Review: Evil and the Justice of God

N. T. Wright is a New Testament scholar and theologian, as well as bishop of Durham. His writings on the resurrection of Christ and Pauline theology are considered among the most influential theological writings in recent decades.

Evil and the Justice of God (2007) is a series of five lectures on the “problem of evil” that were expanded into book form. Wright is very skeptical, though, about the entire task of theodicy—that is, Christian attempts to explain the existence of evil in its relation to God’s perfection. Pitfalls abound: we either accuse ourselves, or we absolve ourselves. Teachings that over-explain suffering can lead us to the embarrassing implication that there is no such thing as evil, or that God is unconcerned. It would be better to acknowledge the reality of evil, as well as the reality of God’s thorough involvement in this world’s redemption. In Wright’s words, we must continue to acknowledge that ‘evil’ is a four-letter word.

What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, nor a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 93

In the first lecture, Wright re-frames numerous aspects of the discussion. At various points, he delineates what we should require from a theodicy (p. 34–39):

  • A theodicy should include a practical, Christian response—that is, it should not be an abstract or theoretical discussion.
  • A theodicy should not be blind to the political realities of injustice.
  • A theodicy should acknowledge the reality of sin and the demonic.
  • A theodicy should not trivialize sin by labeling some people “good” and other people “bad”.

In the second and third lectures, he seeks to show how God responds to evil in concrete ways, in the Old and New Testaments, respectively.

The overarching picture is of the sovereign Creator God who will continue to work within his world until blessing replaces curse, homecoming replaces exile, olive branches appear after the flood and a new family is created in which the scattered languages can be reunited. That is the narrative which forms the outer frame for the canonical Old Testament.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 53

The third lecture includes many ideas that are core to Wright’s theology, as it relates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus to the theological problem of evil. In Wright’s view, part of the problem with theological discussions of evil is that they treat atonement and theodicy in separate boxes; for him, they belong in the same discussion. This is much more obvious when you take a Christus Victor approach to the atonement, which Wright has a wonderful way of articulating.

The Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death as the story of how the downward spiral of evil finally hit bottom with the violent and bloody execution of this man, this prophet who had announced God’s kingdom.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 83

The profound fusion of these two ideas, atonement and theodicy, in the dramatic view of the atonement, brings some needed correction to impractical, abstract, and theoretical explanations of the atonement of Christ.

[Jesus’ death] wasn’t a theory, we note, but an action (a warning to all atonement theorists ever since, and perhaps an indication of why the church has never incorporated a specific defining clause about the atonement in its great creeds). Perhaps, after all, atonement is at its deepest level something that happens, so that to reduce it to a proposition to which one can give mental assent is a mistake at a deep level (for all that such propositions may be accurate signposts to the reality), something of the same kind of mistake that happens when people imagine they can solve the problem of evil. Perhaps, in fact, it is the same mistake in a different guise.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 91–92

The fourth lecture, “Imagine There’s No Evil,” deals with how Christians can deal with evil here and now. Wright begins by linking our definitions of “evil” and our mental image of “the new heavens and new earth” to our ongoing efforts to confront evil (or our lack thereof). When we imagine God’s new creation, we must not depict ourselves as disembodied (as in a Gnostic framework, wherein evil is material). We must work toward an understanding of the “principalities and powers” that allows us to picture a new creation in which Christ is all in all.

With that in mind, he gives a few ways that we can confront evil through prayer, holiness, and action. I suspect his political musings here sound quite approriate to British believers and quite inappropriate to Americans.

The final lecture in Evil and the Justice of God deals with forgiveness as the final victoral over evil.

This book, while brief, was very helpful in reorienting the conversation around the problem of evil.

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