Randy Alcorn on Suffering and Evil: Interview for The Gospel Coalition

Randy Alcorn was interviewed by Andy Naselli of The Gospel Coalition in August 2009 on the topic of suffering and evil following the release of his book If God Is Good . . . : Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. The full interview text is below and is also posted on Justin Taylor's blog, on The Gospel Coalition website.

Andy Naselli: There are dozens of useful books on “the problem of evil.” (Last year I recommended twenty-two of them [pp. 8-10], and you told me then that you had already read all but two from that list.) These range from books that focus on weighty theological and philosophical arguments to others that are preoccupied with giving pastoral care. What is your view of the books on this subject that are already out there?

Randy: I’ve read about a hundred substantial works (plus countless articles) on the problem of evil and suffering, ranging from the biblical and theological to the philosophical, pastoral, and experiential. Many of these don’t hold to a biblical perspective, but a number do. Some of the biblically sound books aren’t well written, but others are wonderful, including works by Carson, Piper, Bridges, C. S. Lewis, Henri Blocher, Michael Card, Ken Gire, Michael Horton, Peter Kreeft, Peter Hicks, and Joni Eareckson Tada. Even many Sinclair Ferguson fans are unaware of his out-of-print but excellent Deserted by God? Yet all these books are remarkably different. (And no, I don’t agree with everything in all of them, e.g., Kreeft comes to mind!)

The ways in which the books overlap are quite helpful and don’t feel at all redundant. While every biblically oriented book on the subject will share a common core, citing some of the same Scriptures, there are very different ways to develop this subject. And remarkably different styles and emphases. You can watch five movies about family conflict without feeling redundancy. The same subject matter, but very different setting, characters, events, and relationships. And different actors and directors who bring their own unique voice to the theme. So with books.

By the way, since Between Two Worlds is one of the few blogs I read regularly (I see and welcome those notifications via Twitter when there’s a new post), I know the readers of this blog are book lovers. So I’ll say this. If people were going to read only two books about evil and suffering, it would be a tough choice, but I would recommend to them How Long, O Lord? by D. A. Carson and When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes. These books share the same biblical and Christ-centered orientation, and both are full of sound and robust theology; but they are substantially different in content, tone, and style. They complement each other beautifully.

What distinct contributions does If God Is Good make to the existing body of books on this subject?

I labor hard on research and writing, and I made a commitment years ago never to waste my time writing a book if anything remotely close to what I wanted to write was already out there. But the more I studied the subject over the past two years, the more convinced I became that there was much I wanted to say, and in a particular way, that had not been said in one book.

I shaped the book to have a very distinctive approach and feel. I did this with my earlier books Money, Possessions and Eternity (a biblical and practical theology of money) and my big book Heaven (much of which is a biblical theology of the New Earth, then moving to imaginative aspects based on my biblical understanding). I sought in both books to say not just what had already been said, but what hadn’t been said, and to do it in a way that might reach readers who would normally not pick up a big book full of theology. In fact, If God Is Good is filled with theology, but my desire is to reach both those who love theology and those who can and need to learn to love it, and see loving it as part of loving God.

The structure of If God Is Good is reflected in its Table of Contents. Those familiar with other books on the subject will see some of its distinctives.

One distinctive is its scope. I write a lot of nonfiction, including many short books that deal with small subjects or with big subjects in a small way. But occasionally I sense God leading me to set aside a few years to research and write on a subject in a more comprehensive way. This applies to the two books I mentioned above, as well as ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments.

At first, I envisioned doing a short book on evil and suffering, built around a presentation on the subject I had done on a secular college campus, and later a modified one at my church. But because my book Heaven had surprised the publisher and the booksellers through its sales, it seemed to have proved that people were willing to read 500 pages full of Scripture and theology. This helped me decide to tackle a subject of such weighty and immense proportions as the problem of evil.

