You know it – sense it, more accurately – but you can’t quite place it. You begin searching, but of course it’s hard to find what isn’t. More frustrating, you can’t even figure out the vocabulary to describe it. So you learn to live with that feeling, that itch you can’t scratch, that helpless notion of running into the same dead end over and over again. Over time, the itch subsides, the roaring distraction becomes a dull ache, and you move on.
Then along comes someone who clearly and succinctly describes not only what you’ve been missing, but how you can replace it.
That moment becomes a life-changing one, when everything begins making sense for the first time since … when? Ever?
For me, that moment came while reading N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne, 2012).
For nearly two years, I’ve been studying toward a degree in history and theology. A few books along the way have proven monumental in reshaping my view of God, faith, science, politics, the nature of humanity and the nature of creation. But for all of that reassessment, much of it chronicled in this blog, something was missing.
That something was Jesus. More specifically, it was a deep understanding of who Jesus was and why he lived, died and rose again. I was attempting to renew my faith with an old understanding of Jesus, and it wasn’t working. What’s more, I didn’t even realize it fully until N.T. Wright came along.
Wright isn’t the first person to deconstruct the traditional evangelical view of how the gospels portray Jesus and his ministry; Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel predates this book by a few months. For that matter, I’m sure this isn’t the first time the prolific Wright has addressed these topics in print. But it’s the first time for me to hear him do so – and for anyone to do so in such an accessible way.
By the end of How God Became King, the conclusion is inescapable: those of us raised with a traditional view of atonement and salvation – one in which Jesus comes so that we can say a prayer, “ask him into our hearts” and procure insurance against the fires of hell – have been sold a bill of goods. We have become unwitting accomplices to the cheapening of the life-changing message of Jesus, to the corruption by Western individualism of what the gospel writers understood to be the world-reshaping entrance of God’s kingdom in the person and ministry of Jesus, a kingdom that calls us to ensure the doing of God’s will on earth, as in heaven.
In other words, this Christianity thing isn’t about escaping hell and this world to go to heaven. It’s about bringing heaven to this world and abolishing hell forever.
Part 1 – The Empty Cloak
Wright opens How God Became King with a chapter called “The Missing Middle.” The church has come to focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, yet the gospels spend the majority of their time on Jesus’ life – the middle part between those bookends. Why is that?
Further, the story of Jesus has come to be interpreted chiefly through the lens of Paul instead of Paul being interpreted through the lens of the gospels:
In many classical Christian circles, including the plethora of movements that go broadly under the label “evangelical”, there has been the assumption, going back at least as far as the Reformation, that “the gospel” is what you find in Paul’s letters, particularly in Romans and Galatians. This “gospel” consists, normally, of a precise statement of what Jesus achieved in his saving death (“atonement”) and a precise statement of how that achievement could be appropriated by the individual (“justification by faith”). Atonement and justification were assumed to be the heart of “the gospel.” But “the gospels” – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – appear to have nothing to say about those subjects. (6)
Later, Wright says that when most Christians speak of being “biblical,” they really mean “Pauline” and interpret the gospels accordingly, if they use them at all (9). He then moves to address six ways in which the church has attempted to address this imbalance – six answers to the question of, “Why did Jesus live?”
The first of these answers is, “Going to Heaven.”
I’ll pause here to say: If you were raised with a certain series of soteriological and eschatological assumptions about this world, Wright is going to blow your mind. If you believe individuals must accept Jesus as their personal Savior so that they can be raptured and avoid a tribulation period that will destroy the world as we know it – we can call it “I’ll Fly Away” theology – Wright has some transformative arguments for you.
Wright notes the similarity between this antipathy to the created order and the early heresy of Gnosticism:
The great second- and third-century Christian teachers insisted, against such new teaching, that God’s rescue of the created order itself, rather than the rescue of saved souls from the created order, was central. … When you place the four emerging “canonical” gospels alongside the Jesus documents that others had written, again and again it appears that the canonical four are telling the story of the rescue of creation, not its abolition or abandonment. (17)
Likewise, Wright argues, Christians for centuries have misread such phrases as “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew as a reference to the ephemeral place of angels, harps and pearly gates. But “the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth” (43). Wright likens the misunderstanding to receiving a letter from the president about an upcoming visit to your house and responding by preparing to fly to Washington, D.C.
If God is not going to torch the earth nor whisk all believers to heaven, where will Christians spend “eternal life,” another common phrase used in the gospels? “Here again,” Wright argues, “the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are here to tell us ‘how to go to heaven’ has determined how people ‘hear’ this phrase.” The connotation that the phrase brings to mind – the frankly terror-inducing notion of floating in some sort of spiritual body somewhere in space for time without end – is not countenanced by the gospel writers: “A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible – and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom realizes that fact” (44).
