Evil and the Justice of God | Notes & Review

Posted on October 2, 2014


N.T. Wright. Evil and the Justice of God. InterVarsity Press, 2006. (174 pages)

evil and the justice of god


…our primary task is not so much to give answers to impossible philosophical questions as to bring signs of God’s new world to birth on the basis of Jesus’ death and in the power of his Spirit, even int he midst of “the present evil age.” (11)

1. EVIL IS STILL A FOUR-LETTER WORD: The New Problem of Evil

First, I will try to lay out the problem as it appears in our contemporary culture (chapter one) and to place beside it the classic statements of God’s saving justice in the Jewish and Christian traditions, focused particularly on the cross of Jesus Christ (chapters two and three). Then I will propose a way of speaking Christianly and creatively about the problem of evil and about what, under God, Christians are supposed to be doing about it (chapter four). At that point I shall raise three areas of great contemporary interest in each of which the problem of evil, if not articulated and addressed, will cause terrible difficulties and dangers: the questions of global empire, of criminal justice and punishment, and of war. In the final chapter I shall continue to examine these by considering the corporate as well as the deeply personal meaning of forgiveness. (18)


…my point is that from 1755 on, as Susan Neiman has shown recently in her brilliant book, Evil in Modern Thought, the history of European philosophy can best be told as the history of people trying to come to terms with evil. (20)

…people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less soluble by technology, education, “development” in the sense of “Westernization,” and the application, to more and more regions, of Western democracy–and, according to taste, of either Western social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or indeed a mixture of both. (23)

First, we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face. Second, we are surprised by evil when it does. Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result. (24)

Claiming the status of victim has become the new multicultural sport… (29)


You can’t escape evil within postmodernity, but you can’t find anybody to take the blame either. (32)

First, postmodern analysis is essentially, for the reasons already given, dehumanizing. There is no moral dignity left because there is nobody left to bear the blame. (33)

Second, the analysis of evil offered by postmodernity allows for no redemption. (33)


The first element is to recognize the flaw in assuming that the Western type of democracy is perfect, complete, the climax of a long process of wise and noble libertarianism stretching back to Magna Carta. (35)

…democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all those other forms that are tried from time to time. (Churchill) (36)

The second element which must be factored in is the psychological one. (36)

Solzhenitsyn; …the line between good and evil is never simply between “us” and “them.” The line between good and evil runs through each one of us. (38)

These three elements–a willingness to concede that we may not have got democracy right, and that it may not be the universal panacea for all ills; a recognition of a depth-dimension to evil, a supra-personal element within it; and the acknowledgement that the line between good and evil runs through us all–are necessary, I suggest, if we are to make any headway with our understanding of evil, whether at a metaphysical, theological, political or personal level. (39)


The big question of our time, I have argued, can be understood in terms how we address and live with the fact of evil in our world. (39)

The Christian belief, growing out of its Jewish roots, is that the God who made the world remains passionately and compassionately involved with it. (40)

The questions that ought to be occupying us as a society, never mind as a church, are these: How can we integrate the various insights about evil which the greatest thinkers and social commentators have offered? How can we offer a Christian critique of them where necessary? And how can we tell the Christian story in such a way that, without attempting to “solve” the problem in a simplistic way, we can nevertheless address it in a mature fashion, and in the middle of it come to a deeper and wiser faith in the creator and redeemer God whose all-conquering love will one day make a new creation in which the dark and threatening sea of chaos will be no more? (41)

2. WHAT CAN GOD DO ABOUT EVIL? Unjust World, Just God?

The Old Testament oscillates among three things: evil seen as idolatry and consequent dehumanization; evil as what wicked people do, not least what they do to the righteous; and evil as the work of the “satan” (a Hebrew word meaning “accuser”). (45)

theodicy (an explanation of the justice of God in the face of counterevidence.) (45)

The Old Testament isn’t written in order simply to “tell us about God” in the abstract. It isn’t designed primarily to provide information, to satisfy the inquiring mind. It’s written to tell the story of what God has done, and will do about evil. (45)

The problem of the individual, which in much Western thought has been made central to philosophical and theological understanding, is presented in the Bible as a subset of the larger problem of Israel, of humankind and of creation itself. (47)


