Evil is still a four-letter word. At least, that’s what N.T. Wright would encourage us to grasp in his book, Evil and the Justice of God. It is still alive and well. We did not leave it behind in the 20th century. We have not reasoned our way around it. No, despite our intellectual pomp, despite our shouts of progress, despite our relentless philosophical posturings, evil has not disappeared from the scene. In fact, every day news reports throw us again and again upon the shores of suffering and chaos, a brokenness that no amount of democracy or social activism has been able to mitigate.
In this short book (165 pages), N.T. Wright starts off by saying that he does not seek to solve the problem or evil, or even to explain it. Wright explains that this does not seem to be the primary aim of Scripture:
What our Western philosophical tradition inclines us to expect – and indeed to ask for – is an answer to the problem, What can God say about evil? We want an explanation. We want to know what evil really is, why it’s there in the first place (or at least in the second place), why it’s been allowed to continue, and how long this will go on…but frustratingly they don’t receive very full answers [in the Bible] (44).
Rather, Wright explains, Scripture is more in the business of telling us what God is doing about evil, has done, and will do in the future. In doing so, he more than adequately addresses the dehumanizing and inadequate problems of Western progressive Idealism and the practical social Darwinism of our day, as well as the spineless postmodern attempts at the problem of evil.
After accessing the inadequacy of most contemporary attempts to answer the problem of evil, Wright dives into a discussion that scratches the surface of the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, not to tell us the story of evil, but the story of God. Evil is presented as an intruder in God’s otherwise perfect, peaceful creation that overflows with life, beauty, and goodness. Sin itself seems intent on destroying everything that God has created, starting, of course, in the Garden.
But while the Bible does not focus primarily on explaining evil, it has much to say on God’s solution. Starting with Abraham and his family, God “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” (53).
But of course, the Old Testament screams its own testimony that the people of God failed time and time again to be a part of the solution. But oh, how they felt the sting of sin and death. From Exodus to Exile, Israel is a messy, bloody story of God grappling with sin and the evil of this world, and it all comes together the day Christ entered the scene.
The moment when the sinfulness of humankind grieved God to his heart, the moment when the Servant was despised and rejected, the moment when Job asked why it had to be that way, came together when the Son of Man knelt, lonely and afraid, before going to face the might of the beasts that had come up out of the sea. The story of Gethsemane and of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth present themselves in the New Testament as the strange, dark conclusion to the story of what God does about evil, of what happens to God’s justice when it takes human flesh, when it gets its feet muddy in the garden and its hands bloody on the cross (74).
The cross, says Wright, is “part of both the analysis and the solution” to the problem of evil (77). Jesus, in his death, both exposes the weakness of evil and defeats it. It does not gloss over the problem of evil, as the modern philosophers would have us do. Wright highlights how “The Gospels tell the story of how the evil in the world – political, social, personal, moral, emotional – reached its height, and how God’s long-term plan for Israel finally came to its climax” in the person of Jesus Christ (79).
The cross was a No to evil. The cross was showing that even given its best chance, evil could do its worst to Jesus, even render him dead on the cross, and still not come out victorious. The cross was evil’s best effort to destroy God’s creation, and God himself, and the resurrection proves that it was found severely lacking.
In the cross, Jesus defeats sin, evil, and death by bearing both their penalty and exhausting them of their power. The victorious resurrection, then offers a freedom, healing, and victory to the people of God, inviting all into the New Creation that begins with his very own resurrection and the new creation of his body. This, then, is the kingdom of God, not going to heaven when you die, nor simply a moralistic way of living. Rather, that Jesus suffered the full consequences of evil as an act of redemption means that he has opened up the door to a new covenant, forgiveness, and freedom in the new creation that will be completely void of sin, evil, and death.
So the atonement includes “both a backward look (seeing the guilt, sin, and shame of all previous generations heaped up on the cross) and a forward dimension, the promise that what God accomplished on Calvary will be fully and finally implemented” (96). As such, we, as God’s people, live in this moment as ones who are implementing that reality in the now. We act out the achievement of the cross in our daily lives through things such as prayer, holiness, and redemptive justice, all the while looking forward to the day when death, which is “the ultimate blasphemy, the great intruder, the final satanic weapon,” will be no more (116).
The capstone of Wright’s discussion of God’s response to evil, and our own, is found in his discussion on forgiveness. Forgiveness, he says, is not tolerance. It is, rather, “a settled determination to name evil and to shame it,” for without that there is nothing to forgive, and then to “have settled it in our minds that we shall not allow this evil to determine the sort of people we shall then become” (152). It does not dismiss evil or pretend that it is less that in is; rather, it releases both parties – offended and offender – from the past, allows freedom and reconciliation in the present, and invites both parties, now united, to anticipate the awaited future creation and the full victory of Christ.
Was It A Good Book?
Was Evil and the Justice of God a good book? That depends on what you are looking for. If you approach this book as a theodicy (a vindication of God in the face of the problem of evil), then you won’t find what you are looking for. In fact, I read this book looking for just that, and found myself a bit disapointed. But this book is not an explanation of evil and an apologetic appeal for the goodness of God. Rather, this is Wright’s theology of the atonement and an appeal for Christus Victor as the primary mode of viewing the cross. As an answer to the question of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, this is a very fine book indeed.
Perhaps the strength of this book is how Wright speaks of evil. Rather than drawing up a sketch of evil that is simply moralistic or, on the other end, political, Wright presents evil as a multifaceted beast, including discussions of personal evil and the supranatural evil behind empire and oppression. In doing so, Wright opens our view of the atonement up and widens it to include not just penal substitution and the forgiveness of personal sins, but also the defeat of evil entirely and the reconciliation of all of creation. Rather than devaluing the forgiveness of sins, Wright shows how this view actually gives merit and depth to that forgiveness, and how great the victory was that it includes the redemption of everything. In a sense, this view is not just more biblical, but it is also more beautiful.
If you are looking for something in depth and scholarly, you will not find it here. However, if you are looking for an engaging summary that gets you pointed in the right direction and allows you to sample the waters on the subject, this is a must. Overall, N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God is a worthy addition to any theological library.