Rather, Jesus does not discuss “eternal life” so much as “life in the age to come,” when God fulfills his plan “not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay” (45).
Other wrong answers to the question of why Jesus lived include: to be an ethical teacher, to be a moral exemplar, to be a perfect sacrifice, to provide stories with which we can identify, and to prove Jesus’ divinity. There are elements of these themes in the gospels, of course, which is why they are popular answers. But they are not the reason the four anonymous evangelists wrote the gospels. The reason the gospels were written, Wright argues, was to say, “This is how God became king.”
Part 2 – Adjusting the Volume
Wright sets up an extended metaphor for the second part of this book, comparing the gospels to a four-speaker stereo system for which the volume of each speaker must be adjusted to get the proper sound mix. For too long, he argues, our mix has been skewed, too heavily focused on certain elements while all but ignoring others.
1. The climax of Israel’s story
The backstory to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had to be pieced together by J.R.R. Tolkein’s son and published two decades later in The Silmarillion. Not so for the gospels. “Their backstory was written long ago, and it is readily available. But –perhaps to our surprise! – many people reading the gospels today read them not only as if that backstory did not exist, but as if there were a different backstory altogether” (65). Wright notes that the sweep of the Old Testament is a largely failed struggle of Israel’s attempt to return to the status quo ante of Eden, when God was in charge and all was right in this world:
In Israel’s scriptures, the reason Israel’s story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world. The call of Abraham is the answer to the sin of Adam. Israel’s story is thus the microcosm and beating heart of the world’s story, but also its ultimate saving energy. What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world. (73-74)
This is reinforced in John, when Jesus’ final words are recorded, not as a message of atonement and potential justification for those who accept it, but as one of fulfillment and restoration:
Jesus’s final word, tetelestai, “It’s all done!” says it clearly. The story has been completed – the story of creation, the story of God’s covenant with Israel. Now new creation can begin, as it does immediately afterward with Jesus’s resurrection. Now the new covenant can be launched, as the disciples are sent out into the world equipped with Jesus’s own Spirit. This is how Israel’s story has reached its goal and can now bear fruit in the world. (79)
2. The story of Israel’s God
This speaker, Wright argues, has been turned up so loud that its message has become distorted. Christians have focused intently on the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as God incarnate, but we have failed to recognize exactly whose God the gospels are describing:
We are quite happy to hear about the “God” of Western imagination, less ready to hear about the God of Israel. We are happy to hear that “Jesus is God,” in some sense. That, we have assumed, is what the gospels are telling us. We are less ready to hear that the God of Israel has promised to do specific things, in particular to establish his sovereign rule over Israel and the world, and that Jesus was embodying this intention. (84)
Wright is masterful in leading the reader through the Old Testament pattern of “God intending to live among his people, being unable to because of their rebellion, but coming back in grace to do so at last” (88). Indeed, the Hebrew Bible ends with a hope that this pattern will be fulfilled on a larger scale – which, of course, it is, as described in the gospels. The second speaker “has simply been shouting, ‘He’s divine! He’s divine!’” but it needs to be turned down, so that we can hear it telling “the story of how YHWH came to his people at last” (90).
3. The launching of God’s people
If the second speaker is overemphasized by conservatives, Wright argues the third is overemphasized by liberals, who downplay the narratives of the gospels as merely the reflections of the controversies and heresies faced by the early church. Of course, the gospels do reflect the situations and circumstances of the early church; they are not neutral histories. But Wright argues, “Just because the gospel writers were consciously telling the story of Jesus as the foundation story of the church, that doesn’t mean they weren’t telling the story of Jesus himself” (109).
Wright points out the disciples on the road to Emmaus, whose “eyes were opened” by Jesus – a harkening back to Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened in a disastrous and heartbreaking way. Instead, the experience of Jesus’ life opened his disciples’ eyes in a rapturous, transformative way that allowed them to begin the process of introducing this transformation to the rest of the world.
4. The clash of kingdoms
Wright argues the fourth speaker – in which the gospels tell the story of God’s kingdom clashing with Caesar’s – has not merely been turned down or off, as the first has been, but that it has perhaps never even been taken out of the attic.
Once again, Wright sweeps us through the Old Testament’s frequent depictions of Yahweh fighting the ruling powers of this world – Egypt, Philistia, the various enemies of the psalms and prophets. Most striking, Wright shows how Jesus ties himself to the heavenly courtroom scene of Daniel 7.
