Book Review: If God is Good
March 1, 2011
Randy Alcorn’s If God is Good is not your typical book on suffering. Unlike some that err on the side of hyper intellectual, and others that provide more anecdotes than substance, Alcorn effectively balances insight, stories, words of comfort, and scriptural guidance.
In addition to the chapters that might be expected in a book on evil and suffering, Alcorn includes a section where he explains reformed theology and how it relates to the topic, and a section on heaven and hell. Alcorn’s approach to suffering may be summed up by the words of Romans 8:28, which he often quotes, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.”
Readers will find Alcorn’s book infused with Scripture. Throughout his discussion, the author grapples with numerous verses, including some very difficult and often ignored ones. Alcorn also exhibits breadth of research, quoting numerous recent authors as well as ancient ones such as Augustine, Erasmus, and Calvin. He balances this research with stories and personal illustrations. The effect is that the book is readable and thoughtful.
There is little to critique in this book. Perhaps the most glaring weakness surfaced in the section on sovereignty and choice. In attempting to explain human choice, Alcorn paints an unfortunate picture—one that many from the reformed position would likely disagree with. To be perfectly clear, Alcorn excludes the possibility of choice in matters of salvation. His reason, he explains, is that such a choice would equal self-transformation and the making of ourselves right before God. Alcorn states, “How free are we? Free enough to be human . . . Free enough to make choices, some better and some worse—yet not free enough to transform our own hearts or make ourselves righteous before God” (Alcorn, 246). The problem here is that Alcorn has misrepresented the issue of choice. Alcorn’s definition is unnecessarily bipolar—equating choice in matters of salvation with “transforming our own hearts” and “making ourselves righteous.”
Alcorn continues his discussion on choice by explaining that since man has no choice in salvation, God first justifies believers, giving sinners Christ’s righteousness. He then regenerates them, giving them a new nature with freedom of choice. Alcorn then states again that man’s choice consists in “the power to choose to get up in the morning, go to work, raise a family, make meals and consume them, paint and sing and laugh. He gives us the power to tell a truth or a lie, to cheat on an exam or to be honest. . . . Call it free will, meaningful choice, or anything else. . . . If it isn’t, our decisions and our lives are merely illusions” (Alcorn, 249 emphasis added). So for Alcorn human choice is God empowered, is what keeps our lives from being illusions, and consists in mundane things like the ability to decide what color socks I wear in the morning, whether to have bacon or sausage for breakfast, and whether to drive to work or to ride my bike.
I will resist the temptation to debate Alcorn’s shallow understanding and definition of human choice. Instead, I will point out Alcorn’s inconsistency with his own words. It is startling that later when discussing the topic of hell Alcorn writes, “Fairness doesn’t demand that God give people a second chance after death, since he gives us thousands of chances before death. God grants every person a lifetime to reform, to turn to him for grace and empowerment. . . . God gives us second chances and third chances and tenth and hundredth chances every day of our lives” (Alcorn, 319 emphasis added). The inconsistency here is obvious—the reader is left with an entirely unclear, vexing understanding of human choice and how it relates to evil and suffering.
Besides this weakness in Alcorn’s book, If God is Good is a penetrating, well organized work on suffering in which Alcorn’s skills as an author shine. Not unlike C. S. Lewis, Alcorn proves his ability to write theological works at the popular level, in addition to his excellent pieces of fiction. This book is a must read—if you are currently suffering, it will provide immense encouragement; if you are not presently suffering, it will help prepare you for when trouble comes. And when you read this book, don’t make the mistake I did of thinking you can read it quickly. This is one you will want to read meticulously, to ponder, underline, highlight, keep in a prominent place on your bookshelf, and then read again.