Gulp. Early in NT Wright’s chapter “The Story of the Rescue” (in The Day the Revolution Began) we get this imaginary conversation between the four evangelists and modern evangelists, the latter of whom operate with a very particular theory of the atonement called penal substitution (and, yes, that is operative in nearly all gospel tracts):
One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of “evangelists” in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with the problems of “sin and “hell.” The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how his execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. The modern evangelists come right back with their theories, diagrams, and homely illustrations. The ancient writers eventually explode: “You’re just not listening!” “Yes, we are,” reply the modern preachers (who are, after all, committed to “believing in the Bible”), “but you guys just aren’t saying the right stuff!” (196-197)
Exactly. It is so obvious that many evangelists force Jesus’ hand to say what they need him to say and, in forcing his hand, they drop the cards Jesus wants played. Until Passover is central to atonement theories – read ’em, pardner, and you’ll find the cards have not been played — we will not have the original template that is needed to know what needs to be said. I’ll say it again: it begins with Passover and absent Passover atonement theories are lacking. Hear Wright:
Part of my purpose in this book is to persuade people who normally talk over the evangelists because they don’t seem to be “saying the right stuff” to be quiet for a bit and listen to the story (and the stories, plural) they are actually telling (198).
It begins by ignoring the historical reality:
Already in Acts we find the strange combination: God meant it, but you (the Jewish leaders) were wicked in carrying it out by handing Jesus over to the pagans (2:23; 4:27-28). And here is the point: the Western church, looking for the “theological” answer to the question “Whys (“How did Jesus’s death mean that sins could be forgiven so we could go to heaven?”), has largely ignored the historical answer, and indeed the historical questions. They have been regarded as irrelevant circumstantial details (199).
If the gospels do not seem to be “saying the right stuff,” maybe it is our idea of the right stuff” that needs adjusting (199).
What are the themes of the Evangelists? [Wright has the annoying probably English habit of gospels instead of Gospels. In the USA, at least with editors who know their business, Gospel is a book and gospel is a message.]
1. Israel’s God returning at last.
2. Compassion and love as one embodying God’s love.
3. Hostility toward Jesus and evil and the dark forces of evil.
4. Thus, the kingdom inaugurated over against evil warring against its arrival: Jesus’ victories are seen in exorcisms, healings, and then finally in resurrection and ascension.
5. Climax of this dual narrative in Passover and in Son of Man theme.
These are not the typical evangelist’s themes of God’s holy wrath and Jesus coming to die to quench that wrath and if you get to Jesus you can be saved from that wrath. This is the story of God’s covenant love embodied in Jesus who gives himself for us to forgive us/Israel from is sins/exile as YHWH returns to Israel and launches the revolution called kingdom.
I want to add this: the classic evangelical evangelist therefore locks down all atonement theory to individual salvation for a (Wright’s term) Platonized humanity — while the modern evangelist like Wright offers a vision of evil being undone and justice being offered for a new people of God.
But here Wright uses an expression I myself have used, too: “representative substitution” (I develop both an inclusive and exclusive dimension to Jesus’ representation of us in Jesus and His Death) for the “forgiveness of sins” and new life in the kingdom. He offers himself for others. He disempowers power by surrendering himself to the evil powers for us. References: John 11:51-52; 1 John 2:1-2. Luke 23:18-19, 24-25, 37, 39-43. Matthew’s Emmanuel and then Mark 10:45’s story of Israel coming to fulfillment in the story of Jesus.