The tower of Babel. First, there is a link between the humans and the land. The arrogant people of Babel build a city and a tower; God calls Abraham to be a nomad–no fixed abode for a while yet–but promises him, eventually, a homeland. Second, we note that the “solution,” or the answer, offered in Genesis 12 is strictly eschatological. (49)

The flood. The flood stands as a reminder that God hates evil and what it does to his creation, that he can and sometimes will take steps to stop it in its tracks, but that–precisely because he is the sovereign Creator–he will find a way of working through and out the other side to fulfill the purpose which he still intends for creation. (50)

The forbidden fruit. We all want to know what the story refuses to tell us: why there was a snake in God’s beautiful creation in the first place, and why it wanted to use its cunning in that way. Instead of giving us an explanation for evil, the story gives us a brief analysis of it, not the least the strong role of deception–of oneself and of others–and the way in which excuses come easily to the heart and tongue but can’t put off the question of responsibility. (51)

A new way. Evil must be judged, and judged severely. God has made a beautiful word; evil, insofar as we can define it at this stage, is a defacing of that world, a way of getting the world upside down and inside out. (52)

But God then declares in and through Abraham, as an act of sovereign grace following the world and act of judgment, that a new way has opened up by which the original purpose of blessing for humankind and creation can be taken forward. From within the story we already ought to perceive that this is going to be enormously costly for God himself. The loneliness of God looking for his partners, Adam and Eve, int he garden; the grief of God before the flood; the head-shaking exasperation of God at Babel–all these, God knows, he will have to continue to experience. (53)


We are not given an answer; we are instead informed in no uncertain terms that god will contain evil, that he will restrain it, that he will prevent it from doing its worst, and that he will even on occasion use the malice of human beings to further his own strange purposes. (55)

…one of the primary Jewish answers to the question, “What does God do with evil?” is that God judges the wicked pagans who are oppressing Israel, and he rescues his people from their grasp. (55-56)

God remained faithful to the Israelites–even when they had been faithless to him. (57)

And yet ever since the garden, ever since God’s grief over Noah, ever since Babel and Abraham, the story has been about the messy way in which God has had to work to bring the world out of the mess. Somehow, in a way we are inclined to find offensive, God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights. … the primal sin of humanity consisted in putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. (59)

YHWH himself has done to Israel what he had done to Adam and Eve… (62)


God’s justice is not simply a blind dispensing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty o those are to be found on the way. God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring to glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place. And he remains implacably determined to complete this project through his image-bearing human creatures and, more specifically, through the family of Abraham. (64)

The book of Daniel. The questions we are left with at the end of Daniel are: Who are God’s faithful people? How will it all work out? Who is this Son of Man? (68)

The book of Job. …it is a contest between Satan and Job. Satan is trying to get Job in his power, to demonstrate that humans are not worth God’s trouble, while Job for his part continues to insist both that God ought to be just and that he himself is in the right. (69)

…reemphasizing the doctrine of creation is indeed the foundation of all biblical answers to questions about who God is and what he’s doing. (70)


First, the personified force of evil, the satan, is important but not that important. (71)

Second, human responsibility for evil is clear throughout. (72)

Third, the evil that humans do is integrated with the enslavement of creation. (72)

Fourth, the Old Testament never tries to give us the sort of picture the philosophers want, that of a static world order with everything explained tidily. (73)

God decides, for that reason, to work through human beings as they are–even though their hearts think only of evil–and through Israel, even though from Abraham onward they make as many mistakes as they do acts of obedience. (73)


Rereading the Gospels

  1. The Gospels tell the story of the political powers of the world reaching their full, arrogant height. …the word gospel itself–never mind any teaching about “God’s kingdom”–was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar, the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as “good news,” “gospel.” (79)
  2. The Gospels thus also tell the story of corruption within Israel itself, as the people who bear the solution have themselves become (with terrible irony that causes Paul to weep every time he thinks of it) a central part of the problem. (80)
  3. The Gospels then tell the story of the deeper, darker forces which operate at a suprapersonal level, forces for which the language of the demonic, despite all its problems, is still at the least inadequate. (81)
  4. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus as a story in which the line between good and evil runs not between Jesus and his friends on the one hand and everyone else on the other–certainly not between Jews and Gentiles–but down the middle of Jesus’s followers themselves. (82)
  5. The story the Gospels tell is a story about the downward spiral of evil (82)

