This book, subtitled “Reflections on Suffering and Evil” does not make for easy reading. First, the subject it covers is not one that we naturally like thinking about. And second, this is no lightweight treatment of the topic with simplistic answers to the “problem of evil”. No, here we find Carson as Biblical exegete and philosopher tackling some of the toughest problems in theology, and often engaging in some quite in-depth debates.
The reason for the book is simple – all you have to do is to live long enough and you will suffer. So Christians ought not to wait until it happens before they start seeking answers, but to have a robust Biblical theology that will help them to make sense of things when their world starts falling apart.
The opening chapters contain many heart-wrenching examples of people who have suffered horribly, often without any obvious reason why it should be them. Carson addresses the pain that many feel when they start to think that their beliefs are inconsistent. Each chapter concludes with some questions for reflection, some of which are quite soul-searching in nature.
A good proportion of this book deals with what Carson believes to be sub-biblical views, and in many instances he is arguing against fellow evangelicals. One particularly important view he defends is what he calls “compatibilism” – the belief that God is both sovereign and humans are morally responsible for their actions. Any view that denies one or the other or even softens them is flying in the face of the biblical evidence. If the biblical writers saw no contradictions in these two assertions, he argues, then neither should we.
The book covers a wide range of forms of evil and suffering, including wars (and holy wars), illness, bereavement, God’s discipline, poverty of various kinds, natural disasters and hell. Many of these subjects are controversial, and his usual style is to make a number of biblical points that he feels are overlooked without trying to exhaustively cover the topic.
There is an extensive chapter on Job, in which he attempts to establish that we don’t necessarily get the answers to all our questions. Yes, there is such a thing as “innocent suffering”, but “there are things that you will not understand, for you are not God”. In a chapter on the “suffering God”, he rejects the idea of the “impassibility” of God (albeit with some important qualifications), and asserts that God can suffer. This is seen most clearly at the cross.
As large portions of this book discuss illness, many might wonder what Carson will have to say on the subject of healing. He does interact briefly with Wimber, acknowledging that his concept that the kingdom age has dawned does have biblical warrant. However, Carson believes that many charismatics have failed to see the triumph of the kingdom when God works in the midst of sickness, weakness and opposition. This is of course the classic ‘over-‘ or ‘under-realised’ eschatology debate. If Wimber and co. can be show to expect too much now, dare I suggest that Carson has backed off too far in the opposite direction?
The book concludes with a few pastoral reflections, and Carson freely admits that this is not the sort of book you give to someone in the midst of suffering. In fact, he cautions against even being too quick to give theological explanations to people who are suffering. There is an appendix that deals with the delicate subject of HIV, and whether it can be thought of as constituting judgement. His comments are carefully balanced but will certainly not please all readers. The statistics quoted are somewhat out of date now, but Baker are advertising a new revision of this book to be published later this year.
This is by no means a “feel-good” book, but for those who want to wrestle with the biblical, theological and philosophical issues raised by the presence of suffering and evil in our world and in our lives, it is a very helpful overview. And as Carson points out, having a good theology of suffering and evil will help us to stand firm when our turn to face it comes.