N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66F (Atonement Theories)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

Christus Victor

We’ll see at the end of chapter 8 this marvelous passage —

(Rom. 8:38-39 NET)  38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers,  39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

We considered the concept of Jesus’s defeat the powers and principalities in an earlier post, and I only intend to remind you of that. The idea is that Jesus, on the cross, took the worst that his spiritual enemies could dish out and defeated them — through the resurrection.

As a result, we are assured that we also will be victorious because we will also be resurrected. The enemies of Jesus — Satan, Death, Sin, and whatever demonic powers there may be — all took their best shot and lost.

(Col. 2:15 ESV)  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. 

(2 Cor. 2:14-16 ESV) 4 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.  15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,  16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 

The resurrection is the ultimate triumph —

The cross is the victory through which the powers of the old age are brought low, enabling the new age to be ushered in at last. Here, once again, we see what was foundational for Paul: that which Jewish eschatology looked for in the future, the overthrow of the enslaving evil powers and the establishment of YHWH’s reign instead, had truly been inaugurated in and through the messianic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As a result, the ‘rulers of the present age’ are now ‘being done away with’. Their power is at an end, and they unwittingly brought that result upon themselves by crucifying the one who always was ‘the lord of glory’ and who is now revealed as such through his resurrection.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:1068 (emphasis in original).

This is the explanation that I find most modern readers find most attractive. We can understand things like triumphing over an enemy and how the conquest of death, through resurrection, also conquers the source of that death: Sin.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to limit our thinking to this model. Paul certainly doesn’t, and we’ll not understand huge chunks of the OT and NT unless we are willing to also think in OT and NT categories.

Besides, as modern, sophisticated, and scientific as we’d like to be, Paul expresses these concepts in terms of defeating the principalities and powers, and in Paul’s mind, these are not just earthly powers. There are spiritual powers arrayed against Jesus and his followers beyond mere human wickedness.

(Eph. 6:11-13 ESV)  11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

So even the most scientific of the theories speaks in terms of “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” This is hardly new with Paul. His understanding is built on the OT prophets.

And, frankly, if you ever doubt that existence of evil spiritual forces behind the human powers that you read about in the papers, read the papers again and ask yourself whether Satan might well be bedeviling the earth through earthly powers. That would lead to a truer “Christian worldview” — rather than our modern, scientific worldview with a little Christianity sitting over in the corner of the room as an unwelcome guest.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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