I freely admit that in the process of research and writing I was continually aware that it was beyond me to pull this off, just as I had realized with the Heaven book and one of my novels (Dominion, which features an African American character in an African American context, and here I was, the writer, a white guy from the suburbs). But when you realize that apart from Christ you can do nothing, the continuous sense of dependence on the Holy Spirit yields benefits in your own walk, and hopefully in the book itself.

Distinctives of If God Is Good are reflected in many of the individual chapters, including the one on the health and wealth gospel, which has permeated the theology of countless Christians in churches who consider themselves not to embrace prosperity theology. It’s like a cancer that quietly eats up and takes over a Christian worldview and leaves people dismally unprepared for suffering. They are set up to feel let down by God, who appears to have not kept his promises that we’ll be preserved from suffering in this life (promises, of course, that He has not made). As I say in the book, any faith that leaves us unprepared for suffering is a false faith that deserves to be lost. By God’s grace, we must turn away from the idols of false worldviews and turn to the true Christ of Scripture, not the false Christ of our fallen imaginations.

There are various other distinctives of the book, but maybe they’ll come up later in the interview.

How would you briefly summarize If God Is Good?

The book addresses what is arguably the greatest issue in human history: the problem of evil and suffering. The question is this: Why would an all-good and all-powerful (and all-knowing/all-wise) God create or permit a world with so much evil and suffering? This is not merely a problem, but the problem. Not only do atheists raise it, a poll of Christians revealed it is the question people would most like to ask God.

God promises to return and finalize his redemption of his once-good creation, to remove once and for all the evil and suffering under the Curse. In eternity he will reveal to us the riches of his grace in Christ, and we will see firsthand that the temporary evil and suffering will have yielded an eternal joy beyond what could otherwise have ever been known.

What are some factors that led you to write on suffering and evil?

It’s unusual to have serious prolonged interactions with either believers or unbelievers, without them raising this question.

I am also deeply concerned with how radically unbiblical viewpoints are being assimilated into the thinking of evangelical Christians. I wrote four chapters critiquing the attempts of misguided theologians to resolve the problem of evil by minimizing the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, or love. The first two actually have their proponents within evangelicalism, as most readers of this blog know. Open theism redefines and undercuts God’s omniscience, but this has a domino effect, which leads to denying not only his immutability, but his omnipotence (i.e., God’s power is limited by his lack of knowledge). Once we start tinkering with God’s attributes to solve a problem, the problems we create are far worse. Two of the people I interviewed, Bible-believing Christians who have endured great suffering, shared with me that open theism has been a great encouragement to them. This viewpoint continues to gain traction among many evangelicals.

Along with other readers, Wayne Grudem and Justin Taylor went through my chapter on open theism, making helpful suggestions. While I believe in God’s causative foreknowledge (Calvinist view) in addition to his simple foreknowledge (Arminian view), I am not the first to point out that Open Theism contradicts the entire history of Christian orthodoxy of all kinds, including the Arminian tradition.

I also wanted to address the issue of mystery and faith, and our need to trust God even when we can’t see his purposes. That used to be a central part of faith, but somehow it seems more difficult for modern Christians. I argue that while the nature of faith is to trust God for what we do not see, we may base our trust in him on many things we have seen—His Word, His creation, and how he has shown himself in others in our lives and throughout history. I point out that if you write down the worst things that have ever happened to you and then write down the best things, there is often, especially when sufficient time has passed, a shocking overlap of the lists, confirming the workings of God’s sovereign grace.

Finally, what drew me to this issue is that the Bible itself (e.g., in Job, Psalms, and the prophets) repeatedly raises the problem of evil. It does so with a full range of insight and mystery. It doesn’t offer easy or simplistic bullet-point answers. But ultimately it offers more satisfying answers than any other worldview. And those answers are centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the second member of the triune God. In eternity, I could see Him looking at his children and stretching out His hands, asking us, in light of the questions we struggled with, “Do these look like the hands of a God who did not care?”

What would you say is the most unusual chapter in the book?

