by John Reader
from Signs of the Times No. 7 - April 2019
The subtitle of the book sums up the author’s objective and reflects what is to be found in this text. Alongside the theological reflections are to be found a series of real-life accounts (with names changed) of people who have indeed been through tragedies and suffering of various kinds.
At the end of each section is a list of questions for consideration so this is designed to be studied and discussed by individuals or groups, and it could be the basis for a Lent course. The context is American and what might be seen to be an orthodox, evangelical and strongly biblically based Christian culture. By that I mean that some of the material presented would not come as a surprise to a more liberal audience who have already struggled with these questions and formulated similar answers at an earlier stage in their faith journey. This is not to decry the value of the book which does grapple with some of the most difficult and frequently raised objections to Christian belief.
There are five main chapters, each addressing a different perspective on the problem of evil, not to be read in isolation but rather as a cumulative argument. “God can’t prevent evil” is the opening section, to which the response is that God is not in control, so “unable to control people, other creatures, or circumstances that cause evil” (P27). God’s nature is uncontrolling love. We are not robots, nor is a retreat to the supposed solution that it is all a mystery an adequate response in the way that, for instance “The Shack” attempts to propose. I am reminded of Moltmann’s “The Crucified God” which established the non-controlling argument for me many years ago. Chapter Two argues that God feels our pain, which despite the hackneyed tone of that phrase means that God also suffers with us, which I would have thought is a clear implication of incarnation, but that does not get a mention. Next the suggestion is that God works to heal, and that chapter closes with a summary of the myths and realities surrounding this subject (Pp103-106), for instance that pain, suffering and abuse are part of God’s pre-ordained plan; that God can heal single-handedly, and that those who are not healed did not have enough faith. I recall such questions arising for UK evangelicals in the case of David Watson many years ago, and it is good to see those being addressed head-on.
Chapter Four proposes that God squeezes good from bad. Another difficult area as one must avoid the interpretation that God deliberately creates or refuses to prevent evil in order that some good may indeed come about. As with the previous chapters Oord gets round this quite well: “God works with creation to squeeze good from the evil that God didn’t want in the first place” (P136). Then, finally, God needs our cooperation: “creatures play a necessary part in God’s goals to restore creation and help us all to flourish” (P142). The “sting in the tail” is when Oord opens about his own trials which include being laid off his job as a theologian unjustly and this receiving national coverage (P173). Sounds familiar perhaps?
“Been there, got the scars to prove it” adds authenticity to the book. I’m not sure that the claim that the ideas will solve the problem of evil (P10) quite stands up, but this is an important and valuable contribution to the subject.
John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice and Associate Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation.