"Evil and the Justice of God" by N.T. Wright, a Review
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Terror trickles into the folds and fissures of our collective psyche, riding on the back of news sources, social media, fundraising mailers, and Amber alerts, and settling heavy on minds and moods. Since September 11, 2001 Americans, and many in the West, have been confronted rudely by the reality of the revolting and redoubtable. How can humans shovel so much inhumanity onto their fellow humans? From whence comes such malevolence and what will the outcome be? Is there no substantive remedy beyond the failed political attempts, the exhausted military efforts, and botched punitive endeavors? N.T. Wright, the onetime Bishop of Durham, winsome theologian and copious writer, took a stab at this subject some years back in his 176 page hardback, “Evil and the Justice of God”. By simply being cognizant of the smallness of the book, the reader should quickly be conscious that such a petite enterprise will in no way tackle all the intricacies and gore of the subject. Nevertheless Wright has laid out a welcome mat in this piece that hails thinkers, and specifically Christians, to come in and begin to discuss the issue of evil and its antidote found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. At the table the author has already seated Maroslav Volf, C.S. Lewis, Walter Wink, Barth, Aquinas, T.S. Eliot, Bishop Tutu, Dostoevsky and many others.
Much of the muscular and vascular infrastructure of “Evil and the Justice of God” will be familiar to Wright readers, so much so that there is very little that is new here. Still, the way the author approaches the theme and guides the readers to what he sees as the remedy, will spark thought, dialogue and direction – which is exactly what Wright wants. “Evil Is Still a Four-Letter Word” launches the book, addressing the reasons Westerners are surprised by evil, and how we have tried to navigate through it. After wading ankle-deep through victimhood, blame-shifting, cultural progression, politics, the Enlightenment and post-modernism, and where each of these has failed, Wright then brings the reader to see that, “we need a deeper and more nuanced way of answering the question many (not least the politicians) are asking: Why is this happening? What, if anything, has God done about it? And what can we or should we be doing about it” (39-40)? And with those questions the remainder of the book unfolds: “Why is this happening?” is tackled in chapter two; “What, if anything, has God done about it?” is answered in the third chapter; and “what can we or should we be doing about it?” come around in the final two chapters. If you have read and grasped the author’s “Jesus and the Victory of God” and “The Challenge of Jesus” you will know much of what will be said, and the direction it all goes. And if you are unfamiliar with Wright’s works, these chapters would be a good place to cut your teeth.
What might easily be seen as a weakness in “Evil and the Justice of God,” besides it’s brevity in the face of a vast subject, will be Wright’s suggestions on how we, based on God’s future breaking into the present in Jesus, are to implement God’s achievement in Christ and anticipate the future (102). If one is looking for divinely-given direction in this section, they will be disappointed. But if they will read Wright’s suggestions as simply discussion-starters then that perceived weakness will fade away. Some of his proposals are disappointing, and knotty, still they are a place to begin, think through and rework allowing for other doors to open.
In “Evil and the Justice of God,” Wright brings in the atonement, and what exactly does Scripture mean by that word. Very much like C.S. Lewis, Wright is reluctant to limit the atonement to one singular aspect, like penal substitution or moral example. Yet he does come down, tentatively, to point to an overarching theme that includes many of the other models of the atonement; “I am inclined to see the theme of Christus Victor, the victory of Jesus Christ over all the powers of evil and darkness, as the central theme in atonement theology, around which all the other varied meanings of the cross find their particular role” (114). In my personal opinion, pulling together the different models of the atonement, and displaying them in their entwined and intricate beauty, is to follow more closely the biblical contours. For example in 1 John 4.7-11 God’s exemplary love and Christ’s sacrificial action dance in flowing choreography that displays both beautifully and empowers those liberated by Christ’s death to love one another. Or in Philippians 2.3-11, Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice are the clearly intended example, but Christ’s obedience to the Father, and his victory over death, are the power behind the archetypal imperatives. The point is that in almost every case where the atonement is referred to, multiple aspects of the atonement are being looked at or are assumed, and Wright seems to be taking his cue from Scripture. Though I wouldn’t have placed any one of the types as central, like Wright is “inclined” to do (95-97, 114), however it seems to me that he is correct to see the various aspects working together, and Christus Victor is clearly one of the several biblical aspects of what Christ accomplished at the cross and in the resurrection.
Lastly, for those troubled by Wright’s explanations of justification in his seminal works, he does come as close as he’s comfortable to a classic Protestant statement in “Evil and the Justice of God”. While he is attempting to show the outlines of how his argument works out personally, he writes, “my sense of self-worth comes not from examining myself and discovering that I’m not so bad after all but from gazing at God’s love and discovering that nothing can stand between it and me. (What we are doing is drawing down from God’s ultimate future, in which I will know myself completely loved and accepted because of the work of Jesus and the Spirit.) This astonished and grateful acceptance of the free grace and love of God is what some traditions have meant when they have echoed Paul’s language about “justification by faith.”” (162).Though it’s not the kind of clean, satisfying notion of justification many of us would like, it still falls under the umbrella. And those who have been paying attention while reading his other material, they will recognize that it has actually been floating around just below the surface in some of his former works as well.
“Evil and the Justice of God” is a very easy read most of the way through. There are times when the claxons will sound in a reader’s head, but continuing to read further, those alarms will normally be silenced. This is a book to be read as a discussion-starter, looked at as training wheels helping us to learn to ride. It’s a book worth reading, discussing, arguing with, marking up and underlining. I recommend the book.
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