My approach in critiquing Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem is unique, I think. My treatment of Heaven and Hell as they relate specifically to the problem of evil is somewhat different than what I’ve read. There are some unique contributions in the chapter “Jesus: The Only Answer Bigger than the Problem.” The final eight chapters about how God uses evil and suffering, and how we can live meaningfully with them, have some familiar content, but portions that readers may never have before considered.

But maybe the most unusual chapter (at least I’ve never seen anything quite like it) is the one entitled “If You Were the Author, How Would You Have Written the Story?” I approach it from the perspective of a novelist, since I’ve written seven full-length novels, as well as two children’s stories. I develop the nature of what makes a great story and the fact that we all recognize the greatest stories are redemptive. But a redemptive story (e.g., Les Miserables) must by its nature involve extreme conflict, severe loss, and evil and suffering, followed by glorious intervention, usually at great cost, and leading to restoration and a transformed life.

We are fascinated by stories, by great (and not-so-great) novels and movies and plays. They appeal to our imaginations. So how can we fault God, the Author of the Unfolding Drama of Redemption, for writing the prototype redemptive story that gives meaning to all lesser redemptive stories? How can we question Him for ordaining in our lives the very elements that are essential to the kind of story we regard as most moving and precious and, in the end, satisfying?

Does he not deserve our praise for this, regardless of how difficult it is to live as characters in the drama during the fleeting evil and suffering of this age? This momentary suffering is not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us, when we see God, and in us as we forever shine forth as the stars of heaven with a righteousness imputed to us by the King of Kings himself (one which would never have been ours apart from the evil and suffering that led to and was part of Christ’s redemptive work). For all eternity God will reveal to us more of the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ (Ephesians 2:7).

You asked a variety of readers go through early drafts of your manuscript, critiquing you and suggesting changes. How helpful was this?

If you don’t want to make a writing project much harder on yourself, don’t ask for critique. If you want a far better end product, recruit some people who are willing to look at a manuscript at its worst to help you bring it to its best. And then prepare yourself for many long hours of revision.

Along with a journalist, a thirty-year-old cancer survivor, a missions director, and a few pastors, my readers included a philosopher and several theologians, including none other than the extremely helpful Andy Naselli. I asked several Calvinists and two Arminians to read the manuscript. I heard from compatibilists and libertarians. While I am a Calvinist and a compatibilist, I wanted to see how Arminians and libertarians responded to what I was saying.

I try to be fair to those I disagree with, not only because that’s right and nice, but because I have found over the years it is the only way to persuade them to another viewpoint. Sometimes you can’t help but lose some of your audience when you simply say what’s true. But I don’t want to unnecessarily lose readers. Sometimes you can speak the truth in a way that allows your disagreeing audience to hang in there, giving them time to be exposed to the truth in a way that persuades them.

Two of my more Arminian readers, a theologian and a philosopher, objected to what they regarded as some mischaracterizations (statements that most Calvinists, including me as I drafted them, wouldn’t have considered unfair). But when I clarified in the manuscripts that Arminians and libertarians don’t necessarily believe X (my readers of those persuasions didn’t), in turn it made a few of my Calvinist readers feel my reworded sentences were too soft on the libertarians’ positions. While I did make clear that I think libertarianism to be incorrect, and why compatibilism is far more biblical, I still labored to have Arminian readers feel I accurately understand their position. Then they will hopefully stick around, keep reading the book, and be faced with the biblical evidence instead of dismissing me because I “don’t really get” their position.

In that regard, I am fascinated by the number of non-Calvinists who tell me they read my book Heaven cover to cover and found the Scripture and theology fascinating. Yet I quote repeatedly from Piper, Venema, Bavinck, Hoekema, Grudem, Packer, Edwards, Ryle, Spurgeon, etc. Yes, I throw in some good quotes from John Wesley and a few other Arminians, but the deck is stacked highly toward the people whose theology I most enjoy, who are Calvinists. Whenever I can get people who have little theological background to be exposed to good theology, it’s a special joy. If they do nothing but start reading Piper, Carson, Grudem, Bridges, and Spurgeon because they loved those quotes I cited, that would be good enough for me! For some reason God has given me a large audience of readers, and even when I write books they “shouldn’t” be interested in, like books with lots of theology that publishers don’t think should sell many copies, they read them and I’m grateful.

