I’m currently reading the first part of N.T. Wright’s new book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, and I find his diagnosing skills and his ability to communicate his findings exceptional.
In his other books, particularly Surprised by Hope, Wright has been critical of the goal that has been set forth (especially in popular presentations of the faith) as the Christian hope: going to heaven when we die. In The Day the Revolution Began, he reiterates this.
The death of Jesus, “freeing us from our sins” and “purchasing a people for God,” was not simply aimed at rescuing humans from “hell,” so that they could go to “heaven” instead— which is the picture most Christians have when they think about Jesus’s death.
But Wright insists: “Humans are not made for ‘heaven,’ but for the new heavens and the new earth.”
In contrast, the hope of dwelling with God forever in heaven as often presented and understood is a “Platonized” hope, a blessed eternal future that involves overcoming some problem with our “earthly” and “fleshly” selves so that our “souls” may escape this wicked world and find peace and rest in a perfect spiritual realm.
Wright’s formulation of the Christian hope is quite different: “The ‘goal’ is not ‘heaven,’ but a renewed human vocation within God’s renewed creation.”
If we get this wrong, we will misunderstand the true nature of the human plight.
In light of the Platonized goal of “heaven,” we have concluded that the problem is human “sin,” defined as bad behavior that deserves God’s punishment. Wright describes how much Christian theology has been built upon what he calls “the works contract.”
The “works contract” functions in the popular mind like this. God told his human creatures to keep a moral code; their continuing life in the Garden of Eden depended on their keeping that code perfectly. Failure would incur the punishment of death. This was then repeated in the case of Israel with a sharpened-up moral code, Mosaic law. The result was the same. Humans were therefore heading for hell rather than heaven. Finally, however, Jesus obeyed this moral law perfectly and in his death paid the penalty on behalf of the rest of the human race. The overarching arrangement (the “works contract”) between God and humans remained the same, but Jesus had done what was required. Those who avail themselves of this achievement by believing in him and so benefiting from his accomplishment go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal fellowship with God; those who don’t, don’t. The “works contract” remains intact throughout.
N.T. Wright spares few words in rejecting this paradigm, calling such a view of the relationship between God and human beings a “travesty” that is “unbiblical.” It ignores the message of Israel’s scriptures. The plight it concocts is trivial, compared with the actual plight in which we find ourselves.
What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Those who do so are the “royal priesthood,” the “kingdom of priests,” the people who are called to stand at the dangerous but exhilarating point where heaven and earth meet….
…Within this narrative, creation itself is understood as a kind of Temple, a heaven-and-earth duality, where humans function as the “image-bearers” in the cosmic Temple, part of earth yet reflecting the life and love of heaven. This is how creation was designed to function and flourish: under the stewardship of the image-bearers. Humans are called not just to keep certain moral standards in the present and to enjoy God’s presence here and hereafter, but to celebrate, worship, procreate, and take responsibility within the rich, vivid developing life of creation. According to Genesis, that is what humans were made for.
The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear— though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t just that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences. When we worship and serve forces within the creation (the creation for which we were supposed to be responsible!), we hand over our power to other forces only too happy to usurp our position. We humans have thus, by abrogating our own vocation, handed our power and authority to nondivine and nonhuman forces, which have then run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell…
The problem we humans have gotten ourselves into, the “sin” that has exiled us from God, is that we have rejected the vocation for which we were created — to be God’s image in the world, his royal priests who reflect his glory back to him in worship and into the world in faithful stewardship — and we have turned from thus serving the living God to worship idols. This has unleashed the powers of disorder and corruption to enslave humans and the good creation.
It ought to be clear from all this that the reason “sin” leads to “death” is not at all (as is often supposed) that “death” is an arbitrary and somewhat draconian punishment for miscellaneous moral shortcomings. The link is deeper than that. The distinction I am making is like the distinction between the ticket you will get if you are caught driving too fast and the crash that will happen if you drive too fast around a sharp bend on a wet road. The ticket is arbitrary, an imposition with no organic link to the offense. The crash is intrinsic, the direct consequence of the behavior. In the same way, death is the intrinsic result of sin, not simply an arbitrary punishment. When humans fail in their image-bearing vocation, the problem is not just that they face punishment. The problem is that the “powers” seize control, and the Creator’s plan for his creation cannot go ahead as intended.
It is important to get the goal properly in focus: we are destined for renewed human life and vocation in the new heavens and new earth.
It is also important to diagnose the problem accurately: we have abandoned our creational vocation and have turned from God to idols, unleashing the powers of darkness and death upon this world and our lives.
Then, we can begin to talk about why Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1Cor 15:3).