Evil and the Justice of God

Article by   March 2007

Perhaps it is merely a question of monomania, like Captain Ahab's singular pursuit of the albino whale. Bishop N. T. Wright seems to have an incurable proclivity for all things new. His new perspective on Paul was greeted largely with disdain by orthodox Christians for his unusual treatment of the doctrine of justification, in that he declared a pox on both houses of Roman Catholicism and of Reformation thought. At the same time, Bishop Wright has received great acclaim from the orthodox Christian community for his marvelous defense of the reality of Christ's resurrection. Now, however, he offers us a new perspective on evil.

He treats the doctrine or the problem of evil as a necessary exercise for his own preparation to explore more deeply the doctrine of the atonement of Christ. In this investigation, he eschews various treatments of the problem of evil that are rooted in abstract philosophy and theology. He is particularly critical of the myth of progress that emerged particularly in the 19th century as a result of the influence of Hegel's dialectical idealism. The idea that evil will be redeemed through some natural historical process of selection or cosmic movement to some omega point is an idea that Wright finds completely unbiblical and untenable, and rightly so. He views as a watershed moment for modern understandings of evil the Lisbon earthquake that occurred in 1775. That catastrophic event created a new investigation into the nature and cause of evil both from a philosophical and literary viewpoint. The tragedy that befell the Portuguese in the earthquake prompted Leibniz's famous theodicy in which he distinguished among three types of evil, metaphysical, physical, and moral. According to Leibniz all evil has its origin in the inescapable privation and lack of metaphysical evil, that is to say, even God cannot create another god, for that second god would be finite and dependent upon the original God for its own existence and would be by definition a creation with all the limitations belonging to creatureliness. So if God is going to create, he must create entities, cosmos and creatures, that are less than metaphysically perfect. In this scenario, moral evil is explained as a necessary consequence of finitude, a view which is on a collision course with the Biblical understanding of the entrance of evil into the world. This type of thinking provoked the satirical writings of Voltaire when he made fun of Dr. Pangloss for his naïve understanding that we live in the best of all possible worlds. That is to say, what Wright sees in this watershed moment is the need for Western thinkers to take the question of evil out of the abstract and into the realm of the concrete existential pain and suffering that we experience in this world.

Of course, there's nothing new about having to deal with evil in the context of concrete suffering and tragedy. It is not as if the first time people had to wrestle with the question was after enormous devastation wrought by an earthquake in Portugal. The world, since its inception, has been exposed to violence, catastrophic upheavals, and the invasion of blood and death where we live. We think of the Barbarian onslaught against Rome that quickened Christian thinkers' investigation to the problem of evil. Or later on, the ravaging onslaught of the Turks raised the same provocative questions, not to mention the horrendous decimation of the European population by the bubonic plague. No, putting evil in the context of real pain is nothing new. When we go to the Old Testament, as in many cases Bishop Wright so marvelously does in this book, we see not only Job crying is despair while sitting on the dung heap, but we also look at Habakkuk who rises to his watchtower complaining about the inconsistency of a holy God beholding and apparently tolerating evil. And we also look to the author of Ecclesiastes, whose setting for inquiry into the problem of evil certainly includes the flesh and blood aspects of it. But what Wright is speaking of is the culture in which we live today that is so heavily influenced by postmodern thought. He's happy that on the one hand postmodernism has deconstructed the myth of progress, which was the legacy of 19th century evolutionary philosophy, but at the same time exposes the face of postmodernity for its untenable approach to evil. The new problem of evil in this cultural circumstance manifests itself in three characteristics that Wright elucidates.

The first is that as postmodern people we tend to ignore evil when it doesn't hit us in the face. As long as we escape the reach of Katrina or even the Twin Towers of 9/11, we manage to keep it a distance from us. However, when it does fall like a bombshell on the serenity of our disassociation, we are shocked. Then, as a result of this shock, the tendency is to react in immature and dangerous ways. This is the summary of the process and response to evil that Bishop Wright notes in the postmodern culture, and in many ways he has astute insights to this sophomoric behavior towards evil that so characterizes our age. We indeed all but eliminate the term evil and treat it as an archaism until we feel its painful slap in the face, and then we have the tendency to react to evil as if it is merely the problem that comes to us from without rather than from in. We dig our trenches, draw our lines in the sand, and make the lines of demarcation between us and them. We never stop to consider that perhaps we are part of the axis of evil and may even be building an evil empire of our own. Bishop Wright works from the front backwards in the Old Testament to see how the Old Testament comes to grips with evil. The call of Abraham to be the father of the faithful and to implement God's agenda of redemption in the world cannot be understood without first looking at the chaos of the building of the Tower of Babel, and even before that, the influence of the serpent in the Garden. What Wright so astutely demonstrates in the reconnaissance of the Old Testament history is that even with Abraham and his descendants, evil has not been eliminated. The saints of the Old Testament repeatedly seek to build their own towers of Babel and continually find themselves easy prey for the serpent's temptations. What the Old Testament does reveal, however, is a plan. It is the plan of God to conquer and triumph and redeem evil. That plan reaches its culmination in the cross of Christ.

