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Previous. Next. The God I Don't Understand

Niggles about the faith we profess

The author, with commendable honesty, declares: ‘I live daily with the grateful joy of knowing and trusting God. But knowing and trusting does not necessarily add up to understanding’—and many of us will say ‘Amen’ to that.

This book is a cut above the average, in my view. It is The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on tough questions of faith by Christopher J.H. Wright (Zondervan, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-310-57438-5). He addresses four tough questions in particular: (1) How, if God is good, do we explain evil and suffering? (2) Was God guilty of genocide by ordering Israel to slaughter the Canaanites when they entered the promised land? (3) What really happened at the cross, and was God’s punishing of Jesus for our sins a form of ‘cosmic child-abuse’? (4) How should we view the end of the world?

Wright is a retired man with a lot of life-experience and wisdom under his belt as well as a solid scholarly pedigree and a lifetime of Bible teaching. He avoids none of the difficult questions thrown up by the four issues he tackles, his use of Scripture is balanced and fair, his argumentation is crisp, he writes lucidly, and he injects a commendable note of pastoral warmth into his writing. And that warmth, I’m pleased to say, does not compromise his intellectual rigour. I’ve never personally cared much for ‘devotional’ books, and this isn’t one, but it does leave you feeling edified as well as mentally challenged.

Everybody in church leadership should read this. If nothing else, it will fit them to answer the kind of questions that many of their young people are asking today, questions which, if they don’t receive a substantial answer, may rock their faith-foundations.

[I read this in the Kindle edition, so the numbers are Location numbers, not Page numbers.]

On the mystery of evil and suffering:

God answers Job, but does he answer the question?  (221)

I want to explore questions that the Bible itself wrestles with, but I want to build up God’s people, not betray their faith. (269)

Whereas we often ask “Why?” people in the Bible more often asked “How long?” Their tendency was not to demand that God give an explanation for the origin of evil but rather to plead with God to do something to bring about an end to evil. (338)

In overall, collective human reality, the vast bulk of human suffering is the result of the overwhelming quantity and complexity of human sinning. (470)

God has chosen in his wisdom not to give us an answer to our questions about the ultimate origin of evil within creation. It is simply not for us to know – and that is God’s sovereign decision, the prerogative of the one who is the source of all truth and revelation in the universe. (595)

God with his infinite perspective, and for reasons known only to himself, knows that we finite human beings cannot, indeed must not, “make sense” of evil. For the final truth is that evil does not make sense. “Sense” is part of our rationality that in itself is part of God’s good creation and God’s image in us. So evil can have no sense, since sense itself is a good thing. (622)

There is no evidence that our planet has ever been geologically different from the way it is now, or that animals were ever non-predatory, or that tectonic plates in the earth’s crust were somehow perfectly stationary before the human species emerged and sinned. On the contrary, the available evidence suggests that the early history of the planet included even more catastrophic events long before the emergence of human life. (716)

The Bible does tell us that God used some (though actually not many) natural disasters as acts of divine judgment. But we cannot invert the logic and assume that any or every natural disaster is therefore an act of divine judgment on somebody. (760)

Blocher argues that there are three fundamental biblical affirmations that we must hold together in wrestling with the problem of evil… They are: the utter “evilness” of evil; the utter goodness of God; and the utter sovereignty of God… As we struggle with the problem of evil, we are tempted to compromise on one or another of these three absolute biblical convictions. (927)

These four horsemen are not apocalyptic nightmares of the distant future. They are the stuff of the world in which we live. These four riders thunder through the pages of every history book of every era. It takes only a moment’s thought to identify the horsemen of conquest, war, famine, and disease in multiple forms all over the world today. (1120)

On the destruction of the Canaanites:

Is there any way to describe the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites other than religious genocide or ethnic cleansing? What possible connection can such violence have with the God we long to love, trust, and understand? (1286)

Never did Jesus or any of the New Testament writers critique the words or actions of God in the Old Testament or suggest that the stories were immoral in their own context. (1412)

We must understand the conquest within the context of ancient Near Eastern culture (and not by the standards of the Geneva Convention). (1523)

If such methods and practices in war were fairly standard in the ancient Near Eastern culture of that time, is there any sense in which God accommodated his will to such fallen reality within the historical earthing of his revealing and redeeming purpose? (1554)

If herem-style warfare [herem = ‘the ban’, i.e. the dedication of enemies to total destruction] can be even contemplated in the same moral framework as slavery and divorce (and many might reject the thought outright) – then we might be dealing with something God chose to accommodate within the context of a wicked world, not something that represented his best will or preference. (1569)

It is a caricature of the Old Testament to portray God as constantly on the warpath or to portray the conquest as simply “typical” of the rest of the story. It is not. The book of Joshua describes one key historical event, but it was finished. It should not be stretched out as if it were the background theme music for the rest of the Old Testament. (1588)

The conquest is consistently and repeatedly set within the framework of God’s international justice and punishment. I believe this makes a major difference to how we read and understand the whole story. It is repeatedly portrayed as God acting in judgment on a wicked and degraded society and culture – as God would do again and again in Old Testament history, including against Israel itself. (1619)

