NT Wright complains about the marginalization of the Gospels in atonement theology. He doesn’t think it’s an accident. Rather, it’s “the direct, long-term result of the way in which ‘atonement’ has been seen as a transaction taking place, as it were, in midair, with results that likewise are only tangentially related to actual human life, to the ongoing human story” (The Day the Revolution Began, 223).
Readers familiar with Wright’s work will recognize here his polemic against the modern separation of history and theology. He raises this issue explicitly, posing the question, Why did Jesus die? and answering with a series of historical answers: “the chief priests were angry because of what he did in the Temple; the Romans were suspicious that he might be some kind of rebel leader; the Pharisees hated him because his kingdom vision clashed at several points with their own. . . . you could say that Jesus died because his followers failed to defend him, and one of them actually betrayed him.” He also offers a series of “divine reasons” for the death of Jesus. He says that atonement theory has usually focused on the latter and “has largely ignored the historical answers, and indeed the historical questions,” treating them as “irrelevant circumstantial details” (198-9).
Wright correctly insists this isn’t the way to go: “The historical questions and answers are the place to go if we want to find the theological answer. If we cannot see it there, that might be an indication that we are trying to answer the wrong question” (199).
So, what atonement theology emerges from the Gospel accounts? As one would expect, Wright places the atonement in the broad context of creation, fall, Israel, exile, and the fulfillment of humanity’s vocation in God’s world. The goal of atonement is the forgiveness of sins, but forgiveness is not the end of the story. Forgiveness is necessary so that humanity can take up again its calling as priests and kings to God. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, God changed the world, and did not simply rescue some out of the world. In the cross and resurrection, God has accomplished the final return from exile.
To explain the “mechanics” of this divine action, Wright uses the phrase “representative substitution.” Jesus secures forgiveness of sins and the return from exile by being the one who stands in for the many: “It comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole. It comes about because from the beginning Jesus was redefining the nature of the kingdom with regard to radical self-giving and self-denial, and it looks as though that was never simply an ethical demand but, at its heart, a personal vocation. It comes about because throughout his public career Jesus was redefining power itself, and his violent death was the ultimate demonstration-in-practice of that redefinition” (211).
Jesus identifies with Israel, taking the “imminent judgment” that threatened them. Wright is content to use “the old formulas,” so long as it’s understood that “they are merely shorthand for this kind of narrative,” a narrative about Jesus the Messiah of Israel being opposed by Pilate, Jewish leaders, etc: “Jesus represents his people, as Israel’s Messiah, and so he and he alone can appropriately be their substitute. And it is through substitution, both national . . . and personal . . . that the larger reality comes about. Jesus, in taking upon himself the weight of Israel’s sins and thereby of the world’s sins, dies under the accumulated forces of evil, so that now at last the kingdom can come in its fullness” (216-7). Jesus brings the kingdom “because he is giving his life in the place of sinners, as ‘a ransom for many’” (221-2). The latter half of Wright’s examines Paul’s letters to show that he presents the same atonement theology as the Gospels, often in short-hand formulas.
Among the many accusations that get lodged against Wright, one is that he’s squishy or un-Evangelical on the atonement. He criticizes penal substitution in this book, largely because he thinks it gets the story off on the wrong foot, treating Adam’s situation as a matter of law rather than a matter of vocation. I’m not convinced his criticisms entirely hit home. Still, though his latest book won’t satisfy his most vocal critics, it’s hard to see how anyone could reasonably claim that his views are outside the mainstream of Evangelical atonement theology. He speaks of substitution, of bearing sin, of suffering punishment on behalf of others, of Jesus dying for our sins. He insists that we need to understand all those truths within the broad sweep of the purpose and destiny of humanity and creation—and he’s right—but that broader context doesn’t mean he’s abandoned the rest of it.