Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand (part 2): A response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began [Rethinking salvation #4]

Ted Grimsrud—October 30, 2021

Back in August I read and interacted with an impressive book that sought to explain the meaning of Jesus’s death, Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus. The piece I ended up writing, “Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand,” while offering quite a bit of praise for the book, ended up making some sharp criticisms. The core criticism, I think, was that she did not in the end actually help me very much to understand the death of Jesus. What I was looking for was an explanation of how rectification (her term) actually works and why Jesus’s crucifixion was such a necessary part of this work. I began the book being skeptical about her salvation theology and was not persuaded to change my opinion. I concluded: “All that Rutledge does in the end is simply repeat her on-going refrain, affirming that the crucifixion is necessary and profound and uniquely salvific but not explaining how it works to accomplish such a profound outcome” (nor, I might add, address serious problems that seem to arise from making the cross so central to salvation).

So, based on Rutledge’s book (one of my affirmations of it was that she seems to me to do an excellent job of recounting the core ideas of the mainstream Western Christian tradition [Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Barth]), my tentative conclusion was that “the cross is so hard to understand” because it has never been helpfully explained—other than the extreme Calvinist types who explain it in terms of a punitive, angry, and inherently violent God who viciously punishes Jesus and accepts that as a substitute for giving each of us the eternal punishment we deserve. Rutledge rightly rejects that “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” stance as being based on a nonbiblical view of a non-loving God. But she doesn’t really present us with a clearly explained alternative.

Rutledge’s book was published in 2015. A year later, a somewhat similar book was published, N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne, 2016). I don’t think Wright’s book got quite the same amount of acclaim—partly because it can kind of get lost in the avalanche of books he has published in recent years. Wright’s book does not have quite the dynamism of Rutledge’s, though as with all his books, it is well-written and relatively clear and straightforward. One way that Wright’s book looks the worse of the two is that, though Revolution is a quite substantial book, he does not overtly interact with other scholarship at all—either contemporary thinkers or the key players in the tradition. On the other hand, Wright gives us a lot more biblical analysis than Rutledge, including interaction with the Old Testament and the gospels, sections of the Bible she mostly ignored.

Rather than engage in a detailed comparison between the two books, though, what I will do in this post is focus on Wright’s book and specifically on the question whether he does a better job of helping us understand the cross of Christ. In a word, much of the disappointment I felt with Rutledge’s failure to help me was present after I finished Wright’s Revolution as well. I hope to post before long a third part to this series: “How the cross of Christ may be easily understood.” I will show how the “difficulties” in Rutledge and Wright are not necessary.

Wright’s insightful points

Now, as with Rutledge, Wright certainly offers his readers many important insights. Following from his earlier book, Surprised by Hope, among many other writings, he makes a strong and repeated point that the notion of salvation in the Bible (since we may read the Bible as giving us a broadly coherent message—an emphasis of his of which I approve) is not mainly about “going to heaven when we die.” For Wright, salvation in the Bible has to do with liberating people of faith from bondage to the various powers that dominate life in inhumane ways and empowering people of faith to witness to God’s love in creative and fruitful ways here on earth. And one important element of this witness is following the way of Jesus in embodying an understanding of power as most definitively expressed in lives of service and compassion, especially as regards the vulnerable of the earth.

I’m not sure Wright follows up on this insight about the meaning of salvation as vigorously as he could, and he does not make it as central to the rest of theology as I would like. However, he is strong and clear throughout the book in challenging Western Christianity’s individualism and otherworldliness. I believe that those who read this book attentively and who seek to live in light of Wright’s theological insights will be shaped to be more compassionate, more engaged in helping to make the world more humane, and more skeptical of notions of Christian faith that actually end up supporting our world’s unjust status quo.

Also, Wright regularly uses two terms as, we could say, “cusswords” that characterize the problematic character of much of popular Christian theology and that he tries to overcome with his account of Jesus’s crucifixion. He uses “Platonizing” as shorthand for the tendency to diminish the importance of life on earth in the here and now and to focus instead on “our souls going to heaven when we die.” With this he has his finger on a big problem among today’s Christians. The Bible simply does not present life, faith, and salvation in that kind of dualistic, disengaged kind of way. As Christians embrace such a perspective, they actually contribute to the brokenness of life in the present—the precise opposite of the Bible’s message which from the beginning (and most profoundly in the life and teaching of Jesus) presents the life of faith as a life of engagement in the world. So, certainly Wright’s intentions in his theological work here are transformative (I’m not sure his execution in articulating such a transformative theology matches his intentions).

