Book Review: The God I Don’t Understand

book-the-god-i-dont-understand-reflections-on-tough-questions-of-faithChristopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.  224 pp.  Hardback, $19.99.  ISBN 978-0-310-27546-6.
I came across Christopher Wright’s newest book at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Providence R.I. and his newest work excited me for several reasons.  First, I have read many of Wright’s other works such as, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (InterVarsity, 2006) and his three-volume work, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (InterVarsity, 1995), Knowing Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (InterVarsity, 2006), Knowing God Through the Old Testament (InterVarsity, 2007).  Each of these prior works pushed me to a new understanding of their individual topics, while at the same time helping me understand God’s work in his creation in a fresh way.  Second, I have used all of the above prior works at some point in my college classroom.  I looked forward to seeing if this work would find its way into some course also.  Third, the topic of this work, understanding evil and suffering, frequents the top of the list of hallway conversations at my institution.  Therefore, I hoped that this book by Wright would be yet another resource to which my college community could consult for comfort and perspective.
Wright divides his book into four sections.  Each section seeks to answer a question that is intrinsically connected to the problem of suffering and evil in God’s creation.  The first section inquires, “What about evil and suffering,” (25-72) while the remaining three sections provide biblical historical illustrations of the problem of evil and suffering.  These three sections ask, “What about the Canaanites?” (73-110), “What about the cross?” (111-157), “What about the end of the world?” (159-216).
In the first section, Wright defines moral and natural evil.  He explains moral evil as “the suffering and pain that we find in the world standing in some relation to the wickedness of human beings” (30).  As for natural evil, Wright suggests, it “appears to be part of life on earth for all nature…by the events in the natural world that seem {in a general way) to be unrelated to any human moral cause…so called natural disasters” (30).  From these two definitions, Wright describes God’s relation to his image bearers and the rest of his creation.  He rightly understands that the blame for suffering and evil in this world belongs on the human race and that “we cannot draw simple equations between what one person suffers and their own personal sinfulness” (35).  Wright reminds his readers that evil has no proper place in God’s creation (42) and “therefore must not be into the universe as a rational, legitimated, justified part of reality” (42).  He concludes the first section by introducing the reader to Blocher’s model that addresses evil in relation to the cross (57).  Blocher’s model has three components: utter evilness of evil, the utter goodness of God, and the utter sovereignty of God.  Wright comments that “each of them is clear and comprehensible when considered on its own, but our main challenge is in holding them together in our minds and in our faith” when our struggles contradict one of them (57).  All three of these truths converge at the cross.  Wright notes that “the cross exposed the utter depths of human and satanic-evil,” “the cross happened in accordance with God’s sovereign will from eternity”, “the cross also expressed the utter goodness of God, pouring out his mercy and grace in self-giving love” (63).
With this understanding of the problem of suffering and evil and its relation to the cross, Wright applies his model to three historical references in the scriptures.  First he seeks to answer, “what about the Canaanites?”  In this story of the Israelites extermination of the Canaanites, God is sometimes portrayed as judgmental angry God who poured out his wrath on innocent recipients ignorant of God’s laws.  Wright dispels that notion and contrasts the recipients of God’s judgment with recipients of God’s grace.  He states, “at the conquest, God poured out his judgment on a wicked society who deserved it, at the cross, God bore on himself the judgment of God on human wickedness, through the person of his own sinless Son” (107).  Next, he seeks to dispel the notion that God, in sacrificing his son, is no better than an abusive father allowing evil and suffering to attack his son (154).  With this assertion in hand, he explains the penal substitution theory and contends “God has identified himself with our suffering and knows what it is to bear the pain of human injustice and violence” (153). The lastly, Wright dispels the notion that evil and suffering has no end.  He concludes that the eschaton is both an ending and a beginning: first with the return of Christ then the new creation.  He defines the first activity as an event and the second activity as an ongoing state of affairs (171).  Wright describes all the events that come about at the second advent of Christ (Ch 10).  He then puts these in proximity to the new beginning, which is the eternal state with Christ as King ruling and reigning righteously.  It is in this biblical hope that the problem of suffering and evil in our present world finds its place.  This brings Wright to two consequences in his conclusion for our lives today: “All our work now contributes to the content of the new creation” (219) and “all our behavior now must be governed by the standards of the new creation” (220).  Wright concludes, “We are to live, then, as people who not only have a future, but who know the future we have and who go out and live in light of that future” (220).
Wright’s work addresses a very complex topic in a very manageable way.  This work would be a great read for anyone from a college student to a church layperson.  It is well laid out and provides many scripture references to ponder as one works through the issue.  Most importantly, as in Wright’s other works, he points us to the cross, where we find forgiveness of our injustices and comfort when injustice finds us in this broken world.  Wright also reminds us, once again, that the cross opened the possibility of creation restoration and renewal of relationship with our Creator God – our blessed hope.


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