Saving the World, Revealing the Glory: Atonement Then and Now
Rt. Revd. Prof. N T Wright DD FRSE
St Mellitus’ College, London
October 17 2016
The deft artistry and fathomless theology of John’s gospel is powerfully displayed in the footwashing scene in chapter 13. In a few strokes of the pen we are offered a tableau intimate and touching on the one hand and scary and dangerous on the other. Having begun his masterpiece with the all-creative Word becoming flesh and revealing God’s glory – we shall return to his Prologue in a little while – John begins the shorter second half of his gospel with an acted parable of the same thing. Jesus removes his outer garments and kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet, summing up all that is to come in the astonishing act of divine humility, of loving redemption, of cleansing for service. This is a good place to begin this evening’s quest for a fresh glimpse of what we in the Western churches have traditionally called ‘the atonement’, my subject for tonight. For John, as indeed throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ vocation to rescue the world from its plight and in so doing to reveal the divine glory in action is focused, symbolized, encoded in an action simultaneously dramatic, fraught with cosmic significance, and gentle, tender with human emotion. If you want to understand the great mysteries of Christian theology, of Trinity, Incarnation, and atonement itself, you could do worse than spend time with this scene.
‘Having loved his own who were in the world’, John begins, ‘Jesus loved them to the end, to the uttermost’. Here we see what it means that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’: a love at once powerful, humble, sovereign and sensitive. As always, Jesus surprises his followers, as he was to do even more devastatingly at the climax of the story the following day. Peter tries to object – a Johannine equivalent, in a sense, of Peter’s protest in Matthew 16 – and Jesus waves away the objection: If I don’t wash you, he says, you have no part in me. This produces a typically Petrine over-reaction: well then, says Peter, not my feet only, but my hands and my head. Calm down, says Jesus: you are already clean, because I have washed you, and all you now need is the regular footwashing – a wonderful image in itself of the prior whole-person washing of the gospel itself, needing only the regular smaller-scale washing of dusty feet, but like everything else in John’s story pointing forwards to the great saving act to come in which the filth and mire of the centuries would be washed away in the torrent of water and blood. And then Jesus resumes his garments and explains at least the surface layer of meaning: as I have done this to you, you should do it for one another. As usual John gives the simple explanation in order to nudge his readers into the deeper ones, but this already points forward to the ministries of the gospel which will be unleashed through the outpoured Spirit in John 20: As the Father sent me, so I send you. Atonement then; atonement now. The theology of the cross is only ultimately complete when it issues in the footwashing and fruitbearing mission of Jesus’ followers. That is part of the point of the long discourses which follow chapter 13 and thereby prepare the way for the dramatic scene before Pilate and on the cross itself.
Into this scene of prophetic action and symbolic power John has woven the dark strand which explains why all this is necessary and how the great redemption is to be accomplished. The accuser, he says, had already put it into Judas’s heart to betray Jesus. The accuser – the satan – is the dark, sub-personal force that has dogged Jesus’ footsteps throughout his mission, rather as Gollum is never far away while Frodo and his companions undertake their fateful journey; and, indeed, I rather think Tolkein was tracking a profound biblical theme in that strand of his master-narrative, including its final denouement. Jesus knows of course that the satan would do this, and had already hinted that one of his own followers would act out the great Accusation, the charge that would take him to his death. It isn’t just that Judas is succumbing to a miscellaneous temptation; rather, the hate and shame of all the world, the raging howl that rises from all the accumulated forces of evil, of anti-creation, of tyranny and spite and sneering and lies, has gathered itself into one and has focused its deadly spotlight on the enfleshed Word, the living embodiment of the loving and wise creator. And love only makes it worse; it is after the footwashing, where Jesus warns that ‘you are already clean, though not all of you’, that the satan finally enters into Judas. ‘Do it quickly,’ says Jesus; and Judas goes out into the night. People sometimes say that St Luke was an artist; but if ever a biblical scene had all the elements of a great canvas, holding many different characters and moods within a single tableau, it is this footwashing scene in John 13.
