NT Wright on why bad things happen to good people

I’ve just read Tom Wright’s brilliant treatment of the problem of evil.

Cartoon downloaded from here.

People often ask about why bad things happen to good people. In particular: “if the God who created the universe is good, why does he allow evil to take place?”. We don’t need to watch the daily news for long before we are confronted with more examples of brutal murders, or – on a national level – of atrocities committed against whole groups of people.

This is often perceived to be a particular problem for Christians: after all, we say that God is love, and that he loves all of his children, so it appears that the presence of evil within his creation doesn’t fit the picture. But when I have read Christian discussions of this issue, I have usually been left thinking that there is something important seriously missing: that there has been an insufficient understanding of the significance of the cross. Somehow, God’s answer to the problem of evil is expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross – and then in his resurrection.

Cartoon downloaded from here

The trouble is that this answer doesn’t come in the form we would like – it doesn’t give a logical explanation for why particular people suffer in particular ways. The challenge is to enable people to see that God’s answer is deeper and ultimately more profoundly satisfying. However, I had not developed these thoughts much further, leaving them for another time.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised, when reading Tom Wright’s tome on Paul the apostle, “Paul and the faithfulness of God”, to find a section in chapter 9 which discusses this very issue. I was even more delighted when I read it and discovered that it was a much more profound treatment of the problem than I had read elsewhere.

For a faithful Jew in the first century, such as Paul (Saul) undoubtedly had been, evil was represented by the pagan nations surrounding and trying to oppress Israel, the chosen people of God. Thus, the solution to the problem of evil was for Israel to drive out, or otherwise overcome, the pagan nations. As the scriptures had long promised a Messiah figure, it was a logical step to assume that he would enable Israel to do this.

Tom Wright's tome, "Paul and the Faithfulness of God"

Tom Wright’s tome, “Paul and the Faithfulness of God

However, when Paul met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was forced to realise that God was doing something different: he was fulfilling these scriptures in a way that neither he nor his fellow Jews had anticipated. He was doing so through the death and resurrection of the Messiah – the same Jesus whose followers he had been intent on persecuting – and not through the Messiah leading a resurgent Jewish nation.

If the crucified and risen Christ was the solution to the evil in the world, then the problem couldn’t have been the presence of pagan nations oppressing Israel. If that had been the case, it would not have been necessary for the Messiah to die and rise again. Instead, Jesus’ death and resurrection showed that the deeper problem was the presence of evil within the hearts of both gentiles and Jews.

This led Paul, in his letter to the Romans, to go back not to the father of the nation, Abraham, but to the origins of all humans. For Paul, this meant going back to Adam. For God’s solution to be expressed through the crucified and risen Christ, there had to be something inherent to human nature – whether gentile or Jew – that was so badly flawed that it needed this particular solution.

Tom Wright’s argument got me excited because he expressed, more clearly and forcefully than I’d seen expressed before, the centrality of Christ and the cross for addressing the problem of evil. This is God’s answer: it may not be the logical argument that we would prefer, but it is much deeper and, ultimately, much more life-sustaining.

7 thoughts on “NT Wright on why bad things happen to good people

  1. Dear Richard

    Thank you for your comments.

    Unfortunately I am unable to print as not very computer literate.

    I only have volume one of N T Wrights “The New Testament and The People of God”, but I do have a book “Why good people do bad things” written by Dr Erwin Lutzer a senior pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago published in 2001.

    Dr Lutzer reminds us, Good people do bad things because we are fallen humans. But the ultimate Good News is that God does not leave us there. We can live beyond our own darkness by the power of His goodness.

    See you soon.

    Bill Fletcher

    Date: Thu, 27 Feb 2014 18:36:55 +0000 To: billfletcher766@hotmail.com

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your comment. Tom Wright’s ‘New Testament and the People of God’ is a fine book as well. From what you say, Dr Lutzer is exactly right.

      It was great to see you and Paulette up at Clifton last week!


  2. Whenever I ask God this question (bad things, good people), I always get the same response. Sin. Ultimately it boils down to this, from Adam onwards.

    The (very) good news is that Jesus died on the cross to overcome sin, so that in the final reckoning, those who believe have someone to stand in their place.

  3. It’s a circular argument to say “There is evil in the world because humans are fundamentally evil”.

    In order to discuss this “problem” of good and evil, these two terms need to be defined. Most of the time when these are discussed, there are implied definitions that no one ever talks about but are assumed to be consistent: everyone knows what good and evil is, right?

    Having given this much thought over the years, I’ve concluded that “good” is defined (by western cultures, at least) as something that doesn’t kill (or harm) me/others, and “evil” as something that does. The basis of this comes from a fear of death (or fear of the unknown, the ultimate one being death). (Why Christians would be afraid of death has always perplexed me, but that’s another discussion.) The generally accepted definitions of “good” and “evil” have nearly the same flavor as the Freudian terms “pleasure” and “pain”. Very primitive concepts, indeed.

    These terms are also contextual in that different cultures seem to define them differently. Cannibals in Borneo don’t consider eating other humans as “evil”, for instance. Suicide bombers believe that what they are doing is “good”.

