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Book Review – Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright

Title:  Evil and the Justice of God
Author: N.T. Wright
Rating: 3 stars

Wevil-and-the-justice-of-godhat I liked

N.T. Wright’s strength is his ability to avoid the myopia that is typical of dogmatics and to see the positive contributions of different traditions. Evil and the Justice of God is no exception. Borrowing from multiple Christian traditions, Wright offers an assessment of evil which finds its answer in the atonement and the resulting assurance of victory which we have as a result. Wright’s theory of atonement can best be described as a hybrid between Christus Victor and Substitutionary Atonement. This is due perhaps in part to his past history as solidly reformed, and the changes he made to his beliefs in the mid 1980’s as a result of a historical study of the gospels. The result was a substitutionary theory of atonement which was grounded in history and saw the atonement as having a very real effect on history. Like Moltmann, Wright focuses on the cosmic effect of evil and as a result, the atonement. Unlike Moltmann however, he moves beyond a mere solidarity model and land solidly in a (slightly modified) Christus Victor.

The influence of his view of atonement reverberates throughout this book. Like many Christus Victor adherents, he tends to frame evil in the context of something which has victimized mankind. Unlike Christus Victor however, he also places a certain degree of culpability upon the individual and the individual’s need for personal forgiveness.

What I did not like

N.T. Wright’s weakness is his ability to avoid the myopia that is typical of dogmatics and to see the positive contributions of different traditions. I know this sounds contradictory to the opening sentence of the above section, but the fact is, Wright has a way of frustrating just about everybody for his lack of picking one side and sticking with it. We like to categorize people and Wright simply defies categorization. There are two things which, as a conservative Reformed Christian, I would have liked to have heard address a little more.

As alluded to earlier, Wright’s theory of atonement (and as a result his theodicy) is a more or less Christus Victor with a little bit of Substitutionary Atonement sprinkled in. While I appreciate his desire to allow all of scripture speak on the topic, it is clear to me that the predominant view of the atonement is Substitutionary and then to a lesser extent, Christus Victor. The clear pattern of scripture is to frame the victorious Christ within the context of substitution. The classic Christus Victor passage, Colossians 3:15 is preceded by a classic substitutionary passage (verses 13 & 14).

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

While I appreciate Wright’s desire to allow all of scripture speak on the issue, I believe he ultimately has it backwards. Our atonement, and hence, our answer to evil, is primarily found in the substitutionary atonement for our sins and not in the cosmic victory over evil. It is, at its most basic level, the sins of individuals which explain evil and the substitutionary salvation from personal sin which overcomes evil. Does this have cosmic effects? Certainly. Just as sin has had cosmic effects. But the presence of evil is first and foremost an individual crisis which is felt cosmically.

The second are that I would have liked to see Wright address in his treatment of evil and the justice of God is the concept of ultimate justice. There is virtually no mention of a just retribution for evil. There is no hell. I find that to be strange given the title of the book. Evil will be dealt a final blow and the unrepentant will experience eternal justice. Despite the title, there appears to be no room for ultimate justice in Wright’s treatment of evil. There is a heaven to be sure; and Wright spends a good amount of time writing on the beatific afterlife where evil reigns no more . . . but what of evil? Where does it go? Justice (which I remind you again is in the title) demands that evil be repaid. Wright is strangely silent on this issue. He doesn’t say why and that only leaves speculation.

I believe (speculatively) that Wright cannot deal with the issue of ultimate justice because it opens the door to a need for a more robust substitutionary model of atonement. If you deal with the ultimate fate of evil in hell as a necessity born out of God’s justice, then the question must be asked, “what about justice for the evils done by the saved”?  In a Christus Victor model, the saved have a solution for their sins but not justice. The answer must be that the justice demanded for our sins was carried out upon Christ. Justice demands that sin be atoned for. If we are to defend the concept of eternal salvation and at the same time defend the concept of justice, we must account for the justice somewhere. This is the weakness of this book. There is a promise of victory for the faithful, a promise of justice, but no ultimate justice.


In Wright’s theory of evil, the faithful victims of evil receive a reward, but the perpetrators never receive justice. In this case, we do not have a treatment of evil in the light of God’s justice. We have treatment of evil in the light of God’s victory over evil in the death of Christ for those who have been victimized by sin. Ask anyone who has been the victim of a violent crime and you will see that our human nature cries out for more than restitution- it cries out for justice.

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