I begin with this scene partly because, knowing it will be impossible in one lecture to say very much of what I have tried to say in the book (which turned out to be much longer than I had expected or intended), I want at least to stir your imaginations so that your reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion is not a matter of theories, of schemes of thought to be played off against one another, but a matter of vivid historical reality captured in a story like the footwashing, as indeed in so many others, but with this one positioned with deliberate care by John to launch the final moves that will take us to the foot of the cross, and on, beyond, to the fresh morning in the garden and the warm breath of the outpoured Spirit. We will come presently and briefly to the theories, but the theories mean what they mean as interpretations of the story, the real-life narrative of the word made flesh, of the flesh made shameful, of the shame itself killed and buried. The theories are battered little signposts pointing towards that reality, and the gospels are written not to provide lively illustrations of those theories but to name and invoke the reality towards which they point. When Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what his death would mean he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal on the one hand and a dramatic action on the other. The Word became flesh, and it is in flesh – his flesh, and then, worryingly, our flesh – that the truth is revealed. God forgive us that we have answered rationalistic scepticism with rationalistic fideism. The Word – the Logos, the ultimate Reason in Person – became flesh, and it is in the flesh that the world was saved; it is in the flesh that the glory was and is revealed.
Because, when we pan back from John 13 and see this tableau within the larger context of the fourth Gospel as a whole, we quickly discover that the whole book is about the revelation of the divine glory precisely in the salvation of the world, and that the way to understand these large abstractions is to see them within the vast and sprawling story of Israel and the world as set out in scripture. Richard Hays, the great contemporary American New Testament scholar, has once again put us in his debt with his new book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels; but even Hays would admit, I think, that there is far more still to be said about the ways in which the story of scripture resonates through all four gospels, particularly in their portrayal of the cross.
In particular, John positively urges us in his prologue to see the whole of the story he will tell within the long reach of the first two books of the Bible. John, after all, focuses his story again and again on the Temple, on Jesus’ upstaging of the Temple, on his implicit warning to the Temple and its guardians, and on his final performance of that which the Temple itself could not effect. And what has that to do with Genesis and Exodus? Well, everything: because Genesis 1 and 2 describe, to anyone with first-century eyes, the construction of the ultimate Temple, the single heaven-and-earth reality, the one Cosmos within which the twin realities of God’s space and our space are held together in proper balance and mutual relation. The seven stages of creation are the seven stages of constructing a temple, into which the builder will come to take up residence, to take his ‘rest’: Here is Zion, my resting-place, says Israel’s God in the Psalms. And within this Temple there is of course, as the final element of construction, the Image: the true Image through which the rest of creation sees and worships the creator, the true Image through which the sovereign and loving creator becomes present to, in and with his creation, working out his purposes. Genesis 1 declares that the God who made the world is the heaven-and-earth God, the working-through-humans-in-the-world God. (I wish there was a word for that; it might be easier in German; or perhaps we could take the Greek and speak not just of an anthropic God, a God who was appropriately bodied forth in human life, but a dianthropic God, a God who desired to express himself perfectly by working through humans in the world.) And already, with this vision of Genesis before us, we understand both the beginning and the climax of John’s gospel: in the beginning, en arche, bereshith: in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh. And on the last Friday, the ultimate sixth day of the week, the representative of the world’s ruler declares ‘behold the Man’: like Caiaphas earlier, Pontius Pilate says far, far more than he knows, acknowledging that Jesus is the Proper Man, the true Image, the one at whom, when people gaze, they see the Father; the one through whom the Father is present, and powerfully working, to bring about his desire and design. And in the end, when the light has shone in the gathering darkness and the darkness has tried to extinguish it, the final word echoes Genesis once more: tetelestai, it is finished. The work is accomplished. There follows the rest of the seventh day, the rest in the tomb, before the first day of the new week when Mary Magdalene comes to the garden and discovers that new creation has begun. John is writing a new Genesis, and the death of Jesus places at the heart of this new heaven-and-earth reality the sign and symbol of the Image through which the world will see and recognise its Creator and know him as the God of unstoppable love, the sign and symbol of the Image through which the Creator has established that love at the climax of world history and as the fountain-head for the rivers of living water that will now flow out to refresh and renew his whole world. That is the primary story John is telling.