There is … a clear line all the way from Genesis 11, via Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel 7, to Mark 10, and thereby in turn to Mark 14-15, where Jesus meets his captors, his judges and his death. … Jesus establishes the new kind of power – God’s kingdom as opposed to Caesar’s, on earth as in heaven – precisely through his (scripturally interpreted) death. (139)
Which means God’s people are called to carry the banner of the kingdom of God into the world and, if necessary, against the powers acting against it.
The world, in other words, is deeply and radically out of joint, with all sorts of things going wrong; God will put it right. … How will all this happen? … It will happen through the Spirit-led work of Jesus’s followers. (143)
The four of these speakers, taken together, indicate that Jesus saw his story as – and the gospel writers told it as – “the story of the new and ultimate exodus.”
Part 3 – The Kingdom and the Cross
Wright then looks forward, seeking practical application from his thesis. He argues that “kingdom” and “cross,” which Christians have tended to pull apart are in fact inseparable. These are the “social justice” Christians versus the “turn-or-burn” Christians – “the four gospels bring these two viewpoints together into a unity that is much greater than the sum of their parts” (159).
As Enlightenment modernity has enforced a separation of theology from philosophy and political concerns, Wright argues, the church has responded unhelpfully – by embracing “I’ll Fly Away” theology, Anabaptist sectarianism or political power.
As Wright moves into discussion of the political implications of the gospel message, he stumbles a bit. He appears to be seeking a middle ground from which to criticize both the right and left wings of American politics for losing the gospel in their quest for political power. Of course, this is true of many individuals on both sides of the aisle, but his critique of the left doesn’t make much sense – “that kind of movement tends to assume that some kind of near-anarchy is the ideal” (169) – unless the Tea Party has somehow become a left-wing movement. Certainly, there are things to criticize about the left wing of American politics and those Christians who embrace left-wing politics, but there can be little doubt that the gospel Wright outlines in How God Became King, one in which God calls on Christians to take active part in ushering in a kingdom on earth focused on economic and social justice, more closely aligns with the policy goals of the American political left than that of the right.
Nevertheless, the broader point stands: What we do in this world matters. “Judaism always assumed that the creator God wanted the world to be ordered and ruled by his image-bearing humans” (172).
It is all too possible to “believe in the divinity of Jesus” and to couple this with an escapist view of salvation (“Jesus is God and came to snatch us away from this world”) in a way that may preserve an outward form of Christian orthodoxy,” but that has left out the heart of the matter. God is the creator and redeemer of the world, and Jesus’s launch of the kingdom – God’s worldwide sovereignty on earth as in heaven – is the central aim of his ministry, the thing for which he lived and died and rose again. (187)
And this is the point of the cross: The kingdom would have been impossible without it. Wright argues God went to the cross to draw all of the world’s evil into one place and “spend its force once and for all” (207). “Sin has been dealt with. The ‘accuser’ has nothing more to say. The creator can now launch his new creation” (209).
We have, alas, belittled the cross, imagining it merely as a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our own petty naughtiness or as an example of some general benevolent truth. It is much, much more. It is the moment when the story of Israel reaches its climax; the moment when, at last, then watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls see their God coming in his kingdom; the moment when the people of God are renewed so as to be, at last, a royal priesthood who will take over the world, not with the love of power but with the power of love; the moment when the kingdom of God overcomes the kingdoms of the world. It is the moment when a great old door, locked and barred since our first disobedience, swings open suddenly to reveal not just the garden, opened once more to our delight, but the coming city, the garden city that God had always planned and is now inviting us to go through the door and build with him.
The dark power that stood in the way of this kingdom vision has been defeated, overthrown, rendered null and void. Its legions will still make a lot of noise and cause a lot of grief, but the ultimate victory is now assured. This is the vision the evangelists offer us as they bring together the kingdom and the cross. (239-40)
As you can see above, Wright’s conclusion is powerful indeed:
If the cross is to be interpreted as the coming of the kingdom on earth as in heaven, centering on some kind of messianic victory, with some kind of substitution at its heart, making sense through some kind of representation, then the four gospels leave us with the primary application of the cross not in abstract preaching about “how to have your sins forgiven” or “how to go to heaven,” but in an agenda in which the forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory at Calvary. Those who are put right with God through the cross are to be putting-right people for the world. (244)
The message of the gospel, then, becomes much more difficult, especially for those of us in the modern and postmodern comfort of the West. After all, it’s easy to say a prayer and go on with our lives, fire insurance in hand. It’s harder – a lot harder – to understand that the privilege we’ve been given as citizens of God’s kingdom comes with responsibilities to help put this broken world to rights.
But it also is much more robust, much deeper, than the shallow “check the box” method of traditional evangelicalism. It is the missing piece we didn’t know was missing.