Review of Christopher Wright’s new book on tough questions

by

Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflection on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 224 pp.

This book is a very personal account by an Old Testament scholar struggling with some problems raised by reading the scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, in our modern culture. He realizes that these questions can easily become a genuine stumbling block for many and that even believers need to face them rather than suppress them, hoping they will go away. One of the real strengths of this book is that the author does not set himself up as an objective authority, but views himself as a pilgrim who struggles with these problems just as much as anyone else. When a book like this is written, sometimes one is left wondering whether it is too much of a concession to contemporary culture, but as Wright reminds the reader, these problems—the mystery of evil and suffering—did not arise with contemporary culture: they arose in the biblical period itself. From Abraham on there are many precedents for questioning God and his ways in the world. You will not learn how to lament in the contemporary western church with its therapeutic mindset and saccharine spirituality, but you will learn it in the Psalter where it is a dominant key. From the outset of this book, Wright puts believers at ease with their doubts and welcomes the questions of unbelievers—they are all in good biblical company! Wright himself uses a psalm which voices a radical doubt in God’s goodness to provide the lens through which he will consider his topic. Psalm 73 presents a deep-seated doubt of a believer that arose because of the injustices of life. This doubt was virtually impossible to dislodge and almost “carried the day” in the believer’s mind until there was a profound experience of transcendence in communal worship. The resulting new vision of life was won at a high cost, but for Wright the fact that the old ingrained doubts were not erased from the psalm is important. It gives them a legitimate voice which needs to be heard, even if now seen within a more comprehensive theological vision. Wright then begins to consider in order the following subjects: the mystery of suffering and evil, the conquest of the Canaanites, the cross, and the end of the world.

Wright begins by dealing with the problem of evil and suffering. An important point is made immediately, namely that this is only a problem if one has a theological vision which holds together simultaneously the goodness and godhood (omnipotence and sovereignty) of God. For polytheism evil is just a part of the fabric of reality, located in some of the gods as well as in the world. For the various forms of eastern monism, ultimate reality is beyond good and evil and the distinction is only apparent. For modern naturalism, reality is just the sum of materialistic forces. Can one really speak of evil or even good in the absence of any objective frame of reference? However, Wright points out that the Christian faith (and I would add, Judaism) believes in both the omnipotence and goodness of God and thus has a genuine problem in the face of evil and suffering.

The author then considers three aspects of the problem of evil: mystery, offence and defeat. He points out that the Bible never speculates about the origin of evil; it describes its entrance into the world. This fact of evil is largely attributed to the fall of the human race and the consequence disaster for the planet. Wright proceeds to make connections between the serpent in the Garden, Satan and the angels, but does so cautiously and states that his conclusions are still shrouded in mystery. His main point is that evil defies rationality: it is not to be understood but to be resisted and ultimately expelled. Wright further argues that the Bible gives the resources for human beings to lament, grieve and protest the horrific offence of evil. Finally the Bible clearly shows that evil will one day be ultimately defeated. The message of the Apocalypse is seen to be supremely relevant here with its final vision of the end.

Wright makes some valuable observations in this section but I thought he might have considered the creation of free agency as a helpful, partial explanation for the mystery of evil. In other words, the freedom for human beings to make their own decisions and to chart their own destiny, whether to embrace God or reject him, could at least partly explain the presence of evil—evil being then defined as the rejection of God. Otherwise God would have created creatures who would be automatons which would be incompatible with genuine love. Genuine free choice at the beginning, then, creates the potential for evil.

