Forgetting the Columns

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The next chapter is on the problem of evil, and in the course of it Wright says something that is particularly fine. Since there are a lot of other problems, to be dealt with in due course, I wanted to begin with the praise.

“The Gospels tell this story in order to say that the tortured young Jewish prophet hanging on the cross was the point where evil, including the violence of terror and the nonhuman forces that work through creation, had become truly and fully and totally itself. The Gospels tell the story of the downward spiral of evil” (p. 121).

In this statement, and a number of related statements in this chapter, Wright does what he does best, which is to set and describe the broad context — the events leading up to the cross are set center stage in a cosmic drama, which is right where the cross belongs. He does this very well, and no complaints on that score.

The approach that Wright takes to the problem of evil generally appears to be a variation of the Christus Victor approach to the cross, which is absolutely biblical and fine, but only so long as other key elements of biblical atonement theology (e.g. propitiation) are not left out, but which Wright unfortunately does.

What Wright says about the silencing of the principalities and powers is glorious and right and true. Christus Victor is one biblical aspect of the death of Christ. But it is not the whole thing. To write about God’s vindication of His righteousness without using the word propitiation is like building a replica of the Parthenon and forgetting to put in the columns. For someone like Wright to miss this concept in Paul, and in the New Testament, is simply fatal to his project.

On this topic, Wright continues to indulge his propensity for calling things new that are not new at all. For example, he thinks we are dealing with “a new problem of evil” (p. 110). But what’s new about it? People have been dying in tsunamis for many centuries. People in anguish, also for centuries, have wanted to know why. This question has been asked forever by poets and wailing widows, and not just by metaphysicians. But Wright dismisses the older concerns as the stuff of philosophical fustian, with more than a whiff of the constant seminar room, the one with a particularly metaphysical fly buzzing helplessly against the window pane of inscrutability — “older ways of talking about evil tended to pose the puzzle as a metaphysical or theological conundrum” (p. 111).

Wright, by way of contrast, wants to locate the problem as one we struggle in the midst of, as opposed to it being a problem we can somehow “solve.” “If we think we’ve solved the problem of evil, that just shows we haven’t understood it” (p. 114).

“Theologies of the cross, of atonement, have not in my view grappled sufficiently with the larger problem of evil as normally conceived” (p. 119).

Wright sees tight theological reasoning as insufficient grappling. Specific detailed answers seem to him to be pat answers, by definition. By contrast, he steps back and tries to give us the grand panorama, setting it in marked opposition to “philosophical” treatments.

“What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil — what it is or why it’s there — but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it” (p. 122).

“He has taken the weight of the world’s evil on his own shoulders. This is not an explanation. It is not a philosophical conclusion” (p. 123).

He is right that it is not a philosophical or metaphysical explanation. It couldn’t be because it is not any kind of an explanation at all. The problem with the grand panoramic vista is that if you get high enough up on the ridge you can’t hear the screams in the valley — and the glorious story you are telling becomes mere hand waving.

When that happens, your attempted account simply turns into a jumble of contradictions. For example,in some ways, Wright acknowledges God’s mastery of the macro-scene.

“God declares throughout scripture that he is going to put the world to rights at the last, even though this will involve, in Haggai’s phrase, giving both heaven and earth one last great shake to sort everything out” (p. 115).

A moment later he adds that “humans need to be put right and the world needs a good shake” (p. 115).

Up on the ridge, this simply sounds like a biblical citation. Who could be against that? The problem is that when God picks up heaven and earth and shakes it, a bunch of bones get broken. It is kind of rough for those of us who have to live inside this thing. But then, just a few pages later, Wright wants to say that God’s work in the world is from within it — with evil as a larger backdrop to the whole thing.

“Rather God loves his world so much that, faced with evil within it, he works within the world, despite the horrible ambiguities that result” (p. 117).

So God steps into the world, in order to confront evil face to face. And this is quite biblical — that is precisely what He does. His name is Immanuel. God reveals Himself to us in Christ on the cross. But He does not do this in a way that relinquishes His sovereign and majestic control over every particle of His created order. When we see Christ on the cross in faith, we see that the wisdom of the Father is infinite. We should not see that the wisdom of the Father is stuck down here with us, caught with us in the machinery.

But in Wright’s theodicy, this sovereignty is precisely what God does relinquish. Wright rejects “a God who sits upstairs and pulls the puppet strings to make things happen, or not, as the case may be, down here” (p. 126).

When disaster strikes, God is a first responder –“the God who rushed to the scene with all the help he could muster” (pp. 126-127). The difficulty here — and it is a grave difficulty — is that in our undeniable experience, God does not show up with “all the help” He could muster. He just doesn’t. This is what causes the problem of evil. God either can’t help or won’t help. If He can’t help, He isn’t God. If He won’t help, then He must have a good reason. We must wait patiently for the unfolding of that reason, and telling ourselves lies in the meantime won’t help us deal with it.

I would want to justify God in the unfolding of the story. This is not just in the grand story, but also in all the lesser stories as well. I need to know that God has a point to all this when it comes to the things that I and those dear to me have to go through. Is Romans 8:28 true in our case, or not? And if true, in what ways? But Wright doesn’t like this line of thinking at all.

“Nor can we say that evil is good after all because it provides a context for moral effort and even heroism, as though we could get God off the hook by making the world a theater where God sets up little plays to give his characters a chance to show how virtuous they really are. That is trivializing to the point of blasphemy” (p. 115).

Patient endurance is not blasphemy. The riches of God’s goodness and forbearance and patience are meant to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). It is by patient continuance in doing good — even in the midst of trial and affliction — that we are to seek glory, honor, and immortality. In other words, personal salvation is a big deal in Paul — an essential part of grand panorama. There is nothing blasphemous about it.

