If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009. See here to buy the book.
If God Is Good is about how Christians can interact with the problem of suffering. This book is about 500 pages, so I doubt that I can do it justice in this one blog post (which is not to say that I will write any more blog posts about it). But here are some thoughts:
A. I thought that what Randy Alcorn said about hell somewhat undermined his points about suffering. Alcorn believes that the Bible teaches eternal conscious torment in hell for non-believers after they die. What’s more, appealing to Matthew 7:14, Alcorn argued that most people will end up in hell, since few find the way that leads to life. In my opinion, that makes their suffering in this life rather pointless: they suffer in this life, then they go to hell and suffer eternally. Alcorn may say that suffering in this life can encourage them to come to Christ: they can be reminded that life is short and that there are eternal matters to think about (so Alcorn applies Luke 13:3). Maybe. But most of them will not come to Christ, and God knows that, so does their suffering really serve much of a purpose? What Alcorn says about hope and suffering building character in people that matters eternally does not really apply to most people, within his worldview.
B. In light of (A.), Alcorn at one point says that we don’t suffer long, since life is short. But, as he says elsewhere, that only applies to believers, in his theology. It does not apply to most of humanity, who will be going to hell to suffer eternally.
C. This is not to say that universalism (the idea that God will save everyone in the end) can be neatly reconciled with the reality of suffering. Alcorn says that God may cause people to suffer to bring others to Christ, to make a difference in eternity. Would that matter as much, if everyone is eventually saved in the end?
D. There were a few times when I was reading Alcorn’s book and I said “Wait a minute.” On page 105, Alcorn asks regarding skeptical biblical scholar Bart Ehrman: “What percentage of the royalties from Ehrman’s best-selling book has he earmarked for easing world suffering?” That is a pretty presumptuous question. I don’t know what the percentage is in terms of his royalties, but Ehrman does donate quite a bit of money to charity.
On page 132, Alcorn states: “As Americans reeled from the events of September 11, 2001, no one explained the terrorists’ actions from a naturalistic worldview…A naturalistic worldview just couldn’t account for such wickedness.” What? There were plenty of naturalistic explanations for what happened on 9/11: the terrorists hated us, so they flew planes into the World Trade Center. Does one need to appeal to the supernatural to account for that?
E. One can read what Alcorn says about suffering and conclude that evil is really good in disguise. Evil, after all, serves a constructive purpose, according to Alcorn. Why, then, should I not hurt somebody else? Would I not be doing that person a favor by hurting him? I would be giving that person opportunities to overcome adversity and build character, after all!
In my opinion, I have no right to put somebody else through suffering, for the simple reason that there are things that people should not have to endure, if I can help it.
Perhaps Alcorn can respond that I have no right to put people through suffering, but God knows how to do that properly. God, after all, knows everything. God knows what we need and what to give us. We do not have that sort of perspective. Perhaps. Still, I think that Alcorn’s implication that evil is really good in disguise has troubling implications.
F. To his credit, Alcorn is not afraid to be honest about what the Bible says. Appealing to Exodus 4:11, Alcorn argues that God is the one who made people disabled. According to Alcorn, that actually has given comfort to people who are disabled. I can understand that, since it allows them to believe that their disability must have a purpose.
Alcorn says that there are passages in the Bible about God hating certain people (see, for example, Psalm 5:5). True, but why should I assume that God only has hatred for them, without one ounce of love? Plus, where exactly is Alcorn going with that observation? Does God only hate extreme evil-doers, or does God regard all non-believers as workers of iniquity and hate them (since Romans 3 presents the human race as pretty bad)? I do not think that the latter perspective would be helpful to me, as I try to love other people.
G. A lot of what Alcorn says has been said before. Still, I did enjoy this book. I never felt that Alcorn was hastily dishing out pat-answers, for there was a weight in what he was saying. Alcorn talked about his own suffering as a diabetic, and he shared stories about other people’s suffering. In addition, there were times when Alcorn questioned traditional Christian views on evil. For example, he questioned Augustine’s view that evil is merely a deficiency in goodness, for Alcorn thought that evil had to be much more than that, a negative force in its own right. On how exactly evil originated, when God made everything good, Alcorn seems rather agnostic.