But if it is a new Genesis it is also a new Exodus. For years, when reading Exodus, I confess that I used to misjudge what Moses says repeatedly to Pharaoh: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. I used to think this was just an excuse: we want to go home to our promised land, but let’s just tell Pharaoh that we want to worship our God and that we can’t do it in his land, surrounded by his gods. But the whole logic of the book of Exodus, and indeed of the Pentateuch as a whole, forbids that interpretation. If you read Exodus at a run you will easily arrive at Mount Sinai in chapter 20; up to that point it’s a page-turner, one dramatic incident after another, but then suddenly the pace seems to slacken as we get miscellaneous rules and regulations, though not (to be honest) very many of them yet. Don’t stop there; forge ahead; because the whole narrative is indeed moving swiftly forward to the aim and object of the whole thing, which is the restoration of creation itself, the purpose for which God called Abraham and his family in the first place, the purpose through which heaven and earth will be joined together once more, only now in dramatic symbol and onward pointing sign. The giving of Torah itself is just a preparation; what matters is the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the microcosmos, the little world, the heaven-and-earth place, the mysterious, untameable, moving tent – or perhaps it is the world that moves, while the tent stays still? – in which the living God will come to dwell, to tabernacle, in the midst of his people, in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The whole of the book of Exodus is itself moving towards this moment, in chapter 40, when the Tent is set up, constructed and decorated with the highest human artistry, which itself is part of the point, and the Divine Glory comes to dwell in it, so that even Moses couldn’t enter the Tent because of that glorious presence. Exodus 40 answers to Genesis 1 and 2: creation is renewed, heaven and earth are held together, the world itself is halted from its slide back towards chaos, and the people of God, tent-makers and tent-keepers and pilgrims wherever the glory-filled Tent will lead them, are to live the dangerous and challenging life of the people in whose midst there dwells, in strange humble sovereignty, the promise and hope for the whole of creation. (This is course is why Leviticus is where it is and what it is, with the priests as the humans who stand at the intersection of heaven and earth; but that’s another story.)
All of this and much more – think of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 8, think of the vision in Isaiah 6 – is then poured by John into the dense and world-shaping reality of the Prologue as it reaches its climax. In the beginning was the Word; and the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us; and we gazed upon his glory. We have been allowed where Moses was not. We have seen the glory, the heaven-and-earth reality, the human microcosmos, the Tent where the God of the Exodus is revealed as the One God of creation and new creation. The Exodus through which creation is rescued and renewed; the new creation which comes to birth on the eighth day after the dark power, the great and terrible Pharaoh, has been defeated once and for all. This is the story that John is telling.
Because of course it isn’t just Genesis and Exodus, and indeed Genesis and Exodus themselves indicate well enough that things are going to be anything but straightforward. Genesis 1 and 2 of course give way to the whispering serpent, the first murder, and the long decline into human arrogance which ends with the tower of Babel. Eden and Babylon, like Jesus and Judas at the Supper, frame the action which follows, as Abraham and his family are called to a stupendous vocation and come repeatedly within a whisker of throwing it all away; as the children of Israel, gloriously rescued and on their way to their promised inheritance, make a golden calf at the very moment when the true microcosmos was about to be constructed among them, so that Moses has to engage in frantic verbal fisticuffs with God to prevent him aborting the entire operation. (Don’t you love the way that conversation goes? God says to Moses, ‘Your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, have rebelled, and I’m going to destroy them’; and Moses shoots right back with ‘Actually, they are your people, and you brought them out of Egypt, and it’s your reputation that’s on the line here.’) But as the Pentateuch unwinds to its dark and puzzling conclusion it becomes clear that the people of God, the tent-keepers if you like, are still in themselves a rebellious people who will themselves have to suffer the fate of all those who put other Images at the intersection of heaven and earth. They will go into exile, not despite the fact that they are the covenant people but precisely because of that dangerous reality. God will fill his creation with his glory but it will come through the casting away and the receiving back of his tent-keepers.