“And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no” (Deut 8:2).

On subjects like this, Wright says that he waves off “easy answers,” but his whole theology of the thing is nothing more than minced theology, with euphemism abounding. For example, he refers to the Israelites and their “deeply ambiguous entry into the land” (p. 117). From the tone and flow of this chapter, it appears that he is speaking of the slaughter of the Canaanites. The Israelites were the people of God, and yet their way with the sword was attended by lots of problems and ambiguities. However the text, the Scriptures, would agree that there were ambiguities in Israel’s obedience, and would point in another direction entirely. Their problem was that they didn’t kill enough Canaanites. Saul was the one who let Agag live, losing his kingdom thereby, and it was Samuel who came along and created all that ambiguity — well, ambiguity for 21st century academics. There was no ambiguity that Agag could detect.

Speaking of ambiguities, Wright says that when God steps into the world to fight evil, that too creates ambiguities. But what are these ambiguities? Are they anything like horrors and outrages? And who is responsible for the horrors and outrages? This world is all screwed up. Whose idea was it? The world is one messed-up place, and everyone who believes in ex nihilo creation believes that it was God’s idea to put it here. I am just speaking for myself here, and I might get shouted down, but there are really only two options when it comes to this particular dilemma — atheism or Calvinism.

But in response to this problem, Wright defends his platitudes by pointing out the possibility of platitudes elsewhere.

“How, after all, does a hymn like “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” have anything at all to say to a world dumbstruck in horror at the First World War, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, 9/11?” (p. 120).

Here are some of the lyrics of the hymn he is referring to.

There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.

Now I grant that this is not poetry off the top shelf, and that the expression of truth here is hackneyed, the way it goes with hymns sometimes. But the woman who wrote it did so when she was dealing with a seriously sick daughter. And it does have something to say to a dumbstruck world, because the only unbiblical claim in those quoted words is the color of the hill. “Jesus Christ died to save sinners” can be said in cliched ways, and so the claim can be easily dismissed by those who have had to deal with various horrors. Job’s comforters can say a lot of true things. When that happens, we should repent by stopping our manufacture of true sayings out of presswood — in order to say the same thing in silver, refined seven times.

And last, and very importantly, it is here on this topic that we find Wright pulling back from the ramifications of his earlier settlement with theistic evolution. He wants a young earth theodicy without actually having to have a young earth. Read this carefully:

“But I find it somewhat easier to suppose that the project of creation, the good world that God made at the beginning, was supposed to go forward under the wise stewardship of the human race as God’s vicegerents and image bearers, and that when the human race turned to worship creation instead of God, the project could not proceed in the intended manner but instead bore thorns and thistles, volcanoes and tsunamis, the terrifying wrath of the creation that we humans are treated as if it were divine” (p. 126).

Now I think that this statement is exactly correct. But in an earlier chapter, Wright denied the basis of this view. Not only that, but he also said that those who insisted on this view, the one he now espouses, were guilty of false teaching.

I argued in an earlier installment that Adam brought death into the world, and I denied that death brought in Adam. Adam gave us death. Death did not give us Adam. This, in contradiction to Wright’s earlier suggestion that God selected a couple of hominids (that we could dub Adam and Eve, but only if we liked), in order to promote them up to human.

But notice what he says in the quotation above. He says that God created the world “good,” and that after the human race turned to worship the creation, this brought in the nasty stuff. Now we had to deal with thorns and thistles, volcanoes and tsunamis, and other manifestations of the “terrifying wrath of the creation.” But earlier, in chapter two, the clear implication was that all this “wrath” had been munching the hapless hominids for tens of thousands of years. Is Wright saying there were no volcanoes before the Adam-hominid? No — “not that death, the decay and dissolution of plants, animals and hominids wasn’t a reality already” (p. 38).

Poetry can get you out of many a jam, but I don’t think it can deal with this one. Either “nature red in tooth and claw” is a good thing, or it isn’t. If it is good, then why is Wright calling it wrath now? And wrath for what? If it is not good, then why did God call it good, and use it in the creation of man?

But biblical poetry might be able to do it. Wright can get poetry to do a lot of heavy lifting. Poetry even divided the Red Sea. Speaking of that great deliverance, Wright says this:

“As later poets look back on this decisive moment in the story of God’s people, they celebrate it in terms of the old creation myths: the waters saw YHWH and were afraid, and they went backward” (p. 108).

This does not diminish the element of the miraculous. Not at all. The horse and rider were thrown into the Ugaritic milieu.

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Andrew Lohr
8 years ago

You aren’t ever tempted to say he should’ve called it “Surprised by how far I can twist Scripture”? Hey, I’ve read “Jesus and the Victory of God” three times, and wish most everyone would read “The Challenge of Jesus” (shorter than JVG but with resurection and application added), but as with Wilson so with Wright (and me): need corrections sometimes.

8 years ago

Picking up on a minor point of the article here, but I think the following anecdote is worth sharing… I once heard someone suggest that, in considering all the various theories of the Atonement we have available to us in Scripture, the theory of Substitutionary Atonement (or propitiation, if you will) is like the putter in your golf-club bag. You need a variety of clubs to get you from the theological tee to the green, but to put the ball in the atonement cup, you need the putter of propitiation. In the case of Mr. Wright, it would seem that… Read more »

Jack Bradley
Jack Bradley
8 years ago

Douglas, Wright may not have mentioned propitiation in the source you’re working with, but apparently he gives it strong emphasis in his Romans commentary. Both Piper (The Future of Justification, p. 46f) and Gaffin (Auburn debate, 2005) give him high praise for his articulation of propitiation in that commentary.