N. T. Wright on the Complexity of Evil

The discussion below is from N. T. Wright’s book, Simply Jesus (pp. 121-123).  It is set in the midst of a larger discussion of the character “the satan” in Scripture.  It’s a great description of the complex character of evil.

As C. S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his famous Screwtape Letters, the modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish.  Neither approach, Lewis insists, does justice to that reality.  I’m with Lewis on this.  Despite the caricatures, the obsessions, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do . . .

Without the perspective that sees evil as a dark force that stands behind human reality, the issue of “good” and “bad” in our world is easy to decipher.  It is fatally easy, and I mean fatally easy, to typecast “people like us” as basically good and “people like them” as basically evil.  This is a danger we in our day should be aware of, after the disastrous attempts by some Western leaders to speak about an “axis of evil” and then to go to war to obliterate it.  We turn ourselves into angels and “the other lot” into demons; we “demonize” our opponents.  This is a convenient tool for avoiding having to think, but it is disastrous for both our thinking and our behavior.

But when you take seriously the existence and malevolence of non-human forces that are capable of using “us” as well as “them” in the service of evil, the focus shifts.  As the hazy and shadowy realities come into view, what we thought was clear and straightforward becomes blurred.  Life becomes more complex, but arguably more realistic.  The traditional lines of friend and foe are not so easy to draw.  You can no longer assume that “that lot” are simply agents of the devil and “this lot”—us and our friends—are automatically on God’s side . . .

The line between good and evil is clear at the level of God, on the one hand, and the satan, on the other.  It is much, much less clear as it passes through human beings, individually and collectively.

6 thoughts on “N. T. Wright on the Complexity of Evil

  1. joey

    Paul speaks of Sin as a “king” and a “slaveowner.”
    If enslavement in Egypt followed by Exodus are a way of understanding the nature of Sin, then we can realize a sense of helplessness when it comes to the sinner. We too easily want to see Sin as ONLY a system of simple law and punishment.

  2. S Wu

    Lately I have been thinking a lot about Genesis 1-3, Romans 5, 8 and the problem of evil, especially in light of the devastation of tsunamis, earthquakes, disability and severe diseases. I find that the (Evangelical) discussions on Genesis 1-3 are often dominated by the debates around science and faith. Two other discussions (though absolutely valid in themselves) when it comes to these texts are regarding climate change and whether natural disasters are caused by human sin or not.

    What I find missing in the discussions are the cosmic/non-human dimensions of evil. Interestingly Genesis 3 and Job 1, and indeed Luke 4 all explicitly mention the devil/Satan. In the ancient worldview (and for many peoples in the non-Western world today), the reality of everyday life is never separated from the cosmic forces.

    Where we have excesses today is the tendency to fight these forces with some kind of spiritual mapping. But when I read Daniel and Revelation, I find that there is nothing in the texts that says that we should call on to angel Gabriel or Michael to fight the battle for us. Instead, I find the call to God’s people to remain faithful and steadfast in the midst of hardship and oppression.

    Or have I missed something here?

    1. timgombis

      One of Wright’s larger points in this discussion is that modern people from various angles (liberal skeptics, conservatives) have fallen prey to various shades of a modern scientific worldview. So their thinking about large-scale evils and cosmic forces is off-base, though in different ways.

      The biblically-endorsed posture for God’s people of bearing with brokenness and remaining faithful in the midst of creation’s enslavement is simply unexplored territory, at least for many Westerners. Because Scripture’s discussion of the state of creation has been missed by us, this way of being Christian has been missed, too.

      To get to the heart of Paul (and, thereby, Scripture), is to catch this vision for cruciformity, faithfulness, and steadfastness in the face of suffering.

      It’s refreshing, too, to hear Wright hit these notes.

  3. athanasius96

    A corollary to this is that sin can only make sense in a very limited frame. Only against the larger background of God’s bigger picture do we see how absurd it is. That’s why it thrives in secrecy and withers in the face of truth.

  4. Kelly

    Not to dumb this conversation down but The Hunger Games does such a great job of tackling this. I assume you haven’t read them, but I imagine your kids may have. Characters on all sides are used as pawns, but when a seemingly clear line is drawn between “good” and “bad” or “us” and “them”, a new element is introduced that forces the reader to rethink their opinion. One of my favorite lines from the series describes a group that can’t really be categorized as enemy or friend as “who we would be if…” It’s definitely a good read to start discussing a more complex view of evil with younger minds.

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