Genesis and Exodus, then, give us the structure, the framework. God will rescue and restore his heaven-and-earth creation, and the Tabernacle is the sign and seal of that promise, with Aaron and his sons as the image-reflectors to hold that hope together and Israel as a whole the royal priesthood for the whole of creation. Genesis to Deuteronomy give us the story, stretching forward in its final chapters to embrace the whole period of kings and prophets, of exile and restoration. The kings, themselves of course a deeply ambiguous lot, are nevertheless called to be image-bearers, to be the spearhead – the metaphor is not too harsh – of YHWH’s victory over the powers of evil, to be the focus of his reign of justice and peace. Or so it seemed, until kings and priests alike fail miserably. The prophets, particularly Isaiah and Ezekiel, see the glory of God and the shame of Israel in severe counterpoint, with the consequence that the shame is complete and the glory departs. But Ezekiel then describes the creation of the new Temple, with Ezekiel 43 corresponding to Exodus 40 as the divine glory returns at last. And Isaiah, in his gospel of comfort, describes the scene of majesty in which the sovereign God comes back with the mountains flattened and the valleys filled in for his glory to be revealed for all flesh to witness it; and the majesty is joined with gentle intimacy, exactly as in John 13, as he will feed his flock like a shepherd, gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead the mother sheep. A new Exodus, in other words: the great prophetic theme which stretches like a long question-mark over the four hundred years after exile in Babel until a voice in the wilderness declares that the time has come. King, temple, new exodus, new creation; the themes come rushing together. Jesus chose Passover as the moment to do what had to be done, the moment he knew would awaken precisely those biblical resonances which would appropriately frame his final kingdom-bringing action and passion. The gospel writers, following this foundational insight, tell the story of Jesus as the story of the strange new Exodus in which the glory returns at last, in a form nobody had seen coming. No wonder Caiaphas and his cronies were alarmed. Their priestly role, standing between heaven and earth, was about to be upstaged once and for all and for ever by the true Image, the Word made flesh, who would sum up in himself the long-delayed obedience of Israel on the one hand and the long-awaited return of Israel’s God on the other. When St Paul, quoting the early Christian formula, says that the Messiah died for our sins ‘in accordance with the scriptures’, it is this complex narrative, full of doom and glory, which he has in mind. Proof-texts are for the birds (or, more accurately, for the neo-Marcionite rationalists); what matters is the story.
Both John and Paul draw out one theme in particular from Exodus, from Isaiah, from the entire earlier narrative. Babel must be overthrown if Abraham’s people are to inherit the world. Pharaoh must be overthrown if Abraham’s family are to be rescued. Babylon and its gods must be overthrown if the new Exodus is to be accomplished. All of this the prophets see, particularly again Isaiah for whom God’s kingdom will be established through the overthrow of the dark power and the redeeming return of YHWH to Zion. And all of this is retrieved by the gospel writers, and particularly John, as he leads the eye up from his prologue all the way through to the footwashing scene and on to the cross. Jesus’ ‘signs’, starting with the wedding at Cana (itself of course symbolizing the marriage of heaven and earth), reveal his glory; and the sequence of signs leads us, if we follow the clues John is leaving us, all the way to the cross itself where the dark glory of God is revealed as the glory of the true Image, the priest, the king, the lover. And this theme, picked up in the footwashing scene as we saw with Judas embodying the satan, is already highlighted as John draws together the first half of his gospel in chapter 12, where he quotes precisely those passages from Isaiah in which the themes I have been sketching come to sharp expression.
