The Revolution 1: Why the cross?

A vitally important scandal: Why the cross?

First post summarising N.T. Wright, 2016. The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. London: SPCK.
The previous (introductory) post on Tom Wright's book is here.

The day the revolution began has four parts, and this post attempts to summarise Part One.

Some will find Tom Wright’s central presupposition controversial. It is that the church has never sorted out what was accomplished by the cross. To do this, he says, that we need to get inside the mindset of the earliest Christians and to understand how they saw the cross.

What happened on the cross?

Over the centuries, the cross has acquired a patina of respectability. People wear its image around their necks, yet this is tantamount to wearing the hangman’s rope, or worse. The Roman world in which Jesus was crucified was totally brutal, and within it, as ancient writers attest,[1]  crucifixion was the extreme of brutality, used to show subject peoples who was in charge and to break their spirits. Wright writes: ‘And if you had actually seen a crucifixion or two, as many in the Roman world would have, your sleep itself would have been invaded by nightmares as the memories came flooding back unbidden, memories of humans half alive and half dead, lingering on perhaps for days on end, covered in blood and flies, nibbled by rats, pecked at by crows, with weeping but helpless relatives still keeping watch, and with hostile or mocking crowds adding their insults to the terrible injuries.’[2]  And later. ‘We who know about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib should not find it impossible to imagine something of the mindset of an execution squad outside Jerusalem.’

Small wonder that for Jews the cross was a horrible parody of their kingdom dreams and for Romans the worst form of execution and not mentioned in polite society (1 Corinthians 1:23). Amazingly, though, to early Christians it was the revelation of the Messiah, the unveiling of God’s power and wisdom (1 Cor 1:43). Paul puts the words “even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2.8b) right at the centre of his famous poem. Early Christians ‘interpreted the crucifixion as part of the strange, dark divine plan in which the shame and horror were part of the intended meaning. Jesus, they believed, had gone to the lowest point possible for a human being, never mind a Jew, never mind one whose followers had hoped he was the coming king.’ The early church made the ‘shocking, scandalous, nonsensical claim that [Jesus’] death had launched a revolution … They believed that with this event the one true God had suddenly and dramatically put into operation his plan for the rescue of the world.’ How could this possibly be? What exactly happened on the cross? What does it mean? Wright says we need to pursue answers to these questions so that God’s power and wisdom will better work in us and through us into a world that still sees the cross as folly.

First-century expectations

We need to get into the thought processes of the disciples who witnessed the crucifixion. Some first-century Jews took Daniel’s (ch 9) prophecy of a 490-year exile as an assurance that the exile had not merely been their 70 years in Babylon but was continuing in the form of Roman oppression. Since the prophets of the exile had said that the exile was the result of Israel’s idolatry and sin, they awaited a new act of deliverance and forgiveness. Jeremiah (31:31–34) looked forward to a ‘new covenant’ in which sins would be forgiven. Some awaited a Messiah, a prophetic leader who would liberate them afresh. And Jesus chose the Passover festival for the confrontation that led to the crucifixion, the festival that looked back to Jewish liberation from Egypt, and forward to another great liberation. However, apparently no one linked the Messiah with suffering, even though some thought that a time of terrible suffering would precede Israel’s deliverance.

Christian perspectives on the cross?

Wright concedes that ‘you don’t have to have a theory about why the cross is so powerful before you can be moved and changed, before you can know yourself loved and forgiven, because of Jesus’s death.’ Nonetheless, he says, we need to grasp why the earliest Christians saw what had happened on Good Friday as a dramatic new beginning. If we don’t, it is perilously easy for our faith to become concerned mainly with our own salvation and, at the extreme, so occupied with the next world that we cease to care about what happens in this one.

For many evangelical protestants the early Christian picture of what was accomplished through the cross has been replaced by a dangerously watered down view. Wright held such a view as a boy: ‘the death of Jesus was all about God saving me from my “sin,” so that I could “go to heaven.”’ But, says Wright, the early Christian picture was immensely larger. It included, but utterly transcended, his childhood vision. It was ‘something altogether more explosive.’ Wright’s goal is to re-establish the early Christian picture of the cross’s accomplishment by carefully reexamining what the New Testament writers actually said, against the background of Jewish thinking at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Before he returns to this, however, Wright gives us a history of the western church’s interpretations of what the cross accomplished.[3]  In protestant circles three kinds of model have been proposed.

The first kind are punishment (‘penal substitution’) models, bluntly summed up in a recent hymn:

And on the cross, when Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.

Many find this model abhorrent, as it confronts us with a God who is allegedly all-loving—‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’ (John 3:16)—but is simultaneously so angry that his anger can only be satisfied by killing. The world hears this as ‘God so hated the world that he killed his only son’, an idea that belongs among pagan beliefs, Wright says. The first punishment model came from Anselm (1033-1109), archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death: God’s honour had been impugned by human sin and had to be satisfied. But, Wright points out, the Eastern Orthodox churches never had an Anselm, and this alone should alert us to the fact that punishment models of the atonement are decidedly post-Biblical.

