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Reading 2012: Evil and the Justice of God

January 20, 2012

Also on my first 10 to read list for 2012 was N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Although it is just five chapters long and a relatively short book (176 pages), it is one which I needed to work through slowly.

The book is divided into five chapters:

Chap­ter 1 — Evil Is Still a Four-Letter Word: The New Prob­lem of Evil

Wright addresses what many call “the new problem of evil.” With the innovation, technology, and advancements of Western civilization, it has become easy to think that the problem of evil is behind us (or, at least not on our turf). Yet with the recent terrorist attacks, the large-scale and frequent natural disasters, and the violence seen in America and modern Europe, we’re being frequently reminded that “evil” is still present.

He explains it  this way (23):

[“I]t seems remarkable that the belief in progress still survives and triumps. The nineteenth century thought it had gotten rid of original sin; of course, it had to find replacements, and Marx and Freud offered some, producing explanatory systems and offering solutions to match: new doctrines of redemption which mirror and parody the Christian one. And somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald, despite Dostoyevsky and Barth, people still continue to this day suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less soluble by technology, education, “development” in the sense of “Westernization,” and the application, to more and more regions, of Western democracy–and, according to taste, either Wester social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or indeed a mixture of both.”

Wright goes on to say that this type of belief leads to three ways of characterizing evil, which he further expands on throughout the first chapter (23,24):

1. “We ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face.”
2. “We are surprised by evil when it does.”
3. “We react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.”

The present-day problem of evil has left postmodernists baffled and seeking ways to explain it away. Clearly, the solution is not in Westernization or advancement. That makes it a problem for today, too.

Chap­ter 2 — What Can God Do About Evil? Unjust World, Just God?

In the second chapter, Wright works through Old Testament examples of evil and also explains what the historical and ancient understanding of evil was. Wright goes through many Old Testament passages and stories, but focuses in on the life of Job, the books of Isaiah and Daniel, as well as portions of the Psalms.

He ends the second chapter with these conclusions (71):

“First, the personified force of evil, the Satan, is important but not that important. The origin of evil itself remains a mystery; and the Satan, when he or it appears, is kept strictly within bounds. We are still some way from the dragon of Revelation, or even from the whisperer of the Mount of Temptation.Second, human responsibility for evil is clear throughout. And, though no theory of this is offered, all humans appear to share in the problem – or virtually all; Ezekiel lists Noah, Daniel and Job as the three most righteous men who ever lived, and we remind ourselves of Noah’s drunkenness, Daniel’s prayer of confession, and Job’s hand across his mouth with nothing more to say in his own defence. Abraham got it wrong; so did Moses, sometimes; David, a great saint, was also a great sinner; and so on. God chooses to bring the world back to rights through a family who are themselves composed of deeply flawed human beings, and who thereby generate second- and third-order problems of evil which in their turn have to be addressed and solved. Only the strange, silent figure of Isaiah 53 stands before us as one of whom it is said that he remains innocent and righteous.

Third, the evil that humans do is integrated with the enslavement of creation. This is seldom a matter of one-on-one cause and effect, but there is a nexus, a web of rippling events that spreads out from human rebellion against the creator to the out-of-jointness of creation itself. In the same way, when humans are put back to rights the world will be put back to rights. No theory is offered about earthquakes or other so-called ‘natural disasters’, though no doubt the prophets would have been happy to identify them as divine warning signs.

Fourth, the Old Testament never tries to give us the sort of picture the philosophers want, of a static world order with everything explained tidily. Instead, we are given a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice. This project is a matter of setting the existing creation to rights rather than scrapping it and doing something else instead; and for that reason God decides to work through human beings, even though their hearts think only of evil; and through Israel, even though from Abraham onwards they make as many mistakes as they do acts of obedience. Both in the grand narrative itself, and in many smaller moments within it, we observe a pattern of divine action, to judge and punish evil and to set bounds to it, without destroying the responsibility and agency of human beings themselves; and, also, both to promise and to bring about new moments of grace, events which constitute new creation, however much they are themselves necessarily shot through with ambiguity. This is not, I think, exactly the same as the ‘free will defence’ beloved of some theodicists; it is more a ‘commitment to action’ on God’s part, to act within the world he has created, to affirm that world in its created otherness even as he is putting it to rights.”

Chap­ter 3 — Evil and the Cru­ci­fied God. The third chapter deals with the understanding of evil that was prevalent during Jesus’ time on earth, how Jesus confused many of the ancient and Jewish religious understanding of evil, and with the atonement.

He shows how evil was misunderstood by Israel (80-81):

“The Gospels thus also tell the story of corruption within Israel itself, as the people who bear the solution have themselves become (with terrible irony that causes Paul to weep every time he thinks of it) a central part of the problem. The Pharisees are offering an interpretation of Torah which pursues a kind of holiness but only makes matters worse. The priests in the temple are offering the sacrifices which should speak of God’s grace but which instead speak of their own exclusive and corrupt system. The revolutionaries try to get in on the act of God’s in-breaking kingdom (Matthew 11:12), but their attempt to fight violence with violence can only ever result in a victory for violence, not a victory over it. This means that the death of Jesus, when it comes, is bound to be seen as the work not only of the pagan nations but of the Israel that has longed . . . to become “like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5, 20) and now is reduced to saying that it has no king but Caesar (John 19:15). “

Often, Jesus interacted with the very people that the religious leaders thought to be the source of or result of evil (84):

“Jesus celebrates the kingdom with all the wrong people. He incurs anger and hostility from those who knew in their bones that God’s kingdom was about holiness and detachment from evil, and who never suspected that evil people could be, and were being, redeemed and rescued.”

Chap­ter 4 — Imag­ine There’s No Evil: God’s Promise of a World Set Free.

The fourth chapter reminds us that while there will always be evil in this present kingdom, one day there will be a new world without evil. There were profound quotes in this chapter, too, but my memory fails me and this post is already too long for being mostly padded with quotes. 🙂

Chap­ter 5 — Deliver Us from Evil: For­giv­ing Myself, For­giv­ing Oth­ers.
This last chapter was full of personal application and food for thought. A thought-provoking portion at the end:

“The tough, many-sided offer of forgiveness should be the ultimate aim as we think about the problems of global empire and international debt, of criminal justice and the problem of punishment, and of war and international conflict … but forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. It is not the same as inclusivity. It is not the same as indifference, whether personal or moral. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we don’t take evil seriously after all, it means we do. In fact, we take it doubly seriously.” (160)

 You won’t leave this book having the age-old question of evil settled, but you will likely come away with a greater appreciation for the sovereignty, supremacy, and omnipotence of God. There were some parts that I couldn’t agree with; but overall, it is a helpful book and one I recommend reading. (My husband, Daniel, has a review here.)

N.T. Wright introduces the book in this brief video:


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