    Taking the terms outside of the sphere of morality, we talk about “good” food or a “good” time at the sporting event. What do we mean? It seems to me that it comes back to pleasure/pain.

    But aren’t pleasure and pain subjective perceptions? Isn’t death ultimately a subjective perception? What, exactly, is so horrible about death that many of us have equated it to the “ultimate evil”? We know nothing (or at least very little) about it. We’re told various things about it but I’m pretty sure that no one knows exactly what it is. Doesn’t this ignorance give life meaning?

    Having said all of that, I’ve come to the conclusion (call it a personal belief if you will) that “good” and “evil” don’t actually exist. An analogy would be color. Color doesn’t exist either. (As an astronomer, Richard, you’ve experienced this). Only when put through the filter of human perception do these things suddenly come into being. So nothing is “good” or “evil” — it just IS. In the bible, God says “I am”. God IS.

    Realizing that humans have such incredibly limited capacity for perception, I suggest that we really have no idea what’s going on nor should we. We have no idea what God is up to. If we did, we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, eh? 😉

    Peace to All

    • Hey Matt,

      Thank you so much for your response – really great to have you debate this one!

      I have to challenge you on a couple of things though. For debating purposes, I’m inclined to start with the statement ‘color doesn’t exist’ which is contentious. It most definitely does, even if not as straightforwardly as one might expect at first… (1) there’s a physical component where the colours correlate with the frequency of the light waves, as with rainbows; (2) there’s a neurological component where those frequencies are interpreted by the brain. There’s always the philosophical question, is my green the same as your green? Difficult to answer but the most parsimonious assumption is that they are likely to be similar (because your eyes and your neural pathways are similar to mine) but not exactly the same (because there’s no way to calibrate your eyes compared to mine).

      I get the point of needing to define ‘good’ and ‘evil’, though for the purposes of this article I think it’s sufficient to use examples of evil on which almost everyone would agree, because the question is how it arises, not what it is. We only really need to define the terms in areas where we might conflict as to what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘evil’. (I probably wouldn’t do this in a blog).

      I don’t think it is a circular argument to say that “There is evil in the world because humans are fundamentally evil”, given the context. The OT view as described by NT Wright is that there is evil because there is a pagan world beyond the bounds of Israel. The NT perspective of Paul is that that view is wrong – there is evil because of the sin and the capacity for evil inherent in all human beings.

      You could however contest Paul’s view for a whole bunch of reasons. Paul, and thus most orthodox Christians down the centuries, held the view that humans are inherently sinful. That’s a distinctively Christian view which is obviously not shared by many other worldviews. You could also contest whether Paul’s explanation for human sinfulness – the fall – is defensible from an evolutionary perspective. I think it is – but that’s another story.

      Thanks again for your contribution.

      All the best

      • Rich — I remember “fondly” our debates of the past. Usually not pretty, but hopefully thought-provoking and useful, eh? 😉

        Your statement that light frequencies (actually, energies) correlate with colors makes my point: they are two different things. One is “fundamental” to nature and the other is perception. Just as “good” and “evil” are perceptive not fundamental. Yes, there is SOMETHING there, but that’s all that one can honestly say about it. Yes, there are differences between one thing and another, but that’s price we pay for existing in a relativistic universe.

        There is no agreement on what is “good” and what is “evil”. I argue that this is so because those are perceptive things rather than “fundamental” things. I think the audience that you hope is reading this blog probably does have “sufficient agreement” with these terms, but your blog is open to the world and therefore your audience is much larger and more diverse than what you might think.

        You totally ignore my core statement concerning the existence of “good” and “evil”. You treat this existence as an axiom and I’m asking you and your readers to take a good hard look at this axiom. When I did this (starting with defining “good” and “evil” and going from there), I found it had no ground. When an axiom has no ground, it must be tossed away, even if it’s uncomfortable.

        What counts as “good” and “evil” and, deeper than that — the existence of such things — is rooted in cultural programming. We are told what is “good” and what is “evil” based on nothing more than our geographical location on this planet (as children we hardly have any other choice). How ridiculous is that???? So these concepts get burned into our brains with great intensity and we come to accept them without question. I started questioning these sorts of things and have found a completely different universe around me. Still just my perception, but different than what I was told. But I’m way too ignorant of things to claim to be “right”. These are just the conclusions I’ve come to.

        Here’s another related one: People do things and experience things because they chose to, not because random things happen to them. We create the circumstances within which things happen. With most people, these choices are unconscious — they are totally unaware of the fact that they are actually doing them or making them happen. Is there any question that “you” are beating your heart? But how exactly are you doing this? We don’t know, yet it happens, and you are doing it. Same for everything else.

        So yes, when something “evil” happens to someone it’s because they’ve either chosen to have that happen or have created the circumstances to make that thing happen. Again, usually it’s totally unconscious. The question I oftentimes hear when “bad” things happen is “Why is this happening?” The answer to that question lies in the question itself.

        So I argue that there cannot be a source of “evil” because “evil” doesn’t exist. Same goes for “good”.

        What say ye?

        Peace to All,


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