The trouble one encounters in reading God is Not Great is the Voice. After watching and listening to Christopher Hitchens speak, the words peal off of the page in his contemptuous English sneer. Your mind processes the words, sentences, and paragraphs but, all the while, your MIND hears the voice surreptitiously attempting to corner you for interrogation. Certainly, you agree with me about all of this god silliness, don’t you? You’re not one of those believers are you? – leering pompously over his glasses for assent from the sycophantic atheists in the distance who lap these prickly rants up. Hitchens is far more erudite than Sam Harris and even a bit less irritable but their two recent works are similar in theme and tenor. Both plow the same ground, germinating from the casual assumption that there is no God of any stripe and that the religious people of the world range from simply ignorant to downright evil and dangerous.
I agree with Mr. Hitchens as he observes that much evil is promulgated in the name of religion. Religious practice is a human endeavor and unlike the hopes of the progressivist dream, humans cannot be perfected. To indict broad swaths of people through the actions of a few adherents should cause us to examine Hitchens’ general arguments more closely. To argue that evil practitioners of a faith are representative of the whole requires that we move our examination to a lower strata and ask, are the theological foundations of the religion inherently wicked? Once established, the follow up question is whether or not a person roots their evil in this theology. Does the pederast priest locate his acts in the Bible? If not, intellectual honesty in making ones argument requires a separation of the man from the belief. Hitchens consistently fails to kick over this stone since it threatens to trim the broad brush with which he paints.
This broad swath extends to Mr. Hitchens’ presentation of God in general. He would have the reader accept his expansive definition of ‘god’ as being the same deity represented by all of the faith groups he excoriates. The enlightened reader will see through this facade immediately. Without a careful evaluation of the apologetic for faith traditions one might be tempted to step into this trap but the thoughtful reader will not. Simple logic (which Hitchens demands we practice on nearly every page) leads one to conclude that all views of God cannot be true. If one is correct, the others then must be false according to the apologetics of each.
The final pages of God is Not Great provide a reading group guide composed of 19 questions meant to gauge your assent to Hitchens’ arguments. I propose that we examine these one by one and see how they hold up. It might be that we discover that God is great while people, in their fallen state, are not. The two should not be confused.
Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? (v1)
The worshipper looks aghast at the wicked man boasting of his deeds. He knows there is going to be vengeance and that the retribution is not always going to come from the hands of man. He remembers the stones heaped on Achan and the burning sulfur that had rained down on Sodom. Those who had previously shaken their fists at God and continued in their evil had paid the price and he was confident that the price would ultimately be paid by all evildoers as well.
The Psalmist recounts over many verses the evil that men do and the price that will be paid. He saves his fiercest condemnation for the end of his rant:
Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others! (v7)
Though our corrupted hearts never cease to imagine new ways of visiting evil on one another, there is no greater failure than to not recognize that one cannot be a god unto himself. Despite your health, wealth, and status, God will always be God and you will not. He demands our obedience and worship and craves our love and to not deliver these things to the king is our ultimate corrupt act.
David leaves a final image of the upright man who is eternal in life and righteous in character. He know his place and his God.
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.
I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good.
I will praise you in the presence of your saints. (vv 8-9)
I too will praise you Lord, alone and in the presence of your saints…
Christians and Atheists alike voice the same question over and over again; if God is good then why are evil and suffering so prevalent? The believer may be led to think that the life of the Christian is to be free of pain and suffering only to find that, in most cases, the opposite is true. The Atheist uses the reality of struggle and horror as a foundational argument against the existence of God only to discover adversity strengthening the belief of the followers of Jesus. Is suffering a punishment for sin or an experience that God could readily remove from the world? Is there a bigger picture seen by the Creator of the universe where our troubles serve a larger purpose that we simply cannot see? Randy Alcorn enters this swirling discussion with his excellent new book If God is Good and the core challenge to the reader, what if suffering is God’s way of asking us to trust Him?
The problems of evil’s existence and the suffering of human beings are extraordinarily complex subjects but Alcorn has devoted 500 pages to examining the problems from numerous different angles. He looks at evil and suffering from the perspective of a believer and as a nonbeliever and examines these problems historically, theologically, and philosophically. Alcorn’s writing is what sets this book apart from denser scholastic examinations. He writes for the Christian struggling to understand why God allows evil and suffering to continue in the world. Each of the topical sections is divided into short chapters that address a single issue or question making the book a go-to resource that the reader can open to a specific topic and begin to find the answer.
Randy writes with a pastoral heart and an eye for connecting the truths of Scripture with vignettes of real life. Readers can often encounter a verse such as Isaiah 48:10—See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.–and be unable to understand how it applies to their lives. Would God actually do this? Would he actually allow us to suffer pain and strife for His glory? When the pain is so close and personal, this seems to be anathema but this is where the book shines. Alcorn’s special talent lies in finding just the right illustration to bring the truth home and he puts that talent to great use throughout these chapters. For example, by showing how the pain of the death of a missionary looks up close, Alcorn can then pull us back to see the effect that he or she had on numbers of people who witnessed their faithfulness and came to know the God they worshipped and embodied.
This is a must-have book for anyone who questions the issue of suffering. This will find a prominent place on my shelf so that I can refer to it often. It is accessible, well structured, and so moving that I often could only read short sections before putting it aside to think about what I had just read. If you have been fortunate enough to have avoided struggle and strife in your life, reading this book will prepare you for the inevitable moment in which it arrives because it will. If your life has been marked by great tragedy, struggle, pain, and suffering, read this book alongside your Bible in order to understand how your pain serves God, His eternal plan, and His glory.
For more information about If God is Good, go here.