N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (2)
Ch.2: Wrestling with the Cross, Then and Now
One of the chief claim NTW advances is that atonement must be congruent with eschatology. That is, the means (atonement) God uses must be congruent with the ends (eschatology) toward which he is working. How we conceive God’s goals determines how we will understand his works.
Medieval Catholicism bought into an eschatology of individual salvation from sin and life with God in heaven forever. This its theory of penal substitutionary atonement was congruent with this eschatology.
Luther and Calvin challenged the excesses that Medieval Catholicism developed but never challenged the Heaven-Hell schema that determined its eschatology nor the assumption that the cross had to do with pacifying God’s wrath. They could not, therefore, see the biblical eschatology of new creation growing out of Jesus’ resurrection and rethink atonement in its light.
On into the Enlightenment and beyond, Wright claims, this unchallenged background become more and more the default understanding of the gospel. Unfortunately, this gospel was both unconcerned with the larger world beyond the individual (esp. the problem of evil) and was escapist in its view of what God’s ultimate purpose for us is.
This view is inadequate to the biblical portrayal that the cross of Jesus does something, to all of us and everything. It changes the world. From noon to six pm on that first Good Friday, Wright says, the word became a different place and human beings are intended to be a part of that change. This is a wholly different eschatology. NTW puts it in a striking way: “The New Testament, with the story of Jesus’s crucifixion at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven” (40).
However, the Heaven and Hell scheme and salvation as going to heaven after death remains entrenched and creates the following difficulties:
-instead of God loves the world and gave his Son for it (Jn.3:16) this gospel is easily misheard as God hates the world and killed his Son for it.
-that God uses violence by killing Jesus on the cross.
With the character of God as love thus compromised or put in question, the heart of the gospel is obscured or hidden. This is the crisis the “gospel” as we in the west have received it provokes.
The good news is that this Heaven and Hell schema is not biblical. We can recover the biblical story if
-we start with Eph.1:10 as the goal toward which God is working,
-focus on the new creation God promised instead of a disembodied “heaven,”
-embrace our true calling as God’s royal priesthood on his new creation,
-thought through what living by the cross means in every area of life, and
-interpret the cross in light of God’s promise of new creation.