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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 222–224 

Book Review

God Never Meant for Us to Die: The Emergence of Evil in the Light of the Genesis

Pierre Gilbert. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020. 222 pages.

Reviewed by Glenn Smith

My graduate studies focused on Patristics and the response of the Early Church to the problem of evil and suffering, while my master’s thesis examined the articulation of theodicy from the Apostolic period to the Augustinian formulation. As an urban missiologist, I have wrestled with the implications of God’s mission and the issues of urban poverty and marginalization in large cities of Canada and the French-speaking world, including Haiti where I have also been a professor since 1991. However, no amount of academic and theological education prepared me for what I wrestled with in December 2009 and early January of 2010.

I returned from Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince just before Christmas in 2009, convinced that Haiti had turned a corner in its economic and social development. Having lived there in 1999, my wife and I rejoiced in this news, since we thought we had seen there the worst human degradation in the Western world.

A very painful personal injury caused me to mull over the problem of pain, recalling that C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, had argued that one can never talk about cumulative suffering in the world; there is only the pain of one person at a time. I realized afresh that my suffering was little in comparison to what my Haitian brothers and sisters experience every day. And I meditated on the horrible suffering that Jesus experienced to overcome the evil and death of humanity and to reconcile the cosmos to himself.

But all of this paled in the hours that followed the earthquake that shattered Port-au-Prince in the late afternoon of January 12, 2010. The largest urban natural disaster in history took the lives of more than 300,000 people, devastated the city, and led to some 500,000 internally displaced persons.

My own theodicy and practice had to be rethought once again. I had learned from Kenneth Surin’s book, Theology and the Problem of Evil, that one cannot regard theodicy as a purely theoretical and scholarly exercise. Such an approach gives licence to the plethora of evils that exists in the world. Pierre Gilbert—who is a good friend and whose new book, God Never Meant for us to Die, has been an integral part of my rethinking—does not make the mistake against which Surin warns.

Chapter 1 includes a very complete overview of the principal writings in theodicy over the centuries. Gilbert addresses, with respect, the timidity of the likes of Stanley Hauerwas, Tom Wright, and John Stackhouse on the subject. His own hermeneutical approach is the essence of chapter {223} 2. The reader should read this carefully, since these two chapters are foundational for the third and fourth chapters, which offer a major innovation in offering a solution to the problem of evil and suffering. Gilbert’s close reading of Genesis 2-3 and the implications for the world as we experience it (chapter 4) give two excellent insights for a robust theodicy. First, in a step-by-step reading of Genesis and its wisdom literary genre, the reader learns that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is better understood as “the tree of the experience of the blessing and the curse.” The challenge then is for Adam and Eve to pledge their allegiance to their Creator and bear witness to their obedience.

Second, one learns this was part of the process of those endowed with free will, who enter what Gilbert calls, “a one-way doorway” to discover freedom, a whole new level of human existence, characterized by life, not death, sin, evil and suffering. Here Gilbert shows himself to be a worthy interpreter of C. S. Lewis. His final two chapters on hope rooted in the atonement invite transformation. Gilbert’s critiques of contemporary worldviews and his stories invite practical action. Thus, this book by Pierre Gilbert provides real comprehensive responses to why a good God allows evil and affirms a constructive and faithful social and political praxis.

However, the book does beg two questions for me. First, I am not as negative on the Augustinian formulation as Gilbert seems to be. Although he nuances his critique of this church father in chapter 5, I do think there is real depth to ponder, in, for example The Enchiridion. Read contextually, Augustine in fact helps us to address the dualities that have proliferated since Epicureanism. G. R. Evans, whom Gilbert quotes as his primary source on Augustine, sees his concern as “a local problem of long standing of more than local importance . . . his engagement was practical rather the intellectual” (Augustine on Evil, 28). Second, I remain unconvinced that John Hicks reads Irenaeus properly on the notion of this world as divinely created sphere for soul-making. Although Gilbert ultimately distances himself from Hicks, one must always keep in mind the context of Lyons in second-century France when Irenaeus articulated his theology of recapitulation. Writing from the crypt of the congregation in what is now Vieux Lyon, Irenaeus addresses the Gnostics who were a formidable force in this small city, which was a Roman colony. Against Heresies is ultimately a very local response to the issues of Gnosticism.

In conclusion, I raise the rhetorical question to Gilbert: Really? Are you serious? God never meant for us to die? On page 53 and then on page 165 the author states quite clearly that, “What this means is that God never originally intended for men and women to experience {224} death.” This goes to the heart of the theodicy that the author proposes. It empowers us afresh to affirm the goodness of God in the face of evil, pain, suffering, and death so that we can think biblically and act contextually.

Glenn Smith is Executive Director of Christian Direction in Montreal and a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de théologie pour la francophonie and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also a sessional lecturer at the École de Théologie Évangélique du Québec in Montreal.

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