Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Book Review -- Evil and the Justice of God

Evil and the Justice of God (N.T. Wright)Bishop N.T. Wright has the remarkable ability of communicating the fruits of his Biblical scholarship to both academics and laymen with equal effectiveness. In the wake of calamitous events of recent years (including 9/11, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, to name a few), Wright has released Evil and the Justice of God, a popular-level overview of evil in light of the claims of the Christian Bible. The result is a compelling look at how evil fits into the larger story of a good God and the lengths to which He went to restore His fallen Creation.

Wright adapted Evil and the Justice of God from a series of five lectures. Chapter One examines the "new problem of evil." As Wright explains, the so-called "problem of evil" dealt with the question of how a good God could allow suffering and injustice to happen, seemingly unchecked. Over time, philosophical musings on evil were overtaken by the Enlightenment ideal of progress, which would sweep evil into the background. The modern age, argues Wright, has presented us with a "new problem of evil," with three distinct characteristics: 1) we ignore evil when it doesn't directly impact us; 2) we are surprised by evil when it does; and 3) we react to evil in dangerous and immature ways. However, the rise of postmodernity has brought a much-needed critique of arrogant modernity, a "preaching of the Fall," that forces us to come to terms with the reality of evil in the world and also in ourselves. But, although the postmodern critique brings us to a more nuanced view of evil, it offers no real solutions.

In Chapter Two, Wright surveys the ways in which the Old Testament demonstrates God's dealings with evil. Although the origins of evil are mostly shrouded in mystery, God's actions are not. He calls Abraham (among others) to undertake the work of dealing with evil, but a second-order issue quickly arises: God's chosen people are all too often part of the problem, not the solution. In Chapter Three, Wright proceeds into the New Testament's treatment of evil. Again, God's people are incapable of providing a remedy due to their own corruption. Onto the scene comes Jesus, who alone can deal decisively with evil. Jesus' death on the cross is the climactic event where God judges evil, as the forces of darkness expend their full fury against Jesus. Wright argues that the atonement is best described in terms of "Christus Victor," which encapsulates the various strands of satisfaction, penal substitution and propitiation, among others, in the victory of Jesus over the forces of evil. The Scriptures never deal with evil in the abstract, but instead highlight how God has acted in judgment against it, primarily in the atoning death of Jesus.

The final two chapters provide an overview of how Christ's victory over evil is implemented in the interim period before God ushers in a new heaven and a new earth. Wright explains that the Church can never duplicate what Christ did on the cross, because it is a once-and-for-all achievement. But the atonement allows Christ's people to model out His victory in such disparate areas as prayer, holiness, politics and empire, penal codes, and international disputes. Wright notes that we often can't envision what this implementation looks like, because our imaginations have shriveled: they need to be educated. One of the key aspects of living out this victory over evil is to firmly grasp forgiveness, both of self and of others. True forgiveness is never a simple passing over of wrongs. Quite the contrary, forgiveness begins with naming evil for what it is. Only then can there be reconciliation and restoration. This is the task set before the Church until Christ returns to complete the work of redeeming His fallen creation.

I really enjoyed this book. Some reviewers have expressed disappointment that Wright did not give some time to addressing the classical forms of the problem of evil, but honestly, I think this is one of the book's main strengths. Rather than engaging in abstract speculations about evil and its origins, Wright takes us directly to the Scriptures and its overarching narrative structure. We may not get a better grasp on the mysteries of where evil came from, but we can rest confident knowing what God has done and continues to do about it. Most importantly, Wright's treatment intentionally demonstrates that evil is the backdrop for the cross of Jesus.

Admittedly, the book has a few weaknesses. For instance, I'm not entirely sold on Wright's depiction of "the satan" as a "quasi-personal force." I think I get what he means by not wanting to ascribe full personhood to him (it?), but it'd be nice to have a more detailed treatment. Similarly, although Wright argues that "Christus Victor" contains a host of other themes, I would like to have seen a more detailed treatment of evil in terms of sin, an affront to God's holiness. But these aren't necessarily disagreements, just wishes that this popular-level book offered a little more in a few areas. These few quibbles aren't nearly enough to detract from the book.

Highly recommended.

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