The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion

The Day The Revolution Began:

Wright has a unique talent for making complex theological perspectives easily accessible for people who don’t have a Ph.D. in Theology.  One of the things I appreciated about this book, is that it was well-paced and engaging.  Wright works through the theme of revolution from start to finish, and it gives the book a very compelling, driven feel.

Wright offers a vision of the cross as scandalous, that is, not as “glorious” as we’d like to think. Criminals, those who were to be put on display were crucified. Not heroes. Certainly not Kings. Definitely not the God of Israel. The reason Jesus died, according to Wright “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible”.

We have portrayed God not as the generous Creator, the loving Father, but as an angry despot. That idea belongs not in the biblical picture of God, but with pagan beliefs. (p.43)

While space simply cannot be given in one volume to wrestle with the plenary of theories regarding the death of Christ, Wright manages to wrestle with the major theories in which he sees a thread of truth running through all. Each are given a concise treatment and “answer” in relation to Wright’s own theory being laid out.

There are a number of things to complement in the book, and while I don’t intend to write an in-depth, point-by-point review, I will make a few brief observations.  First, in Chapter 4, which is entitled “The Covenant of Vocation,” Wright wrestle with Romans 5:17:  “For if, by the trespass of the one, death reigned through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace, and the gift of covenant membership, of ‘being in the right,’ reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah.”

Wright notes that the “gift” described in the passage is not salvation, in the sense that we might go to heaven when we die, but more specifically, it calls us back to our human vocation of being image-bearers (and image-bearing is worship).  Wright notes that “What Paul is saying is that the gospel, through which people received the divine gift, reconstitutes them as genuine humans, as those who share in the ‘reign’ of the Messiah.” 

Sin, then, is “the human failure of vocation.”

What follows this is a discussion of sin in Romans 1-2, in which Wright notes (and which is very plainly stated in Romans 1) that the traditional list of sins found at the end of Romans 1 is not so much a comprehensive list of the way people sin, but the consequences of what follows the sin of idolatry.  “The primary human failure,” says Wright,” is a failure to worship.”  This works its way out in the verses that follow Romans 1:21; and God’s “giving humanity over” to brokenness is, in a sense, God stepping out of the way of human decision, and allowing us to experience the consequences of our idolatry.

Love is the theme throughout the book, and the aim of every assertion made. specifically, the love of God for his creation and his people. The “revolution” that began is a revolution of love. How love integrates with a particular atonement theory is likely what most readers are interested in; that being, how does love, and specifically “other-centered, self-giving” love coincide with penal substitutionary atonement? Wright deals with this topic head on. For Wright, the story is not about moral failure, but about “sin”, that which results in exile. Rather than ignoring the “penal” atonement theory then, Wright manages to redefine the penalty which so many think (hell, death) as exile, pointing out along the way that the scapegoat was not killed for the sins of the people, it was exiled.

Later, Wright frames the need for salvation (which is described in terms of the Kingdom of God rather than merely an after-death reality of heaven) in terms of the need for a return from exile, invoking the language of Israel’s history to describe the work of Jesus.  Jesus’ death, then, marks the end of exile, as sin is forgiven and humanity is restored to God.

Framing his argument in the context of God’s covenant through Abraham with Israel, and Israel’s sin and exile, Wright insists that the death of Jesus is substitutionary (he will describe his substitutionary atonement theory as “representative atonement”), but carefully delineates the substitutionary atonement theory that he advocates from penal substitution.

Wright’s concluding chapters describe what all of this means in practical terms.  Wright reminds us of the call to “take up our cross,” recognizing that victory today still comes in the way it came for Jesus – through self-denial and self-sacrificial love.

What is the result of the revolution then? Exile has ended as an expected punishment for sin.

Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus. (p.287)

Here is an audio clip from The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Unabridged) by N. T. Wright that states this further:

Wright notes that the killing of the sacrifice didn’t take place on the altar (p329), and continues to “flesh out” what sin is, and where it comes from. It is sin after all which is the central topic to the book, and in Wright’s opinion, to the nature of the atonement itself (for our sins, in accordance with the Bible-his wording). Wright has identified the “why” as that which makes us wander off into exile. Sin. Whether we like it or not, the topic is focal to much of the Biblical writings, and remains at the center of the majority of theological discussion (whether it be sin, the result, how it was dealt with, etc.).

Wright handles Sin as defeated by death, and Jesus as vindicated by resurrection, inspiring all who proclaim the Christian message and beckoning us toward self-giving love, forgiveness, and peace.

Resurrection and forgiveness belong together. Both are the direct result of the victory won on the cross, because the victory won on the cross was won by dealing with sin and hence with death. Resurrection is the result of death’s defeat; forgiveness, the result of sin’s defeat. Those who learn to forgive discover that they are not only offering healing to others. They are receiving it in themselves. Resurrection is happening inside them. (p.386)