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Book Review - "If God Is Good" by Randy Alcorn
September 15, 2009
It seems a fair question, doesn’t it? If God is truly good, as Christians insist, then how can there be so much suffering in the world? Since ancient times this question has led skeptics to believe that God cannot, must not, exist. Even today’s so-called New Atheists show how little is really new when they use the existence of suffering and evil as a linchpin of their arguments against God’s existence. Quite simply, they say, if suffering and evil exist, then God must not. Yet though people have wrestled with this question and allowed it to drive them from the faith, many more have wrestled with it and have come to the conclusion that God does exist despite suffering. They have found that suffering is God’s invitation to trust in him and to hold out hope for a better world to come.
If God Is Good is the latest book from Randy Alcorn’s who is probably best-known for his last major release, Heaven, which has sold well over a half million copies in hardcover. From my experience, Alcorn primarily writes three types of books: novels, very small books and very large books. If God Is Good, like Heaven before it, fits squarely in the final category. Weighing in at 512 pages, this is a good-sized hardcover that offers a thorough examination and defense of faith in the midst of suffering and evil.
The topic Alcorn deals with in this book is a particularly difficult one. Humility and practicality, trademarks of his ministry, are evident in the books earliest pages. “If I thought I had no helpful perspectives on the problem, it would be pointless for me to write this book. If I imagined I had all the answers neatly lined up, it would be pointless for you to read it.” He seeks to get right to the bottom of the subject and, as we learn, a sound theology of suffering touches upon many different areas. This leads him into theology that is increasingly foundational, plunging into deeper and deeper waters. He looks to the source and nature of evil, human depravity (advocating total spiritual inability), free will (arguing for compatibilism), divine omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, the existence of Heaven and Hell, justification, sanctification and so on. What area of the Christian life remains untouched by this great question of suffering? In what area of life or theology is evil not an unfortunate consideration?
Throughout the book Alcorn’s style is stridently didactic, bearing shades of Heaven. But where Heaven depended heavily on questions and answers, If God Is Good leans upon bolded headings followed by explanations. The style is unique in all the books I’ve read, but quite effective. These are headings that cannot be skipped over as they are integral to the flow of the book. So choosing a page at random, we see a heading of “Free Will in Heaven.” Immediately below that is a bolded sentence saying, “Free will in Heaven will not require that we be capable of sinning or that humanity may fall again.” There follows seven or eight paragraphs of explanation and then another bolded sentence to delineate the next few paragraphs: “We will have true freedom in Heaven, but a righteous freedom that never sins.” And so it continues throughout. This writing style fits well with the way I learn, though I did discover to my chagrin that I tend to skip over headings and often had to backtrack to ensure that I was not missing important content.
As we would expect, Alcorn’s teaching is interlaced with stories of grace through suffering. Some of these come from the author’s own life (consider reading this article if you have never read of some of Alcorn’s own suffering) while others come from family or friends or strangers. More than supplementary material, these examples show how God has acted in grace toward his people as they have suffered. Though the size of the book may warn some away (then again, this has certainly not proven the case with Heaven) the book is in no way an academic treatise. To the contrary, it is written with a general audience firmly in mind and, because it never gets bogged down in detail, anyone should be able to read and to enjoy it. In fact, though the book does teach some profoundly important theology and though it is concerned with doctrine, it is always pastoral in its tone. This is not theology for the sake of theology, but theology that brings true peace and comfort. Where firmness is required, Alcorn provides firmness, but where gentleness is best, he is gentle.
Writing to those who may see little need to read such a book he says, “We shouldn’t wait until suffering comes to start learning about how to face it any more than we should wait to fall into the water to start learning how to scuba dive.” To those skeptics who are convinced that the existence of suffering must mean the non-existence of God he challenges, “This is one of the great paradoxes of suffering. Those who don’t suffer much think suffering should keep people from God, while many who suffer a great deal turn to God, not from him.” And for those who know suffering all too well he encourages, “Our present sufferings are a brief but important part of a larger plan that one day will prove them all worthwhile.”
There can be a fine line between exhaustive and exhausting. In the case of If God Is Good, Alcorn has succeeded in writing a book that is long and thorough but not at all tiresome. And though this book enters quite a crowded field, it offers a depth, a thoroughness, a pastoral spirit that set it apart. I very much enjoyed reading it and trust that you will too. I am glad to give it my highest recommendation.
If God Is Good