Every Sunday I put my nice shirt on and go to church. For those of you who have given up on church I hope to offer you a little something special; whether thats an excerpt from a book I’m reading, or an original thought on the nature and character of God. Since much of what I read, write and speak on–whether that is cultural commentary or philosophical content–my view of God is the lens I see most of this stuff through. In order for my readers to not feel crestfallen, I am going to post some excerpts from N.T. Wrights new book, Simply Good News, and I think you’ll love it.
I want to share this so that people have a reason to speak of God.
Most people who regard the statement that Jesus died in your place as the center of the gospel place this truth, this beautiful fragment, into a larger story that goes like this. There is a God, and this God is angry with humans because of their sin. This God has the right, the duty, and the desire to punish us all. If we did but know it, we are all heading for an eternal torment in hell. But this angry God has decided to vent his fury on someone else instead–someone who happens to be completely innocent. Indeed, it is his very own son! His wrath is therefore quenched, and we no longer face that terrible destiny. All we have to do is to believe this story and we will be safe.
That is the reconstructed scene offered in many churches, sermons, and books. It is not completely wrong. But as it stands, it is deeply misleading. It distorts the very thing it is trying to frame. It takes the truth that Jesus died in your place and puts it in the wrong context. It does indeed make some sense there. But this is not the same sense that it would make if you put it in the right context. This, in anyone’s account, is near the heart of what the early Christians meant by the good news. Since it is also, clearly, near the heart of what many Christians today understand by the good news, it is important that we sort this out.
There are two telltale signs that something has gone wrong.
First, in the Bible the various statements about the death of Jesus in our place come within the double narrative of creation and covenant. Creation: here is God the creator, the God to whom the whole world belongs and who longs to put the world right at last. Covenant (a kind of formal pledge): here is God calling the Israelites to be His people, undertaking to rescure them from slavery and bring them to the promised land, guiding them through trials and troubles all the way through their history to the sending of the Messiah. You can’t ignore creation and covenant and expect the fragments that are left to make sense.
Second, the point of both these stories is that the God who masterminds both creation and covenant is a God of love–utter, self-giving, merciful, reconciling, healing, restorative love. You would never know this from listening to the story of the angry God who is determined to punish someone and just happens to pick on his own son. There is a famous verse in John’s Gospel that says, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son.” Not, please note, “God so hated the world.” If we give the wrong impression at that point, we distort the whole picture.
Now, let’s be clear. I would rather have someone walking around thinking, “Wow! Jesus died for my sins!” than thinking, “Forget this God-and-Jesus rubbish–;et’s get drunk and rob a bank.” Better, by far, that someone should grasp the truth that “Jesus died in my place,” even if it is within the wrong narrative. But that may store up trouble for later–later in your reading of the Bible or later in your understanding of Christian truth. Later, more worryingly still, in your inner heart and soul, as you continue to live with this sense of a God who is angry but who has (so we hope) been pacified. Later, too, if you are called to teach others about the Christian faith.*
My prayer is that we see the coming headlights and recognize that God has always been kind. And it is possible that we have interpreted the Gospel in a wrong narrative, and it is possible that embracing the actual Gospel could set us free? Surely.