You interviewed many sufferers and tell many people’s stories in the book. Why was that important to you?

Stories of people’s personal experience are a mixed bag to me. I love them when they are subordinate to biblical truths and illustrate them rather than replace them. I love them when they help give us a glimpse of biblical doctrines, such as God’s providence, wisdom, patience, justice, common grace, and saving grace. In If God Is Good I tell many such stories, from the interviews and that I’ve witnessed personally and gotten from reputable sources. When I see God’s sovereign grace at work in the lives of suffering people, it touches me deeply, and in my experience it touches most readers.

But I don’t like it when stories are placed above Scripture and become the lens through which we interpret God’s dealings with men. I have seen this happen in books on the problem of evil. Honestly, I think Greg Boyd does this when he tells heartbreaking stories to demonstrate, supposedly, why God cannot know in advance people’s future contingent choices, and how comforting it is to them when they believe He can’t.

Some of the best-selling atheists books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens use illustrations that “prove” there is gratuitous evil and pointless suffering. But in fact, they do no such thing. Just because as finite and fallen creatures we are not in a position to see the point of suffering, or the greater good that can come even from terrible evil, does not mean that there is no point or greater good. It simply means that we are creatures, not the Creator, finite and not infinite. I mean, the universe is full of things we don’t know and understand. Why should it surprise us to see evil and suffering we don’t understand? This is where faith comes in to play—believing God even when for the moment we can’t see his purposes.

I dedicate that one chapter of If God Is Good to Bart Ehrman, whose reverse-C. S. Lewis story is told in his extremely popular book God’s Problem. I felt I needed to devote a chapter to Ehrman because he “came to Christ” through an evangelical youth movement, attended church faithfully, went door-to-door to share his faith, attended Moody and Wheaton, and ultimately “lost his faith” specifically because of the problem of evil and suffering. He now teaches about a faith he no longer believes.

I believe Ehrman represents an entire category of people raised in the evangelical church who due to their college classes and their observation of the world and their own experiences with suffering now deny a Christian faith they once professed. (I am not talking about loss of salvation, or the saints not persevering; I am talking about people, whether regenerate or unregenerate, who now deny much of what they once believed.) Our young people, and older too, are vulnerable to this, and we must wake up to the need to raise and address biblically in our churches and families the problem of evil and suffering. Approaching Ehrman’s book not only to critique his propositions but to tell his story and evaluate what has happened in his mind and heart, seemed to me the best way to approach it.

When you read as many books as I do, you’re bound to come across some great stories, and I tell a number of them in the book. These include great missionary stories and many other stories I’d never heard that I found in fairly obscure books, so I’m confident most readers of If God Is Good will never have heard them. I share two stories told me by my friend Steve Saint that are very powerful, and they too will be new to most readers. The first half of the book is the theological and foundational portion; the second half gets increasingly practical and encouraging for the person facing suffering.

I interviewed at length dozens of people who have suffered, including Joni Eareckson Tada, Darryl Scott (whose daughter Rachel was killed at Columbine), Robert Rogers (who lost his wife and children in a flash flood), and Emmanuel Ndikumana (a Hutu married to a Tutsi and who witnessed their people murdering each other).

I’ll share one example: Scott and Janet Willis, a pastor and his wife, lost six children in a van wreck. The Willis family’s story is exactly the kind that Bart Ehrman features as overwhelming evidence for God’s nonexistence. Yet when I interviewed this couple in 2008, fourteen years after the tragic event, Janet said, “Today I have a far greater understanding of the goodness of God than I did before the accident.” This might have taken my breath away had I not already heard it from others who’ve also endured unspeakable suffering. At the end of our two-hour conversation, Scott Willis said, “I have a stronger view of God’s sovereignty than ever before.”

