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
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.