Rabbi Harold S. Kushner is probably a name many will recognize. His most famous book is When Bad Things Happen to Good People in where he argues that God is good, but not all-powerful. He is doing the best He can, but He just keeps falling short. Kushner seeks to get God off the hook for all the evil that is in the world, but in the end leaves us hopeless and on our own. A weaker God is not the God that we need.
Born out of that premise comes another one of Kushner's books How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness. In this book Kushner seeks to offer the reader the assurance that this weaker God doesn't stand over us in judgment for every fault we commit, but instead understands the complexity of what it means to be a human and forgives us. Again what Kushner seeks to offer is pastoral care, but in the end he offers nothing short of heresy. Instead of answers of comfort, he offers despair.
There are three main problems that Kushner developes. First, Kushner affirms evolution and this create a number of problems in his interpretion of the Bible and theology. He doesn't see Adam and Eve as historical characters, but as the beginning of our modern understanding of homo saphiens: moral animals. Furthermore, he rejects Cain and Abel (and other aspects of the creation narrative) and interprets them as representing nomadic cultures against domestic farming cultures. Also, this influence of evolution seeps in throughout the book as he relies heavily on men and practices like Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin (arguing that we're moral animals, but still animals), psychology, sociology, etc. This leads the author away from the biblical text, instead of towards it.
Secondly, Kushner has a serious problem with Genesis 3. He argues that the typical interpretation is that we sinned, God judged, and we are living with the consequences of those actions. As a result, we are born sinners (original sin, which he rejects), and God, who is holy, stands over us in judgment. Kushner finds this depressing and so reinterprets it. How convenient. The interpretation he offers is rather far fetched and only makes God look weaker and more like us (thus making us look more like God).
Thirdly, Kushner rejects the doctrine of Original Sin. Regardless of the Biblical record, Kushner goes out of his way to reject it. He argues that such a doctrine makes us feel guilty all the time and he has already established that we're good just the way we are and that God believes in us. If only we will accept ourselves. Again, how convenient.
I must say I have no idea what this book has to do with forgiveness. Guilt I understand what he is saying. But forgiveness. I am at lost. The Christian understanding that we should forgive because we have been forgiven only makes sense in a belief of God's holiness, wrath, and love combined with Christ's propitiatory work on the cross which reconciled us with God through belief and repentance. When we realize that we have been forgiven much, then we can honestly understand the power and scope of forgiveness towards others.
Kushner comes close to this twice. First, the book begins and ends centered around the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The author, however, misses the significance of this day. This was the day where atonement is given for the purpose of forgivness of our sins. Its an ancient ritual of the Jews that goes all the way back to Leviticus and the days of Moses and Aaron. But Kushner completely misses this point. Christians see the signifiance of this ritual in that Christ became the final atoning sacrifice by which our sins can be forgiven.
Secondly, Kushner laments that we are not good enough in a world where we have guilt. When God is holy, just, judgmental, and powerful, guilt is natural. We have sinned against God and He reserves the right to punish us. Kushner is right in pointing out that in such a world, we cannot earn God's love and forgiveness. He has no idea how close to the gospel he is. The gospel says we can't, but Christ has. We can't earn God's love. As a result, salvation and forgiveness must be the result of grace; God's unmerited favor.
At the end of the day, this book, like his others, is nothing but heresy and instead of offering hope, it offers empty theology. But at the same time it is a reminder of the power and necessity of the gospel. If we want true forgiveness then come to the cross and leave modern, man-made theories behind.