The Day the Revolution Began by Tom Wright
Why did Jesus have to die? And why did it have to be by crucifixion? These questions have been asked by thinking people for two thousand years. For many, they have proved to be a stumbling block, and even a barrier to faith. After all, what kind of faith is it that centres on a God who dies? Even worse for some, if Jesus’s death is somehow demanded by his heavenly Father as a kind of brutal punishment for the sins of others, what kind of God is it that Christians worship?
In this book, Tom Wright grapples with these questions. His answer is that in order to understand what was accomplished by Jesus’s death, and why it had to be by crucifixion, and what it tells us about the nature and character of God, we need to make the imaginative journey into the mindset and understanding of first-century Judaism. Any attempt to understand the crucifixion without doing so leads to a distortion of the truth, and a misunderstanding of its purpose and effect.
Many of us will have been taught some version of this: that ‘heaven’ is the place where good people end up after death; that because none of us is without sin, we aren’t morally good enough to ‘get to heaven’ on our own; that because we need to be rescued, Jesus died ‘for our sins’; and that if we believe in Jesus, our sins are forgiven and we will go to heaven when we die. Tom Wright argues that none of this is found in Jewish thought, and represents a gospel that is at best misleading, watered-down and partial, and at worst downright wrong. According to Scripture, ‘heaven’ isn’t ‘the place where good people go when they die. It’s no less than the realm of God, a present reality that Christians pray regularly will come ‘on earth as in heaven’. The Bible doesn’t promise that when we die we will go to heaven. Instead, the Biblical promise is that at the end of all things, creation will be renewed and united with heaven. Our goal as human beings is not ‘heaven’, but to live out our renewed vocation within God’s renewed creation. Human beings are called to be ‘image-bearers’ of God, living as genuine human beings, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purposes for his world. We fail to be genuine human beings because of sin – the result of giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself, rather than to God. In other words, the basis of all sin is idolatry. And sin results inevitably in exile – expulsion from God’s presence. So ‘salvation’ isn’t about ‘souls going to heaven’, but about being liberated from idolatry (that underlies all sin) to live out our true vocation, centred on proper worship of God alone, and being restored from exile back into God’s presence.
As Israel’s Messiah and standard-bearer, Jesus came to fulfill the human vocation by living a life of faithfulness and worship unto God. In himself Jesus held heaven and earth together; he was the presence of God incarnate. He therefore defeated the powers of sin and death on the cross – forever ending Israel’s exile – as he suffered in Israel’s place, “giving his life in the place of sinners, as ‘a ransom for many.’” By so doing, Jesus overcame the powers of destruction with the new power of self-giving love. The effect of this was – and is! – to rescue people for their priestly vocation as God’s ambassadors to the world, not to take them from the world where they will escape to heaven for eternity.
Tom Wright is a brilliant New Testament scholar, both under his academic guise as ‘N.T. Wright’ and in his much more accessible and engaging books as ‘Tom Wright’. This is a ‘Tom Wright’ book, and particularly in its earlier chapters, his writing carries the reader along, making the deep scholarship that underpins it understandable. As the book progresses, it becomes more detailed and inevitably more dense, but is still very readable. If you want a guide to help you to understand the thought and conceptual world in which the New Testament books were written, and maybe to challenge and transform your own thinking and understanding of the crucifixion, this is a very good place to start.
Revd. Julie Bacon