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