Scott and Janet did not say that the accident itself strengthened their view of God’s sovereignty. Indeed, Scott’s overwhelming sense of loss initially prompted suicidal thoughts. Rather, their faith grew as they threw themselves upon God for grace to live each day. “I turned to God for strength,” Janet said, “because I had no strength.” She went to the Bible with a hunger for God’s presence, and he met her. “I learned about Him. He made sense when nothing else made sense. If it weren’t for the Lord, I would have lost my sanity.”

So Bart Ehrman denies Christ because of suffering people like Scott and Janet and Emmanuel Ndikumana, while these sufferers themselves turn to God and grow in their faith. Sufferers need to hear the biblical stories of Job, Joseph, and Jesus and these kinds of contemporary stories, not to minimize their suffering, but to give them hope that God will restore and strengthen their faith.

Many readers of this blog are familiar with John Piper’s resources on suffering. How does your view compare to his view theologically and pastorally?

I am in John’s debt, and even before we became friends I considered him a mentor, from a distance, from the day in 1986 that I finished reading his first book, Desiring God. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with him, including in his home, have spoken at his church and his pastors’ conference (he really checked me out theologically before this, and we agreed on 90%) and his Desiring God national conference; we had the regional DG conference at my home church; we’ve hung out while speaking at the Resolved Conference, etc. We share a deep commitment not only to God and the glory of His grace, but to world missions, racial reconciliation, and the cause of unborn children.

So John is a brother I considered God’s gift to the church and a gift to me and my family. Yet God has made us different people, and there are no doubt things here and there in If God Is Good that John would disagree with. But for the most part I think I know him well enough to be confident his heart would resonate with the heart and soul of the book.

I’ve read John’s books where he deals with suffering and listened to probably two-thirds of the messages on the list. I deeply appreciate what he says, and there would be very little difference. While I might say a bit more about meaningful and consequential human and demonic choice, alongside my affirmation of God’s sovereignty, I don’t think John would disagree with much of this (we have disagreed on a few things and exchanged emails and dialogued congenially, as brothers should). In some cases I know John would say and has said it differently than I, and that’s great. We both celebrate Ephesians 1:9-11, including that “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” Everything means everything, just as in Romans 8:28 all things means all things.

I certainly embrace John’s view of suffering and God’s sovereignty in using it for His glory and our ultimate good (as Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28 demonstrate). John and I both see God as using for His glory even the works of Satan. Who does the thorn in the flesh come from in 2 Corinthians 12? It’s a messenger of Satan, yet it’s given to Paul (obviously by God, not Satan) to keep him from becoming conceited.

Because Scripture uses both the language and concept of God permitting evil and God ordaining it (e.g., permission in Exodus 21:13, Ezekiel 20:26; Mark 5:12-13), I use both in If God Is Good. Other passages state that God does not allow people (Genesis 20:6) and demons (Luke 4:41) to do certain things. Allowing and not allowing are part of God’s ordaining to accomplish his plan. I think I may use the language of permission more than John Piper does, but I think he would agree (I could be wrong; you can ask him) that this language is fine as long as it’s used in a larger context that recognizes God often does more than permit; He sometimes, even often, directly brings to pass. I think John and I would both agree with our mutual friend Joni Eareckson Tada when she says, “God permits what he hates to achieve what he loves.”

What are some ways that you hope If God Is Good will serve people?

Unbelievers and believers have the same heart-cry in response to evil and suffering: “something’s terribly wrong.” We know we were made for something far better. But our heart-cry itself is revealing—why do we expect more or hope for more? Why are we outraged by evil and suffering when if the atheists are right it’s no more than we should expect in a world of random chance and survival of the fittest? Where do we get the standard of goodness by which we judge evil to be evil?

