A review of How Long, O Lord? By D.A. Carson.

Baker, 2006. Available in Australia at Koorong Books.

Three millennia ago it was said by a friend of Job that surely as sparks fly upward, man is born to trouble. Suffering and evil are a part of life, and everyone experiences a fair share of hardship, difficulties, troubles and woes. Of course every worldview has to somehow account for this. The biblical worldview has its own take on the issue, which is the subject of this volume.

As a study on why God allows suffering, this book is not unique. There must be many thousands of books written by believers on this difficult issue. I have read quite a few of these, and I would argue that this volume by Carson is right up there – certainly in the top ten.

This book first appeared in 1990, with this second edition appearing in 2006. Carson seeks to lay out the biblical material to help us get a handle on why suffering and evil exist, and how the believer is expected to deal with these issues.

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He provides one of the better treatments of the subject, offering a balanced and judicious understanding of what the biblical material has to say about these topics. It is not a work of apologetics as such, and it does not attempt a lengthy philosophical theodicy. Instead it seeks to help Christians of all walks of life with some biblical, theological and pastoral discussions about evil and suffering.

Carson is right to suggest that we do not give the subject “the thought that it deserves” – at least until we undergo a nasty spell of hardship. But we certainly need to develop a theology of suffering, if for no other reason than because so much sloppy thinking on the subject persists in Christian circles.

Indeed, Carson begins his volume by looking at some faulty answers to the question of suffering, from both Christian and non-Christian sources. After looking at some of these false starts, he develops in some detail the various biblical themes relating to the problem.

The entry of sin into the world is a big part of the biblical answer, of course. Indeed, the Bible takes the reality of evil very seriously. Much of the suffering that we experience is directly due to the reality of sin. Because many people today have a quite low view of sin, they fail to fully understand its devastating consequences.

But suffering does not just come into our lives as a consequence of evil choices. Suffering can also be a tool of God’s loving chastisement and discipline. But we live in an age which looks aghast at all suffering and hardship, and few of us are willing to let God complete the work he has started in us, which often requires hard times and adversity.

Carson also looks at many of the hot potato issues, such as hell, sickness and healing, whether God judges nations today, and other difficult topics. And then there is the whole issue of the sovereignty of God and the reality of evil. How do these things connect?

Like many, Carson feels that the overall picture gleaned from the biblical data leads one to adopt a position known as compatibilism. That is, the apparently conflicting claims of Scripture are in fact compatible. On the one hand, the full sovereignty and control of God is throughout the Bible affirmed. On the other hand, the full moral responsibility of humans is also affirmed. While it might seem that one rules out the other, Scripture assumes both positions to be true, and that they are not mutually exclusive.

Somehow the choices that we make are genuine and we are therefore responsible for them. Yet it is also the case that God is in charge of this world. These two truths of Scripture are repeatedly expressed, and the best option we have is to accept some sort of compatibilism in response. Plenty of passages can be provided here, where both truths are affirmed – sometimes in the same passage – and Carson examines this material in some detail.

Carson also acknowledges that at the end of the day we must allow some room for mystery as well. We are finite and fallen, so all of our understanding and knowledge will be partial and limited. And there must be a role for faith as well. “God is less interested in answering our questions than in other things,” says Carson. These include, “securing our allegiance, establishing our faith, nurturing a desire for holiness”.

There are plenty of questions about how genuine moral responsibility and divine sovereignty can coexist. But the biblical data that is available has to be dealt with, and Carson does as good a job as anyone of putting it all together.

As a leading New Testament scholar who is at home in the worlds of theology, biblical studies and pastoral work, Carson brings the required skills to pull off discussing such an important topic as this. If you have only room for a few books on the problem of suffering and evil, this book should be at the top of your list.

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2 Replies to “A review of How Long, O Lord? By D.A. Carson.”

  1. Bill, might it be possible to assess this volume against the work of CS Lewis “The Problem of Pain” ?
    John Angelico

  2. Thanks John

    Ah yes, that is why I said Carson would make it into my top ten. The Problem of Pain by Lewis would also fit in there, as would his A Grief Observed. As to the two authors, Carson deals with the biblical material much more than Lewis does. They are both theological in their assessments, but Lewis might be more philosophical as well.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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