N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 176 pages.
I would like to thank IVP Academic for providing me a review copy. This book was originally published in 2006 in hardcover. The paperback version was released in December, 2012.
Evil and the Justice of God is everything you would expect from a book on the subject by N.T. Wright: exceptionally written, full of inaugurated eschatology, resurrection, Jesus, Israel, avoided dichotomies, the new heavens and the new earth, etc. Even the title is classic Wright (cf. Scripture and the Authority of God and Jesus and the Victory of God, for example). Most of this is good, but it also means that this book has limited use. More on that below.
The book has a preface and five chapters, titled, respectively: “Evil Is Still a Four-Letter Word,” “What Can God Do about Evil?,” “Evil and the Crucified God,” “Imagine There’s No Evil,” and “Deliver Us from Evil.” In his preface, Wright notes that this book arose (as many of his books do) out of a larger work on Jesus’ crucifixion. This is a good sign, since Wright is known for emphasizing the resurrection (quite appropriately), but a book about evil that does not include a substantial discussion of the cross is going to be sorely hobbled. The book reveals its historical setting in that it is dedicated to those who died in September 11th, the December 2004 Tsunami, the Katrina hurricane, and the Pakistan and Kashmir 2005 earthquake, and he notes that these tragedies were playing out as he was working on the material for this book.
In chapter one, Wright introduces the problem of evil and discusses how cultural worldviews have caused us to think about evil in certain ways. The Enlightenment and modernism make an appearance for the requisite bashing (a common theme with Wright; no complaints here). Postmodernism is next on the chopping block and though he is gentler, he still critiques the nihilism of postmodernism, suggesting that a Christian approach will avoid these two extremes. This will become a recurring motif throughout the book, as Wright sets up numerous poles that he tries to split like a field goal—modernism vs. postmodernism, political liberalism vs. conservativism, etc. Another recurring theme to which Wright oft returns is that the problem of evil cannot be “solved” and wrapped with a neat and tidy philosophical bow. Thus, he insists we must neither pretend that evil doesn’t exist or that it isn’t that serious, nor must we try to solve it or explain it away.
Chapters two and three discuss what the Old and New Testaments have to say, respectively. Here we see Wright’s typical emphasis on the story of Israel, initiated with Abraham. Israel was meant to be the solution to the problem but it is discovered is part of the problem as well. The story culminates in Jesus, his life, death, and, of course, resurrection. In the course of his discussion of the OT, he gives some focused attention to the Isaianic Servant, Daniel, and Job. In a book on evil, Job isn’t surprising, but his inclusion of Daniel is somewhat novel. He uses Daniel and his visions as a way of looking at the demonic undercurrent that will become clearer in the NT.
Wright’s discussion of the cross is good. He notes that the cross is crucial for understanding the nature of evil and what God plans to do about it. He has some particularly good lines; for example: “The nations of the world got together to pronounce judgment on God for all the evils in the world, only to realize with a shock that God had already served his sentence” (94). He notes that he sees the Christus Victor atonement theory as the best (though, again he argues that we should be careful about insisting on one theory of the atonement or even trying to explain the mechanics of the atonement too precisely), though he does suggest that penal atonement is also both true and important, especially for understanding how Christ’s death applies to me (this, along with his discussion of forgiveness in chapter 5, seems to contradict our own Jeremy Treat’s assessment of Wright’s view of forgiveness of sins laid out here).
Chapter four seeks to apply his discussion in the previous chapters to our particular problems in the world. In other words, what do we do about evil right now? Those familiar with Wright will notice some recurring themes (national debt, war). I was gratified to see him discuss criminal justice (more like criminal injustice). He makes the point that the two approaches (“Lock ’em all up!” And “They’re just victims of society!”) are equally problematic. He takes some very appreciated (by me) swipes at prison and vaguely hints at a better way (my own opinion? Start with the OT).
Chapter five focuses on forgiveness. Wright expresses deep sympathy for Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness. This chapter largely expounds the insights of these books. He also discusses the eternal state and how forgiveness is necessary and foundational for the new heavens and the new earth (he is careful to avoid universalism, though, noting that some people will stubbornly refuse to “join the party”).
This is a great book, and certainly a quick read. It doesn’t answer every question (how could it in 165 small pages?), and for those who are more analytically or philosophically inclined, it may well be simply frustrating. Although Wright is obviously conversant with more philosophical works on the subject of evil, his own contribution is more narratively based. He puts evil and its solution (i.e., defeat) in the context of the biblical story of Abraham, Israel, and ultimately Jesus. He gets the big picture, and his years of pastoral ministry serve him well. He doesn’t dismiss evil but deals with it squarely.
I give this book four stars. This would be a good book to give a college student or lay-person struggling with the question of evil, but it won’t be sufficient for those who want philosophical categories and arguments. It isn’t really a theodicy (though I think the book of Job problematizes most attempts at theodicy), or an apologetic discussion. Still, it deserves to be read, and will be of great benefit for those willing to think about how the story of the Bible sheds light on the discussion of evil.