N.T. Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God has been on my Amazon wishlist for some time. So I was pleasantly surprised when one afternoon at the public library I discovered a copy of this book. Compared to Wright’s other works (which are typically tomes belonging to multi-volume sets), Evil is relatively small, coming in at just 165 pages. At the same time, just like his other works, this book is dense. Wright is notorious for lines in his thick books that so much more could be written about a particular subject. That same kind of line is found multiple times in Evil and yet in five chapters Wright has said so much.
This book was published in the mid-2000s, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit and just a few short years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Everyone was talking about evil and justice. However, Wright, in keeping with the Bible, does not offer an explanation for why evil is in the world. Biblically speaking, we are not told how or why there is evil in the world. Rather, Wright shows through the biblical imagery of “the sea” that while everything started out “very good” as original constituted, very quickly things went awry. The waters swallow up the earth in the Noah story. Monsters come out of the sea in Daniel. The sea becomes a dark, mysterious place.
From the Bible Wright turns to the problem of evil generally understood. It is a problem for contemporary culture both philosophically and practically. It is an old problem, yet, a Wright points out, it is new in its belief that progress, specifically technological advancements, will solve our problem. It is here that Wright ingeniously identifies the consequences of such a belief in Western civilization: first, we (those from a Western context) ignore evil until it slaps us in the face; second, we are surprised when evils hits us; third, we react to the evil in immature and often dangerous ways. He uses 9/11 as an example: we knew about al-Qaeda before September 11th, 2001 but it was someone else’s problem on the other side of the world…until al-Qaeda terrorists began crashing planes into buildings and a field in Pennsylvania. When that happened we were incredulous, dumbfounded that such evil could be perpetrated against America. We then responded by invading Iraq and Afghanistan which led to the removal of a dictator but also the deaths of innocent civilians in the process.
Before launching further into the book, Wright lays out a map for his exploration of this topic. He explains there are necessary elements to advance the ball in our understanding of evil: “a willingness to concede that we may not have got democracy right, and that it may not be the universal panacea for all ills; a recognition of a depth-dimension to evil, a supra-personal element within it; and the acknowledgement that the line between good and evil runs through us all” (39). These are the themes he returns to regularly throughout the book.
As he begins chapter two – entitled “What Can God Do About Evil?” – Wright ventures into the Biblical text. He is careful to point out that the Old Testament does not seek to explain evil. He notes, however, “The Old Testament talks quite a lot about what God can do, is doing, and will do about evil” (45). That’s the emphasis: what God does about evil. He starts at the beginning with Genesis 3-11 working his way backward from Abraham, through the Tower of Babel, then the Flood, all the way back to the Garden of Eden showing what God did about evil. All of this was leading to the call of Abraham and the promise of a people who would be the solution to evil, but eventually become people who perpetuate the problem. Nevertheless, even through the faithlessness of His own people, God will manifest His justice in flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who came through the people of the solution.
This brings us to chapter three – “Evil and the Crucified God” – which focuses on the life, ministry, and death of Jesus standing as the solution to evil. Says Wright: “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 (and for himself!) finally came to its climax” (79). The cross is “the point where the evil of the world does all that it can and where the Creator of the world does all that he can” (92). It is the event where God in Christ suffers the full consequences of evil and deals completely with evil – “the political social, cultural, personal, moral, religious, and spiritual angles all rolled into one” (92). So the crucifixion of Jesus the climax of the Israel story as well as the event in which God deals with evil. Political & cosmic evil, physical & eternal evil met & did their worst. “The cross becomes the place of pilgrimage, where we stand and gaze as what was done for each one of us” (100). Thus the cross carries a personal meaning as well.
The last two chapters of the book deal with “the double task of implementing the achievement of the cross and anticipating God’s promised future world” (102-103, emphasis original). By way of implementation Wright explains that the question of evil is not an us-versus-them issue; evil runs through each of us. Evil is potholes in the road, rungs missing from the ladder, “the moral and spiritual equivalent of a black hole” (113). In the fourth chapter (“Imagine There’s No Evil”), Wright has an extended discussion about Satan and his cosmic role in the grand scheme of things. The emphasis of this chapter, though, is on God undoing what was done at the beginning and bringing about a new heavens and new earth. While most want to shove that into the future, Wright shows this is an assignment which the church is challenged to participate in right here and now. He concludes the chapter with five (5) ways the church can put into practice the first signs of the new covenant: prayer, holiness, politics & empire, penal codes, and international disputes. So Wright shows the scalability of this new world vision from the individual all the way through the local context and up to the worldwide implications.
As he concludes the book, Wright addresses a significant way of implementing the vision of no evil by reflecting on forgiveness. Forgiveness is the release of someone from the burden of guilt they bear for offending or hurting another, whether that be God or a fellow person. Wright is careful note, though, that forgiveness is not tolerance. It is behavior which we must learn because it does not come by nature. The theme of imagination is once more involved (introduce in chapter 4) and how large a leap in imagination it takes to extend such radical forgiveness given all the awful moral, physical, & emotional suffering people experience in this world. Nevertheless, Wright does his best to paint the portrait: “Just as physical decay and death will have no power over our resurrection bodies, so the moral decay and dissolution threatened by the persistent presence of evil – the gnawing resentment, the unscratchable itch of jealousy or anger… – will have no power over our emotional or moral lives in the world to come” (142-143). Given the future state of things will is where “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” Wright invites us to borrow from that to affect the present. He deals at length with Matthew 18 (both the church discipline context as well as the unforgiving servant) in discussing how forgiveness and reconciliation should show up in the present.
I am a fan of N. T. Wright. I enjoy his sermons, lectures, papers, and books. Sometimes his thoroughness can be a bit tedious, yet I appreciate and understand why he goes to such painstaking lengths in his writing and research. Nevertheless, I am grateful that Evil is such a short read, a primer of sorts on the problem of evil. Wright’s work is usually academic though accessible. This book is no exception. Simultaneously, it is ripped from the headlines and immediately relevant, even today though it has been a decade since publication. I highly recommend it.
Rating: 5 out of 5 imaginings
Wright, N. T. Evil and the Justice of God. InterVaristy Press: Downers Grove, IL. 2006. Print.