These five points lead us to say that the story the Gospels are trying to tell us is the story of how the death of Jesus is the point at which evil in all its forms has come rushing together. Jesus’ death is the result both of the major political evil of the world, the power games which the world was playing as it still does, and of the dark, accusing forces which stand behind those human and societal structures, forces which accuse creation itself of being evil, and so try to destroy it while its Creator is longing to redeem it. (82-83)

Jesus Dealing with Evil

Jesus’s healings.

Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners. The taint of evil lies heavy on him throughout, and somehow he bears it, takes it all the way, exhausts its power. (85)

Jesus articulates and models the call to Israel to be Israel.

  1. Jesus had warned his people of God’s impending judgment for their failure to follow his call to be the light of the world, for their failure to embody within their own life that justice and mercy to which God had called them.
  2. Jesus had identified totally with Israel (as the Messiah, the Servant, was bound to do): taking its vocation upon himself, coming to the point of pain, of uncleanness, of sickness, folly, rebellion, and sin.
  3. Jesus was thus taking on himself the direct consequences, in the political and in the theological realm alike, of the failure and sin of Israel. (86)

Early Christian View of Evil’s Defeat

  1. Paul saw, in his dramatic statement in Romans 7:1-8:11, that in the death of Jesus God had condemned sin, passed and executed judicial sentence upon it (Romans 8:3). God’s great No to evil had been acted out in the person of Jesus, the person who could and did represent Israel as its Messiah, and hence the person who represented the whole world.
  2. The New Testament writers report in various ways the remarkable sign of evil doing its worst and being exhausted. (88)

Evil 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. (89)

…the Gospel writers were telling their whole story so as to explain why the resurrection happened, to make it clear that his was not simply an odd, isolated, bizarre miracle but rather the proper and appropriate result of Jesus’ entire and successful confrontation with evil. It was like the call of Abraham coming after the judgment on Babel; like the dove and the olive leaf after the forty days’ rain. It was God’s act of new creation after judgment had fallen on the evil of the old. (90)

The story the Gospels are trying to tell is a story in which evil and its deadly power are taken utterly seriously, over against the tendency in many quarters today to cling on to an older liberal idea that there wasn’t really very much wrong with the world or with human beings in the first place. (90)

To be sure it is humiliating to accept both the diagnosis and the cure. But, as our world demonstrates more and more obviously, when you pretend evil isn’t there you merely give it more space to operate; so perhaps it is time to look again at both the diagnosis and the cure which the evangelists offer. (91)

First, the temple action.

Second, the supper.

Third, the crucifixion itself.

Jesus on his 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. (92)

What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, nor a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it. (93)

…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)

Results: Atonement and the Problem of Evil

The first thing to say is that theories of atonement are all, in themselves, abstractions from the real events. (94)

The “problem of evil” is not simply or purely a “cosmic” thing; it is also a problem about me. (97)

This evocation of Isaiah 53 sits in the middle of the political analysis of empire and subverts it by showing how all the traditions of Israel, the people through whom God would address and solve the problem of the world’s evil, come to a point which overturns Babylon and its ways. (98)

The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love. (98)

Dare we stand in front of the cross and admit that it was all done for us? Dare we take all the meanings of the word God and allow them to be recentered upon–redefined by–this man, this moment, this death? Dare we address the consequences of what Jesus himself said, that the rulers of the world behave in one way, but that we must not do it like that? Dare we thus put atonement theology and political theology together, with the deeply personal message on one side and the utterly practical and political message on the other, and turn aside from the way of James and John and embrace the way of Jesus himself? (100

4. IMAGINE THERE’S NO EVIL: God’s Promise of a World Set Free

Today we find a similar argument being advanced to legitimate the new kind of global empire, that of unfettered capitalist growth and the massive global debt that it has produced. (107)

I want to suggest in this chapter that the Christian vision of world history offers a different way of addressing the problem of evil on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus. (107)

