“Strangely, God never addresses Job’s pain and suffering in his grand monologue; instead, he recounts numerous instances of his own glorious acts in creation. Why? Because Job needed to see that there was something vastly larger than himself and the pain that circumscribed his own miniscule world. He needed to situate his pain within the larger realm of the ‘theater of God’s glory. ‘” Scott Christensen
This book came back in the winter, perhaps even before Christmas. I was duty bound to read and review it, but I was still working on re-reading another volume from P&R (The Mystery of the Trinity by Vern Poythress). The Christensen book suffered from a not uncommon fate for books in my house: It got lost in the stacks. Something new was always arriving. Something urgent was always getting attention. Shorter books, easier books, and more appealing books were constantly keeping this book hidden away.
And consider the title: Who really finds themselves in our day and time wanting to read about EVIL during morning devotions? I am not one for fluffy feel-good theology, but there are some topics, whether weighty, or troublesome, or controversial that I would prefer to avoid. (I also shy away from the books that remind me of how I fall short as a husband and father.)
Then May happened. May of 2021 was like all of the worst of 2020 (pandemic, election, school shutdown, job loss, etc.) being outdone and surpassed in a 23 day descent into the abyss. In short, I went into the hospital for what was to be a relatively minor surgery. I expected to be home in a day or two, to be able to avoid all chores I disliked, and to be able to lie around and read to my heart’s content. Then everything in my life turned south. In short, I ended up spending 23 days in the hospital, mostly connected to all sorts of tubes in ICU, had low blood pressure problems, suffered hallucinations, spent a few days on a ventilator (which I don’t remember), may have had pneumonia, had a second surgery to correct some internal bleeding from the first one, and got a diagnosis of congestive heart failure.
After finally getting home in June (and I did have one 3 days return to the hospital in early July), I slowly resumed my morning reading patterns. My mind was not always able to focus clearly, nor were my eyes. Emotionally and spiritually, I was still in ICU.
But I picked up What About Evil? and started reading. And everyday for several weeks I would read 10 to 20 pages or a whole chapter. At some point, something in the book triggered an extreme emotional and spiritual jolt. I was brought to the point of “having to,” “being forced to,” and wanting to give thanks to God for all I had been through. I was not just thankful for God sparing my life (He did, for one night my diastolic number on my blood pressure was a single digit), nor was I just thankful for the good doctors and nurses God provided (and the physical therapists!), nor was I just thankful for being out of the hospital, nor was just thankful for the rapid healing I was experiencing. I was thankful that God had been pleased to send this series of calamities on me. It was a soul somersault. I am not saying that I don’t still question or lament all of this, but I was bowed down before the sovereignty of God.
Here is what I wrote on the day I experienced this:
As I began reading and thinking about this book today, for the first time, I was able to say, Thank you, God, for the illness and ordeal of the past month. ” Not “Thank you for the healing I am experiencing. ” Nor “Thank you for the spiritual insights and reminders of your grace. ” Nor “Thank you for the many who prayed for, visited, or ministered to me. ” I am thankful for all that! But for the first time, I can say, “Thank you for the ordeal, sickness, complications, pain, and struggles. ” Calvinist that I am, I figured I would give thanks for all this in time, but with a bit of forced piety. Meaning, I do this because I have to. But it seems as though God has given me a glimpse of His Sovereign Glory. Only a glimpse. But I repeat, “Thank you, God, for all of this. ”
This book is not a self-help or devotional study. It is deep theology. The question it tackles is a hard one that faithful Christians struggle with and have disagreed over. It is a defining point of Christian doctrine. And the book itself is 471 pages of text examining the issues.
I will have to rate this book as one of the top theological books not just for 2021, but for my whole life of reading theology (going back to 1974). This was not a game changer, for I have long adhered to the Reformed views of God’s Sovereignty. But this was confirmation. I realize that not everyone who might read this book will find it a companion volume to particular troubles they are having like I did. It can be read during the best of times for a seminary student, during a fruitful pastorate for a preacher, or for some good theological meat for a theology reader.
Concerning the topic of evil itself and how Christensen deals with it, this is one of the biggest challenges in apologetics, theology, and practical Christian living that Christians face. It is a point of contact with unbelievers since no one can rationally argue that evil does not exist. But it is also a point of contention since unbelievers are often hostile toward God over the issue. (It sometimes leads to the odd atheist who proclaims that God doesn’t exist and hates Him!)
Sometimes, some Christians feel like they need to come to God’s rescue. “If God is all powerful,” the unbeliever asks, “then why doesn’t He prevent evil? Why did He allow it to enter into His creation in the first place?” The most satisfying answer that many Christians have found is the Free Will Defense. People, beginning with Adam and Eve, had to have freedom to choose. God would not have made us puppets who were programmed to love Him since love has to spring forth from an emotional choice-based reservoir. In love, God let us decide to love Him. That meant that many rejected His love and the rest of us have strayed (by divine permission) all too often.
I am not trying to make a caricature or mockery of this view. It is a serious attempt to deal with a hard issue. While some find it comforting or convincing, I have never found it so. Nor do I find it compatible with Scripture (based on my understanding).
What Christensen posits is God’s Greater Glory in His purposing, planning, predestining, and controlling evil in His universe. The ultimate end, the eschatological outcome, of all the miseries of this life and world are far more offset by the greater, complete and all glorifying work of God in redemption and judgment.
Does this explanation make everything fall in place and easy to accept? No, but it does put the trust in God and in reliance of what is revealed. I don’t like falling into the “my Bible verses beat your Bible verses” kind of debate, but I was convincing (or reconvinced) that the Scriptural weight falls in the direction that Christensen advocates.
Prepare to wrestle when you pick this book up. Even if you are already in the author’s camp, it is a workout to think through these issues. But the pleasing part of this book is how attractive and readable the arguments are. For example, Christensen has a whole chapter devoted to how in literature “Everyone Loves a Good Ending.” As a literature teacher, I was swept away by this discussion. Then to see how this internal mind-set echoes what Scripture teaches is amazing.
I never feel that I have cheered loudly enough for some books. I read a lot of books and enjoy most of them. But this one is different. It is better, more important, and more influential than the others. If I were rich, I would be sending all of you copies of the book, but for now, I can only highly recommend it.
Here are a few choice quotes that I sent to family and friends while I was working through this book:
“Job’s miserable comforters made many true statements about sin, righteousness, justice, and God; yet they were painfully wrong when they tried to speak on God’s behalf, presuming to understand why He was bringing such affliction on their suffering friend. Nor can we demand that God explain Himself. Job sought for God to explain Himself for the evil He providentially oversaw in Job’s life, and the answer he got back was stark and humbling. The essence of it was this: I AM GOD AND YOU ARE NOT. “
“When we consider God’s sovereignty over the forest, few people object. But when we consider his sovereign control over the individual trees, people start to squirm in their seats, especially if those trees include the leaves, branches, trunk, and roots of their individual lives. The fact is, human actions are not exempt from the providence of God but represent the particular emphasis of Scripture. God’s fixed decree includes the future actions of individuals. Human choices are determined by God.”
“We are not conditioned to expect good to emerge out of the murky mass of evil. But God designed evil so that something remarkably white and wonderful would emanate from its black depths. As William Cowper penned, ‘Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face. ‘” Scott Christensen, What About Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory