One of the big problems with contemporary evangelical theology, according to N.T. Wright, is that we often have part of the answer but it leads to the wrong conclusions. For example, the theology of the cross comes down to “Jesus died so you could be forgiven and go to heaven.”. As Wright points out that is not what the New Testament teaches, or at least it is not all that the New Testament teaches.
So Wright goes back to Adam and Eve, right through the Old Testament and comes to the conclusion that the main sin that people have to face is idolatry. The people of God were constantly faced with the challenge of staying faithful to the one true God, Yahweh or worshipping the false gods of the nations around.
The problem with idolatry is that it undermines our calling or vocation as human beings. We were created in God’s image so how can we worship another image without damaging ourselves? For Israel, God’s covenant people, to worship other gods meant separation from God and the Land He had given them to live out their calling.
When Jesus comes on the scene, Israel has spent much of its existence either in exile or in subjection to other nations. The prophets knew that the solution they needed was national as well as individual salvation.
The cross then is not about a human sacrifice to appease an angry deity, which is what many christians think of. It is more like the one true representative of humanity (“the Son of Man” as Jesus frequently called Himself) dying for the world. He speaks of the sins of the nation, especially its idolatries, being heaped up and falling on Jesus.
A revolution of love, self-denying and sacrificial love, brings a new rule in the world- the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom, launched by Jesus’ death on the cross, sets us free to see and experience the true God and to follow in His ways.
The death of Jesus on the Cross at 6 pm on Good Friday is the start of the revolution. His resurrection before dawn on Sunday is the first sign that God’s kingdom of life, love and forgiveness is here.
Wright says that the gospel is bigger than “we get to go to heaven” (which is a pagan Platonist ideal). The true gospel message is that the Kingdom is here and God is overturning everything that is based on human idolatry, including relationships, politics, oppression and self-worship. Yes we get to live for ever in the new heavens and the new earth, but the Kingdom is more than that.
It’s hard to justice to a book of this size and scope in a few hundred words, but it is well worth reading. Wright covers deep topics in a way that many people find is easy to read. I think most people would want to read a few pages and mull it over for a few days.
I’ve always felt that the typical atonement theory whereby Jesus takes the punishment for our sins and as a result we go to heaven has a few gaps in it. This book goes a long way to filling the gaps.