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It's all very well to say, "Turn to the Bible", but you can read the Bible from cover to cover, again and again, looking for a simple, clear answer to the question of the ultimate origin of evil, and you won't find an answer. I am not talking here about the entry of evil into human life and experience in Genesis 3, which we will think about in a moment, but about how the evil force that tempted human beings into sin and rebellion came to be there in the first place. That ultimate origin is not explained.
This has not stopped many people from trying to come up with an answer for themselves and dragging in whatever bits of the Bible they think will support their theory. But it seems to me that when we read the Bible asking God, "Where did evil come from? How did it originally get started?" God seems to reply, "That is not something I intend to tell you." In other words, the Bible compels us to accept the mystery of evil. Notice I did not say, "compels us to accept evil". The Bible never does that or asks us to do so. We are emphatically told to reject and resist evil. Rather, I mean that the Bible leads us to accept that evil is a mystery (especially in terms of its origin), a mystery that we human beings cannot finally understand or explain. And we will see in a moment that there is a good reason why that is so.
However, in one sense, there is no mystery at all about the origin (in the sense of the actual effective cause) of a great deal of suffering and evil in our world. A vast quantity-and I believe we could say the vast majority-of suffering is the result of human sin and wickedness. There is a moral dimension to the problem. Human beings suffer in broad terms and circumstances because human beings are sinful.
It is helpful, I think, even if it is oversimplified, to make some distinction between what we might call "moral" evil and "natural" evil. This is not necessarily the best kind of language, and there are all kinds of overlaps and connections. But I think it does at least articulate a distinction that we recognize as a matter of common sense and observation.
By "moral" evil is meant the suffering and pain that we find in the world standing in some relation to the wickedness of human beings, directly or indirectly. This is evil that is seen in things that are said and done, things that are perpetrated, caused, or exploited, by human action (or inaction) in the realm of human life and history. To this we need to link spiritual evil and explore what the Bible has to say about "the evil one"-the reality of satanic, spiritual evil forces that invade, exploit, and amplify human wickedness.
By "natural" evil is meant suffering that appears to be part of life on earth for all of nature, including animal suffering caused by predation and the suffering caused to human beings by events in the natural world that seem (in general anyway) to be unrelated to any human moral cause-things like earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes, floods, etc., that is, so-called natural disasters.
In the case of moral evil, sometimes there is a direct link between sin and suffering. For example, some people directly cause other people to suffer through violence, abuse, cruelty, or just sheer callousness and neglect. Or sometimes people suffer directly the effects of their own wrong actions. Someone who drives too fast or drinks too much and ends up killing themselves in a road accident suffers the direct impact of their own sin or folly. Or we may suffer the punishment of the laws of our society for wrongdoing. Being put in prison is a form of suffering and in that respect it is an evil thing. And yet we recognize that some form of punishment for wrongdoing is a necessary evil. More than that, we have a strong instinct that when people are not punished when they are guilty of wrongdoing, that is another and even greater evil. Punishment, when deserved as a part of a consensual process of justice, is a good thing too.
But there is also a vast amount of suffering caused indirectly by human wickedness. The drunken driver may survive, but kill or injure other innocent people. Wars cause so-called collateral damage. Stray bullets from a gang fight or bank robbery kill innocent bystanders. A railway maintenance crew goes home early and fails to complete inspection of the track; a train is derailed and people are killed and injured. Whole populations suffer for generations after negligent industrial contamination. We can multiply examples from almost every news bulletin we see or hear. These are all forms of moral evil. They cause untold suffering, and they all go back in some form or another to culpable actions or failures of human beings.
