Posted by: Dan | May 22, 2009

Review and Discussion of ‘The God I Don’t Understand’: Part 2, Evil and Suffering

[Some time back in January, I began a review and discussion of Christopher J. H. Wright’s book, The God I Don’t Understand (see here for Part 1).  At that time, I was discussing the book with my brother Judah, who espouses a different faith than I do.  Since then, posting has been delayed because of my brother’s schedule which has how, unfortunately, led him to pull out of this discussion.  I will, therefore, continue this review on my own.  Here is Part 2.]

Summary: What about Evil and Suffering?

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After his introductory remarks, Christopher Wright turns to the intertwined topics of evil and suffering and the ways in which these things present a challenge to faith in the Christian God. Once again, as throughout the rest of this book, the humility of Wright’s tone is notable. He rejects easy answers and asserts that there really are no answers, at least for now, to this challenge. Simply stated, one cannot make sense of evil and suffering. However, having affirmed this, Wright goes on to emphasise three things: the mystery, the offence, and the defeat of evil (he devotes a chapter to each).

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Beginning with the mystery of evil, Wright explores the question of how evil could have come into existence in light of the biblical narrative and the affirmation that the God of the bible is both loving and sovereign. Ultimately, despite various digressions, he argues that the bible provides us with no answer to questions of evil’s origins. Thus, Wright argues that the bible compels us to accept the mystery of evil.

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Yet accepting evil as a mystery is not the same thing as accepting evil. Indeed, Wright implies that labeling evil as a mystery is a way of rejecting evil, for we cannot allow evil to make sense. Thus, he writes:

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Evil has no proper place within creation. It has no validity, no truth, no integrity. It does not intrinsically belong to the creation as God will ultimately redeem it. It cannot and must not be integrated into the universe as a rational, legitimated, justified part of reality. Evil is not there to be understood, but to be resisted and ultimately expelled (42).

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Further, Wright stresses that, although we may not know anything about the ultimate origins of evil, we do know that the vast majority of evil and suffering is the result of human actions. Consequently, he concludes that ‘the suffering of the human race as a whole is to a large extent attributable to the sin of the human race as a whole’ (32). Therefore, Wright has little patience for those who ‘like to accuse the God they don’t believe in’ of failing to address evil when they themselves are frequently doing nothing about the fact that, for example, thousands of children are dying every minute of preventable diseases (31). Thus, to those who reject God because God appears to be doing nothing about such things, Wright responds by saying, ‘What are you doing about those things?’

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However, Wright does not raise this point in order to shut down all protests against God. Far from it, in the second chapter of this section, devoted to exploring the offence of evil, Wright argues that the bible encourages us to respond to evil and suffering with lamentations, protests, and anger. Indeed, this type of response is precisely the sort of reaction we see displayed in the biblical characters who ‘loved and trusted [God] the most’ (51; emphasis removed). Thus, Wright is hoping to see the language of lament and protest restored to its proper place within the church

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Wright views this response of grief and anger as one especially suited to our encounters with what he calls ‘natural evil’ – disastrous non-human, natural events, like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, that occur and cause great suffering. Further, while exploring ‘natural evil’, Wright emphasizes that there are two answers to this problem that Christians must reject. First, they must reject the notion that such events occur as an ongoing expression of God’s curse on the ground in Gen 3. Wright argues that God’s curse refers to a fundamental functional breakdown in the relationship between humanity and the soil, resulting in toil in labour, and that the curse does not refer to any sort of ontological altering of creation (after all, affirming the perspective of evolutionary science, Wright notes that things like natural disasters, meteors, death and predation, existed in the natural order long before humans did). Second, Wright argues that Christians must reject any understanding of these natural disasters as some sort of divine judgment upon sin – as though those who suffer in these events are being punished by God. Here Wright is adamant that we must refuse to cast this sort of judgment upon others for, even though the bible speaks of some natural disasters as acts of judgment, it does not speak of all disasters in this way, and no one among us has access to a divine perspective that would allow us to make this judgment call about any particular disaster that occurs in our time.

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Finally, in the third chapter of this section, Wright speaks of the defeat of evil and notes that ‘theologians try to explain evil, while God’s plan is to destroy it’ (56). Thus, rather than dealing with evil and suffering as an intellectual puzzle, Christians are called to rejoice in the coming total victory of God over evil, while holding onto three key affirmations: (1) the utter evilness of evil; (2) the utter goodness of God; and (3) the utter sovereignty of God. Of course, it is here that we arrive at the crux of the challenge of evil – how can we affirm all three of these statements without, in some way or another, comprising one or more of them? Wright argues that it is the cross, and the understanding of Jesus as both the slain lamb and the Lord of history, that points the way forward. Drawing on a study of Revelation 4-7 (which he sees as describing constant realities of human life – war, famine, sickness, death, etc. – and not some sort of ‘end times’ cataclysm), Wright argues that Jesus is sovereign over all of these powers but the ‘absolutely pivotal, vital point to grasp’ is that ‘Christ’s power to control these evil forces is the same power as he exercised on the cross’ (67). Specifically, God’s sovereignty over evil is shown in God’s ability to simultaneously absorb and defeat it, or, as Wright says, ‘[t]he cross shows us that God can take the worst possible evil and through it accomplish the greatest possible good – the destruction of evil itself’ (69). Thus, we live now with hope and joyful expectation.

