Evil and the Justice of God

By N. T. Wright
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2006). 176 Pages.

Reviewed by Clifford McManis
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 270-272

The Right Reverend Dr. Tom Wright Lord Bishop of Durham, or more popularly known as N. T. Wright, wrote this concise theodicy after giving five lectures at Westminster Abbey on the topic in 2003 (10). Known for his massive technical and scholarly works on NT studies, this volume is on a more popular level, directed to the serious lay student, tackling the classic dilemma of the problem of evil from a fresh approach.

The catalyst for pursuing the topic of evil included the events of 9/11 (9, 16) as well as other recent natural disasters (9). The book almost reads like a personal polemic against President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, and their “immature” (28, 39, 99, 104) response to the terrorist attacks as they labeled specific countries an “axis of evil” (16). Their response with a declaration of war against the terrorists, according to Wright, was a “knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out which gets us nowhere” (26). Wright wants to set the political record straight, and in that vein he formulates his proposed solution to the problem of evil in the vortex of an almost exclusively political, corporate, and social context (41, 98). For Wright, the problem of evil, and its solution, is primarily a political one.

In the first chapter Wright proposes the articulation of a “new” problem of evil (19). The original centuries-old syllogism for the problem of evil was intrinsically flawed, being metaphysical, abstract, and inane (17, 19). Wright’s new problem of evil that Christians need to grapple with is threefold: 1) we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face; 2) we are naively surprised by evil when it does; and 3) we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result (24). Bush and Blair are living effigies of those who have responded immaturely and dangerously to evil.

After supplanting the traditional conundrum of the problem of evil with his own contemporary and political rendition, Wright then proceeds to give a brief survey of how he thinks the OT relates to the issue (47-71). He informs the reader that the Bible is ambiguous on the matter (49, 74, 102). He avers that Scripture simply does not give complete answers as to what evil is, why it exists in the first place, how long it will last, why it is allowed to continue, and how long it will go on (44). He asserts, “The Bible simply doesn’t appear to want to say what God can say about evil” (45).

In chapter three, Wright moves to the NT, highlighting the Gospels (78-83) and the death of Christ (83-100). He says we need to reread the Gospels in a new way, accentuating the political overtones (79), to understand properly what God is trying to do with evil. As for the death of Christ and the meaning of the atonement, Wright champions the Christus Victor theme (95, 114), a recapitulation of the earlier Ransom theory. For Wright, Jesus’ death was not a penal substitution whereby He died as a substitute for sinners, incurring the penalty of the Father’s wrath in their stead. Rather, Jesus’ death was a confrontation with political (83), cosmic (102), and quasi-personal evil forces (81, 109) where He diffused evil, generically speaking, by exhausting it (89), wearing it down (102), and rendering it impotent. Jesus did not die for individual souls; rather, Wright claims, “Jesus died in a representative capacity for Israel,” a refrain he repeats frequently (90; cf. 85, 86, 88, 92, 93, 95). He further claims that the popular notion that Jesus died to rescue individual sinners, secure their forgiveness and present to them a future hope of heaven is actually a distortion of true biblical teaching that leaked into the church through the Enlightenment (77-78; cf. 117). He also goes on to say that Christ’s death did not secure a once-for-all justification, but rather Christ’s death merely “began the process of redemption” (98) which humans are to complete by “implementing the achievement of the cross” (102-03) through social justice and good works (104, 107).

In chapter four, Wright gives specifics as to how the church is to “implement the achievement of the cross” (102). He recommends a panoply of unexpected and even bizarre ideas. For example, we must follow suit with Desmond Tutu and usher in “community restoration and healing” (103). We must jettison capitalism which is “the exploitation of the poor by the rich” (104; cf. 23, 107, 123). We must use projection theory as taught by Carl Jung to quell non-personal organizational evil forces that are latent within various “companies, societies, legislative bodies, and even churches” (111-112). With John Lennon, we must “imagine” a future world without evil but rather one typified by community, beauty, and healing (104, 114-115, 126). We must provide medical care, education, and work for the sick and the poor (122), and embrace “restorative justice” on a national level like New Zealand (124). We need to empower the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to resist war on an international level (125). And finally, we need to maximize the arts to make tangible the imaginations of a future world without evil (128).

In the final chapter, Wright explains how we will finally be delivered from evil on a personal and cosmic basis. The solution is “forgiveness” (132). The priorities of forgiveness that Wright wants implemented do not come from the Bible, but from three books: 1) Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace (132); 2) L. Gregory Jones’ Embodying Forgiveness (134); and 3) Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness (134). Three keys of forgiveness that issue from these writings include the following: 1) we need to forgive ourselves (135, 163, 165); 2) God will be able to someday in the future forgive Himself for being an angry God for so long all throughout human history (136); and 3) we need to forgive criminals and terrorist nations (148-49).

N. T. Wright’s, Evil and the Justice of God, is commended on the back cover by J. P. Moreland, praising it, suggesting “it should be the first work consulted” on the problem of evil because of its “distinctively biblical approach.” This reviewer could not disagree more. Wright’s argumentation is religious, but not biblical. In fact, his approach undermines many core biblical doctrines including the following: biblical sufficiency (45) and perspicuity (101); the true meaning of the atonement, justification and imputation (95); the holy character of God (136); the immutability of God (136); the personhood of Satan (111); the reality of eternal hell (116); the implications of the curse at Adam’s fall (127); and biblical repentance (163), to name a few. As opposed to giving a strictly “biblical approach,” Wright’s work reads more like a primer on liberation theology and even toys with socialistic notions. To say this is disappointing coming from one of the most influential and popular Christian theologians of today is an understatement. Those who desire a truly biblical treatment of the problem of evil would do well to consult John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God, Jay Adam’s The Grand Demonstration, and Randy Alcorn’s recent popular work, If God is Good.