Friday, June 16, 2006

Theodicy & eschatology V

I have been claiming that any theodicy worth the name must abandon three common features of most 'answers to the problem of evil':
(a) the belief that explanation is solution. We need more than a conceptual reshuffling of divine attributes. Any solution to evil must not be simply re-interpretation, but transformation.
(b) the belief that we are the ones to solve the problem. The answer to the problem of evil is found in God's decisive action through and in Jesus.
(c) the belief that the solution must be completed now. Either as an a-temporal (or at least synchronic) account of God's present providential rule, or as an over-realised eschatology in which there is nothing more to happen other than the unveiling of what is already the case.

Instead, any specifically Christian theodicy must be evangelical and eschatological. Evangelical: it must be focused on the good news of what God has done in Christ. And eschatological: it must leave room for more to come, for the ultimate solution to still be in the future.

I have already discussed the evangelical necessity. Jesus on the cross defeats evil through refusing to fight fire with fire, and the cycle of violence is buried with him. The resurrection is a demonstration that God will not abandon his perishing creation. Easter is a promise, a first down payment, of God’s intention to remove evil, root and branch, from his entire world, to hand it over to eternal destruction, to ultimate and irreversible exclusion. The gospel, the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, is God's solution to the problem of evil. In short, the gospel is theodicy. (To borrow a phrase from my good friend Matheson).

But we find ourselves in the midst of the gospel narrative, not yet at its ultimate conclusion. There is more to come. My contention from the start has been that only an eschatological theodicy will do. As long as evil continues to have the dominant hand, any attempt to account for its presence and influence is mere reinterpretation. As Marx famously said, philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world, the point is to change it. Or rather, the point is that God will change it. That change began with Jesus’ death and resurrection; there is now one piece of the world that is an evil-free zone, namely, Jesus’ resurrected body. Death no longer has dominion over him (Romans 6.16).

But it does over us. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28.18), including authority over the evil forces and powers and multinational corporations and corrupt governments and globalisation and the capitalist system and disease and decay and death. But we do not yet see all things in subjection to him (Hebrews 2.8).

There is more to come: the resurrection of the dead, the final triumph over the last enemy. This is not to add something to the achievement of Jesus or replace it with something else, because it is Jesus’ own future that we are looking forward to. But Jesus’ final victory over death – that great last enemy of God and humanity (1 Corinthians 15:20-28) – is not simply the unveiling of what is already the case. For Jesus’ resurrection is only the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:20), and while he is the firstborn (Rev 1:5), the harvest, the great family, is not yet here. ‘The Christ event cannot then itself be understood as fulfilling all promises, so that after this event there remains only the sequel of its being unveiled for all to see.’* Therefore, the believer’s present experience of an unredeemed groaning world is not to be downplayed as mere appearance awaiting the exposure of its hidden redemption.

* Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 214.

Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

6 comments:

michael jensen said...

Here is the review:

'It may come as a shock, but The Da Vinci Code does not present the biggest apologetic challenge to the Christian faith in the contemporary world. It is in what has been traditionally called ‘the problem of evil’ that we will find more complex questions arising on a global and also personal scale. Christian responses have tended to treat the ‘problem’ of evil as a philosophical conundrum to be ‘solved’: which overlooks the powerful responses (but not necessarily ‘solutions’) to evil that we have in our own Scriptures.

N.T. Wright’s latest book Evil and the Justice of God is not so much an attempt to answer the problem as to put the question on a different footing: an avowedly Biblical footing. This is the ‘big question of our time’ as he puts it; but it is a practical rather than philosophical one. And it is not just a problem for Christians either: all human beings have to respond to evil in one way or another. ‘Immature’ responses to evil overlook the supra-personal element within it and that ‘the line between good and evil runs through us all’ (p. 19).

What Wright does is to show what God does about evil, as recorded in the pages of the Bible. In the Old Testament we are given (as he amply demonstrates) ‘a narrative of God’s project if justice within a world of injustice’.

Wright’s chapter on the cross of Christ shows the decisive action in God’s project. Distilling arguments from his academic works, he argues that the atonement for sin tells us how the living God deals with evil. As he explains ‘Jesus death clearly involves…a judicial or penal element, being God’s proper No to sin expressed upon Jesus as Messiah, as Israel’s and therefore the world’s representative’ (p. 59).

The last two chapters focus on our response, as the people of the cross, to the ‘problem’ of evil. As Wright says, we are called to part of the solution to the problem as we trail in Jesus’ wake. Forgiveness is an indispensable part of this for Christians. It is neither a tolerance of evil, nor is it a repaying of evil for evil.

Like many of his ‘apologetic’ works, this book is the written-up version of a series of lectures, and so therefore, contains five shortish and well-written pieces that could be read on the train. Wright’s determination to let the Bible set the agenda, and his description of Jesus’ work on the cross in terms of a cosmic victory over evil are its great strengths. Here also is a challenge to Christians not merely to see the ‘problem’ of evil in abstract, but, in the light of the gospel and in God’s strength, to act against it. '

Corrections? Refinements? I only had 400 words to play with...

byron said...

I like it. Particularly how you manage to work in the one reference to PSA in the whole book. :-)

byron said...

For those for whom MPJ's first lengthy comment came ex nihilo, it might help to look here.

Chris Petersen said...

There is more to come: the resurrection of the dead, the final triumph over the last enemy. This is not to add something to the achievement of Jesus or replace it with something else, because it is Jesus’ own future that we are looking forward to. "But Jesus’ final victory over death – that great last enemy of God and humanity (1 Corinthians 15:20-28) – is not simply the unveiling of what is already the case. For Jesus’ resurrection is only the first fruits (1 Corinthians 15:20), and while he is the firstborn (Rev 1:5), the harvest, the great family, is not yet here."

Brilliantly said!

michael jensen said...

Yes, I worked in the PSA comment because the Southern Cross reader might be suspicious of his orthodoxy!

byron said...

A suspicious SC reader? Perish the thought!