Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Thirty Three

When it comes to the issue of the origins of evil, as Tom says on pp. 740ff. neither the OT nor early Jews sought to offer a detailed explanation. It appears they were more concerned with a solution to the problem rather than answers to abstract questions. It is interesting that not until the late first century A.D. were there Jews who traced the rot back to Adam and Even themselves, as the origin of at least human evil. One could point to Gen. 6 and say there were evil angels who invaded the human realm and mucked things up, but this of course was after a long period of wickedness already. Entirely lacking is Milton’s explanation in Paradise Lost. We are not told how evil in the person of the snake got in the garden. It was simply there. Furthermore, there is no explanation for what is sometimes called natural evil (earthquakes etc.), though Paul does suggest that God uses these sorts of natural disasters as warnings–1 Cor. 11.30. My own observation on that score would be that natural processes, such as earthquakes etc. are not evil in themselves. They simply have harmful effects on humans when we get in the way. If an earthquake happens on a remote island in the Indian Ocean which has no human population, nobody cares, nor should they. It is not an incursion of evil. On the other hand, when humans mess with and screw up the environment they have no one but themselves to blame for unleashing the whirlwind on themselves.

Tom is right that “the offer of an eschatological solution was not matched by an analysis of why a problem existed in the first place” (p. 740). Yes God promised to provide a solution, first to Abraham, but it was long delayed, even though God’s chosen people knew it would somehow come through them. This is why the cry of how long is repeated over and over again in the OT, and even into the last book of the NT. The matter still has not yet been finally resolved. Evil is resilient. Even preliminary interventions by God, again and again in one form or another didn’t solve the problem. Even the coming of Jesus only began to resolve the problem. It is only in 4 Ezra 6 and 2 Baruch that we begin to get a Jewish explanation as to where evil came from at least among the people of God– it’s Adam’s fault. B.T. Sanhed. 102a traces the problem back to the golden calf of Aaron, and later in the period of Jereboam. This is given as an explanation as to why bad things were still happening to God’s people— the answer is, we have no one but ourselves to blame. God is not rescuing us because we have sinned and fallen short, an answer similar to what Paul says, though he thinks God is rescuing us through Jesus. Much of the discussion, as Tom says, merely articulates the tension between good and evil. Jews do not resort to dualism for an explanation as did Gnosticism and other dualistic ideas (there is a bad god along side the good one etc.). Evil, in the context of creational monotheism, doesn’t make sense. It is an anti-creation, anti-monotheism force which exists, but cannot be reduced to a neat explanation in regard to its origins. Jews also did not go the escapist route either (rescue me from the evil world, for instance by beaming me up). They prayed for rescue in the world, or rescue and salvation of the world, but not for rescue from the world. As Tom says on p.742–“Neither the average ancient pagan nor the average ancient Jew was walking around worried about how their soul might get to a disembodied heaven after they die.”

Tom is right (p. 743) that from a Jewish point of view, idols and their temples are means by which demons get their claws into you. Idolatry is a way of passing the buck, of giving “away the responsibility which humans should be exercising over the world to unpleasant and destructive forces. Within human life itself, idolatry becomes habit forming, character-shaping, progressively more destructive. It enslaves people. Ulitmately, it kills people.”

And what happens when God’s people just deliberately go on sinning, commiting ‘sins with a high hand’? See Num. 15.30f.;Deut. 17.12;Heb. 10.26; and M. Kerioth especially 1.2;3.2. I would also point to Acts 13 where Paul says that only in Christ do we now have atonement for such deliberate intentional sins. As Tom says however, after the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70, Jewish thinkers did realize that the problem of evil was much more deeply routed than previously thought, even deeply routed in the people of God. But it was one thing to trace the problem back to Adam, another thing to come up with an elaborate theology of human falleness in general that suggested human sin was inevitable.

On p. 746 Tom points out that the problem of evil, is only a severe problem if one believes in a good all powerful God who cares about the world. Biblical monotheists had a particular problem because: 1) the world is God’s creation and yet there is evil in it; 2) humans are in God’s image and yet they rebel; and 3) Israel is called to be God’s chosen people and yet is trodden down by the nations. Jews addressed these concerns by 1) varied uses of the Genesis and Exodus narratives; 2) cultic monotheism, especially the sacrificial system, and 3) eschatological monotheism– God is coming back and setting things right. Thus, from Wright’s perspective Paul adopts and adapts this already extant Jewish monotheistic articulation of the problem and the solution, with the adaptation having to do with explaining the role Jesus and the Spirit play in the solution. In other words Paul’s plight and solution articulation is not de novo, nor did the articulation of the plight only arise once Paul recognized and embraced the solution in Christ (contra Sanders and others). Paul intensifies the problem and provides a more radical version of the solution, but he is not theologizing from scratch.

Tom is particularly concerned that we not frame this whole discussion in terms of the Augustinian idea that Paul was suggesting Jews like himself were running around with a load of guilt and saw the Law as imposing an unbearable burden, nor should we agree with Sanders that Jews all had robust consciences and sin had a ready remedy in the sacrificial and repentance systems. Paul must be located not within Medieval and Reformation frameworks about sin and personal salvation but rather within his own early Jewish framework (p. 749). With this I heartily agree. Tom stresses that early Jews saw rescue as a matter of rescue from evil, not as rescue from the created world (which BTW is why Paul has so little to say about dying and going to heaven). The basic cry of Is. 40-55 was for a rescue of the world and God’s people with it, a radical change within the world itself. In short, Paul’s Damascus Road experience and subsequent reflections mostly deepened his already extant early Jewish understanding of both the plight and the solution.