The next major topic is the putative genocide of the Canaanites during the conquest. Wright shows that there are three popular ways that Christians try to deal with this problem but they are in fact “dead ends.” First, this is decidedly not an Old Testament problem that the New Testament puts right because there is much about the love of God in the former and plenty of divine wrath in the latter. Secondly, the Israelites were not wrong about God’s command to kill the Canaanites. Rather the conquest is integral to God’s unfolding plan in the Bible. To argue against this would distort fundamentally the meaning of the biblical text. Finally, the conquest is not simply a matter of allegory either. Wright makes the valid point that “it was not allegorical Israelites who attacked or allegorical Canaanites who died.” As for a proposed solution, Wright counters the three dead ends with three roads that can help navigate the way through this problem. First there is the road of historical context which sheds light on aspects of the violence. For example, Israel may well have been using ancient near eastern conventions for the rhetoric of war, which often exaggerated violence and was not to be intended literally. Moreover God may well have accommodated his revelation to the cultural conventions of the time (e.g. herem was practiced by a number of cultures). He certainly did this for practices like divorce, so in theory he could have used violence in war for the same purpose. The conquest is also portrayed within the Bible as a unique and limited event.

The second roadway is that of God’s sovereign justice. It is clear that Canaanite culture was not neutral and innocent but had deteriorated to the point where it was morally depraved and therefore deserved just punishment. In fact the Israelites experienced the same judgement when they sunk to the same level. The third road through this problem is that of God’s ultimate plan to save the world. The temporal and limited action of God to judge the Canaanites takes place within God’s great plan to save the entire world including Canaanites. If the Canaanites bore the violence of judgement for their sin, God himself in Jesus Christ bore the violence of judgement on the cross for the sin of the world.

In these chapters Wright may be accused of “wanting to have it both ways.” For example, if the violent destruction was not as bad as depicted that would seem to diminish the importance of God’s justice in history and on the cross. However, I think Wright is genuinely presenting evidence that he has found in his research as an Old Testament scholar in order to try and bring to bear all possible evidence on this difficult issue. I think that his consideration of the larger biblical theological issue of God’s ultimate desire to bless the nations is absolutely vital to understanding this problem. The Canaanites in the second millennium BCE presented a roadblock to this blessing which had to be dealt with.

The third major theme is that of the Cross and it is considered with three questions: Why, What and How? The question as to the why of the cross is simply found in the Love of God. It is a certain fact of Scripture but totally inexplicable, given the fact that humanity in general, and especially Israel, is so recalcitrant. The question as to what happened at the Cross is found in the word atonement which has so many ramifications: coming home, mercy, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation with God and one another, justification, cleansing and new life. It can all be summed up laconically: “[The cross] was an act of God in which God in Christ put himself in our place in an act of substitution for our benefit…”(p. 125). The question as to how the cross achieved salvation is developed in contrast to modern and postmodern views which do not accept the idea of penal substitution. Wright argues convincingly that only this concept of substitution explains the Cross of Christ. He points out that often contemporary scholarship tries to understand the Cross with other stories while “ignoring the one story in which it is actually set –the biblical story of God’s dealings with Israel and of God’s mission to bring blessing and salvation to the world” (p. 145).

I particularly thought that this chapter was timely, given the recent spate of literature which depicts the substitution concept as divine child abuse: God the Father abusing his son Jesus on the cross. It is certain that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, which shows that the Trinity had a cross purpose but was not at cross purposes! At the same time the biblical evidence is absolutely unequivocal that Christ was a sin-bearer, and became a curse for us, the just suffering in place of the unjust. Contemporary theories often start with different frames of reference than the Bible, and thus it is not unheard of today even to hear about the cross being God’s apology for all the suffering he has caused for the human race. We are told then that we need to forgive God.

The last theme is that of the end of the world. Wright discusses all the many “cranks and controversies” that surround this topic. The sheer speculation spawned by critical events, the concepts in the popular evangelical sub-culture like the millennium, the rapture and the land of Israel, all get sane consideration. There is a noteworthy sobering conclusion to this chapter: “But it is tragic if Christians take their beliefs more from fictional novels and even comics and Hollywood movies than from a careful study of the Bible itself and of the solid tradition of Christian faith through the ages of the church” (p. 170). When pondering the climax of history Wright describes three pivotal events: the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgement. Finally, it is observed that the Bible does not end with an end but with a new beginning: a newly transformed earth with a garden-city at the centre.