Wright’s second “cussword” is “paganizing,” used in relation to the view that salvation in the Bible is centered on the offering of a perfect sacrifice to an angry and punitive God that will turn God’s anger away from sinful humanity and make salvation possible. He seems to say that it is a “pagan” view (meaning, I guess, a view that originates in non-biblical religions) to see God as fundamentally angry and punitive and requiring a blood sacrifice to be appeased. Wright does not go into detail in analyzing expressions of this paganized view among Christians, but his allusions make it clear that he has in mind some of the descendants of John Calvin who developed the full-fledged Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theology so widespread among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in our contemporary world.

I appreciate Wright’s rejection of the PSA view. However, as I will discuss below, he is not as clear in fleshing out his critique as he could be—and even, somewhat mysteriously, makes a brief argument for the positive use of the terms “penal” (punitive) and “substitutionary” for his alternative view (pp. 287-8).

Unlike Rutledge, who pays little attention to the gospels and Jesus’s own understanding of salvation (and this was one of my main critiques of her book), Wright does pay serious attention to Jesus’s life and teaching. He begins his discussion of the New Testament and the cross by looking at the stories told in the gospels. Unfortunately, I do not think he does so in the best way. So, his discussion of Jesus is not adequate, even while being an improvement in relation to Rutledge.

A final important insight I want to mention is Wright’s understanding of “sin.” Though I don’t think he applies this insight in a consistently helpful way, he does point in the correct direction. He understands “sin” mainly in terms of the dynamics of idolatry, not in terms of violating commands or breaking rules. He argues that the violation that human sinfulness reflects is best seen in terms of what he calls the “covenant of vocation” rather than the “covenant of works.” That is, the central issue is that God has given humankind the vocation of witnessing in the world in transformative ways to God’s healing love. The central issue is not God keeping a catalog of our good deeds, with demerits for our sins.

Instead, God’s agenda, in Wright’s helpful analysis, may be seen as working to bring liberation from the idols that bind us to service to hurtful values and commitments, and liberation for lives where we are empowered to be co-creators with God. Wright emphasizes that it is important that the gospels link Jesus’s death with the festival Passover, the festival that celebrates God’s past work of liberation.

So, Wright has written a helpful book. His vision has many elements that are attractive. Even if he does not quite write with Rutledge’s flair and does not situate his analysis in the stream of Christian theology of the past 2,000 years, I do prefer his theological analysis to Rutledge’s. In the end, though, I remain pretty disappointed with The Day the Revolution Began and cannot recommend it as the book we need to understand Christian salvation and the cross of Christ. Let me briefly discuss several of the problems I have with the book.

Making the cross hard to understand

(1) One of the main issues I have with both Rutledge and Wright (and, admittedly, most other treatment of “the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion” [Wright’s subtitle]) is that they start with the cross rather than starting with the broader theme of salvation. I think both thinkers are pretty good in what they understand salvation to mean, especially Wright, but the biblical portrayal of salvation does not begin with Jesus’s crucifixion nor does it even center on the cross. More radically, I believe the crucifixion of Jesus does not change much of anything that actually matters about the biblical portrayal of salvation.

The cross is misunderstood when it is seen as the central content to the Bible’s teaching about salvation, even more when it becomes the starting point. I believe we should begin with careful attention to Jesus’s own portrayal of salvation and how he relies so heavily on Torah and the prophets. The cross will be understood totally differently when we see it as a confirmation of Jesus’s message: God’s mercy is the meaning of salvation and we are called to embrace that mercy and to resist the powers of domination, even when it’s costly to do so. A key result of the distorted approach to the cross in the Christian tradition has been a delinking of salvation from Jesus’s way of life—a denial, in effect, of his call to “take up your cross and follow me.”

Wright does a somewhat better job than Rutledge in acknowledging the broader biblical context for the story of Jesus’s death. However, he repeats over and over that it is Jesus’s death that serves as the turning point of salvation history, effecting a fundamental change that makes salvation newly possible. It is precisely at that infamous moment when Jesus died that “the revolution began.” For Wright, the cross is the central content to biblical salvation. Thus, his argument about the meaning of Christian salvation makes it a theology about death and not about life—the last thing that the gospels intend for us to conclude.