Somehow, we manage to live with such facts, simply because they are so common and universal that we have "normalized" them, even if we regret or resent them and even if we grudgingly admit that humanity itself is largely to blame. But whenever something terrible on a huge scale happens, like the 2004 tsunami, or the cylone in Myanmar in 2008, or the earthquakes in Pakistan, Peru, and China, the cry goes up, "How can God allow such a thing? How can God allow such suffering?" My own heart echoes that cry and I join in the protest at the gates of heaven. Such appalling suffering, on such a scale, in such a short time, inflicted on people without warning and for no reason, offends all our emotions and assumptions that God is supposed to care. We who believe in God, who know and love and trust God, find ourselves torn apart by the emotional and spiritual assault of such events.
"How can God allow such things?" we cry, with the built-in accusation that if he were any kind of good and loving God, he would not allow them. Our gut reaction is to accuse God of callousness or carelessness and to demand that he do something to stop such things.
But when I hear people voicing such accusations-especially those who don't believe in God but like to accuse the God they don't believe in of his failure to do things he ought to do if he did exist-then I think I hear a voice from heaven saying:
"Well, excuse me, but if we're talking here about who allows what, let me point out that thousands of children are dying every minute in your world of preventable diseases that you have the means (but obviously not the will) to stop. How can you allow that?
"There are millions in your world who are slowly dying of starvation while some of you are killing yourselves with gluttony. How can you allow such suffering to go on?
"You seem comfortable enough knowing that millions of you have less per day to live on than others spend on a cup of coffee, while a few of you have more individual wealth than whole countries. How can you allow such obscene evil and call it an economic system?
"There are more people in slavery now than in the worst days of the pre-abolition slave trade. How can you allow that?
"There are millions upon millions of people living as refugees, on the knife-edge of human existence, because of interminable wars that you indulge in out of selfishness, greed, ambition, and lying hypocrisy. And you not only allow this, but collude in it, fuel it, and profit from it (including many of you who claim most loudly that you believe in me).
"Didn't one of your own singers put it like this, 'Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.'"
So it seems to me that there is no doubt at all, even if one could not put a percentage point on the matter, that the vast bulk of all the suffering and pain in our world is the result, direct or indirect, of human wickedness. Even where it is not caused directly by human sin, suffering can be greatly increased by it. What Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans was bad enough, but how much additional suffering was caused by everything from looters to bureaucratic incompetence? HIV-AIDS is bad enough, but how many millions suffer preventable illness and premature death because corporate and political greed and callousness put medicines that are affordable and available in the West totally out of their reach? What the cyclone did to Myanmar was horrendous, but its effects were multiplied by the characteristically brutal refusal of the government to allow international aid organizations into the country until weeks later. Human callousness undoubtedly precipitated the death of thousands and prolonged the misery of the survivors.
The Bible's Diagnosis
In a sense, then, there is no mystery. We suffer because we sin. This is not to say, I immediately hasten to add, that every person suffers directly or proportionately because of their own sin (the Bible denies that). It is simply to say that the suffering of the human race as a whole is to a large extent attributable to the sin of the human race as a whole.
The Bible makes this clear up front. Genesis 3 describes in a profoundly simple story the entry of sin into human life and experience. It came about because of our wilful rejection of God's authority, distrust of God's goodness, and disobedience of God's commands. And the effect was brokenness in every relationship that God had created with such powerful goodness.
The world portrayed in Genesis 1 and 2 is like a huge triangle of God, the earth, and humanity.
Every relationship portrayed was spoiled by the invasion of sin and evil: the relationship between us and God, the relationship between us and the earth, and the relationship between the earth and God.
Genesis 3 itself shows the escalation of sin. Even in this simple story, we can see sin moving from the heart (with its desire), to the head (with its rationalization), to the hand (with its forbidden action), to relationship (with the shared complicity of Adam and Eve). Then, from Genesis 4-11, the portrayal moves from the marriage relationship to envy and violence between brothers, to brutal vengeance within families, to corruption and violence in wider society and the permeation of the whole of human culture, infecting generation after generation with ever-increasing virulence.
The Bible's diagnosis is radical and comprehensive.
Sin has invaded every human person (everyone is a sinner).
Sin distorts every dimension of the human personality (spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, social).
