A review of Unspeakable: Facing Up To Evil In an Age of Genocide and Terror. By Os Guinness.

Harper, 2005.

This is a very important book. That is because this is a very important subject tackled by an important author. Indeed, Guinness is one of our finest Christian commentators and thinkers. He was an early associate of Francis Schaeffer and his ministry L’abri in Switzerland. His 1973 book on worldviews, The Dust of Death, still remains a modern classic on the subject. And apropos to the topic at hand, he has lived a life marked by more than a fair share of suffering, including his boyhood experiences in tumultuous China.

Thus it is to be expected that a treatment of this subject by Guinness would be first-class. And he does not disappoint. The problem of suffering and evil is a perennial and a pressing concern, It is, according to Guinness, our most urgent and intractable problem: “Evil is quite simply the most serious problem in human life”.

Evil may have been always with us, but Guinness argues that for the first time in human history, many people no longer have a coherent moral and intellectual framework with which to assess it. More disturbing, we no longer have a shared understanding about whether there even is such a thing as evil.

Ironically, while the scale and scope of evil has increased in the modern world, our ability to respond to it has weakened. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger asked in 1973 “Whatever became of sin?”. Now we must ask, Whatever became of evil? Because of the “sorry state of moral illiteracy and intellectual cowardice” that we moderns find ourselves in, we have a hard time even recognizing evil. Or worse still, we simply make excuses for it.

Utopian views of human goodness and a refusal to face reality have resulted in a moral myopia that cannot call evil evil. Indeed, postmodernism compounds the problem, by arguing that calling something evil is the real crime. PoMo has “spawned legions of people who pronounce all judgments of evil to be judgmental and evil themselves”.

Guinness spends a lot of time asking questions about evil and suffering, saving tentative answers for the end of his book. The questions themselves reveal a very deep and nuanced struggle with the issue. Guinness has drawn deeply from the wells of human reflection on, and interaction with, the subject of pain and suffering. His numerous incisive quotes from a range of authors, thinkers, philosophers and religions are alone worth the price of the book.

As part of his investigation, he describes in detail three main responses to the problem of evil. The three main families of faith in the modern world are the Eastern, the secular, and the Judeo-Christian.

Image of Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil
Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil by OS Guinness (Author) Amazon logo

Eastern responses to evil include that of Hinduism, Buddhism, and much of the New Age Movement. A common theme of the Eastern approach is that there is no real solution to evil in this world, only the renunciation of this world. Freedom from evil means freedom from individuality. If the East is world-denying, the next main option is world-affirming.

In the secularist family of faith (atheism, naturalism, secular humanism, etc.) evil is something that we alone must confront. There is no God to help us, so we must create our own paradise on earth. And we have certainly seen some robust attempts in the past century to do just that. Great experiments in producing a new man and a new social order have been tried, but only to be found greatly wanting. The grand social utopias, be they of Stalin, Hitler or Mao have all resulted in the most horrific bloodshed known to man.

Secularist regimes with secularist visions of heaven on earth have only led to hell on earth. Indeed, more people were killed by the secularists in the twentieth century than all other ideologies combined before then.

The last family, the great monotheistic faiths, has quite a different spin on things. The Judeo-Christian tradition sees evil as an intrusion into this world. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. Evil is unnatural and an intruder. The doctrine of creation tells us about how the world was meant to be, while the doctrine of the fall tells us what has gone wrong. But it does not end there. In the Christian version of things, the doctrine of redemption tells us how evil has been faced head on, and how it has been, and ultimately will be, overcome. Thus we can join in fighting against evil without seen to be fighting against God.

God does not abandon us in our struggle against evil. Indeed, “no other god has wounds,” Guinness reminds us. In the Eastern view, detachment is the solution. In the secular view, denial or utopianism is the proposed course. In the Christian view, God enters into our predicament, suffers for us and with us, and leads us in the way ahead.

The three views could not be more different. In the Christian religion, not only is there a plausible explanation for evil, but there is the conviction that something has been done about it. God has entered human history and confronted sheer evil. And the sheer love of God has defeated this evil.

Of course the mystery of evil can never be fathomed, at least in this world. In the Hebrew scriptures a whole book was devoted to the subject. Job asked a lot of questions which were never answered. “In the end, rather than getting an answer from God, Job encounters God himself, which is his answer.”

The timeless truths of the Christian faith will not satisfy everyone. And as Guinness points out, some of the most anguished cries against God concerning the problem of evil have come from believers, not atheists. The Christian solution must be weighed up and compared to its chief rivals.

No one system may completely satisfy. But by means of  a careful presentation of the main alternatives, this book helps to lay out the quite different approaches to this vexatious problem, helping all pilgrims along the way to see more clearly and perhaps more hopefully.

If this book ultimately sheds little new light on the subject, it is because it does not claim to do so. It can only restate what has gone before. And this restatement is superbly done. And given the age of terrorism and genocide that we find ourselves in, the demand for a careful restatement is more urgent than ever.

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