Why? On Suffering, Guilt, and God

Written by A. van de Beek Reviewed By Daniel B. Clendenin

Van de Beek, professor of systematic theology at University of Leiden, writes for the household of faith a book that does justice to both poles of intellectual rigor and pastoral application.

After outlining the problem of evil in the usual manner as a struggle to reconcile the omnipotence (pp. 5–14) and goodness (pp. 14–18) of God, van de Beek organizes the rest of his book around these two themes: God’s omnipotence (pp. 25–120) and goodness (pp. 121–252), followed by an analysis or evaluation of these two vantage points (pp. 253–349).

I find several aspects of Why? to be especially helpful. First, any theodicy requires a criterion, and van de Beek writes explicitly from within and for the context of faith (p. 2). His book is not an apologetic for theism that tries to convince the unbeliever (which is not to say we do not need such books), and as a consequence there are no references at all to the philosophic sceptics such as Hume, John Stuart Mill, Mackie, McCloskey, et al. He has no pretensions about ‘solving’ the problem of evil (p. 5), but instead, to recall Anselm, believes in order to understand rather than understands in order to believe. The priority of faith recurs throughout the entire book as a major theme: God is totally free (cf. Psalm 115:3) and sometimes his ways seem not only hidden but downright questionable (p. 41). We often must trust God despite empirical evidence that seems to contradict his image (p. 86). Mysterious, incomprehensible and even apparently arbitrary, human logic must bow in a ‘radically reverent posture of faith’ (pp. 118–119). Indeed, everything we say about God and the world is based on faith (his emphasis, p. 339).

Having started from a posture of faith, it comes as no surprise that van de Beek takes as the ‘critical’ and ‘decisive’ norm the text of Scripture (pp. 3, 86). Here is a second strength: van de Beek’s entire book is what we might call a biblical theology of the problem of evil. While there are a smattering of references to Barth, Moltmann, Berkhof, Heppe and generally Dutch thinkers, his theological method of thinking is primarily biblical and not historical or philosophical. There are very few footnotes at all in the entire book, but easily many hundreds of Scripture texts from both testaments expounded at length, with references put in parentheses.

But van de Beek is no fideist in the sense of blind ‘faith in faith’, and surely the reader must take special delight in a Reformed Dutchman who invokes Wesley’s quadrilateral (although he does not refer to it as such). While Scripture is decisive and final, van de Beek outlines three other criteria that must be incorporated into theological thinking: human experiences in the contemporary world, tradition or the history of dogma and ideas, and ‘the intrinsic consistency of the line of reasoning’ (pp. 3–4). One example of this third strength is van de Beek’s constant references to pastoral experiences and situations (pp. 44, 54, 62, 81, 88, 89, 120, et al).

Fourth, I like the overall doctrine of God found in Why?, and perhaps the best way to explain this is to recall a scene from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. There the children asked if Aslan the lion was safe. The answer: God is not safe, but he is unfailingly good. Van de Beek is careful to protect the freedom of God, and he does not hesitate to say that his purposes in history seem less like a straight and observable line and more like a zigzag. Still, despite the detours, the believer rests in the beautiful words of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day, question and answer, regarding the providence of God, that ‘all things, in fact, come to us by chance but from [God’s] fatherly hand’.

Fifth, while van de Beek does not hesitate to explore the difficult questions of theodicy, nor does he offer simplistic or superficial answers, yet he still manages to affirm some very basic and very biblical lessons that we all need to hear: that God can allow evil in our lives as a spiritual pedagogy (Heb. 12); that God uses evil for our good (the story of Joseph); that suffering can be a form of punishment (Deut. 27–28), but we must refrain from positing a direct relationship between punishment and suffering (or blessing and welfare, for that matter); that much evil in the world is due to human choices; and that God’s final word about evil was spoken in Jesus Christ. As P.T. Forsyth once wrote: ‘No reason of man can justify God in a world like this. He must justify himself, and he did so in the cross of his Son’.

My exceptions with van de Beek are minor. The book contains no indices at all. At times the text seemed long and tedious. A few readers might wish he had been more definitive on issues like the personal nature of Satan (pp. 190–198), his categorical rejection of natural theology (pp. 227–228), God as predictably unpredictable to the point of being arbitrary (pp. 282, 301, 307, 312), and universalism (pp. 59–62, 107f, 287). Still, those interested in a theodicy addressed from faith to faith will find intellectual and practical edification here aplenty.

Daniel B. Clendenin

Stanford University, California