(2) A second problem in Wright’s presentation is related. As he does in many of his other writings about Jesus and the New Testament, Wright argues that a central element in the story of Jesus is the strong desire characteristic of the first-century Jewish community as a whole that their “exile” end. This sense of “exile” seems to me to be mostly incoherent, unhelpful, and problematic. Jewish scholar Steve Mason, in a 2016 essay (“N.T. Wright on Paul the Pharisee and ancient Jews in exile,” Scottish Journal of Theology) concludes that Wright misreads the evidence. “Judeans were not in a situation remotely comparable to the storied slavery in Egypt. And it is hard to find traces of exile-anxiety in first-century texts” (p. 443). It’s difficult to support the idea that Wright’s alleged sense of a deep longing for the ending of exile was present in the time of Jesus.

I have a couple of large concerns that stem from Wright’s emphasis on “exile.” The first is that it seems implicitly to reflect a too negative view of what we could call the spiritual state of first-century Judaism that follows from a too negative view of the Old Testament. Wright asserts that the spiritual project of these people ended up as a failure, a dead end. So, we don’t expect to find an adequate understanding of salvation in the Old Testament (or in the years prior to Jesus’s death). Something new needed to happen to change the situation, to make salvation actually attainable. Almost by default, Wright is left with Jesus’s death as the obvious event that does change things. However, this move is based, in part, on a flawed reading of the Old Testament (which includes a failure to recognize how Jesus himself saw his message as a complement to, not replacement of, the message of Torah and the prophets concerning salvation).

Another concern has to do with the implication of what it means for Jesus to have ended the “exile”—and to have begun the “revolution” (and note that for Wright this happens not with Jesus’s life and teaching, but with his crucifixion). If the “exile” has ended, we would expect clear evidence that things have genuinely changed as an immediate consequence. It is difficult for me to read the history of Christianity as evidence that such a “revolution” actually happened in history. It seems to me that when we read the history of Christianity in relation to the rest of the Bible, we find pretty much the same general dynamics after this “revolution” as we do in the generations prior to the “revolution”—fits and starts, faithfulness and failure, embodied Torah-justice and the practice of injustice, idolizing kings and empires and resisting kings and empires.

That history makes me tend to think that “exile” can be a helpful metaphor for what happened in history when ancient Israel’s territorial kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians —and is useful as one characteristic for the on-going experience of God’s people. But the lesson of this experience should not be seen as a warrant for some kind of return to the old existence of the people of God as a territorial kingdom but rather as an encouragement (in the terms of Jeremiah 29) to seek the peace of whatever city the people find themselves in.

So, it seems a better reading, first, to avoid imposing on the story of Jesus some palpable longing for an end to exile. Second, we should recognize that in any case “exile” works best as a helpful metaphor for the on-going existence of God’s people as agents for healing and resistance in the various territorial kingdoms where they find themselves.

(3) A third issue I will mention is more a matter of a strength in Wright’s argument that could be much stronger. I like his sense that “sin” links closely with idolatry. He often refers to idolatry in relation to the “dark powers” that enslave people in various ways and undermine believers living out the gospel’s call to love, peace, and justice. These are key insights. They stand in sharp contrast with the ways that many versions of Christian theology (including understandings of salvation) actually undermine the gospel and reinforce the domination system.

However, Wright remains disappointingly vague when he alludes to the idols and the powers and sin. I will focus on one example—the political powers, especially empires and similar structures. Throughout the Bible, implicitly in Genesis and then explicitly in Exodus and present all the way through Revelation, we see that the territorial kingdoms are some of God’s main rivals for the loyalty of the people. They tended to operate as idols. The story of Jesus is clear about the agents of death who ended his life: The Roman Empire and the Temple were the human institutions who were used by the evil powers to kill Jesus.

The Bible, thus, is not vague about “the idols and the powers and the dynamics of sin.” Those forces obviously were (and are) more widespread than only the empires/kingdoms/nation states or only religious institutions. But those two structures are always major rivals of God when it comes to people’s loyalty—from start to finish in the Bible and ever since. The story of Jesus’s death includes at its center a revelation of the idolatrous character of such institutions. With that, it calls followers of Jesus to turn from the temptation to give what belongs to God (their ultimate loyalty) instead to the state and to religious institutions.

Wright does give a nod to the Empire and to the Temple as complicit in Jesus’s death. But he does not emphasize the theological significance of their role in the story, nor the widespread and on-going relevance of Jesus’s critique of those powers and of his presentation of an alternative and non-idolatrous way to approach politics. Wright leaves the themes of sin and idols and the powers disappointingly vague and marginal to the meaning of the cross.