Sin pervades the structures and conventions of human societies and cultures.
Sin escalates from generation to generation within human history.
Sin affects even creation itself.
We read a chapter like Job 24, and we know it speaks the truth about the appalling morass of human exploitation, poverty, oppression, brutality and cruelty. And, like Job, we wonder why God seems to do nothing, to hold nobody to account, and to bring nobody to instant justice.
Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? There are those who move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen. They drive away the orphan's donkey and take the widow's ox in pledge. They thrust the needy from the path and force all the poor of the land into hiding. Like wild donkeys in the desert, the poor go about their labor of foraging food; the wasteland provides food for their children. They gather fodder in the fields and glean in the vineyards of the wicked. Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked; they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold. They are drenched by mountain rains and hug the rocks for lack of shelter.
Excerpted from The God I Don't Understand by Christopher J. H. Wright Copyright © 2008 by Christopher J. H. Wright. Excerpted by permission.
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What about Evil and Suffering?
1 The Mystery of Evil 29
2 The Offence of Evil 44
3 The Defeat of Evil 56
What about the Canaanites?
4 The Canaanites-Three Dead Ends 76
5 The Canaanites-Three Frameworks 86
What about the Cross?
6 The Cross-Why and What? 111
7 The Cross-How? 127
8 The Cross-According to the Scriptures 143
What about the End of the World?
9 Cranks and Controversies 161
10 The Great Climax 173
11 The New Beginning 193
Further Reading 222
Posted February 13, 2009
Christopher Wright is a prominent light these days in the evangelical Christian world both as a writer and a leader. He has given papers and presentations to the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature recently. According to the book blurb, Wright serves as International Director of the Langham Partnership International (a prominent world missions/evangelism organization founded by John R. W. Stott) and has served as chair of the Lausanne Committee's Theology Working Group (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism). <BR/><BR/> He has written several books that have been appreciated by the evangelical world. Books on my shelf which I do recommend are: The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative; Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament; Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament; The Message of Ezekiel: A New Heart and a New Spirit; and a commentary on Deuteronomy in the New International Bible Commentary Series.<BR/><BR/> In this particular work, Wright pastorally approaches some of the "tough questions" persons may have as they read through the Bible. The title and the opening pages clearly show that God is not always easily understandable by the seasoned Bible scholar and pastor, so the "average pew sitter" should not be frustrated or overwhelmed when he may encounter difficulties, implying to the reader "you are not alone." Wright does make it a point to remind, however, that, though one may not understand God and his actions fully, yet he is worthy of appreciation, worship, and full trust. "[T]o know God, to love and trust him with all one's heart and soul and strength, is not the same as to understand God in all his ways" (13). After all, he is God; we are not.<BR/><BR/> Wright divided his work into four major sections: What about Evil and Suffering? What about the Canaanites? What about the Cross? and, What about the End of the World? In the first section on evil and suffering, Wright dealt with the question every individual faces (from whence and why evil?) in three chapters, discussing the mystery, offence, and defeat of evil. In the second section on the Canaanites, the author offered a consideration of "three dead ends" and "three frameworks" as he wrestled with God's punishment of the Canaanites. Wright focused on the fact that evil impacts God also as he treated Christ's cross work in section three, explaining the why and how of Jesus' atoning death. Last, he considered where we all are headed along with the ultimate remedy to evil and sin, ending with some excellent encouraging remarks for the Christian to persevere. At the back of the book, the interested reader will find a very useful section for further reading organized around the four section topics. This section alone is worth the price of the book.<BR/><BR/> This book is recommended for those who have never considered these tough questions of life or who are only beginning to ask these questions. Wright offers a pastoral encouragement to understand evil and its impact on you and your world, an encouragement to understand the God who does control his universe and will bring it to a glorious positive conclusion, and an encouragement to trust in him whose actions are not always understandable. My only question relates to the section on the Canaanites. This section seems overlong but may well be helpful for some.