At this point, we see why Wright must first wrestle with the problem of evil before coming to his treatment of the atonement. Though he's aware that the New Testament offers several images or metaphors of atonement, he finds the one he favors the most, though does not accept in its entirety, the Christus Victor motif set forth in the 20th century so ably by Gustaf Aulén. In this motif, the central drama is found in Christ's victory over the powers of evil, that indeed are not mere abstractions but real destructive forces and power. He acknowledges that the Gospels give us little theology of atonement, rather merely the narrative of it, with the exception of a few hints here and there, which hints are then dealt with more extensively in the Epistles. Wright doesn't speak much in this volume about other aspects of the atonement. The Biblical view of the atonement is not monochromatic. It is a tapestry with several threads woven together to form the final product. We have the thread of victory, the thread of ransom, the thread of penal judgment, the thread of the motif of the curse, the reoccurring thread of substitution, and we also have the cord of satisfaction, which unfortunately is all but ignored in Bishop Wright's preference.

Now, as he expounds on the motif of God's victory in Christ, he makes no obvious adoption of the gross heresy of open theism. However, he does go to the edge of this theological abyss and perhaps gazes at it a bit too long. What I found most disturbing in this book were some of the comments that Bishop Wright makes with respect to the nature of God. He speaks on more than one occasion as the plan of God's treatment of evil as a daring and risky plan. Elsewhere, he uses the term "ambiguous" with the qualifier "risky." As I read that phrase that was reoccurring in his work, I was jolted in my theological sensibilities and wondered if perhaps this was just a slip of the Bishop's pen, where in his customarily lyrical prose, he nodded for a moment with respect to his doctrine of God. I cannot escape abstract theology altogether anymore than N. T. Wright can, but I had to ask myself how is it possible for a self-existent, eternal Being, who is omniscient, omnipotent, holy, and sovereign to undertake a plan that includes within it any real risk? What would the risk be? Would God be risking that His plan would fail? Would God be risking that His plan would be thwarted by the decision of mortal agents in this world, such as we find argued in open theism? What is so daring about a sovereign God's determination to triumph over evil? We may encounter risks as we wrestle with the problem, but how can be transpose those risks to God Himself. I have to conclude at this point that this represented a little nap along the way of Wright's exploration of the problem of evil.

Another aspect for which I'm grateful in his work is his insistence upon the active power of evil. We remember that the classical theologians described the nature of evil in terms of privatio and/or negatio, and Bishop Wright understood those dimensions. However, the magisterial Reformers of the 16th century did not deny the elements of negation and privation in evil but added a term to it to make sure that we didn't get lost in a sea of abstraction. Their preferred term for the nature of evil was privatio actuosa. Here they stressed that evil was not a mere empty hole in the road. It was more than the privation of pavement on the highway. It would be not enough to explain evil simply as a pothole that represents a threat to the well-being of our car's suspension. Rather evil is active. It is a force that cannot be seen as a mere lack of the good or negation of the good. It is an active negation, an active privation, and it has a supernatural and personal dimension to it. Though Wright stops short of referring to Satan in personal categories, I would ask him to guess again, as the Scriptures attribute the chief attribute of personality to Satan, namely intentionality. Satan is an actor, and the evil he purveys is an evil that is actuosa.

Finally, Wright takes us from the cross and points to the future consummation of the Kingdom of God as it is seen in the graphic description of the new heaven and the new earth. He beautifully captures the mood of that eschatological hope that is indicated by the absence of the sea and the chaos that threatens the world from the sea in Hebrew poetic categories. The sea is banished from the new heaven and the new earth, and with it all forms of evil, pain, suffering, and especially death are sent into exile. He describes his view of the future as "inaugurated eschatology." What does he mean by that? It is clear that Bishop Wright is not a futurist, where he sees no present power and reality of the intrusion of the Kingdom of God in this world. We live on the other side of the cross, of the resurrection, and of Pentecost, where the power of the Kingdom has been set loose with manifold force. Nor do we find Bishop Wright embracing the kind of realized eschatology that was set forth by C. H. Dodd and others in the 20th century. Rather, his view of eschatology is closer to that of Herman Ridderbos and to Oscar Culmann, who saw the Christian pilgrimage of the present day to be worked out in what was called the "already" and the "not yet." There is indeed the presence of the Kingdom in our midst, which indicates the "already," and there has been a tremendous victory over the powers of evil already, yet the final battle has not yet been fought. We remember Culmann's famous analogy of his "already" and "not yet" schema, which was the analogy of D-day in World War II. On D-day, the war was not over, but it spelled the turning point for the certain victory of the allies. I think that Wright goes beyond that with his inaugurated eschatology. What has happened on the cross, in the resurrection, and in Pentecost is more than D-day. It is more powerful than D-day was and leaves us with an even greater certainty than D-day did to a troubled world during the great war. And what it does for us, as we look to the past and then look to the future promise of the complete triumph of God over evil, is that it enables us now to have a real, present, and vital spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness to those whose evil has brought pain upon us. This is perhaps the most beautiful insight that the Bishop offers where he moves his theological analysis certainly from the abstract to the level of pastoral care. Despite the concerns that his doctrine of God raises in some of the passages I've mentioned, I find in the main that N. T. Wright has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the problem of evil.

N.T. Wright
  / Downers Grove: IVP, 2006  
Review by R.C. Sproul, Chairman of Ligonier Ministries and Senior Minister of St. Andrews Chapel, Orlando, FL


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