Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Reality of Evil and God's Justice in Our Postmodern Times

     I love reading N. T. Wright because he reminds me of a modern-day C.S. Lewis. In his book Evil and The Justice of God Wright brings a fresh and contemporary analysis to both of these issues. 

     Wright begins by exploring the problem of evil and offering some new insights to this old issue.  I love when he actually takes the old debate of "if there is a God, and if He is good and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world?" and turns it upside down by stating that "you could of course refer to this as the problem of good rather than the problem of evil: if the world is the chance assembly of accidental phenomena, why is there so much that we want to praise and celebrate? Why is there beauty, love and laughter?" (p. 19). 

     But then Wright goes on to reopen the "Problem of Evil" debate by examining some of the contemporary influences that impact this epic philosophical conversation.  He points out the influence that postmodern thought has had on this by claiming that: "Postmodernism, in recognizing that we are all deeply flawed, avoids any return to a classic doctrine of original sin by claiming that humans have no fixed 'identity' and hence no fixed responsibility. You can't escape evil within postmodernity, but you can't find anybody to take the blame either. . . Postmodernity encourages a cynical approach: nothing will get better and there's nothing you can do about it. . . . the analysis of evil offered by postmodernity allows for no redemption. There is no way out, no chance of repentance and restoration, no way back to the solid ground of truth from the quicksands of deconstruction." (p. 32-33). Postmodernism is a knee-jerk reaction to the failed belief in progressivism but goes to the opposite extreme of falling into despair, cynicism, and hopelessness without offering anyway out. 

    At the conclusion of this section Wright brings to light the importance for Christians living in postmodern times to believe that " . . . the God who made the world remains passionately and compassionately involved with it. . . . for the Christian, the problem is how to understand and celebrate the goodness and God-givenness of creation and, at the same time, understand and face up to the reality and seriousness of evil. . . . Evil may still be a four-letter word. But so, thank God, is love." (p. 40-41).  In this statement Wright points to a God of hope, love and compassion who pursues us.  And while recognizing evil for what it is, God never intends for it to stay that way. 

     Wright then moves on to tackle the question of "What can God do about evil?"  Acknowledging that God is deeply involved in His creation, Wright points out that "The overarching picture is of the sovereign Creator God who will continue to work within his world until blessing replaces curse, homecoming replaces exile, olive branches appear after the flood and a new family is created in which the scattered languages can be reunited." (p. 53).  God is actively involved in restoring His creation.

     But as active as God is in His creation, it seems at times that the outcome and circumstances can be messy.  Wright suggests that we look at God's promises and our current day problems with the assurance that "God remains sovereign over the paradox. . . . the only thing to do is to hold the spectacular promises in one hand and the messy reality in the other and praise YHWH anyway." (p. 60). 

     The reality is that God could scrap the "project" and start over if He chose to but instead what we see is that: This project is a matter of setting the existing creation to rights rather than scrapping it and doing something else instead." (p. 73).  In fact Wright goes on to observe in the narrative of Scripture " . . . a pattern of divine action, to judge and punish evil and to set bounds to it without destroying the responsibility and agency of human beings themselves; and also both to promise and to bring about new moments of grace, events which constitute new creation. (p. 73).  God is active and involved in restoring his creation back to how it was meant to be from the beginning. 

     One of those "new moments of grace" come through the work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the ultimate expression of God against evil which is "the force of anti-creation, anti-life, the force which opposes and seeks to deface and destroy God's good world of space, time and matter, and above all, God's image-bearing human creatures." (p. 89)  Wright explains that the Gospel writers are trying to tell us that " . . . evil at all levels and of all sorts had done its worst and that Jesus throughout his public career and supremely on the cross had dealt with it, taken its full force, exhausted it - why then, of course, death itself had no more power." (p. 89).   It is through Jesus that the power of evil is absorbed and exhausted.  Wright goes on to emphasize that "Jesus suffers the full consequences of evil: evil from the political, social, cultural, personal, moral, religious and spiritual angles 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." (p. 92).

     Then as we come to understand all that Christ has done for us through the cross and his resurrection, " . . . we are summoned by the most powerful love in the world to live by the pattern of death and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness, in daily Christian living, in sure hope of eventual victory. The "problem of evil" is not simply or purely a 'cosmic' thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah. . . The cross is the place where, and the means by which, God loved us to the uttermost." (p. 97).  So instead of looking at this as a philosophical equation to be solved, it becomes a very personal issue as I look deep into my own soul and see the problem of evil is a very, very personal problem for me in which I need help.  Thanks be to Christ for being the visible expression of solving the issue of evil and offering hope and restoration to all. 

