Saturday, April 24, 2010

Evil and the Justice of God - N. T. Wright

All shall be well

Evil and the Justice of God
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 176

Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright reminds me of the series of talks about Christianity that C. S. Lewis gave on BBC radio between 1941 and 1944. This began as a series of five lectures given at Westminster Abbey on the cross and the problem of evil. After 9/11 and talk about evil from George W. Bush and Tony Blair, “evil” became a hot topic. Wright later summarized his thesis on a television program that aired in the U. K. on Easter Day 2005.

Wright like Lewis, in this expanded version of his original lectures, is addressing a broader audience than just Christians. As a consequence, this is not a Bible study or a scholarly analysis of specific texts, though there is a little of that here. This is more of a philosophical treatise that tries to make sense of a difficult topic from a Scriptural point of view without getting too technical.

Having read a book by Wright previously, I appreciate his ability not only to recognize distinctions but to never lose sight of the big picture. He does not let the reader get lost in the details. Evil is a multi-faceted problem, but contrary to how it may seem, God is doing something about it. What He has done and is doing through his people is what Wright unpacks.

Unlike those who may come at the subject from a purely secular stance, Wright acknowledges, though he realizes the potential barriers in doing so, that there is a “supra-personal, supra-human” aspect to evil. Somewhat unconventionally he refers to the devil as “the satan,” which in Hebrew is Ha Satan, meaning “the accuser.” Wright prefers to use the “term ‘subpersonal’ or ‘quasi-personal’ as a way of refusing to accord the satan the full dignity of personhood while recognizing that the concentration of activity (its subtle schemes and devices) can and does strike us as very much like that which we associate with personhood.” Fortunately, Wright maintains a healthy balance; avoid the extremes of not taking this aspect of evil into account or being overly fixated with it.

You see this too in his refusal to define evil between different groups of people. Rather, he rightly sees that “the line between good and evil runs through us all.”

Wright sees that evil finally meets its demise at the cross of Christ. In all its various forms and manifestations, it climaxes in the death of Jesus, only to find itself exhausted through what was the pivotal event in God’s dealing with evil. “On the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil.” The full outworking of it has yet to be seen, but Wright enumerates the ramifications throughout the rest of the book.

Wright is excellent about making personal applications. “‘The problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah.”

Where does this leave us? Wright summarizes it beautifully, “The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love.” The cross is not only the means but the model for what God wants to do by His Spirit in the world. “To imagine a community of beauty and healing is to take a large step toward seeing in our mind’s eye the world which God intends to bring about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the world toward which we are to direct our Spirit-given energies.”

He goes on to suggest five different ways or areas that we can be working to advance the signs of the new world:

1. Prayer
2. Holiness
3. Politics and empire
4. Penal codes
5. International disputes

The last three in particular, as may be obvious by the category names, involve furthering justice and serving to make the world a better place.

Phantom Tollbooth readers might appreciate what Wright has to say about the role of art, which includes the realm of music. “Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are but to the way things one day will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. And when Christian artists go to that task they will be contributing to the integration of heart, mind and soul which we seek, to which we are called. They will be pointing forward to the new world God intends to make, to the world already seen in advance in the resurrection of Jesus, to the world whose charter of freedom was won when he died on the cross. It is by such means as this that we may learn again to imagine a world without evil and to work for that world to become, in whatever measure we can, a reality even in the midst of the present evil age.”

Lastly, Wright deals extensively with the importance of forgiveness. Forgiveness brings into the present what we are promised in the future, “namely that in God’s new world all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” He draws much on insights contained in Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, which helps makes sense out of how it can be right for God to bring about a situation where all is genuinely well, granted all that has happened and continues to happen. Again, the answer lies in evil being overthrown at the cross and “God’s creation of a new world which will bring healing rather than obliteration to the old one, under the stewardship of the redeemed. God’s offer of forgiveness, consequent upon his defeat of evil on the cross, means that God himself, the wise Creator, is at last vindicated.”
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