H. To his credit, Alcorn was honest about tensions within the Bible. For example, like Calvinists, he believes that God has to enable people to believe. Yet, Alcorn also believes that God is being sincere in exhorting evil-doers to do good: that God is not playing games and telling them to do something that he knows they are incapable of doing. At times, Alcorn admits that he does not know how these tensions hold together. On one occasion, he seemed to be saying that free-will exists in some areas, but not as much in other areas.
I. There were a lot of inspiring stories in the book. My favorites were about when people were torturing Christians, and the torturers were so impressed with the Christians’ demeanor that they became Christians themselves—-sometimes subjecting themselves to the persecution that they inflicted on others. I would not be surprised if such stories were true. They make me think that there is something to Christianity! Yet, they can also burden me, in a sense, since they can make me feel bad about not having that kind of effect on people: I always have to wear a smile, regardless of how I feel, since that will bring people to Christ! That was why I appreciated Alcorn’s stories about people who hit rock bottom and needed God to sustain them. For example, Joni Eareckson Tada is a quadraplegic, and she said that there are days when she says to God that she does not have a smile. “Can I borrow yours?”, she aks God.
J. I like something Alcorn says on pages 406-407: “Bertrand Russell claimed that no one could sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God. He was wrong—-countless people, including ones I spoke with while researching this book, have sat at the bedside of their own dying children and do still believe in God.” That is a fairly effective, point, which Alcorn makes elsewhere, as when he talks about Holocaust survivors who have a deep faith. Who are atheists to tell people what they should think and feel in response to their suffering? At the same time, we should remember that there are people who draw opposite conclusions from suffering: they conclude from their own suffering that there is no God.
K. Something that I wonder: how can experiencing intense physical pain help a person build character? Perhaps it can make a person humbler and bring a person down to earth. But how can people spiritually grow when they are experiencing distracting physical pain? How can they set their mind on higher things when their mind is on how much they hurt, because they cannot get their mind off of their pain?
L. Isaiah 65:17 states that, in the new heavens and the new earth, the former things will not be remembered. I remembered Tim Keller saying that we will appreciate heaven more when we get there on account of our suffering on earth. Randy Alcorn makes the same sort of point. Is that inconsistent with Isaiah 65:17? Why would God use suffering to build our character for eternity, when God will wipe our minds clean in the new heavens and the new earth, effectually wiping out anything we learned? Alcorn addresses this question: he does not take the sentiment in Isaiah 65:17 overly literally, but he interprets it to mean that people will be comforted in the new heavens and the new earth. Their suffering will become a thing of the past, a distant memory. But Alcorn still believes that there is a connection, or continuity, between our experiences in this world and the world-to-come. See here for how John Piper addresses the question.
M. There are times when Alcorn seems to present suffering and challenges as necessary parts of life on earth. Would we grow or be heroic without adversity, after all? Alcorn also says that one reason evil exists is that God respects free will, for God wants people to love God genuinely. At the same time, Alcorn presents suffering as a result of the Fall, meaning it was not a part of God’s original creation. Alcorn states that suffering will not exist in God’s eschatological reign. Alcorn also says that people will do what is right in God’s eschatological reign, which casts question on whether there will be genuine free will at that time, at least in the sense that people have it today (which entails the possibility of doing wrong). To his credit, Alcorn is sensitive to this tension, and he acknowledges it. But he did not sufficiently wrestle with it in this book, in my opinion.
N. In some cases, I was intrigued by a view that Alcorn was trying to refute. Alcorn was arguing against open theism, the idea that God does not know the future for certain. Alcorn referred to a story about a woman who married a Christian man, and the man later left her for another woman. The woman found comfort in open theism rather than the idea that God foresaw her suffering and permitted or orchestrated it for some good reason. She particularly found comfort in the story of Saul in the Bible: God chose Saul to be king and had plans for him, but Saul forfeited that through his sins. Alcorn made pretty effective arguments against open theism: Can we trust a God who does not fully know what will happen down the road? Still, the view that he was refuting was intriguing to me.
I’ll stop here.