(4) One of the key concerns I raised with Rutledge’s account of the meaning of Jesus’s death was the place of Paul’s writings in her thinking. I wrote: “She asserts that the crucifixion is the center point for Christian faith, but she does not draw on the gospels in describing its meaning. She places Paul’s account of the cross at the center.” I see many problems with such an approach—it diminishes the importance of Jesus’s own life and teaching in understanding salvation; it likewise diminishes the importance of the Old Testament in providing a positive and still valid understanding of salvation; and it misconstrues the dynamics that lead to alienation among human beings—emphasizing “original sin” over social brokenness.

Wright, as I mentioned above, does pay more attention to Jesus and the gospels than Rutledge. However, I still read him as ultimately placing Paul in the center and as not reading Paul in light of Jesus’s life and teaching. For Wright’s “autonomous” Paul (that is, Paul read independently of the Jesus story in the gospels)—and, consequently, for Wright himself—the central point in the salvation story comes when Jesus is killed. Interestingly, Wright does note that Paul does not actually explain how the cross works to bring salvation (p. 246). However, he does not step back from the traditional Paul-centered view. He does not question whether it is appropriate to center on the cross. Thus, he does not propose that instead, we should center on Jesus’s own teaching.

(5) With Wright as with Rutledge, I don’t find an attempt to answer the basic questions of how Jesus’s death saves. The cross remains hard to understand. He writes, “Somehow, the Messiah’s faithful death constitutes the fulfillment” of the plan God had for bringing salvation (p. 321; my emphasis). It is this “somehow” that Wright never explains. But, for me, that avoids the question. I want to know how! I can accept that there may be things we can’t easily explain about how God works in the world. I’m okay with leaving a mysterious element. However, I think a death-centered faith seems pretty problematic on the face of it—especially when that seems to be in tension with what Jesus himself actually taught and did. So, I think some kind of explanation—recognizing it would have to be incomplete—is in order.

My biggest problem with Wright’s book is that he does not seem to recognize the importance of making it more clear how Jesus’s death actually starts a “revolution.” He does over and over emphasize the centrality of forgiveness and the sense that Jesus’s death was instrumental in making forgiveness available. But he never explains how this works. It does not seem obvious to me how the vicious and unjust death-dealing violence of the Empire and the Temple would make forgiveness possible—especially in ways that it hadn’t been possible before. To simply assert that in fact this is the case in not persuasive, to say the least. Of course, there is also the problem (likewise unaddressed by Wright) that in fact Jesus already did show that forgiveness was possible before his death happened. In fact, his practice of offering forgiveness was a major part of the series of conflicts that culminated in the cross.

With Wright’s account of the “meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion,” it is almost as if we are given a picture where we must disregard Jesus’s own teaching and practice of welcome and forgiveness and recognize instead that the true possibility of forgiveness was only present after he was killed. And then, Wright doesn’t even offer an explanation of why this is the case. Why shouldn’t we see Jesus’s unconditional offer of forgiveness as the definitive picture of God’s response to human sinfulness—independent of his death since it happens while he is still alive? Why shouldn’t we recognize that in offering such mercy Jesus is showing us the core meaning of the still valid revelation of Torah and the prophets in the Old Testament?

I actually think Wright’s failure to speak to these questions (as with Rutledge’s) gives us a clue that the whole idea of Jesus’s death as the key to salvation should be questioned. Maybe these thinkers don’t answer questions about the specifics of how Jesus’s death “works” because the New Testament itself doesn’t (a point that Wright somewhat confusingly seems to agree with). Then the question arises, does the Bible give us an alternative way to understand the meaning of Jesus’s death? If the answer is yes (and I think it is), is it possible that this alternative view might actually be more of a life-centered and ethically empowering approach than the cross-as-necessary-for-salvation approach? I’ll comment briefly on these questions here to conclude this post and hope to have a longer set of comments in a new post soon.

How to make the cross easy to understand

I actually have written an entire book on this topic (Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness [Cascade Books, 2014]). My first step in thinking about salvation is to start, not with Jesus’s death, but with the big story the Bible tells beginning with Genesis. That story, first as presented in the Old Testament, emphasizes from the start that salvation, healing, reconciliation, originate in God’s mercy. Faithfulness to God’s will always was presented not as a means to gain God’s favor but as a response to God’s merciful initiative toward humanity (we see this most obviously in the central moment of salvation in the Old Testament, the Exodus—the gift of liberation followed by Torah).

Crucially, when we get to the ministry of Jesus, we hear the same message: God loves you, God offers healing, repent, and believe—and follow. Jesus’s message confirms and reiterates the basic salvation story the Old Testament tells. When we come to the part of the story where Jesus is arrested, “tried,” and put to death we see his fate as a direct consequence of how he embodied the message of God’s healing initiative. The powers who dominated the political and religious world in which Jesus ministered reacted with hostility to his message—partly because it powerfully undermined their idolatrous hold on the society.

