Much like the Bible itself, N.T. Wright didn’t write Evil and the Justice of God to explain why evil persists in a world deemed good by a good Creator. Instead, he wrote the book to show what Scripture says God intends to do about it.
Justice was published by IVP Academic following a few years’ of natural and man-made disasters: the 9/11 attacks; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the tsunami that hit eastern Asia; and the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. For readers familiar with Wright’s work, much of what he says in this short volume—it includes nearly 160 pages of text, not counting endnotes and other section—won’t come as much of a surprise. That isn’t to say it’s not worth your time, though.
The book starts with Wright examining some common and erroneous approaches of modern people to the problem of evil, including immaturely lashing out against it, denying its existence, or imagining that evil is something that separates “us” from “them” and is not something that runs through each and every one of us.
His second chapter outlines the story of the Old Testament and how God intended to deal with the problem of evil by calling Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the nations. This was to be God’s solution following the catastrophes of the pre-Flood world and the building of Babel: the enlistment of a family to join God’s crusade to set the world right again. But Israel fell prey to the same evil that pervades the rest of the world. Wright also examines how the Servant figure in Isaiah and the “son of man” figure in Daniel correspond to how God will deal with evil.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, lives and dies as not only a savior but also as someone who takes Israel’s story upon himself and fulfills it in a way that nation never could. He takes on the vocation of God’s covenant people and, through his death, defeats evil and the forces that promote it. According to Wright, the Gospels tell the story of the political powers of evil, the “corruption within Israel”, the spiritual powers of darkness, the downward spiral of evil, and the line of good and evil that exists within Jesus’ own followers.
But the Gospels are also another story: they are “the story of how God’s long-term plan from Abraham through to the time of Jesus, the apparently ambiguous and risky plan … finally came to fruition” (83). Jesus heals, creates friendship with sinners, and takes on Israel’s calling to be a light to the world. His death on the cross is, in Wright’s phrasing, “God’s great no to evil” and the moment when the worst of evil was done against Jesus and on the cross exhausted.
“Jesus on the cross towers over the whole scene as Israel in person, as YHWH in person, as the point where the evil of the world does all that it can and where the Creator of the world does all that he can. Jesus suffers the full consequences of evil: evil from the political, social, cultural, personal, moral, religious and spiritual angels all rolled into one; evil in the downward spiral hurtling toward the pit of destruction and despair. And he does so precisely as the act of redemption, of taking that downward fall and exhausting it, so that there may be new creation, new covenant, forgiveness, freedom, and hope” (92).”
(For those readers who are interested in Atonement theologies, Wright doesn’t explore them very much, at least as it concerns their formal definitions. You will find aspects of various theories repeated in Justice, and Wright himself says that he sees the Christus Victor view was a sort of umbrella under which under theories fit.)
The result of this is not only a new creation breaking into a world wrecked by evil but also the promise that each of us can be saved from evil, too. The global view of salvation does not take away from the personal effect it can have on each one of us. The problem of evil, Wright correctly notes, is also a story about each of us—a problem that has been dealt with by Jesus, the Messiah, on the cross.
“There will be a time when I—even I, sinner that I am!—will be totally sinless, when God has completed the work of grace within me. But I already enjoy, in anticipation of that future fact, forgiveness in the present and the new life of the Spirit that is made available precisely when Jesus has been ‘glorified’ by being ‘lifted up’ on the cross (John 7:39; 20:22)” (96).
The remaining chapters call the reader to imagine what the world would look like without evil—and if they have trouble, they can certainly use Revelation 21–22 as a reference— and how they, as followers of Jesus, might put the victory of Christ into practice right now. Here, Wright gives space to how God’s ultimate victory and the anticipation of a world without evil motivates us to pray, pursue holiness, and approach global issues. In what was one of my favorite parts of the book, Wright devotes the last chapter largely to the subject of forgiveness and how the act of forgiving someone does not undermine the notion of evil but instead identifies it for what it is. (There’d be nothing to forgive if there was nothing wrong done to you in the first place.)
My review is only a brief recap of a small book that packs a lot into its pages. Readers familiar with Wright won’t be surprised by much of what they read here, but there will probably be some good insights that you’ll pick up, anyway. For those readers unfamiliar with Wright’s work, this might be a good first book for you to pick up.