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Posted January 25, 2009
The God I Don¿t Understand in the second book I¿ve read by Christopher Wright. (The other being "Knowing the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.") His approach in both works is wholly authentic. He is an academic. However, he doesn¿t approach the biblical text as if the scholarly and inspirational pursuits of God¿s written word are mutual exclusives. You will be educated and at the same time inspired. He addresses difficult issues (such as the existence of evil and the ordained violence in the Old Testament and at the cross), providing an expanded biblical and historical context on all of them. The questions still remain, however. What he does leave the reader with is a desire not to look back and wonder why, but to look forward and ask what ¿ what can I do for my God to prepare for the Lord¿s return.
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Posted April 7, 2009
If you were to survey every classroom, church and home asking if anyone understood God, inevitably there wouldn't be a soul who would make that claim. It is from this common ground that The God I Don't Understand takes root. By digging into the bible, extracting the truths embedded in the scriptures, Christopher H. Wright tackles the tough questions of faith with loaded evidence. Clearly written by a biblical scholar and teacher, this book brings into focus the God we come to know and understand according to the scriptures. It points to the God who reveals enough of Himself to justify our trust and worship even though there will always be things about Him we can't comprehend. It piles up a hefty stack of credible reasons to believe while leaving plenty of room to humbly accept and appreciate the mystery, confusion and questions that linger. Ironically, by investigating the questions that baffle and bewilder, a pathway to greater understanding opens up.
Conveniently divided into four sections of reflection: What about Evil and Suffering?, What about the Canaanites?, What about the Cross?, and What about the End of the World?, The God I Don't Understand easily converts into an enriching individual or group bible study. If you've ever wanted to come closer to the God you love but don't always understand, this book is well worth the read. No doubt about it.
Posted February 2, 2009
The God i Don¿t Understand balances the limits of what can be understood about four problematic areas¿1) evil and suffering, 2) Canaanites in the book of Joshua, 3) the crucifixion of Jesus, and 4) the end of the world. Three chapters address each problematic area except for the destruction of the Canaanites in the book of Joshua in which there are only two chapters. Whereas the lack of human understanding in the areas of evil and suffering and the end of the world arise from the human experience and contemplation, the problems with God¿s response to the Canaanites in the book of Joshua and the crucifixion of Jesus emerge from reading the Scriptural accounts. <BR/><BR/>The goal of this book as stated by Wright is to `face up to the limitations of our understanding and to acknowledge the pain and grief this can often cause¿ but also to affirm that `God is ultimately in charge and I can trust him to put things right¿ (23).<BR/><BR/>The tone of this book is pastoral and personal. The integration of the author¿s own faith in the Jesus of Nazareth and his admissions of understanding and lack thereof provides clear direction for `secure¿ Christians who struggle with not totally understanding troublesome aspects concerning the ways of God.<BR/><BR/>Throughout the entire book, Wright¿s exploration of these four troublesome areas contains a balance of his candid attempt to provide answers to thorny questions where Scripture provides assistance and his lack of answers for other questions where mystery prevails over understanding. As an example of the latter, the first chapter, `The Mystery of Evil,¿ concludes with Wright¿s admission that evil does not make sense to any human because sense belongs in the realm of rationality¿that part of the good creation of God and God¿s image in humans. He argues that sense and evil are therefore mutually exclusive. As an example of former, in the second chapter, `The Offence of Evil,¿ Wright surmises that Christians are allowed (even encouraged!) to lament, protest, and be angry at the offensiveness of evil while retaining their trust in God.<BR/><BR/>Wright¿s inquiries into these four areas provide a wonderful discussion partner for anyone (Christian or non-Christian) who grapples with these prickly issues. Wright¿s stance¿understanding what is possible and acknowledging what is not comprehensible from a faith perspective¿is refreshing and welcome in this ongoing debate regarding things that humans do not understand about God that result in anger, puzzlement, gratitude, or hope.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2010
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Posted March 5, 2009
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