For thoughtbul believers, the Christmas season prompts wonderment as we consider the meaning of God’s self-giving in Christ. So, I thought it an appropriate time to post a review of Christopher Wright’s insightful new book (Zondervan, Jan. 2009), called The God I Don’t Understand.
The book is not billed as a theodicy, and in all of its 224 pages, I don’t recall seeing the word. A theodicy it is, however, as much a defense of God’s actions as an admission that humans cannot fully comprehend them. The book’s subtitle: “Reflections on tough questions of faith,” sets the tone for Wright’s exploration of divine justice as it relates to evil and suffering, Old Testament pogroms, the meaning of the cross, and the end of the world.
Wright, International Director of the Langham Partnership International, brings to his subject well-rounded perspectives as a long-time teacher of the Old Testament, as a widely-read student of theology, and as an active participant in efforts to alleviate human suffering.
While confessing an inability to fully understand the ways of God, Wright calls for a faith that seeks understanding and builds upon insight that is granted, but does not finally depend on a full understanding of divine realities (p. 22).
In pondering the mystery of evil (Chapter One), Wright acknowledges that evil is real, pervasive, and deeply rooted in humankind. Its origin was not a part of God’s plan, he argues, but entered the world through fallen angels who were created by God but not, like humans, “in the image of God.” The lack of God’s image made it possible for some angels to fall into unredeemable malevolence, he says, thus bringing evil into the world.
I found this to be the least convincing part of the book. To his credit, Wright acknowledges that the mis-named “Lucifer” story in Isaiah 14:4-21 celebrates the fall of a Babylonian king and not an angel, even as Ezekiel 28:1-17 glories in the demise of the king of Tyre. On the basis of Jude 6, 2 Peter 2:4, and Revelation 12:7-9, however, he identifies the source of evil as a cadre of fallen angels led by Satan.
Still, Wright notes, one should avoid the dualistic thought of Satan having power that approaches that of God. One should not just believe in the devil, he suggests, but believe against the devil, trusting in Satan’s ultimate defeat.
Evil brings tragic consequences, including natural disasters that cannot adequately be explained as the result of a divine curse on the earth following the fall, or as God’s special judgment on human sin – the sort of thing that is often heard in the wake of catastrophes such as the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. Such things remain a mystery, Wright writes in Chapter Two, for which God has given the language of lament and protest. Drawing illustrations from the psalms and prophets, Wright notes rightly that prayers of lament are grounded in the hope of a better day.
What is the relationship between God and evil? Adopting a schema developed by Henri Blocher, Wright posits that the cross is central to holding together an acknowledgement of “the utter evilness of evil” with a belief in “the utter sovereignty of God” and “the utter goodness of God” (Chapter Three). He draws on the story of Joseph and the Book of Revelation to argue that evil exists beneath the sovereign rule of God, who is capable of turning human evil to good purposes, and who will ultimately defeat and banish evil from God’s new creation.
In the second part of his book, Wright speaks to the problem of violence in the Old Testament, especially when given divine sanction. In wrestling with Israel’s efforts to eliminate the Canaanites during the “conquest” (Chapter Four), Wright poses three common but inadequate explanations: that it’s an Old Testament problem corrected in the New Testament, that the Israelites wrongly credited God with ordering the invasion, and that it’s all to be understood as a spiritual allegory.
Instead, Wright holds (Chapter Five) that war against the Canaanites was a limited event necessary for the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, that the Israelites were the agents of God’s judgment against the wicked Canaanites, and that the ugly enterprise played into God’s ultimate plan of salvation. That did not mean, however, that the Israelites were necessarily righteous, or that God would not later use other nations to bring judgment against them. Violence is common in the Old Testament, Wright notes, but laws decreeing special care for foreigners and prophecies of future peace among the nations should not be overlooked: the ultimate direction of the Old Testament points to Calvary.
That thought leads Wright to a lengthy consideration of the “what, why, and how” of the cross. Here he treads territory both familiar and mysterious. Chapter Six deals with the “why” and the “what” of the atonement. There is no “why” to explain God’s love for recalcitrant Israel or for sinful humankind, he says, simply the reality that God does. The “what” of Christ’s atoning work, he says, incorporates a homecoming for sinners, mercy, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation with God and others, justification, cleansing, and new life.
The “how” of the cross is the subject of Chapter Seven, which Wright devotes mainly to a defense of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, while being careful to avoid the false dichotomies of putting too much emphasis on a separation between God’s love and God’s anger, between the Father and the Son, and between the human problems of guilt or shame. Wright pulls the polarities together to show that the crucifixion of Christ involved both God’s love for humans and God’s anger at sin, that the Father did not just afflict the Son but suffered along with the Son, and that the cross overcame both guilt and shame.
In Chapter Eight, Wright helpfully works through a catalog of Old Testament themes and texts that illustrate the realities of human sin and divine judgment, acting as models that assist believers in wrestling with the meaning, as well as the mystery, of the cross.
The final section of the Wright’s volume moves to questions of eschatology. In Chapter Nine he offers a reasonable and realistic appraisal of contemporary evangelicalism’s fascination with the “end times.” He reveals the shallowness of folk religion that relies on sensationalized Christian fiction based on poorly interpreted concepts such as the “Millennium,” the restoration of Israel as a state, and the “rapture,” which Wright rightly notes is not a biblical concept at all.
Chapters Ten and Eleven look toward the “Great Climax” of Christ’s return and the “New Beginning” of God’s new creation. Strongly evangelistic readers may take exception to his argument that all will be judged on the basis of the light they have received and the lives they have lived (pp. 188ff), whether or not they have ever heard the gospel. Though we are justified by faith, Wright contends, we are judged by works.
Other readers will respond with surprise at Wright’s explanation that the heaven believers anticipate after death is not their final destination, but a temporary way station on the cosmic path to God’s redemption of the earth as redeemed humanity’s final home. Wright offers a fair defense of his interpretation regarding creation’s ultimate destiny, but like other is
sues raised in the book, the ultimate truth eludes human understanding.