Review: D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?

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I've been so busy getting readings prepared for online course reserve that I haven't even had a chance to look at the second Philosopher's Carnival. I intend to post anything from it that I think it interesting at some point.

Since I have nothing else to post right now, here's my last extensive enough review that I've written for Amazon, this time my July 2002 review of D.A. Carson's How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil.

Carson presents a biblical theology of suffering, though he doesn't put it that way. He looks at the broad sweep of scripture, seeing the bearing it has on the various problems about evil and suffering. He starts with daily life concerns and how we should view our lives, ourselves, God, other people, and what happens to us. He paints the proper perspective gleaned from the whole portrait of God and his actions throughout history across the scriptures and then warns of some serious dangers we might easily fall into when arriving at conclusions or when dealing with hard times.

The main focus of the book points to themes throughout scripture. The heart of the book has a chapter on each of the following topics -- sin, the various kinds of suffering and evil, God's suffering people, hell and holy war, sickness and death, the final restoration we're moving toward, suffering in the book of Job, and God's own suffering. The final chapters look in depth at the mystery involved in our responsibility in a world in which God is absolutely sovereign (in which Carson defends, biblically, compatibilism about God's sovereignty and our responsibility for what we do), the comfort we can derive from God's sovereign care, and some pastoral reflections about how to live our lives in response to the biblical portrait he's examined. He concludes with a 10-page appendix on AIDS.

This is by far the most balanced book I've read on the topic. Most philosophers focus on the problem of evil in intellectual debates and end up saying little of relevance. Most non-philosophers look at how we should respond to suffering in our lives but often in terms of inner psychological matters, as if our own inner problems are the real focus. Alternatively, the popular books could be more or less lists of practical things to do, not always helpful in times of difficulty.

Carson gives full treatment to both kinds of problems but is less concerned with debating intellectual arguments, analyzing psychological issues, or listing off which ten things we need to change in our behavior. His focus is on God has revealed himself and acted in history, treating the biblical text as fundamental.

This is a balanced Christian focus, and other sorts of things can come out of that. In the end he does give practical suggestions, many requiring a change or development in understanding God and his carrying out his purposes in history. He says plenty to apply to the philosopher's problems of evil. He also deals in depth with hell, sin, human responsibility, and God's own suffering, crucial points in a full Christian response to that sort of problem, far more significant a package than either the standard "free will defense" that fits little with scripture or the Leibnizian "best of all possible worlds" response that doesn't fill in any details of what's so good about it.

Carson's treatment of hell, sin, human responsibility, and God's suffering is the place for philosophers to look. Hell isn't the place of torture for a capricious being to get his jollies from people's suffering, nor does it simply keep people from heaven. God's justice is satisfied one way or another (by Christ or by hell), and that's significant. Evil isn't permanent. It gets dealt with by a loving, caring God who won't stand for continuing evil. God's plan of salvation allows evil to continue temporarily so that greater numbers of people might enter salvation by turning to God for help out of sin's ensnarement. A holy God couldn't allow evil in his presence, yet a good God couldn't stand by and do nothing, so he entered history as Jesus Christ to deal with the problem, suffering himself in a greater way than any others would ever suffer, not because of the suffering on the cross, great though that is, but because of his total separation from his Father, something no mere human being has even done yet, since the final judgment is still to come.

Hell is necessary for those who won't admit their rebellion against God and the necessity of his action to solve the problem, since such people are resistant to God to the end. There's no place for them in the restored community of perfection. But it's not so much a place of torment directed against them as the torment within them due to increasing rebellion against God and good. It's what rejecting God points toward, and every human being (besides Jesus) deserves it, but God saves and restores those who follow him. This is the Christian gospel and not new to those who absorb biblical teaching, but its relevance for the problem of evil is often passed over.

If God has suffered more than anyone else, that says something. If hell is the logical result of human rebellion against God (what human attitudes against God would logically lead to) and simultaneously preserves God's people from evil, that's significant. God's plan has huge ramifications if there's a goal to history. Human responsibility for sin explains evil in ways that don't interfere with God's sovereign plan for history, contrary to the standard philosophical approach to these matters. This approach is refreshing after reading lots of "free will defense" responses that make free will primary and necessary, something undermined somewhat by Carson's approach, since God's plan is the key element in all this.

Carson also does more for the human person asking these questions than do abstract statements such as the traditional "best of all possible worlds" response by G.W. Leibniz. Leibniz may be right in some significant sense if God's overarching plan took into account the other ways things could have gone. However, it's terribly misleading, as demonstrated by Voltaire's drastic misunderstanding of Leibniz in his parody Dr. Pangloss (in Candide). What Leibniz intended, and any way Leibniz would be right, has to involve these other aspects emphasized by Carson, and it has to start from where he starts -- these key themes in scripture.

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