In this book I appeal to unbelievers and believers alike to consider these questions: Why is there so much good in the world? Why do the great majority of suffering people want to go on living nonetheless? Is evil and suffering just bad luck, or is there a rational explanation for it? Is there a redemptive purpose for it? Can we as hurting people, and as those trying to help hurting people, find perspectives that recognize the full force of evil and suffering, yet offer hope? I suggest the answer is yes.

Being a comprehensive book, this is no short and sweet gospel presentation. But its forty-five chapters are relatively short. For the thoughtful unbeliever motivated to hear a biblically based treatment of the problem of evil, the book will serve that purpose. The gospel is woven into it. I pray and expect that some will come to a genuine faith in Christ through reading the book and the Scriptures it cites, and perhaps discussing it with a Christian friend.

The book may first serve to help readers jettison a false faith they may have. If we have a faith that isn’t grounded in reality, we must, by the empowerment of God’s Spirit, lose our false faith in order to find the true one, in Christ.

Some professing Christians will read the book who actually have faiths very similar to that which Bart Ehrman abandoned. They are being set up to jettison their weak faiths by college professors utilizing Ehrman’s kinds of arguments. I wrote If God Is Good in the hopes that it will serve pastors and serious lay people in assisting Christian young people in coming to terms with a biblical theology of suffering. My prayer is that they will see the spiritual power and reason of Scripture, learn sound theology, and develop a truly Christian worldview to replace their superficial one that will never survive either the arguments or the tests that await them.

Finally, I think serious and growing Christians will benefit most, because they will see a comprehensive (not exhaustive) treatment of a problem that touches nearly every area of theology and Christian living. The believer who cannot address this issue biblically and personally is ill-prepared to represent Christ to a world that so desperately needs Him. The Bible is a sustained historical drama concerning the problem of evil and suffering. Every Christian should know that, and I pray some will come to know it through this book.

You quote a great deal of Scripture in the book and also cite many theologians. Why is this important to you?

People live in a truth-vacuum, and I believe in the power of God’s Words to touch lives. I quote Scripture frequently in this book because God promises that his Word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). God never makes such a promise about my words or anyone else’s. I want this book to accomplish God’s purpose—and that will happen only if it remains faithful to his words.

Some advised me that we could cut a very large number of words from the big Heaven book simply by removing the Scriptures included, replacing them only with references. And we could cut more still by removing all the citations of theologians (most of them Reformed). But I believed the book would then be gutted of its power (in the case of Scripture) and its historicity as part of orthodoxy (in the case of the quotations). The publisher, and many others, have been stunned that the Heaven book has sold over 600,000 copies as a $25 hardcover. (By the way, 100% of the royalties are given to Christian ministries, not the one I direct, and Nanci and I couldn’t be happier about that arrangement.)

I don’t presume this book will sell as well as Heaven, and that doesn’t matter. But I do pray that many people will be touched by its biblical content and the insights of the theologians and faithful suffering Christians I quote.

What are some of your next writing projects?

It’s been five years since I finished Heaven, my last comprehensive work. I had a three-year break between that project and this one, during which I worked on smaller books and one novel. I need another break now, so I’ll focus on some shorter works. I have a work in progress critiquing prosperity theology and one related to some writings of Charles Spurgeon (have to be a little vague on that one for now, but I’m having fun with it; few people I’d rather spend a day with than Spurgeon).

Eventually I’ll return to a major work of fiction. I am considering a historical novel centered on one central biblical story. Eventually I want to do a spin-off from my spiritual mysteries DeadlineDominion, and Deception. (All I know for sure is that it will start with a D, but that it will have to wait until I regain some energy after finishing If God Is Good.)

Many thanks, Randy, for taking time to serve the readers of Justin Taylor’s blog with such helpful comments!

Andy, it’s been my pleasure. I’m a fan of Justin’s and of yours, and I deeply appreciate both of you for your service to Christ and His church.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries