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Book Review: Evil and the Justice of God

The book Evil and the Justice of God invites Christians and others to take another look at how we define and respond to evil. This article is an excerpt of a longer review written by Scott Harris. A link to the full review is included.

Evil and the Justice Of GodBy: N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press. 2006.  ISBN: 978-0-8308-3398-6

N.T Wright’s latest book, Evil and the Justice of God, is an invitation to the Christian community at large to revisit the problem of evil.   As a response to his own theological journey as well as the relatively recent barrage of international examples of evil, Wright enters into an open-ended academic dialogue wherein he tables his own well-reasoned reflections on the topic.  More importantly, though, the pastoral quality of his writing solicits various potentially broader audiences to consider, for themselves, whether evil is real and how scripture informs our understanding and response to the issue.  He proposes both a renewed Christian rubric for understanding and talking about evil and teases out the implications for Christian action in three areas. ...

Having established evil as not just a “philosophical problem but a practical one” (p. 42), Wright then turns his attention to examining the Old Testament for patterns of God’s response to evil.  Taking us on a whirlwind tour of several key texts (the forbidden fruit, the flood, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, Moses, Judges, David, Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel and Job), Wright reminds us that the scriptures are frustratingly indirect and incomplete in answering questions of theodicy.  Yet at the same time, they make it abundantly clear that God is indeed working in history (past, present and future) to deal with evil, not exclusively for its own sake but rather as part of his bigger redemptive plan for humanity.  Wright keenly notes:

God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility,
that he made in the first place. (p. 64)

Seeing evil through the lens of God’s promise of new creation leads the author to four conclusions.  First, the personified force of evil is important but not paramount.  Second, human responsibility for evil is clear throughout.  Third, the evil that humans do is integrated with the enslavement of creation.  Fourth, the Old Testament does not present tidy answers but rather repeatly offers up God’s commitment to bring about new creation, ending evil forever.

It is from within this promise of new creation that Wright turns his attention to the New Testament – aligning himself particularly with a Christus Victor theology of atonement.  He keenly observes that there is little evidence of any particular view of atonement within the Gospels - which only begins to take shape in the Epistles.   Rather, the Gospels are the story of how the Messiah deals with evil at its political, social, personal, moral and emotional height (p. 79).   Jesus tackles it directly with healing acts.  He takes it on himself as he fellowships with sinners.  He calls on Israel to fulfil its covenant and ultimately models for them how to do so.  Atonement, Wright observes, is not a theoretical concept.  It is an ongoing reality that touches each person, transcending both personal salvation and the reordering of justice in the world.  Ultimately, it is the catalyst in fulfilling the plan for humanity.  As the author describes it, “It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won.” (p. 99). The challenge for modern Christians becomes applying this ongoing paradox of love defeating evil in our current situation – marrying personal salvation with practical action.

In his final two chapters, Wright invites his readers to imagine a world without evil – the new creation promised by God.  Further by accepting the “call of the Cross”, we are called to act right now as though this new creation has already arrived in the face of a world still riddled with evil and death. On particular note, Wright notes five intermediate tasks which Christians can achieve this.  These include praying continuously, living a holiness guaranteed by the Spirit, working with worldly authorities to achieve justice and mercy (especially for the vulnerable), implementing restorative justice responses to crime and conflict, and, resolving international disputes cooperatively.  Wright focuses on the issue of forgiveness as the central means by which evil has been and is being defeated. 


Scott Harris
March 2008


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