     Wright then goes into how we ought to live into the reality of what the cross and Christ's resurrection has done for us right now.  He points out that: "According to the early Christians, what was accomplished in Jesus' death and resurrection is the foundation, the model and the guarantee for God's ultimate purpose, which is to rid the world of evil altogether and to establish his new creation of justice, beauty and peace. And it's clear from the start that this was not intended simply as a distant goal for which one was compelled to wait in passive expectation. God's future had already broken into the present in Jesus, and the church's task consists not least of implementing that achievement and thus anticipating that future. (p. 102).

     With this in mind, Wright recognizes that there is a force bent on the destruction of these aims: The biblical picture of the satan is thus of a nonhuman and nondivine quasi-personal force which seems bent on attacking and destroying creation in general and humankind in particular, and above all on thwarting God's project of remaking the world and human beings in and through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. (p. 109)

     Taking all of this into consideration there are many ways that we can live out the life that God has empowered us to enact.  The two streams of thought that have been popular over the centuries has been dualism and progressivism.  In fact these two are still very present in the modern day church whether intentionally or not.  Wright tries to establish a new way of thinking for Christians that helps us better understand our role in the present as well as the future.  Wright explains this in our call to holiness.  Wright is clear to define what this means. He declares that: "The Christian calling to radical holiness of the life is likewise a matter of inaugurated eschatology, that is, of beginning to live in the present by the rule of what will be the case in the ultimate future.  Christian ethics does not consist of a list of 'what we're allowed to do' and 'what we're not allowed to do.' It consists rather in the summons to live in God's new world, on the basis that idolatry and sin have been defeated at the cross and new creation has begun at Easter - and that the entire new world, based on this achievement, is guaranteed by the power of the Spirit." (p. 120).  This has significant implications in how we approach not only our own personal lives but how we express ourselves as a church through spiritual practices and forgiveness, how we interact with the law and how we judge art.

     Wright concludes that ". . . we are called not just to understand the problem of evil and the justice of God, but also to be part of the solution to it.  We are called to live between the cross and resurrection on the one hand and the new world on the other, and in believing in the achievements of the cross and resurrection, and in learning how to imagine the new world, we are called to bring the two together in prayer, holiness and action within this wider world." (p. 128-129). 

This is such an inspiring way, as well as a more Biblical way, of looking at ourselves and the role that we play within this present world.  I grew up under the view that the world is getting more and more evil while we as the church are just waiting for Jesus to return and rescue us.  It was a very dark view that encouraged an "us vs. them" mentality towards the world.  But I also struggled with seeing what appeared to be the only other option of progressivist thinking looking too much like Enlightenment philosophy infiltrating the church.  But Wright sets us on a course of understanding our role in the present which empowers the church to live into the fullness of the Holy Spirit, impacting ourselves as well as our culture.

     Another key way that we live into the fullness in defeating evil and upholding the justice of God is through the act of forgiveness. Wright goes on to emphasis that " . . . when we forgive someone we not only release them from the burden of our anger and its possible consequences; we release ourselves from the burden of whatever it was they had done to us, and from the crippling emotional start in which we shall go on living if we don't forgive them and instead cling to our anger and bitterness. Forgiveness, then - including God's forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of one another and our forgiveness of ourselves - is a central part of deliverance from evil." (p. 135).  This was the great act that was achieved at the cross: God's forgiveness of us.  Our sin was not excused or ignored.  It was dealt with and we were forgiven.  In the same way we need to be people of forgiveness. 

     As Wright wraps up his book, he concludes with the reminder that "with all Christian eschatology, the best news of all is that we don't have to wait for the future to start experiencing our deliverance from evil. We are invited, summoned, bidden to start living this way in the present." (p. 165).

     This was an excellent book that critiqued many of the past theological views of evil and the justice of God.  Wright also critiqued some of the current day responses to evil within the church and within society.  He presented an excellent response to how we must view evil and the justice of God, not just understanding it though, but living into it right now as a reality that we have a responsibility to enact as the body of Christ.  This has personal, ecclesiastical, and social implications that we must live into as followers of Christ.  Any one who wrestles with "the problem of evil" must read this book. 

No comments: