God and Evil (GAE), published this year through Intervarsity Press, is a book that deals with possibly the hardest questions humanity faces no matter one’s religion. Why is there suffering? Why is there evil and pain? And if God exists and he is good, how can we reconcile this with the evil we see and experience? The reality that people have wrestled with these questions for centuries demonstrates that in every generation we need men and women to reword the question and possible answers in modern-day vernacular for those who struggle to reconcile what they believe about God with what they experience on a daily basis. This is where GAE comes into play. After getting a feel for the book’s big picture and attention to detail, I was surprised at my final reaction. It’s a book I highly recommend, with only one word of caution.
Written from an evangelical perspective, GAE is a series of essays from today’s leading Christian philosophers and apologists, such as Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, William Dembski, and Francis Collins. Covering a wide range of topics related to evil – including horrendous evil, free will, hell, evolution, and the New Atheism – GAE is an intellectual and academic look at how Christians have responded, and can respond, to evil. Its goal is to show that when it comes to reconciling a good God and the existence of evil we can “…come to see that, while there are still unanswered questions, it is nevertheless reasonable to believe that even given the reality of evil, a creative, infinitely loving and omnibenevolent God exists.”(p.11)
The strength of GAE is in its ability to grasp the big picture while also diving into the details. While detailed topics covered in each essay might intimidate and overwhelm the average layperson (who exactly is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and why should we care?), each author handles their specific subject in a concise way that is accessible. This is impressive because each chapter could be a book in and of itself. Yet the authors manage to communicate the main points of their argument as simply as possible. Readers will be stretched and challenged, but not beyond the breaking point.
The big picture becomes clear in the variety of angles tackled in the book. For example, how is evil a problem for theists, and how can that problem be reconciled? This is probably the most common question Christians are familiar with in responding to evil. Yet GAE also looks at how evil is a problem for all religions, including Atheism. Chapters such as “Evil in Non-Christian Religions” and “Evil and the New Atheism” demonstrate the big picture that, far from being a Christian problem, evil is a human problem and Christianity is actually the worldview that is able to best deal with evil in a way that is intellectually and existentially cohesive.
GAE also looks at areas of evil where there is disagreement among evangelicals specifically. The last four chapters of the book look at how different evangelical Christians deal with evil in relationship to hell and evolution. Who goes to hell and for how long? How do we reconcile both God’s justice and love with its existence? What about evolution? How do we reconcile evolution with God’s existence as well as with the problem of evil? Can a Christian affirm some form of evolution while also affirming that the all-good Creator God exists? These topics have been known to create hot debates, which may cause one to wonder why they’d be included in this book. Yet I believe their inclusion in the discussion demonstrates the humility and honesty that there is room in the Christian faith for disagreement. As the introduction wisely notes, “Given the gravity of these issues, we think it is important for us to dialogue about such things even when we disagree. We recognize that as humans we are not only less than omniscient, we are really quite fallible.”(p. 10)
As I anticipated, I was intellectually drawn into the book and loved learning in greater detail how my belief in God’s goodness and justice is not destroyed in the face of evil. This is a book I will turn to quite often as I intellectually interact with others who struggle with the problem of evil and seek to use evil to discredit God’s existence. My surprise with GAE came in how I reacted and responded to the book emotionally.
One of my deep frustrations is that most discussions on the problem of evil leave me emotionally dissatisfied. The intellectual defense of God’s existence in the face of evil has done little to relieve the emotional pain I’ve experienced in its wake. When I’m suffering I need to know that my trust in God is logical, but that logical knowledge doesn’t bring me much comfort. It was with great surprise and relief that as I read through GAE, three chapters in particular spoke not only to my head, but to the depth of my heart. In my opinion, chapters 10-12 are the heart and soul of this book.
Dealing with evil and the hiddenness of God, prayer, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, these chapters filled me with hope in God and practical tools I could use when I’m in the midst of suffering. How can I trust God when he seems to have disappeared? How do I pray in the midst of intense pain when I can barely put two thoughts together? How do I cling to hope when life is hopeless? These are real questions I’ve wrestled with, and in these chapters I found tangible answers. Chapter 12, written by Gary Habermas on evil, the resurrection, and the example of Jesus, demonstrates so beautifully that the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the ultimate solution to evil’s problem and the only lasting balm for broken hearts and lives. His suffering and resurrection connects us to him and him to us. We do not suffer alone. And his resurrection fills us with the assured hope of eternity. Habermas notes,
We should begin to celebrate eternity, not only the future resurrection of our bodies but also our fellowship with the Lord and our believing loved ones immediately after death. We have seen that after Jesus suffered, his Father raised him from the dead… For us too eternity follows suffering. This is a truth that we should always concentrate on, for it both changes our perspective on this life as well as providing motivation in the present. (p. 174)
My one word of caution in reading this book is for those who are in the midst of deep suffering. Doctors need to read medical textbooks on disease to treat their patients accurately and to bring healing. But when you are the patient just diagnosed with a life-threatening, possibly terminal disease, you don’t need a textbook. You need the healing the textbook describes. In a similar way, if you are in the middle of deep suffering or evil, you need healing, not necessarily the textbook answers on God and the problem of evil. With the exception of chapters 10-12 which I highly recommend, it would be wise to find people who will help you find the healing GAE describes rather than read its intellectual content alone. This is my opinion from both observation and experience. You need the intellectual truth this book discusses, but find it in people who will also minister to you through relationships, touching your emotions with the hope of the gospel.
For the rest of us, GAE is a book I highly recommend for its grasp of the big picture, its attention to detail, and its humble dealing with difficult issues in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally accessible. Evil is real, but God is good.
*Cross-posted at Penny of a Thought