Admitting we don’t know
The God I Don’t Understand, Christopher JH Wright.
Christopher Wright is a great Old Testament scholar. His work on Old Testament ethics for the people of God has been foundational in my understanding of the character of God through the laws he laid down.
So to have him admit that there are difficult parts of Scripture, for which pat answers will not suffice, is… spirit warming. Some evangelical writers are so adamant in their writing that they leave no room for doubt, no room for mystery, no room for limits in human understanding!
The sub-title for this book is: Reflections on tough questions of faith. Wright looks at four areas of great contention, not just for atheists, but also within Christianity:
- What about evil and suffering?
- What about the Canaanites?
- What about the Cross?
- What about the end of the world?
He begins by pointing out that even if we struggle to understand parts of Scripture, this does not stop us from knowing and trusting God. In fact, it would be more surprising if everything were plain for us, for God himself declares in Isaiah 55:9: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
With honesty and humility he admits there are things he doesn’t understand, but also opens up different forms of not understanding:
- Some things just don’t make sense, cannot be explained theologically or philosophically, and we can only respond with anger or grief, such as when confronted by the wrenching reality of suffering and pain.
- Some things are morally disturbing, including some of the violent acts described in the Old Testament.
- Some things are hard to understand but not in a bad way, for example, exactly how has the Cross dealt with our deepest needs? The response might be gratitude and hope, but it is difficult to explain.
- Some things are simply puzzling or confusing, such as the narratives of the end of the world.
Wright points out that many in the Bible also wrestled with God: Abraham questioned God about Sodom and Gomorrah, Sarah mocked God’s ability to reverse her barrenness, Moses questioned God several times, Elijah could not understand why God would save life only to destroy it (1 Kings 17:20-21), Job’s whole book is a question of God, Jeremiah could not understand the words he was being asked to speak, while the Psalms are full of anguished questions.
The key for Wright is to ask questions, while acknowledging God’s good character, and continuing to worship in faith (following the pattern of Psalm 73).
While space will not allow me to deal with each of the issues in detail, here are some pointers from Wright on each concern:
- The problem of evil. We need to keep three truths in tension: the utter evilness of evil, the utter goodness of God and the utter sovereignty of God; and note that all three meet at the Cross of Christ. Jesus defeated evil at the Cross, and in the new creation there will be no more death, pain, sin, impurity, darkness, international strife or curse. In the meantime, in the face of suffering, the Bible gives us models and words for grieving, weeping, lamenting, protesting, and screaming in pain and anger and frustration.
- The problem of violence in the Old Testament. Wright makes a series of comments: it was set in violent times, the conquest of Canaan was a unique and limited event, God is sovereign and just and the Canaanite culture and religion was wicked, the same justice was applied to Israel, and ultimately God has a vision of peace for all nations.
- The Cross = why, what and how? Wright speaks about balancing God’s anger and God’s love, and understanding the different dimensions of what was achieved by the Cross: coming home, receiving mercy, being redeemed, receiving forgiveness, reconciliation with God and one another, being justified, being cleansed, and opportunity for new life.
- The last things. Wright opens up the ‘cranks and controversies’ around seven areas: death, the intermediate state, the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, heaven, and hell. He goes through the biblical material, and concludes on the high note of the hope we have in Jesus.
In his conclusion to the book, Wright speaks about two consequences of his musings in these areas:
- All of our behaviour now must be governed by the standards of the new creation. We must act against evil and violence, to bring peace and ease suffering.
- All that we do and work at now contributes to the content of new creation. All we have accomplished will be purged and redeemed, but not obliterated and forgotten. What we do every day matters, because of the Cross, and the promise of the new heaven and earth.