The second kind of model, proposed by Abelard (1079–1142) says that Jesus’ death was the supreme example of love, and the world is transformed when others follow it. But, says Wright, unless there was a reason for Jesus to die—and to die this particularly horrible death—it is not clear how his death was an expression of love. Unless his death ‘achieved something—something that urgently needed to be done and that couldn’t be done any other way—then it cannot serve as a moral example.’ As 1 John 4:10–11 puts it,

Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the sacrifice that would atone for our sins. Beloved, if that’s how God loved us, we ought to love one another in the same way.’ (Italics added)

The third kind of model asserts the paradoxical idea that through Jesus on the cross God won a victory over the ‘powers’ that had usurped his rule over the world. But who or what are these ‘powers’? And why should Jesus’ death bring victory over them, the more so as evil appears to carry on as before?

These are questions to which Wright seeks answers. He says early Christians believed that when Jesus died on the cross, ‘something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. They insisted that when people are caught up in the meaning of the cross, they become part of this difference’. (italics original) ‘The New Testament … is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. This is, after all, what Jesus taught his followers to pray.’

Among the Reformers, Calvin in particular sought to distinguish his theory from Anselm’s, stressing instead God’s justice, holiness and love, but, as Karl Barth pointed out, the Reformers never sorted out what they wanted to say about the ultimate future. Yet, says Wright, ‘How we are saved is closely linked to the question of what we are saved for’. The Reformers' failure left the way open for Enlightenment thinking, which interpolated a gulf between the present material world and a distant heaven. By the 19th century the official church doctrine of a bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15) had effectively been replaced by belief in a non-bodily ultimate heaven. Paul says that ‘… the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Rom 8:20–21, NIV), but the passage in which this occurs (8:18-24) has been routinely reinterpreted as a roundabout way of talking about heaven. This vision of a non-bodily heaven is a legacy, not of Paul, but of Plato and of Paul’s younger contemporary Plutarch, who suggested that people in the present life are ‘exiled’ from their true ‘home’ in heaven. This in turn undermines the concept of the resurrection as the launching of God’s new creation and instead places the focus on my sin and my heavenly salvation and thus my Saviour.

A side effect of this reformulation is a radical split between personal sin and the evil in the world. Atonement theories address personal sin, but leave ‘the problem of evil’ to be explained by arguments about God’s providence. Early Christians believed that the revolution that began on Good Friday concerned both, but this is pushed aside. In the modern world this has the disastrous consequence that evil is not seen to be addressed by the cross but is dealt with in other ways, for example by dropping bombs on it. But in early Christian theology, evil is dealt with by God, and he does this through the cross.

A foretaste of Wright's argument

How he believes this works Wright explains in Part 3, but he ends Part 1 with a foretaste of his argument. First, replacing the common vision of ‘going to heaven’ with the biblical picture of ‘new heavens and new earth’ will have important consequences for understanding the human problem and God’s solution.

Second, conventionally it is sin that prevents us from ‘going to heaven’, but in the biblical model what stops us from being genuinely human, from bearing God’s image, from being a ‘royal priesthood’, is the idolatry that underlies sin. Human beings have handed over to their idols the power that they should be exercising on God’s behalf. The idols need to be defeated, so that humans are released to worship God and to be renewed according to his image.

This seems abstract, but the Bible is more concrete. God will deal with sin, break the idols’ power and bring new creation to his world through the people of Israel. In the New Testament, the focus narrows to Israel’s representative, the Messiah, who stands in for Israel and fulfils God’s plan.

Wright concludes, ‘By six in the evening on the first Good Friday, according to the early Christians, the world was a different place. What was different? Why was it different? And how might that revolutionary difference challenge us today, summoning us to our own vocation as followers of the shameful, scandalous, crucified Jesus?’

The next post on N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion is here.


  • [^1]   In Cicero's words crucifixion was crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium, "the most cruel and terrifying penalty" (Verrem 2.5.165). Josephus recounts a Jewish protest against the "most pitiable of deaths," (θανατων τον οικτιστον; Jewish War 7.202f.). Origen refers to it as mors turpissima crucis, the "most shameful death, the cross" (Commentary on Matthew 27.22). Seneca (Epistle 101.12–14). describes it as a long-drawn-out affair, in which the victim would be "wasting away in pain, dying limb by limb, letting out his life drop by drop . . . fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly tumours on chest and shoulders, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony."

  • [^2]   People would have seen crucifixions. Wright tells us that after Herod the Great's death in 4 BC a serious attempt at revolt led by Judas ben Hezekiah occurred in the Galilee (Josephus, Apion 1.34; Antiquities 17.271f.; War 2.56). Varus, the Roman general in charge in the province of Syria, crushed the rebellion brutally, crucifying 2000 rebels. People would have had memories of people they had known and loved, crucified by the Romans.

  • [^3]   In the early sections of chapter 2.