I read N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God a few years ago, and I was disappointed. I just didn’t find the answers very satisfying.
After all, I’m a chronic-pain suffering person. I don’t know pain nearly as many around the world do. I mean, there are many who would justifiably envy my situation, bad back and all. But I do know pain.
But I was still hoping for a magic cure. But there’s no magic in Christianity. And it took me some time to see the profundity of what Wright says.
The theological question which underlies this dilemma can be simply put: how can it be possible, let alone right, for God to bring about a situation where all is genuinely well, and all manner of thing is truly well, granted all that has happened and, God help us, continues to happen? [JFG: Exactly: bad things really happen to good people. How could God have made a world wherein that happens?]
This is the problem faced by the author of the book of Revelation in the majestic throne-room scene in chapters 4 and 5. The four living creatures are singing ‘Holy, holy, holy’, and the elders are casting their crowns before the throne; but the one who sits on the throne holds a scroll written inside and outside, sealed with seven seals, and nobody can be found worthy to open it and break its seals.
The way to God’s unfolding purposes to put the world to rights, to complete the whole project of creation, appears to be blocked, since God has made the world in such a way that it must be looked after by human stewards, and no human being is capable of taking God’s plan forward. This is Revelation’s statement of the problem of 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. And this is Revelation’s statement of the answer: the Lamb has conquered, has defeated the powers of evil, and now (Revelation 5:9–10) the Lamb has ransomed people from every nation in order to make them a royal priesthood, serving God and reigning upon the earth. [JFG: Really? The church is going to make things better? Has God met these people?]
This theme, so frequent in the New Testament and so widely ignored in Christian theology, is part of the solution to the problem. It isn’t that the cross has won the victory, so there’s nothing more to be done. Rather, the cross has won the victory as a result of which there are now redeemed human beings getting ready to act as God’s wise agents, his stewards, constantly worshipping their creator and constantly, as a result, being equipped to reflect his image into his creation, to bring his wise and healing order to the world, putting the world to rights under his just and gentle rule.
A truly biblical ecclesiology [doctrine of how to do church] should not focus so much on the fact that the church is the community of the saved, but on the fact that the church is the community of those who, being redeemed through the cross, are now to be a kingdom and priests to serve God and to reign on the earth. Our fear of triumphalism on the one hand, and our flattening out of our final destiny into talk merely of ‘going to heaven’, have combined to rob us of this central biblical theme. But until we put it back where it belongs we won’t see how the New Testament ultimately offers a solution to the problem of evil.
God, then, will put the world to rights, and will do so in a manner consistent with the design and plan of creation from the beginning. And now it should become apparent that God’s action in Jesus, to redeem a people for himself and to set them in authority over the world, leaves God, so to speak, in the clear. Having defeated evil on the cross, God has put evil in a position where it cannot for ever blackmail him. I first met this theme in C. S. Lewis’s remarkable book The Great Divorce, where he gives his hero George MacDonald a speaking part, and has him explain how it cannot be the case that someone who ultimately rejects the love and mercy of God can hold God’s new world to ransom.
Our culture has gone even further down the road of moral illiteracy since Lewis’s day, and the only moral high ground we now recognize is that occupied by the victim, or someone who claims to be a victim; so we instinctively feel sorry for someone who’s left out of the party, someone who doesn’t yet seem persuaded that there’s an answer to their problems, someone who has not managed yet to abandon their pride and accept the free forgiveness offered in the gospel. Grand-sounding statements of universalism are offered on this basis: it cannot be right, we are told, for the redeemed to enjoy their heaven as long as one soul is left in hell. Of course, by thus appealing to our sense of feeling sorry for the one left outside the party we put that person in a position of peculiar power, able to exercise in perpetuity a veto on the triumph of grace. [JFG: This is a very good point. I’m sorry that the Jews suffered the Holocaust, but they are not the most sympathetic group in this discussion. After all, the Jews in Europe knew about Jesus and rejected him. They don’t deserve perpetual, conscious torment, but why do they deserve heaven, having reject YHWH in the flesh? A far stronger case can be made of the Chinese under Mao who were starved, beat, and quite literally worked into the grave — and who never heard of Jesus.]
The old phrase for that is ‘dog-in-the-manger’: someone who isn’t enjoying the feast themselves but is determined to prevent anyone else enjoying it either. The apparent right of evil, evil of all sorts, evil past and present, to stand there in the corporate memory and declare that it is impossible for God’s new world to be perfectly good because this deficit, this outstanding moral debt, has not yet been paid—this apparent right is overthrown on the one hand by the cross, which has defeated the powers of evil, and on the other hand by God’s creation of a new world which will bring healing, rather than obliteration, to the old one, under the stewardship of the redeemed. God’s offer of forgiveness, consequent upon his defeat of evil on the cross, means that God himself, the wise creator, is at last vindicated. [JFG: So the challenging case are those who’ve never heard of Jesus, not those who’ve rejected Jesus and suffered in this life.]