This is an important book. Wright writes personally, pastorally and apologetically. He writes with a great knowledge of biblical theology, the biblical text, and also a great deal of life experience. Although this is not a scholarly book, I never had the feeling that the answers proffered are “pat.” At times I felt I was overhearing a sermon or two with the many personal illustrations and the use of many verses of hymns. Subsection titles like “The Lamb with a Plan,” and “A Room with a View” contributed to this impression. Yet there was a refreshing honesty to the book and a pastoral sensitivity, which made for easy reading. I think that a good target for the book would be the believer struggling with these important questions. That means all believers!

I appreciated Wright’s grasp of biblical theology and ancient near eastern history in dealing with many of the issues, particularly that of the Conquest. If one were to judge the rhetoric of the Reformers by modern standards, one would be hard pressed to judge them in a positive light. However when the language is viewed within the context of its time, it becomes more understandable. Similarly, when students of the biblical text have no knowledge of ancient history and culture, they can fail to understand the biblical text. It is so easy to read back into the text contemporary meaning and so completely distort the ancient meaning.

The book shows the power and promise for biblical theology to deal with difficult questions. First of all, as Wright indicates, many of the questions come from the Bible itself. The Bible not only welcomes our questions, it legitimizes them and probably puts them in far rawer form than we would ever dare. I am reminded of Karl Barth’s observation that all modern atheists and agnostics seem like such innocuous, genteel folk beside Job! Secondly, biblical theology frames the book with its focus on Genesis at the beginning and Revelation at the end. Thirdly, biblical theology “centers” the book on the Cross, which is seen as absolutely crucial to not only the whole plan of salvation but also as an answer to the problem of evil. I believe a book like this is far more satisfying than reading a book which deals with these questions at a more abstract and systematic level.

Yet I am left wondering why an important section of the Bible which specifically deals with many of the problems raised in the book has been left out of the discussion. I am thinking of the Wisdom Literature of Job and Ecclesiastes. It seems to me that these books plumb the depths of suffering and mystery. I think they could have shed some light on both. But probably there were practical reasons for this omission.

Finally, a book like this is desperately needed. Many people in the church do not want to face these types of issues. They would rather sing their praise songs, drink their coffee and have their ears tickled. This book meets a massive need. Within the last twenty-four hours, I have met three individuals who demonstrate this fact. First, a mother whose Christian daughter at the age of 21 is suffering with chronic, incurable pain, and for whom this is “a gigantic spiritual challenge.” Secondly, a Christian medical student who had just witnessed an abortion and was deeply troubled about what to do. Thirdly, a person reading Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire, a disturbing account of the Rwandan genocide perpetrated in a largely Christian nation. The God I don’t Understand can help believers face up to reality.

Thank you Christopher Wright for taking some time from your scholarly projects to shed some needed light on these very personal and yet universal questions (Prov. 15:23b).

8 Responses to “Review of Christopher Wright’s new book on tough questions”

  1. Andrew Rogers Says:

    Thanks for this review. I agree with you whole-heartedly that biblical theology has promise to help us wrestle with the “tough questions” Wright discusses.

  2. Richard Zuelch Says:

    Also, welcome back after several months of no postings! I was beginning to think this blog had been abandoned!

  3. Andrew Belli Says:

    Thank you, Dr. Dempster for the review. I have been on a journey to learn from the Psalmists how to pray. The content of the hearts of the biblical writers is so alien to today’s saints. O how I would love to witness a church who lament and mourn (Mt 5:4), and who hate sin and thirst for God’s law.