The crucial passage – John 12.20-36 – begins with a typical piece of Johannine puzzlement. Some Greeks come to the feast, and want to see Jesus. But instead of arranging a time later that day when they could sit down for a coffee together, Jesus proceeds to speak in riddles. This is the sign, he seems to be saying, that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, for the grain of wheat to fall into the earth and die in order to bear much fruit. What on earth has that got to do with these poor Greeks who simply want to see him? Jesus looks beyond the immediate request to the ultimate purpose. The world upon which he looks out – the pagan world, and also tragically the Jewish world – is in the grip of the Pharaoh, the dark Babel-gods, ‘the ruler of this world’. There is no point simply having a chat with these Greeks here and now. What matters is not understanding the world, but rescuing it. This is the time for God’s name to be glorified, for judgment to be passed on the world: ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world is to be cast out; and when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’. Here we have it. Jesus’ death will be the means by which – in a moment of shocking and intense paradox, picked up by all the New Testament writers in their own ways – the power that has gripped the world of Greek and Jew alike will be overthrown by the greater power, the power the world never imagined, the power of a love which loves its own and loves them to the end. In John’s gospel there are two things which cannot happen until Jesus has died – apart, of course, from the resurrection itself and with it the launch of the new creation. First, in chapter 7, the Spirit cannot be poured out through and out of the hearts of the disciples until Jesus is ‘glorified’. Now here in chapter 12 the dark power which has held the whole world in its grip must be defeated before it makes any sense for the Greeks to come and see Jesus, to hold him perhaps within their world of theory when what matters is the world of the new temple, the new cosmos, the ultimate Image, the word made flesh. Jesus’ death will be the overthrow of the Power, the ‘ruler of this world’. That is why the long scene in chapters 18 and 19, of Jesus in sharp dialogue with Pontius Pilate, the kingdom of God against the kingdom of Caesar, is so vital to the whole meaning of the story. Pilate asks about kingdom, and Jesus replies about truth; Pilate doesn’t know what truth is, because the only truth he knows is the power to kill. All power, says Jesus, comes from above. And what he doesn’t explain, because like the Greeks Pilate just wouldn’t get it, is that the ultimate power is the footwashing power, the power of radical, transformative love. And on the cross, as John makes clear, that love goes to work, with the tender moment with Mary and John on the one hand and on the other Pilate himself, despite himself, declaring ‘what I have written I have written’, the ruler of this world declaring unwittingly that Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews, and hence, according to the Psalms and the prophets, the ultimate ruler and justice-bringer for the whole world. Tetelestai, it is finished: the new tabernacle, the new creation, rescued from the wreck of the old, through the king who is also the Passover lamb whose bones remain unbroken. New Exodus; real return from exile; return of YHWH to Zion; messianic enthronement; priestly work complete; creation ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. My friends, please don’t ever think of trying to construct something called an ‘atonement-theology’ unless you know, with John, what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.
Because of course we have tried – the western tradition has tried – to do it in many other ways. We have told many different stories, so that Israel’s scriptures become merely a source-book for random prophecies to be fitted into the redemption-narratives we have gleaned from other cultures. We have then distorted those texts themselves to play the role demanded by these other narratives: narratives of divine honour offended, of divine lawcourt sitting in judgment, of human muddle and mistake. All of these matter but if we start with them we will skew the whole. ‘Atonement’ itself – the word is far less precise than we normally imagine – must include so much more, including the notions of sacrifice, which itself demands that we stop not at the cross but with the Ascension where, according to Hebrews, the Son offers his once-for-all sacrifice in the heavenly temple. And all these ideas can themselves be distorted, and have themselves been distorted, as we have put them into our different frameworks. In particular, we have radically misread the entire sacrificial tradition of ancient Israel, in which animals were not subjected to a vicarious death penalty but were killed so that their blood, itself a gift from God, would cleanse the sanctuary to maintain the heaven-and-earth reality in the midst of an as yet unredeemed world. Passover itself was not an atoning sacrifice. The only animal that has sins confessed over its head is the only animal in the Levitical rituals that does not get killed: the scapegoat is driven away, bearing Israel’s sins into the wilderness. And, as I try to explain in the book, the much-cherished and heavily guarded statements of atonement theology that we all learned from the sixteenth-century reformers, though vital as a bulwark against error, were themselves framed far more in terms of the late mediaeval ideas, particularly of purgatory and the mass, to which the reformers were reacting. The reformers were doing the noble job of trying to give biblical answers to fifteenth-century questions. Fine: but the Bible itself upon which they rightly insisted itself makes it clear that this is not enough. We must get inside the world of the Bible, must understand what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with, along the line of, as the fulfilment of, the great single narrative of Israel’s scriptures. Only so will we get fresh clarity in our thinking and, equally importantly, fresh energy for our mission.
