Whether you’ve been around Christianity for years or are new to faith, you probably know the Easter story. It goes something like this: Humans are sinners; Jesus died as a sacrifice, paying for our sins; and then three days later, Jesus came to life again—the result of which is that His followers can go to heaven when they die. But what if we’re getting it all wrong?
“Many people have grown up assuming that is what the cross is all about,” says world-renowned theologian, scholar and author of The Day the Revolution Began, N.T. Wright. “And the awful thing is that this message about an angry God and an innocent victim has a lot more in common with ancient Pagan thought than with ancient Jewish or Christian thought.”
Wright thinks Christians are missing something important about their most holy day.
“When you start thinking about it, you realize that when people talk about the cross, usually they start by saying we were given this moral examination, and we all flunked it so now we all have to die,” Wright says. “And fortunately for us, someone else has died in our place. It’s better to believe that than to believe nothing. But it’s simply not the way that the Bible itself tells the story.”
We sat down with Wright to talk about what Christians often miss about the resurrection and why he thinks the real biblical picture is so much better.
If Christians are missing the point of the Easter story, where did the confusion set in?
It starts quite a way back, but is held in check until the Middle Ages when the Western church splits off from the Eastern church. The Western church retains the resurrection concept because it’s in the creed, but actually all the iconography and so on is all about “going to heaven.”
And when you get things like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso, then it’s clear that what we’re dealing with is something very different than what you find in the Bible.
The problem is that the last great scene in the Bible is not about saved souls going up to heaven as most of the medieval mystery plays would have it, but about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth so that heaven and earth are joined together.
What’s the better, biblical formulation?
I think the critical thing is this: Most Christian theories of atonement have not really taken the four Gospels seriously at all.
They’ve tended to go for Paul and Hebrews and have put them into a different scheme because the four Gospels don’t appear to be addressing questions of the meaning of the cross in the way we wish they had done.
But what the four Gospels are doing is talking about the coming of God’s Kingdom. Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” When you look at the crucifixion narratives in all four Gospels, it’s all about Jesus being enthroned as king.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have very different angles on things, but they all converge on this: When Jesus is crucified something happens, and the result is the powers that have locked up the world in corruption, decay and death are overthrown. And Jesus is, from now on, running the show—even though it doesn’t look like it because we have the wrong idea of what power is and how it works.
If we take the New Testament seriously, we ought to see that the crucifixion of Jesus is the means by which God’s Kingdom is actually launched on earth as in heaven—because the powers are defeated, and this new world comes to birth.
You use the imagery of a revolution. That’s not commonly associated with the easter story.
This goes back to the ancient Jewish expectation, which is rooted in Daniel and in the Psalms and Isaiah, that one day God Himself would come back and would overthrow the powers that have been running the world.
This is the great revolution, which like revolutions of our own day, is all about people who have been chafing under alien rule and feel their lives being squashed and crushed when they suddenly find that someone has done something to overthrow the tyrant.
It means that they—we—are now free to have the new life that they have always dreamed of.
That is precisely what happened when Jesus died on the cross. The “revolution” was secret for two and half days because it was only with Jesus’ resurrection that anyone could look back at His cross and say Jesus defeated sin so the power of evil has been overthrown. It was a genuinely revolutionary movement.
What do you think that means for Christians today?
Learning to think historically and eschatologically is really difficult for people in our day and age because we tend to think that now that we live in the modern world, we’re it. But the Bible says, “No, sorry: World history turned its corner when Jesus died on the cross and then rose again three days later.”
Every generation has to go on asking itself the question, “How does that then play out in my world in my time?”
We’re in the middle of the Lenten season. Obviously Good Friday and Easter are pertinent here. How do these ideas you’ve developed shape how we approach this season?
If Jesus of Nazareth had stayed dead, then nobody would have given a second thought to giving His crucifixion any significance.
There were lots and lots of failed revolutionaries in Jesus’ day, often ending up on Roman crosses, and Jesus would have been just another one in that bunch.
The crucifixion means what it means because Jesus is raised from the dead after three days, and likewise, the resurrection means what it means because it is the resurrection of the crucified one.
This is part of the point of Easter that is very hard for us to think about: Easter commands us to think about a non-corruptible physicality, about a physical world that isn’t subject to decay and death anymore.
The resurrection pushes us back and says it’s all about the Kingdom of God. Go and read the story again and see throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus is confronting the powers—the plotting pharisees, the demons shrieking at Him in the synagogues, the puzzled disciples.
He’s confronting evil in all its forms, and He goes into the darkness in order to take its full weight upon Himself.
This is a very deep mystery, and I suspect we’ll never fully understand it. But the Gospels make it clear that He goes into the darkness as our representative and, therefore, as our substitute. Both of those are important.
You paint a picture of the church shaped by the cross.
We in the modern West have been conned into believing that Christianity didn’t really make any big changes in the world—nothing much seems to have happened.
Of course Christians have often gotten it wrong—and had crusades and inquisitions and burnt witches and so on—but look at the thousands and thousands of things they’ve gotten right.
And the reason they’ve gotten those things right is that the Easter events really did happen and really are being implemented.
N.T. Wright is a world-renowned theologian and author of The Day the Revolution Began. You can actually study with him online at ntwrightonline.org.