In conversation with 20somethings and teens today, I have discovered that there is an aversion to simplistic ”Sunday School” answers to the tough passages of Scripture. Dissatisfaction with easy answers is widespread among the younger generation. Whereas previous generations prized practicality over everything else, the up-and-coming generation is looking for depth in its quest for truth.
We do not want to devote our lives to the worship of a God made in our own image. Neither do we wish to confine God to a box. Let us do business with what the Bible teaches, no matter how complex or difficult or unpleasant the journey may be.
Christopher Wright’s book, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith is a welcome addition to a spate of recent books that demonstrate a willingness to tackle the hard questions raised by the Bible. The God I Don’t Understand is an appropriate title. Wright does not exhaustively answer the difficult questions he poses, but he shares valuable reflections that display his pastoral insight and personal piety in seeking the truth.
The God I Don’t Understand is for people who ask, “Why?”
Why did God judge the Canaanites the way he did in the Old Testament?
Why is there evil in the world?
Why do good people suffer?
Why do we have to believe this or that about the cross?
Why are there so many views about the end times?
Christopher Wright ponders these questions and then provides some insights that help clarify the issues:
“To me it is a profoundly moving thought that the word that introduces our most tormenting questions – ‘Why’ – was uttered by Jesus on the very cross that was God’s answer to the question that the whole creation poses.” (21)
Wright understands the importance of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who read the Bible in its original, historical context. Therefore, when addressing the problem of evil, Wright says:
“Whereas we often ask ‘Why?’, people in the Bible often asked ‘How long?’. Their tendency was not to demand that God give an explanation to the origin of evil but rather to plead with God to do something to bring about an end to evil.” (27)
In addressing the mystery of evil and its origins, Wright insists on holding three truths together that he can see in the story of Joseph and in the story of the cross:
- The utter evilness of evil.
- The utter goodness of God.
- The utter sovereignty of God.
Wright refuses to deny any of these truths or to pit one against another. He insists on holding them together, just as he sees the biblical authors doing.
The second part of the book focuses on the judgment of the Canaanites in the Old Testament. Did God really command Israel to commit genocide?
Wright does not minimize the issues at stake here. He points out some wrong solutions to the problem. Then he takes us back to the Old Testament in order that we might make sense of these accounts and what we can learn about God from them.
But Wright does not neatly resolve the issue. Perhaps that is why the book is entitled The God I Don’t Understand. There are no easy resolutions, but Wright’s pastoral insights help shine light on the issues at stake.
Part 3 focuses on the cross. Wright wants to be faithful to the biblical teaching about the cross of Christ. And yet, he also wants to embrace the mystery inherent in the cross. He fully recognizes that we will never exhaust the depths of the meaning of Calvary:
“I understand enough on the basis of what the Bible tells me to know that I owe everything I am now or ever will be to the love and grace of God supremely poured out at Calvary. But when I probe into why and how that is so, I join the multitudes who recognize depths and mysteries here that lie beyond our own understanding but not beyond our faith, praise and worship.” (109)
Wright refuses to join the recent critics of the traditional understanding of substitutionary atonement. He holds tightly to penal substitution as one of the primary ways in which we should understand the cross of Jesus Christ.
But even here, Wright helpfully resists pitting the differrent atonement pictures against one another. He argues for a “both/and” approach, refusing to separate what he believes should be held together. Wright recognizes the tendency to make debates about the atonement too abstract:
“Part of the problem with so many theories of the atonement through the centuries is that they tried to explain the death of Christ in terms of other stories or world views where it does not really fit while ignoring the one story in which it is actually set – the Biblical story of God’s dealings with Israel and of God’s mission through Israel to bring blessing and salvation to the world.” (145)
I believe that Wright is on target here. We should promote the biblical atonement theories, including penal substitution, but we should situate these theories within the historical setting of Jesus in the first century.
The last part of the book focuses on eschatology – the doctrine of the end times. Wright offers some illuminating insights into biblical eschatology. Yet, I did not find part 4 as relevant to the book’s overall theme as the previous sections.
The God I Don’t Understand is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I highly recommend that those who want to wrestle with these issues of faith consult Chris Wright’s wise reflections.