(This, by the way, is why genuine Christian theology is itself a redemptive activity; the effort to understand and articulate the way in which the creator is gloriously right both to have made the world in the first place and to have redeemed it in just this way is itself part of the stewardly vocation of genuine human existence, bringing God’s order into the minds and hearts of others and thereby enabling people both to worship the true God and to serve his continuing purposes.)
And so Wright rejects the Universal Reconciliation argument that all must eventually be saved so that the Jews who died in the Holocaust may be saved — along with Hitler.
He then turns to the nature of salvation: in particular, the necessity that the saved forgive as they’ve been forgiven, so that they may be released from the misery of unforgiven sins suffered —
Thus, just as when we offer genuine forgiveness to someone else we are no longer conditioned by the evil that they have done, even if they refuse to accept this forgiveness and so continue in a state of enmity, so when God offers genuine forgiveness to his sinful creatures he is no longer conditioned by the evil they have done, even if they refuse to accept his forgiveness. Otherwise the grouch, the sulker, the Prodigal Son’s older brother, occupies the implicit moral high ground for ever. This does not explain, as I said, the origin of evil. But it does, I think, help us to understand how it will be that, when God makes the promised new world, there will be no shadow of past evil to darken the picture.
That’s all very well, you say. God may forgive evil done in the past; but the evil was done to the Jews in the Holocaust, to the murdered man and his family, to the rape victim, the family decimated by a drunk driver, the relatives of those killed by a terrorist bomb. What right has God to say that this evil can somehow be wiped away, so that it appears not to exist any more? Is this not simply another way of belittling evil, making it appear that it isn’t really as important as all that? And what right has God to say that he forgives the offender when it is Joe Smith, not God, who has really been hurt?
This is where I have a further proposal to make, which needs to be understood in the light of the very precise meaning of forgiveness for which I am arguing throughout this chapter. Just as in God’s new world all his people will have passed beyond death, disease, decay and so forth, so that their new resurrection bodies will be incapable of any such thing, so their moral, thinking, cognitive, affective selves will also be renewed. And, in that renewal, they will be enabled fully and finally to forgive all the evil done to them, so that they, too, will no longer be affected or infected by it. [JFG: That is, for believers to be truly saved and freed from evil and suffering, they must be enabled, by the Spirit, to truly forgive — because until we forgive, we are trapped in misery by the person who sinned against us.]
This takes, of course, a pretty large leap of the imagination for most of us even in our own relatively uninjured lives; when we imagine some of the morally, physically and emotionally outrageous sufferings of people around the world over the last century, it may seem an impossible dream. Yet it is precisely the outworking of the promise of resurrection itself—which of course appears incredible to those who simply study the world of decay and death, and forget the Lord of life who lived among us and died and rose again. Just as physical decay and death will have no power over our resurrection bodies, so the moral decay and dissolution threatened by the persistent presence of evil—the gnawing resentment, the unscratchable itch of jealousy or anger, which are the moral and spiritual equivalents of physical decay and disease—will have no power over our emotional or moral lives in the world to come.
We are, in fact, called to be people of forgiveness in the present because that is the life we shall be living in the future; more about that anon. But the point (and this is really the central point of this book, the ultimate answer to this aspect at least of the problem of evil) is not only that, in the new world, God himself will be beyond the reach of the moral blackmail of unresolved evil, but that we shall be as well. ‘Sin will not have dominion over you,’ wrote Paul in Romans 6:14; and this can function as a promise not only about our present moral life but our ultimate future bliss. This is how we shall be delivered from evil, how the Lord’s Prayer will finally be answered.
N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006), 90–93 (paragraphing modified; emphasis mine).
This bears reading and re-reading. The saved will be saved from all evil of every kind. And this requires that they follow the example of Jesus and forgive all evil of every kind.
And so, Jesus came to earth to rescue us from sin — and its consequences, such as pain and suffering. But not everyone chooses to accept that offer — and they will not be empowered by the Spirit to forgive or granted admission to the new heavens and new earth. Rather, they will cease to exist.
Will they be punished? Who wouldn’t we expect God to punish the Hitlers of this world? But what about his victims? Will they, like the pre-resurrection Gentiles, merely cease to exist? Or will they be punished — justly — and then cease to exist?
Well, once we decide to trust God to be truly just, we really have no complaint if what he does is in fact just! If what he does for someone else — like the Prodigal Son — is better than just, then that’s God’s business, and we still have no right to complain, as the older brother did.