So, the “easy” way to understand Jesus’s cross is to recognize that it was the powers’ act of violence against the merciful intervention of God in the world. Thus, Jesus’s cross exposed the idolatrous powers as God’s rivals, not as God’s agents as they claimed. God raising Jesus from the dead only underscored Jesus’s identity as the revealer of God’s mercy. The resurrection vindicates Jesus’s life and underscores that salvation is an expression of God’s fundamentally merciful disposition toward humanity. One key aspect of the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion was foreshadowed during his life when he taught, “take up your cross and follow me.” His cross stands as a model to a way of life that embraces love and mercy and resists domination.

Salvation, then, can be seen as having two elements: the ever-present mercy of God and the liberation from the hold of the idolatrous powers. “Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15)—that’s the story from the very beginning and remains the path to salvation.

Posts in the Rethinking Salvation series

13 thoughts on “Why the cross of Christ is so hard to understand (part 2): A response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began [Rethinking salvation #4]

  1. What is the relationship between the Messianic hope of the Old Testament and the exile anxiety you dispute? My view of that hope was Israel’s desire for what they believed to be their rightful place in the world on the world’s terms. That seems a bit like anxiety to me.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Frank. I think my main dispute with Wright is more about his sense that there was one view characteristic of 1st century Jews as a whole. There may have been some with the “exile anxiety” he discusses. I think, though, that there were many different kinds of “Messianic hope” (related to many views of the exile).

      It seems to me that when we look at the whole thing in light of the history of intertestamental times and the first several centuries CE, the wisest view is to see “exile” as the divinely-affirmed norm for Jews and Christians—diasporic faith. And “Messiah” has to do more with Jesus’s validation of a Torah-oriented way of life than with some kind of Wrightian “revolution.”

  2. Ted, thank you. This is about as well-stated and clear in a brief article as one could hope for. Keep up the good work.

  3. Thanks Ted. I have read your book, Instead of Atonement, and continue to keep processing the issues you raise. Keep up your in-depth analysis!

  4. Not yet read in full, Wright was one of my favourite mentors, excited to see you engage with him, warmed to your “in a word’ summary of Wright book, encouraged by hearing more if your thinking….will read it shortly…thank you again

  5. Great summary and commentary Ted. The meaning of the cross and the nature and means of salvation are vital points in all expressions of Xn faith. And they need changing.

  6. Ted, your question about the actual meaning of the crucifixion reminds me of a discussion in an AMBS class–Introduction to Theology: Christology and Theological Method–in the early 1980s, namely: What is the meaning of II Corinthians 5:17, which is commonly translated and understood to mean that if anyone is in Christ, he (sic) is a new creation. Indeed, the discussion went, if people who are “in Christ” are actually new creations, what does this mean? Has their chemistry changed? Their biology? Further, it was noted, that the Greek is absent “he is”, but rather is simply “new creation”, which means for those in Christ, their view of God and the world has changed rather than their chemistry.

    1. David L. Meyers, If I recall correctly JHYoder deals explicitly with this in Politics of Jesus, advocating for a translation something like: “If anyone is in Christ, new is creation.” Someone further extrapolated that to “it’s a whole new ballgame.” Perhaps Yoder was leading the class discussion you recall.

  7. I don’t understand your “unconditional offer of forgiveness”. Perhaps you haven’t explained it well. Does the word “offer” imply that others conditionally receive or not receive the example, the narrative, the “offer”. Doesn’t this make everything depend on us? Jacques Ellul—“After all has been said, nothing has yet been done.”

    What does it matter if Jesus died or not, if Jesus did not rise from the dead? What does it matter if Jesus rose from the dead or not, if any consequences from that depend on how we ourselves receive some “offer” from that history?

    Matthew 16: 25 For whoever wants to save their soul will lose their soul but whoever loses their soul because of Me will find his soul . 26 What will it benefit us if we gain the whole world yet loses our soul? Or what will we give in exchange for our soul.

    Matthew 20: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul as a ransom for many.

    1 John 4:10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the expiation for our sins.

  8. I think you are only the second person I’ve encountered that notices the separation of the cross from salvation and forgiveness.

    1. For me, it’s a combination of taking seriously Jesus’s own offers of forgiveness before he was killed (not to mention the centrality of forgiveness in the OT) plus seeing lots of problems theologically and in practice when the separation isn’t made.

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