This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright. I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.
For the past few weeks we have been coming around Wright’s big idea that something happened on Good Friday such that by 6 PM that evening, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.
Unfortunately much of Western Christianity, and evangelicalism in particular, does not see it that way. So much of Western Christianity has made it all about going to heaven when you die. This is the “works contract” way of looking at things: the end goal for humanity is heaven, where heaven is defined as a state of disembodied spiritual bliss apart from this corrupt world, and the problem for humanity is sin, where sin is defined as bad behavior which is deserving of punishment. It all works out something like this: God gave us a moral test (“Don’t eat that fruit” for Adam and Eve, “Keep the Law” for Israel), we all failed miserably and as a result deserve God’s righteous wrath and hell. But Jesus stepped up and took the wrath that should have been ours. His perfect righteousness is now credited to our account and now we get to go to heaven when we die, provided we believe all this and can articulate it with satisfactory theological precision, not to mention that we prayed the prayer at some point along the way.
As a result of all this, Wright says, we have committed a threefold error: we have Platonized our eschatology by substituting the notion of saved souls going to heaven for the new creation which is what the Bible actually offers, we have moralized our anthropology by substituting the notion of a qualifying moral examination for our actual human vocation as laid out in Scripture, with the result that we have paganized our soteriology by making God out to be an angry deity who kills Jesus to satisfy His wrath–a notion more in line with paganism than anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.
We have seen that humanity’s vocation was to be God’s image here on earth, representing him to all of creation and presenting the praises of all creation to God. But this went badly off the rails when humanity refused its vocation and instead worshiped idols, created things. These created things thus took on a power they were never meant to have and enslaved all of humanity, running amuck and turning our world into a hell on earth. Israel was intended as the means by which God would rescue humanity, but they too failed to live up to their vocation and wound up in exile. Jesus entered the picture as the representative of Israel, and with his death he defeated the forces of sin and death in the universe, thereby robbing them of their power, and rescued Israel and humanity–a new Exodus, if you will–and restored them to their proper vocation. To be a Christian is to enter into this revolution, to step into the role which God intended for humanity and to bring God’s rule to pass here on earth as it is in heaven.
We have looked at Jesus and the cross, in an attempt to understand it all in the same way the first Christians would have. We saw that the first Christians saw Jesus’s death as the unexpected fulfillment of all that God had promised Israel. Jesus, as the representative Israel-in-person, fulfilled Israel’s vocation where Israel had failed. All of evil gathered itself into a single head of steam and came at Jesus on the cross, only to be completely and finally crushed. The end result was the new Passover and the forgiveness of sins by which Israel was restored to its proper vocation, and with it all humanity.
We have looked at the writings of Paul, with a specific focus on Romans, and how they fit in with all of this. We have seen that Paul does not simply offer a roundabout way of saying “We sinned, God killed Jesus, it’s all good now”. What Paul offers instead is more along the lines of “We all committed idolatry and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has given us the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery”.
So now we come to this week’s burning question: Where do we fit into this story? If Jesus’s death was in fact the start of a revolution, what does it mean for us to be part of it?
When the first Christians looked back on Jesus’s death they saw that this event in and of itself had been the great victory over the evil powers of this present age. But as this victory came not at the end of the age, but right smack in the middle of it, with evil and sin and darkness still running rampant all around, this could only mean that it was a two-stage event. The jailer had been overpowered, now someone had to go and unlock all the prison doors and tell all the prisoners that they were free. This task had to be accomplished by a new kind of power, the cross-resurrection-Spirit kind of power, the power of suffering love. The first Christians would struggle to learn what it meant to use this power, to work for the kingdom of God in a world that neither wanted nor cared for any such thing. This is what we know as “mission”.
But here we note a glaring problem with the enterprise of missions: Just as modern Western Christianity treats the notion of saved souls going to heaven as the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith, so Christian missions have been made to serve this way of looking at things. It wasn’t always so: up until about two centuries ago Christian mission was consumed with the idea of bringing God’s kingdom here on earth. As Europeans traveled the earth in that era and discovered places heretofore unknown, they had a sense of carrying Christian civilization with them. The mood of that time was one of great optimism, that as Christian civilization went out to more and more of the world the kingdom of God was truly coming on earth as in heaven.
But towards the end of the eighteenth century there was a shift. Though there were still a great many concerned with social and cultural reform and advancing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, there was an ever-increasing number who came to see all this as a distraction from the true work of the Church: “preaching the Gospel” (read: “saving souls for heaven”). As this shift was happening the Enlightenment gained traction in the secular world; the optimism of the earlier Christian era was now harnessed by the forces of an ever-increasing secularism which believed that it could have all the benefits of the kingdom of God while believing that God was either remote or nonexistent. This split-level world, with God up in heaven and the earth and all the people in it left to their own devices down here, is very widely assumed to be the norm, even to this day.
The prior era’s approach to missions led to a triumphalism which assumed that the Kingdom of God would advance in our world without having to deal with saving people from their sin. The approach to missions in our day, in which saved souls going to heaven is the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith, brings forgiveness of sins but leaves the evil powers of our world to continue ruling uncontested. What is needed is an approach to missions that integrates both the Kingdom of God and forgiveness of sins. The New Testament insists on both and in their proper relation. This is what the book has been all about. Get this right, and the Church’s true vocation emerges: To announce the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross and the forgiveness of sins which had become the new reality in our world by the end of the day on Good Friday. To announce that the forces of sin and death which had previously ruled the world have been overpowered and all of humanity is now free to resume its vocation as bearers of the image of God to all of creation.