Because, as again I try to explain in the book, we have I believe committed a triple mistake in our thinking about the cross – though it doesn’t start with the cross, but, like so many things, with our eschatology. We have platonized our eschatology, speaking and praying about ‘going to heaven when we die’ without realising that this is the first-century teaching, not of the New Testament, but of Plutarch and the other middle Platonists. The New Testament is not about souls going up to heaven but about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, about the new creation already symbolized in the wilderness tabernacle and brought into reality by the Royal Priest, Israel’s ultimate representative, the Word made Flesh. And this isn’t just a matter of adjusting some nuts and bolts of what we say and think about our ultimate future – about God’s ultimate future! What we say about the future plays back at once into how we conceive the problem to which the cross and resurrection are the God-given solution. If we are simply thinking about our souls going to heaven we quickly shrink the human vocation – to be the Image-bearers, the Royal Priesthood – into mere morality. Morality matters vitally but it matters because it is the byproduct of being Image-bearers, summing up the praises of creation rather than worshipping and serving the creature; morality matters because only through true image-bearers will the rescuing divine justice flow out into the world. But if we focus on morality – making the knowledge of good and evil the fruit around which we construct our theological menu – then we turn the whole large drama of creation and new creation into a self-centred play about me and my sin and what God’s going to do about it. And, with a great deal of western theology, we then re-read Genesis and all that follows not as the story of the Temple and the Image but as the story of humans failing an exam, deserving punishment, and the punishment eventually falling elsewhere. And though there is indeed truth within that shrunken narrative – the truth of the Cross is so vast and deep that it shines out still even from our distortions – if we put that little moral equation at the centre we will never understand what the Bible as a whole, what Jesus as a whole, was and is all about. We have, then, platonized our eschatology, and to fit we have moralized our anthropology.
And the result is that we have again and again been in danger of paganizing our soteriology. It is in the ancient pagan world, not the ancient Jewish world, that we find stories of an angry God and an innocent victim and a king or an expedition or a country being rescued from divine wrath because someone – preferably an innocent someone – get in the way at the last minute. Now I know that few if any preachers, and few if any theologians, will own up to having preached about Jesus in that way. They will always insist that they speak of Jesus’ death as the act of divine love. But you know, and I know, that this pagan story is what generations of people in the churches have heard. And it’s all too easy for them to hear it because that is often how generations of Christians have behaved: using would-be redemptive violence whether domestically or internationally, and always asserting that it is done out of love, done with the best of intentions. And so people hear what they think is the gospel, and instead of hearing ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’ they hear ‘God so hated the world that he killed his only son’. And because that pagan story is so easy for people to slip into in their imaginations, generations have done exactly that; and the biblical truth of penal substitution is thereby both distorted and shrunk.
Distorted: because there is a biblical truth we can call penal substitution, but it is not well expressed within the platonized eschatology and the moralized anthropology. It belongs in its clearest formulaic expression in Romans 8.1-4, where Paul declares that there is ‘no condemnation for those in the Messiah’, because on the cross ‘God condemned Sin in the flesh’. He doesn’t say that God punished Jesus; he says God punished Sin – Sin with a capital S, as we might say – in the representative flesh of the Messiah. That is at the heart of a complicated argument which I have tried to spell out in the book and won’t attempt even to summarize here, except to say that the clearest non-formulaic expressions are found where most theologians don’t bother looking for them – in the four gospels themselves. (And, by the way, this is one reason among many others why there is such a fad, both in the Dan Brown circles and in western theology, particularly in America, for the non-canonical gospels like Thomas and the rest. This deep and dark narrative has been surgically removed from those traditions, because the true gospel is far more shocking and radical than the gnostics ancient and modern have ever understood or wanted to understand.) The four gospels are all about the Kingdom of God, a theme astonishingly muted to this day in much modern western preaching and teaching, even among would-be Bible Christians, perhaps for the reason that it generates at once, as John’s gospel does in spades, what we today with our little categories call ‘political theology’. How can the good news that the world’s creator has rescued creation from disaster and established his Son, his true Image, at the centre of his remade world – how can this news not at once have implications for every polis, every household, every community and country, every polity and policy? How can we not at once be driven to reflect and act on the basis that the dark powers have been defeated so that the power of love may flood the world and bring about the justice and peace which the secular world knows it wants but can’t seem to find?
