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Evil is both God’s enemy and a fact of life

15 February 2012

A lucid and powerful treatment of a crucial theological problem, says Anthony Phillips


What Shall We Say? Evil, suffering, and the crisis of faith
Thomas G. Long

Eerdmans £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

LONG describes his book as a “work of homiletical pastoral care”. His concern is that preachers and teachers should be theologically responsible when confronted by those who raise the problem of theodicy. How can we hold on to belief in a loving God when faced with so much unjust suffering in the world?

Long describes how the problem arose in modern times, citing the importance of the Lisbon earth­quake in 1755 in this regard; how the problem became a challenge to ordinary church people; and why that challenge cannot be avoided.

He then examines some of the solutions that have been offered. In an interlude, he considers the Book of Job, before setting out what can be said in the light of the Christ event.

In this easily accessible book, Long enunciates four propositions: there is a God; God is all-powerful; God is loving and good; there is innocent suffering. He cites various ways in which theologians have tried to reconcile these assertions, all of which result in yielding one or other of them. In fact, Long holds that, as a result of the Chris­tian gospel, all four need modifica­tion and redescription.

In his examination of Job, Long rightly identifies the author’s larger concern, namely the nature of man’s relationship with God. While the friends stifle honest questioning of God, being wedded to their religious system, Job shows himself willing to give up his theology, but not his be­lief in God. Long properly rejects the idea that Job “repented” of his questioning of God, which would make nonsense of the book. The author’s conclusion is that, while Job cannot have an answer to his un­just suffering, he can yet know God.

Indeed, had Long wanted further biblical evidence for this conclu­sion, he could have found it in the Eden narrative, where man is denied the fruit of the tree of the know­ledge of good and evil, which is that know­ledge that God alone has be­cause he is outside his creation. Man was created to be an agnostic be­liever.

Finally, in a masterly piece of exegesis, Long examines the parable of the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13.21-30) — “a pastoral conversa­tion about the presence of good and evil mixed together in the world”. Pointing to the mystery of evil, Long shows how it is both God’s enemy and a fact of life. God cannot stop evil, not because he has not the power nor because he does not choose to, but because in doing so he would not be true to his nature. If he did seek to strike out evil, which human could survive?

But God has not abandoned us until the end of time. This is where the cross takes the agnostic believer beyond Job’s position. Even now, in the power of the cross, albeit ex­pressed in weakness, God’s love is at work in the world. Though his actions remain hidden (the signific­ance of the add-ons in Matthew 13.32,33), he is, in his own way, destroying the work and power of evil.

So, while Christians can no more explain the origin of evil than any­one else can, though they know it does not come from God, whom they experience as love, they also know that in the cross the God of eternity, the God who transcends past, present, and future, enters all time and redeems it.

This lucid and powerful treat­ment of that most crucial theolo­gical problem, which confronts all who would believe, should be gratefully embraced.

Canon Phillips is a former headmaster of the King’s School, Canterbury.

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