    Contrast the Hebrew prophet’s view of sin with that of the modern church:

    “Sadly, of all the people who came out of Egypt, only two men, Joshua and Caleb, ever entered the land God intended for them….Their lack of faith and their lack of self-esteem robbed them of the fruitful future God had in store for them…..Remember, God had already guaranteed the Hebrews the victory, but because of their poor self-images, they never made it into the Promised Land. They never fulfilled their destiny, all because of the way they saw themselves.”
    (Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now, p. 61-62)

    • SGD Says:

      Your welcome,
      There is an honesty about Wright’s book which many evangelicals don’t want to face up to, never mind JO. I must confess that I have not read any of his books but it does not sound like a great message to give to anyone who is suffering. I first ran across him when in Texas. Quite a character. I don’t think it was because of a poor self-image that the Israelites failed but because of a poor God-image. Thanks for your comments.
      Shalom

  4. Jessica Says:

    hello. I am just very curious as to how you would defend affirming the goodness of God after a natural disaster scripturally.
    Thank You

  5. SGD Says:

    Jessica,
    Thanks for your question. There are many examples in the Bible where a so-called natural disaster occurs precisely because of the goodness and justice of God, e.g. the destruction wrought by the Flood, and the story of the destruction of Sodom (also cf. Amos 4, 7-9). God’s goodness and holiness led him to judge the people with “natural disasters.” As the Moral
    Governor of the universe, he had to judge in order to preserve the cosmic order. The universe is in a sense not neutral. It is “allergic to sin.”
    Of course at other times “disasters” hit and there is no theological answer to be found (cf. Job, Ps. 44). We should not rush in and make hasty judgements about why God did or allowed such to happen. The fact of the matter though is that the problem of evil is only a problem if you have a good God and an omnipotent God. I think Wright’s book is very helpful on this point and many others.
    Thanks again for your question. I hope I have been able to shed a bit of light on it.
    Shalom

  6. Jane Smith Says:

    Dear Jessica, SGD et al
    The Fall affected not just man’s relationship with God but the entire planet – why else would St Paul write that the whole earth groans as in childbirth whilst awaiting the appearing of God’s children? Could that explain the phenomenon of natural disasters and the necessity for new heavens and a new earth following the Lord Jesus’ return? The entire universe needs to start again – what a thought. I hadn’t noticed that before. How horrible sin is!

    Mankind was created to share God’s loving life – on His terms, full stop. After the Fall, a window to the rest of the world on the potential of that life was opened in the creation of the nation of Israel. In the days of Israel’s monarchy, king David wrote and lived as follows: “Indeed, even though my path lies through the deepest darkness, I need have no fear of any kind of evil. Why? You constantly surround me whether I can see You or not. Your correction and encouragement give me perfect guidance…WHATEVER MY CIRCUMSTANCES, I LIVE IN YOUR PRESENCE now and for ever, always blessed by Your goodness and mercy.” (paraphrased thoughts from Ps 23)

    Life was tough for David. His family life alone had emotional upheavals of earthquake quality. His personal history incorporated many failures on the loyalty-to-God front. But God was always his baseline.

    As Christians, let us believe everything our Lord Jesus believed. He accepted natural disasters as an inevitable part of the human experience. He rejected the superstition that they are personal punishments wreaked by a vengeful Father. If you were a bereaved Galilean fishing family, fatal storms on the lake would also be natural disasters. The Father commanded Jesus to still two storms that we know about because they could have scuppered His loving plans for global salvation at the cross. Remember how the earth itself writhed in agony as its Creator died at the hands of man the creature.

    The wages of sin are death. I do not say that natural disasters are a specific punishment, but perhaps a consequence of the universal effect of sin. If you take a look at James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, Earth is a single ecosystem incorporating man. Once human physical decay became a necessity, it seems logical that the stability of the planet could also be compromised. Maybe Lovelock is onto something…

    The major thing destroyed at the Fall was trust. Let us always trust God with our thoughts, especially the negative ones. St Paul hit the nail on the head when he advised that every thought should be brought captive to Christ. He will respond in whatever way His love sees fit. God may or may not explain Himself, but as with Job – who never got the answer he demanded – He will show you more of why He is trustworthy in spite of all that we don’t understand.
    Sincerely, Jane Smith

  7. Resources for Amos 4:7 - 9 Says:

    [...] 1Review of Christopher Wright’s new book on tough questions « Biblical Theology SUBMIT [...]

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