This is what I mean when I say that the normal theories about the atonement have not only distorted but also ‘shrunk’ the meaning of penal substitution. In the four gospels the story of Jesus is set in counterpoint with the story of evil: of the snake in the garden, the tottering tower of Babel, the power of Pharaoh killing the babies (think of Herod in the gospels), of rebellious Israel, wicked priests and kings, false prophets, idolatries to left, right and centre. Jesus goes on his way, announcing that this is how God is becoming king, and apparently drawing onto himself as though by a magnet all the evil in the world, from the shrieking demons in the synagogue to the plotting priests in the Sanhedrin and ultimately to the pathetic representative of the Ruler of the World. Judas and Pilate merely bring into sharp focus what is going on all along. And Evil – Sin with a capital S – is gathered together into one place and does its worst, the worst thing imaginable, killing the one true Man, the one genuine Israelite, the Word made flesh. And with his death, exactly as Isaiah, Zechariah and the Psalms had glimpsed through a glass darkly, Pharaoh is overthrown, Babel tumbles to the ground, the gods of the world had done their worst. As Paul put it in Colossians, on the cross Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, celebrating his triumph over them. And the way this happened was by Jesus, representing Israel, representing thereby the whole human race, and equally representing and embodying the one God himself – by Jesus taking upon himself the weight of evil hanging over all flesh. One person must die, said unwitting Caiaphas, so that the nation may not perish; yes, says John, and not just the nation but the whole scattered children of God. ‘This is your hour,’ said Jesus as they arrested him, ‘and the power of darkness’; and he went into the heart of that darkness so that Peter and the others would not suffer it; so that Barabbas and the brigand on the cross might be freed; so that, like the chickens protected by the death of the mother hen, all those who came to him for refuge would find that he had taken their place. The victory is won – ‘Christus Victor’, if you like, but a much bigger idea than many theories which have gone by that name – through the representative substitution of the Servant, the Son, the Image, the Lover, the footwasher, the one who has saved the world and revealed the glory at last.
And that, not some cheap and logic-chopped scheme, is why there is forgiveness of sins; that is why there is now a Gentile mission; that is why the followers of Jesus do not constitute ‘a religion’ like other so-called ‘religions’, to be catalogued by secular modernity, pinned to the wall like so many dead butterflies, but a polis, a new kind of city, a new kind of community, a Spirit-driven, suffering-love people who follow their Master to the places where the world is in sharpest pain in order that by the Spirit they may embody the love of God and the pain of God right there, and so bring the healing of God and the hope of God into the world that so badly needs it. Unless we read the gospels like this we are falsifying them, as we do when we chop them into tiny snippets and turn them into moral lessons, or even, heaven help us, into abstract theological lessons. They are the living story of how the Lord of life drew the powers of evil on to himself and, by dying under their weight, disarmed and disabled them so that from now on they are a defeated rabble, even though in our dualistic modern spiritualities we still imagine them to have power over us. They are the launching-narrative of our own story, the first act in the new divine drama in which we are called to play our parts.
And this is why, as I draw to my close and thank you for your kind attention through a rather brief and partial treatment, we need not a refined set of theories but a larger vision of the biblical narrative if we are to understand, preach and live out the message and meaning of the cross. The heart of my new book asks a question: by the evening of the first Good Friday, what had changed in the world? Clearly all the New Testament writers think that something has changed: what was it and how do we make that new reality our own? The modern world has displaced the Christian narrative; it isn’t just that most of our contemporaries profess not to believe in God or Jesus, but that they have in their heads a world narrative in which world history arrived at its redemptive moment in the eighteenth century with the rise of science and technology and the banishing of God to a distant realm, to be visited by the pious few like a kind family calling on an elderly relative every Sunday. The western churches have regularly colluded with this absurd diminishment of the Bible and the gospel. But the cross, told as the climax of all four gospels and particularly John’s on which I have focused this evening, leaves us no choice. ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now is the ruler of the world cast out; and if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.’ This is what it means that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. We have some fresh thinking to do, to put it mildly. But thinking, the realm of logos, has become flesh, and must once again become flesh, our flesh, our footwashing flesh, driven by the Spirit to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel, to be the means by which the Spirit holds the world to account as Jesus held Pilate to account. Having loved his own, having revealed the glory, Jesus loved them to the end; and as he resumed his clothes he told them, ‘This is my command: that you love one another as I have loved you.’ That is how the glory will be revealed in tomorrow’s world. That is how the world, saved once for all by his victory on the cross, will as he promised be flooded with his glory and knowledge as the waters cover the sea. We are to be, in the power of the Spirit, new Genesis people; new Exodus people; new Isaiah people; new gospel people; new Jesus people. That is the meaning of atonement, then and now.