A review of The God I Don’t Understand. By Christopher Wright.

Zondervan, 2008. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

Chris Wright is an English evangelical and Old Testament scholar. He has penned a number of helpful books on Old Testament themes, including a very good commentary on Deuteronomy. Here he moves in more of an apologetic and theological direction.

This book addresses four really tough issues which Christians wrestle with. Indeed, they comprise some of the most difficult and perplexing issues a believer can grapple with. The four topics are: the problem of suffering and evil; the destruction of Canaan; the mystery of the cross; and the end times.

Wright admits that these topics can be very hard to fully understand, but that it is worth pondering carefully some of these difficult questions. And while the four topics may seem unrelated, Wright nicely ties them all together in light of the biblical metanarrative. All are part of God’s grand redemptive work throughout human history. Indeed, history is really His Story.

Consider the heart of the Christian story, the cross. Like other great Christian doctrines, such as the Incarnation and the Trinity, there is much mystery in what transpired at Calvary. We cannot claim to know all the hows and whys of the cross, but we can begin to seek understanding.

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Wright reminds us that the Bible presents many metaphors of the cross, and that other doctrines must be considered, such as the nature of sin and the justice of God. He argues that the penal substitution understanding of the cross must be maintained, even though it is so often misunderstood and rejected by believers.

He argues that the cross only makes proper sense when we see God for who he really is, and we see sin for what it really is. God is so holy and pure, and sin is so awful and evil, that the only fitting response of a just God against sin is anger and wrath.

This holy anger is inseparable from his love. Why is God so angry at evil? “Because the very essence of evil is to resist, reject, and refuse the love of God.” The very thing God wants to pour out on us – his love – is prevented by sin. Evil is rebellion against the love of God.

A parent would get angry at anything which prevents him from loving his own children. God is angry when his good purposes for creation are frustrated by our rebellion and sinful choices. It is because of God’s great love for the world that he is angered by that which betrays and frustrates his loving purposes for his creation.

Only a God who takes evil seriously – who is angered by sin, oppression, injustice and cruelty – is a God worth worshipping. God took human sin so seriously that his Son offered to take our place for the just punishment that we deserved. The cross highlights God’s holy anger against sin and his tremendous love for sinners.

A penal substitution view of the cross does not mean that the Son came to placate the Father’s anger. It is not the case that the Father wanted to judge mankind, but the Son wanted to save mankind, and there was disagreement within the Godhead. No, Father and Son both agreed to the terrible nature of sin, and the need for a supreme sacrifice. Scripture affirms that the Father offered up the Son as a sacrifice, but also that the Son offered up himself as a sacrifice.

And of course all the Old Testament sacrifices and offerings were wonderful foreshadowings of the greatest sacrifice of all. The 66 books of the Bible paint one portrait of redemption. God has always loved us. He has always hated sin. He is always holy, but he is also always merciful. What was typified in the OT was realised in the NT.

Consider also the issue of the conquest of Canaan. This must be seen in light of the bigger biblical picture. The calling of Israel was part of God’s greater plan to bless all the nations. There was nothing special about Israel that resulted in their calling. God chose the Israelites to be a light to the nations.

When Israel did what they were called to do and be, they were blessed. But when they disobeyed Yahweh they were punished. God is a warrior – he sometimes fights on behalf of Israel; he sometimes fights against Israel. God showed no favouritism in his choice of Israel.

The Old Testament has other examples of one nation deposing another, so it was not just Israel involved in such activities. And God, as righteous judge and king, has every right to judge those peoples whose wickedness becomes so great that a holy God must act. The Canaanites had reached that point, so God used the Israelites as the agent of his wrath and judgment.

But of course later on when Israel started to reach equally despicable levels of evil and monstrosity – and in fact committed the same abominations as the Canaanites did, including child sacrifice – God judged Israel. God can use nations to judge other nations. God could use Assyria to judge Israel. But later Assyria too was judged by God. So again, there is no favouritism going on here.

Wright reminds us that there is as much material on the love of God in the OT as there is on the judgment of God in the NT. So we have the same God in both Testaments. But there are differences. God’s call for Israel to dispossess the Canaanites was a specific call at a specific time and place.

We have no such calling today in the NT to take such actions. It was a limited historical event which was directed by God himself. It is not a pattern for Christians to follow today. It is not an ongoing paradigm of how we are to treat foreigners.

Indeed, Wright spends a lot of time looking at how Israel’s overall treatment of foreigners was far more moral and advanced than that of the surrounding nations. Practical care for strangers is in fact enshrined in OT law. The command to “love the foreigner” is part of Mosaic legislation.

And the conquest of Canaan was not some sort of genocide or ethnic cleansing – it was the just divine punishment of a wicked people by the means of Israel. Moreover, the NT writers never view this episode as a mistake or as wrong. They all see it as part of God’s overall plan of redemption.

Israel was not only to be a blessing to the nations, but it was through Israel that the Messiah would come, who would make the blessings of the nations an actuality. Thus the call and mission of Israel was a strategic part of God’s overall plan to bless the nations, and to reveal his love to the world. “The overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations but Israel for the sake of the nations.”

The other two subjects of this book – the problem of evil, and the final outcome of God’s purposes – are also treated carefully and incisively. And they also tie in to the grand theme of Scripture: God’s plan to bless all people and all nations.

The vagaries and perplexities of life are not accidental and random. God has an overall plan which he is working toward, and it is a plan to bless and love all people. Of course that blessing can only come upon those who will receive it. Many people and nations reject it altogether.

But God is even able to use the wicked decisions and rebellious choices of men to accomplish his purposes. Indeed, the worst act of evil ever recorded – the unjust betrayal and lynching of an innocent and pure Jesus Christ – turned out to be the greatest act of redemption ever known.

Thus all these four difficult questions can be answered in light of the cosmic purposes God has in mind for planet earth. Sin and selfishness look to have frustrated and defeated these divine plans for good, but God is able to even use this rebellion and sin as part of his greater purposes.

That is one of the great strengths of this book: to help us see the big picture. It is at once a book of apologetics and a book of biblical theology. It is a very good effort indeed, and should be read far and wide.

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One Reply to “A review of The God I Don’t Understand. By Christopher Wright.”

  1. Another insightful and thoughtful article on a book that courageously tackles difficult issues of life. Thank you Bill, you are an inspiration to me.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on this book for myself. As well as the Bible being a love story to his sons and daughters, it’s a constant cry from His heart for us to trust Him with every aspect of our lives and ourselves, for He is good and His mercy does endure forever. Learning to trust Him is the revelation of the big picture in our lives.

    This journey begins when we make Jesus the Lord of our life. And this oft-used phrase, in one way, could be seen as “when we trust Him with every circumstance in our lives, not subjecting it to our definition of what’s good or bad for us, but accepting that He will bring both trial and blessing to bear in that constant work of perfecting us in Christ”.

    As one wise young man once said to me (paraphrased) “The circumstances of my life are purely subjective – a bad year is one where I find myself further away from God, and a good year is one where I grow closer to God.”

    Garth Penglase

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