The conversation of atonement is looming large in my graduate studies, both as a part of my current theology class and as a major portion of my thesis. This conversation inevitably meant I had to read one of the most recent books on the topic written by one of the most prominent New Testament scholars, The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright. I bought this book when I went to see Dr. Wright speak on the subject at Wheaton College and was intrigued by a number of the themes he presented in his lecture that seemed like a challenge both to the traditional Protestant understanding of atonement and the Platonizing elements (at least in his understanding) of much modern conversation on atonement. While there is much to be discussed in this book there are only a few points I would like to land on in this review.

First, Wright focuses intently on the Platonizing elements he believes are everywhere in modern concepts of the atonement, or maybe more implicitly, he is critiquing centuries of theological conversation that veered far off from anything the Scriptures were historically referencing. The cultural context of tribalism in the USA has led many academic Christians to deeply explore the teachings of Christian Tradition(s), and many (influenced particularly by David Bentley Hart) are finding Platonism to be a philosophical construct which allows them to understand their faith and reality. I too have many reservations about Platonic elements of philosophy being used as ways of constructing contemporary theology, but I believe there should be more of an effort to distinguish Ancient Platonic thought, Christian Platonism (particularly as expressed by Maximus the Confessor), and what I would call ‘Modern Platonism’ in order to refer to Enlightenment-era philosophy that has embedded (though often wrongly applied) Platonic elements. Wright is primarily attacking the last of these three as he criticizes the common understanding of penal substitution as spiritualized and individualized understanding of Reformed atonement theory.[1] These are valid critiques of penal substitutionary atonement on account that it constructs an idea that King Jesus died with specific intent for each individual (the phrase “He was thinking of me on the cross” or “He would have went to the cross if even just for me” are good examples) rather than personally incorporating the individual into the work of God brought about in King Jesus. What’s more it seems King Jesus’ divine intent for my eternal fulfillment on the cross for “me” was to escape this world of pain and death to go to heaven rather than being empowered to follow him in his life of sacrificial, suffering love for others.

Second, Wright seeks an understanding of the atonement within the framework of Jesus’ own historical context and the first century Christian communities. This means understanding what the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures”, found in 1st Corinthians 15:3, means. Wright proposes Jesus’ death was framed, both by Jesus himself and his followers, as the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s covenantal expectations. He argues that for these covenantal promises to become fulfilled the exile must come to an end. And in order for the exile to come to an end the sins of the people must be forgiven. Wright sees the New Testament revealing Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the long-awaited Davidic king, and the Son of Man from Daniel 7. This merging of Old Testament themes (Wright’s idea of “according to the Scriptures”) means Jesus is able to act as a substitution for Israel’s punishment of exile to bring it to an end (the Suffering Servant), act as representative to God in order to fulfill where Israel had failed in the past (the Davidic king), and act on behalf of God to establish the eternal, global kingdom (the Son of Man). This mixture of motifs allows King Jesus to remove the sin of the people, fulfill the mission of Israel to be faithful to God overthrowing the powers and idols which had enslaved them, and to open up the kingdom’s blessings to the nations as promised to Abraham. All of this happens as an act of love from God who is being faithful to enacting his covenantal promises to Israel (and the nations through her).

Lastly, there is only one area of this book that I did not follow Wright. The particular section was where he fights the idea that atonement does not need to have a concept of punishment involved. By this he means, in his model of atonement Jesus does not need to be sent to placate the anger of God towards humanity.[2] This central argument had two contentions I found particularly weak. A) The Day of Atonement ritual did not actually kill the goat, which represented the people, upon whose head the sins of the people were placed. B) Sin offerings were not about punishment from God being averted, rather it was about purification of accidental sins of the people. It is easy enough to find dissatisfaction in these points from within Wright’s own method of New Testament investigation since the writer of Hebrews merges both of these two sacrificial themes together (Heb. 13:10-13). Leviticus 16 instructs that on the Day of Atonement the bodies sacrificed for sin, which removed or cleansed the people, were all presented for bodily destruction outside of the camp/city. Leviticus 16 then immediately moves to a long list of punishments for breaking the covenant willfully, and the writer of Hebrews seems to be warning against a punishment for disobeying the gospel message in chapter 4. Yet, as I am writing a mini-commentary of disapproval in the margins of this section, Wright then turns. He makes clear that, yes, Jesus as (representative) King and (substitutionary) Suffering Servant does mean punishment against the people of Israel is being removed in the cross. He simply wants to make it clear the punishment is not a future threat of hell that is being removed but the punishment of exile.[3]

But this is a further strangeness in Wright’s aversion to punishment in the cross. He is insistent that wrath is still yet to come so wrath could not have fallen on King Jesus at the cross.[4] Again, I believe Wright’s own method works against him here. Conceptually, the blood of the Passover lamb kept away death in the place of the firstborn sons of Israel thereby purchasing the life of the firstborns for God’s special use. Later, God set the Levites in the place of the firstborns. This interaction of sacrifice and the death of sons is deeply embedded into the Genesis story beginning with the skins God puts on Adam and Eve rather than them dying the very day they ate of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:17). While death was staved off for a time sin convinced one of their sons to kill the other beginning a whole set of recapitulations of animals “covering” sons in sin and death (Isaac on Moriah, Jacob’s deception of Isaac, the patriarchs’ cover up with Joseph’s coat, etc). All of that to say, I believe this idea of death/punishment in the sacrifice of the cross would be worked out by Wright’s own method if he more fully incorporated the Old Testament interactions of sonship and sacrifice. This would easily be enveloped into the three themes Wright offers of King Jesus, most naturally into the representative form of the Davidic King but possibly even in the priesthood theme of the Suffering Servant. If this does make a way for punishment, including the future wrath the whole world will experience, to be satisfied in the cross it means that when King Jesus ended the exile it was the end of any condemnation for the people of God in this age and the next.

Overall, this book is a great read. Other than the handful of pages referenced above about the aversion to punishment in a specific way, I believe this book is a necessary corrective for many who think about the impact and power of the cross in Christian theology. Theology must be more rooted in the actual language of the Bible and the time of King Jesus himself. As nice and pretty as some theological conversations of later times appear, they are often far from the meanings of the Scriptures they employ. As Wright implores, Christians must understand God’s giving of King Jesus as a loving act for our good, not with the specific intend of stopping his anger at individuals per se, but rather the ending of the sins of Israel so that the covenant blessings might be fulfilled. While sin, anger, punishment, and death are dealt with it is through the ending of the exile by God forgiving the sins of the people in King Jesus. Wright compellingly explains how the end of this new exile is more than just about certain political freedoms (such as overthrowing Rome) but it is more about robbing the demonic rulers and idols, which have entrapped all of Creation and enslaved humanity, of any power to rule. King Jesus has liberated his people, humanity, and all of Creation from the rule of evil, sin, and death, thereby, fulfilling all things “according to the Scriptures”.


 

[1] N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.

[2] Wright, 329–31.

[3] Wright, 337–38.

[4] Wright, 330.

Posted by Justin Gill

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