Thursday, October 25, 2007

Guest Post on Evil and the Justice of God

N. T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, has garnered a reputation for, to borrow the title of his most recent work on Paul, ‘fresh perspectives’. In his recent Evil and the Justice of God (London/Downers Grove: SPCK/IVP, 2006), Wright provides another fresh perspective, this time on the problem of evil. Addressing his subject as a biblical scholar rather than as a philosopher, he judges that the Scriptures perceive and portray the ‘problem of evil’ much differently than what is typical of philosophical accounts. Inherent to his project, then, is the attempt to redefine biblically both the problem of evil and what counts as an adequate solution. His basic argument is captured in the following statement: ‘Evil isn’t simply a philosophers’ puzzle, but a reality which stalks our streets and damages people’s lives, homes and property. The quest for a solution is not the quest for an intellectually satisfying answer to the problem of why evil is there in the first place, but the search for ways in which the healing, restorative justice of the creator God himself, which will one day suffuse the whole creation, can be brought to bear in advance of that ultimate reality, within the present world of space, time, matter and the messy realities of human lives and societies’ (p. 98). Wright thus outlines a salvation-historical solution to the biblical problem of evil.

The first chapter is an exercise in cultural interpretation. Here, Wright uncovers several inadequate responses to evil that stem either from modern optimism or postmodern nihilism. Chapter 2 expounds the problem of evil in biblical perspective. Wright finds that biblical evil is that which sidetracks the Creator’s purpose by corrupting the creatures charged with creation’s care. The biblical solution to evil, then, is the historical redemption of humanity through Israel and, ultimately, Jesus Christ. Accordingly, Wright in chapter 3 turns to the cross where God’s redemptive purposes with Israel reach their climax and fulfillment. The Gospels, according to Wright, narrate the ways in which God in Jesus Christ draws evil onto himself, ‘exhausts’ its power in the cross, and inaugurates the new creation of the world through the resurrection. Christus Victor is for Wright the root metaphor of the atonement after which ‘all other theories [of atonement] come in to play their respective parts’ (p. 59), and new creation is God’s solution to evil. Interestingly, ‘forgiveness of sins’ is interpreted by Wright as ‘release’ from the corrupting effects of evil and thus is synonymous with ‘resurrection’; both are acts of new creation since both purge evil and restore creatures to their original dignity.

How might the church participate in God’s solution to evil? Wright argues in chapter 4 that since God’s solution to evil is the new creation in which evil is absent then believers are to "imagine" this new world. Such, says Wright, will provoke Christians to positive social action. Chapter 5 explicates forgiveness as the present mode of participation in God’s solution to evil for forgiveness anticipates the new creation by releasing both victim and victimizer from the alienating effects of interpersonal evil. Salvation and forgiveness, not conceptual clarity and answered questions, is the real solution to the real problem of evil.

Wright’s proposal here is provocative, refreshing, and rooted in pastorally sensitive canonical exegesis. And while his attempt to supplant the philosophical problem is probably more distracting than satisfying to the philosophers, it can hardly be denied that his biblical account of evil and its salvation-historical solution helpfully redirects the philosophical debates and refocuses them upon the Bible (a testimony to Wright’s commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture). Given philosophy’s monopoly on the subject, this biblically-oriented approach is a significant addition to the literature.

For a fuller review, see my review forthcoming in Heythrop Journal.

James R. A. Merrick
King’s College, University of Aberdeen


Anonymous said...

Strangely, it does not require religion at all in order for evil to be expunged.

We all struggle with right and wrong, whether we are religious or not, even though we all do generally know which is which.

Simple removal of the forces that compel us to make incorrect choices will solve the problem... and that requires wisdom.

Wisdom is not available to a closed mind, which is a mind that already thinks it knows the answer. Perhaps, the fact that so many people rely on religion as "the answer" is what closes enough minds to allow evil to prevail so frequently?

Something to consider.

Stephen C. Rose said...

Interesting to get a sense of Wright's take.

To me, the two most readily useful notions of evil are

1. The prayer Jesus taught which implies that we have some control over evil by forgiving others and affirming a world that is more heaven-like -- that is to say just and loving.

And 2. Jesus's insistence that evil is a complex of things ranging from foolishness to homicidal tendencies that do not come from outside but are the product of what is inside us -- our hearts, so to speak.

He does not imply that we're powerless to do something about it nor that he simply wants people to wait for some future rivine intervention to resolve the problem.

Cheers, S

T said...

Does this work really count as "theodicy," as it doesn't justify God with regard to why there is evil in the world to begin with? If some mistake made under the supervision of a hospital puts my father in a coma, is it really sufficient simply to say, "The important thing is that the hospital is now working to resuscitate him"? We'd want to know whether the hospital was in fact the perpetrator, or, if it did not directly cause the accident, why it would not be at fault.

In any case, I do think that what God has done and is doing in salvation-history ought to count for something in his favor. If Wright's approach is incomplete theodicy, at least it's supplying a piece that has been long-neglected.

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