Interlude: Naming the Powers

Death is not an arbitrary punishment for sin; it is the necessary consequence, since the turning way from the living God which constitutes idolatry is the spiritual equivalent of a diver cutting off his own breathing tube. (109)

Evil is then the moral and spiritual equivalent of a black hole. (113)

World Without Evil

The New Testament invites us, then, to imagine a new world as a beautiful, healing community; to envisage it as a world vibrant with life and energy, incorruptible, beyond the reach of death and decay; to hold it in our minds’ eye as a world reborn, set free from the slavery of corruption, free to be truly what it was made to be. (118)

The Intermediate Tasks

  1. Prayer.
  2. Holiness. …beginning to live int he present by the rule of what will be the case in the ultimate future.
  3. Politics and empire. The Christian is thus under obligation both to honor the ruling authority, whatever it may be, and to work constantly to remind that authority of its God-given task and to encourage and help it to perform that primary task: to do justice and love mercy, to ensure that those who are weak and vulnerable are properly looked after. (122) …the early Christians, like their Jewish cousins, were not particularly worried about the means by which rulers and authorities came to power. They were far more concerned about what they did once they had obtained power. (123)
  4. Penal codes.
  5. International disputes.

Educating the Imagination

Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are but to the way things are meant to be, and by God’s grace to the way things one day will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. (128)


I hope that I have at least indicated the enormous and exciting task which lies before us: 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. (128)

5. DELIVER US FROM EVIL: Forgiving Myself, Forgiving Others

The fact is 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 crippled emotional state in which we shall go on living if we don’t forgive them and instead cling to our anger and bitterness. (135)

God’s Final Victory over Evil

God has a plan for the world; but unless he is to unmake creation itself, which is designed to function through the stewardship of God’s image-bearing creatures–the human race–it looks as though the plan cannot come to fruition. (139)

Forgiveness in the Present

I now want to suggest that part of the Christian task in the present is to anticipate this eschatology, to borrow from God’s future in order to change the way things are in the present, to enjoy the taste of our eventual deliverance from evil by learning how to loose the bonds of evil in the present. (147)

Evil isn’t simply a philosophers’ puzzle but a reality which stalks our streets and damages people’s lives, homes and property. The quest for a solution is not a quest for an intellectually satisfying answer to the problem of why evil is there in the first place. Rather, the quest for a solution to the problem of evil is a search for ways in which the healing, restorative justice of the Creator God himself–a justice which will one day suffuse the whole creation–can be brought to bear, in advance of that ultimate reality, within the present world of space, time, matter, and messy realities in human lives and societies. (150)

The point we desperately need to grasp is that forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance. … Forgiveness does not mean that we don’t take evil seriously after all; it means that we do. (151)

In fact it means we take it doubly seriously. (152)

…the faculty we have for receiving forgiveness and the faculty we have for granting forgiveness are one and the same thing. (158)

It will still be possible for people to refuse forgiveness–both to give it and to receive it–but they will no longer have the right or the opportunity thereby to hold God and God’s future world to ransom, to make the moral universe rotate around the fulcrum of their own sulk. (160)


When we understand forgiveness, flowing from the work of Jesus and the Spirit, as the strange, powerful thing it really is, we begin to realize that God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others, is the knife that cuts the rope by which sin, anger, fear, recrimination and death are still attached to us. Evil will have nothing to say at the last, because the victory of the cross will be fully implemented. (165)

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Perhaps the most difficult problem to address is the pesky question that will not go away, “Why?” Regardless of how many times writers like Wright and other say that the Bible is still not offering a philosophical treatise or explanation, the human heart still cries for one. And, by the way, isn’t Job some sort of attempt at answering the philosophical question with a “non-answer?” This conundrum leads me to something even more problematic, which is, Is the Bible’s address of this problem a) inadequate, b) insufficient, c) existentially dissatisfying? Are we forever going to be lost in the abyss of the absence of a theological and philosophical “reason?”

I opine yes. This is what makes evil, evil.

Side note, how substantive is the argument that evil is–however counter intuitive–an argument for the divine? That without God, without some value judgment on this world, there can be no existential reality that we can call “evil?”

Posted in: Justice, Theology