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Response

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Once again, there is much that I appreciated about how Wright approaches the topic at hand. I appreciated his tone, his honesty regarding a lack of understanding, and his ability to see through many of the false alternatives that have been offered by Christians in their efforts to cling to certainty. I also appreciated Wright’s emphasis upon protest and lament and his desire to see these things retored to the church Further, I found Wright’s argument that evil cannot make sense because it cuts so deeply against the grain of the universe to be both useful and interesting – a suggestion I don’t remember encountering before.

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However, without going overboard (as this is, in my opinion, the most significant challenge to faith in the Christian God), there are a few things that I would like to respond to in a little more detail. First, I wish that Wright had continued his thinking regarding the greatest cause of suffering – human actions – and pressed the same point in his chapter on the defeat of evil. If it is human activity that causes the great majority of suffering in our world, then surely it is human activity that also has the greatest potential to bring about healing, reconciliation, and peace in our world. Furthermore, I found it odd that Wright so strongly emphasises that God will defeat evil, while neglecting the Christian belief that, because evil has already been defeated at the cross of Jesus, it can now continue to be defeated in the human actions taken by (amongst others) those in the Christian community. So, while Wright talks about God’s triumph over evil at the cross, he neglects to mention how the community of those who follow a crucified Lord can proleptically embody the defeat of evil in the present moment… until the day when death and hell are finally destroyed once and for all.

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Secondly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Wright’s impatience with atheists or agnostics who scorn the Christian God because of the presence of evil and suffering in the world. On the one hand, this impatience makes sense if those who claim the moral high ground over against a seemingly inactive or apathetic God, do not then go on to actively address evil and suffering. However, on the other hand, Wright’s impatience, even in this regard, doesn’t have to make sense or be reasonable to those who do not adopt a Christian paradigm. For people with other paradigms, it might be perfectly consistent to scorn God and ignore the suffering of strangers, or even scorn God and further the suffering of others, or whatever. Furthermore, Wright uses this particular focus (those who scorn God but who are also inactive) to handily sidestep addressing the fact that many of those who reject the Christian God are precisely those who are actively working to address issues related to justice and suffering within our world. Consequently, Wright seems to miss the point that evil and suffering are actually a very, very good reason to reject the affirmation of any God who is said to be both good and sovereign. Indeed, I myself would probably reject faith in God for precisely this reason… were it not for experiences that I believe to be experiences of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, my basis for faith is entirely experiential and, although this may dismay a good many Christian apologist, I tend to think that experience is the only valid basis for faith (at least it’s the only valid basis I’ve found). In other words, while encounters with the massive presence of evil and suffering might compel me to not believe in any sort of loving and powerful God, other encounters do not allow me to not believe. So it goes.

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Finally, the aspect of Wright’s argument that strikes me as the most difficult to understand (or, perhaps, accept) is in his assertion that all the evil forces in history are still subject to God’s sovereignty and are only able to act with God’s express permission (and even assistance!). Now, to be clear, I do agree with what Wright says about God being able to absorb and conquer evil (by even creating new life out of events that would otherwise have simply been death-dealing), but I think that one can affirm this without pressing this point as far as Wright does. It seems to me that Wright’s argument ends up making God too complicit with evil (although he himself argues that we cannot view God in this way). In essence, it seems to me that Wright tries to say too much on this point and oversteps his initial acknowledgment regarding the mystery of evil. Granted, I believe that the cruciform life and death of Jesus point us towards some sort of resolution of the interaction between God’s goodness and sovereignty, and the evilness of evil, but I don’t think we can go so far as to say that Jesus, as the risen Lord, is now directing and arming the powers of pestilence, war, and famine in our world (which is what Wright says in his exegesis of Rev 4-7). In my opinion, it is better to say nothing than to affirm this suggestion.

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Responses

  1. my posts were a lot more interesting.
    love,
    jude

  2. I like it. Is Wright from a Reformed background? From your review, he seems to lean toward a ‘strong’ understanding of God’s sovereignty – without (some) of its excesses.

  3. Michael:

    Yes, Wright is from the Reformed/Evangelical tradition. I think of him as a contemporary John Stott — Reformed… but also intelligent (and good) enough to know some of the limits of his own tradition.


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