God can use one nation as a stick to punish another; but the stick he uses may itself be very bent. (1688)

We read that God destroyed the Zamzummites by driving them out before the Ammonites, and we mutter, “Who? So what? Put that in brackets.” But we read that God destroyed the Canaanites by driving them out before the Israelites and we exclaim, “What? How terrible! How could God do such a thing?” (1729)

Deuteronomy 7 makes it clear that the problem with the Canaanites was not ethnicity (which is why I dislike the word “genocide” with its ethnic overtones), but idolatry. (1825)

So there is a powerful pulse of legislative energy in Israel’s law that is positively favourable and protective toward foreigners in their midst. Now of course this does not remove or even reduce the violence that we find in the narrative of the conquest. But it does show a counterbalancing force within the legal custom of Israel. And that in turn shows that the conquest was seen as a limited historical necessity, not as an ongoing paradigm for social attitudes or behaviour within Israel toward foreigners in general. (1880)

God loved Israel, not because they stood out as better than the rest of humanity, but precisely in spite of the fact that they exemplified (and ampli-fied) all that is worst about humanity in general. (2076)

On what happened at the cross:

The effect of sin on each human person and on all human beings together is comprehensively described in the Bible, and the extent of what God accomplished for us on the cross is correspondingly extensive. It is so extensive, in fact, that it is impossible to describe in only one way. So the Bible uses several different metaphors to express the infinite reality of the atonement. (2138)

Jesus…interpreted his own death in terms of the suffering of God’s Servant in the book of Isaiah. In the central passage, the Servant’s death is portrayed in the clearest possible way as vicarious and substitutionary – that is to say, on behalf of and in the place of others. (2273)

The act of substitution seems not to be a “something else” that we can use as one way of talking about a different reality – namely, what God did at the cross. Rather, there is something inescapably essential about this. Substitution is not a metaphor for what God did; it is what he actually did. (2295)

Many of the things that opponents of penal substitution complain about are indeed to be rejected, for they are not what the Bible (or evangelical theologians) actually teach about it. The danger, as in so many disputes like this, is that people paint a caricature and then attack that. One of the worst such caricatures is that the idea of Jesus bearing the punishment of God upon our sin is nothing more than a form of “cosmic child abuse”. (2367)

Howard Marshall quotes from the great Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth: “There is a penalty and curse for sin; and Christ consented to enter that region. . . . It is impossible for us to say that God was angry with Christ; but still Christ entered the wrath of God.” (2440)

We must not…speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other. We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners. (2484)

Postmodern shame is entirely focused on the self and its inadequacy or incoherence, whereas the Bible insists that such disorder in the self (which is very real) is the fruit of a disordered relationship with God caused by sin and disobedience. You cannot deal with shame without addressing guilt. The Bible decisively tackles both. (2565)

The Bible sees Jesus in the light of the story of Old Testament Israel – or rather, as the climax and fulfilment of that story in which Jesus, as Messiah, embodied Israel and accomplished Israel’s mission and destiny. (2749)

I agree that God’s heart bleeds for the broken and abused multitudes of our world who desperately need love, acceptance, compassion, and justice, and that he offers them exactly that in Christ. But according to Jesus and the whole Bible, they also need forgiveness. Every victim of sin is also a sinner. There is none who is only sinned against. (2879)

On the end of the world:

Some of the most popular beliefs around this subject are a long way from what the Bible, taken in a comprehensive and balanced way, actually teaches. (2994)

Contrary to what you would think from the avalanche of rapture theories and predictions, the word “rapture” isn’t in the Bible at all. Nor, in my view, is the event that the word is popularly supposed to describe – at least, not as it is usually portrayed. (3071)

The New Testament gives no special theological place to the land of Palestine, simply as territory. The land as a holy place has ceased to have relevance for Christians. The vocabulary of blessing, holiness, promise, gift, inheritance, rest, and so on is never used of the territory inhabited by the Jewish people anywhere in the New Testament as it so frequently is in the Old. All these “landed” realities were transferred to Christ himself (just like the sacrifices, the priesthood, the temple, and the kingship). (3140)

For some Christians, the modern Israeli state is excused from any moral or international accountability because it is “fulfilling prophecy”. Such an attitude of blind “support for Israel” stands in jarring contrast to the words of most of the actual biblical prophets themselves, and even of Jesus. (3179)

Christians who keep on talking about “going to heaven” – as if that were their last great hope – seem to have missed the whole point of the way the Bible ends. (3659)

Revelation will not let us simply spiritualize away the great earthiness of the Old Testament vision. The city of God in the new creation will be filled not just with the rescued souls of people from many nations, but with the accumulated cultural richness of human civilizations. (3797)

Just as there will be no more death among human beings, so there will be no more violence between animals. This is a picture that we owe primarily to Isaiah, though it is implicit, I believe, in Revelation. (3893)

Redeemed human life in the new creation will be bodily life, life in intimate relationship with God, and life enriched by fulfilling work. (3925)

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