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Evil and the Justice of God
a series of lectures for 2003 by the Canon Theologian, Dr N. T. Wright
Lecture 3: Evil and the Crucified God
March 17 2003
(written up in retrospect from notes, December 2004)
My purpose in this lecture course was really to explore the meaning of the cross. Having offered a series on the resurrection in 2001, I intended this time around to work back and look at the reasons, particularly the theological reasons, why Jesus was crucified. But it quickly became apparent that in order to do that I would have to look at the question of evil: all theories about why Jesus died (that is, why in the purposes of God Jesus died), that is, all theories of atonement, are necessarily correlated with theories about what evil is and how it works. This is, in the nature of the case, a two-way street: it isn’t just that you come with a view of evil and then design a doctrine of the atonement to show how God has answered this problem, though no doubt some have done that. There are clear signs from the New Testament onwards that Christian theologians have often, perhaps even usually, gazed in awe, horror and gratitude on the crucifixion of the Lord of the World and have deduced from that something profound about the nature of evil. ‘If righteousness could come by the law’, wrote Paul, ‘the Messiah’s death would not have been necessary’ (Galatians 2.21).
To show how this lecture in intended to work, let me recapitulate what I said in the first two. In the opening lecture, I argued that evil is real and powerful, that it is more than the sum total of individual sin, and that it cannot be properly understood through dualism, whether the ontological dualism that sees the created world as evil and the solution as being to escape it, or the sociological dualism that divides the world into ‘us’ (good) and ‘them’ (bad). Then, in the second lecture, I presented a reading of the Old Testament in which I argued that the entire canon, not just key passages like the book of Job, tell a story which, from a bewildering variety of angles, is all about what God (the creator God, please note) is doing about evil. God has undertaken a plan – a daring and risky plan, involving God in so much ambiguity, one might almost say subterfuge, that he begins to look like a double agent, becoming compromised at many points in order to bring off the solution. This plan involves drawing evil to a point, in order to deal with it there. The Old Testament symbols which speak of God’s strategy for dealing with evil include the Temple, where the regular sacrifices were a constant reminder of both sin and grace, and the human symbols of kings, priests and prophets, particularly as we saw the figures of the Servant and the Son of Man, both of whom emerge at the point where Israel, the people who bear God’s promise to deal with the world’s evil, is itself overwhelmed by the weight and force of evil.
All this leads to an initial reflection. Theologies of the cross, of atonement, have not in my view grappled sufficiently with the larger problem of evil, as I set it out in the first lecture; conversely, those who have written about ‘the problem of evil’ within philosophical theology have not normally grappled sufficiently with the cross as part of both the analysis and the solution of that problem. The two have been held apart, in a mis-match, with ‘the problem of evil’ on the one hand being conceived simply in terms of ‘how could a good and powerful God allow evil into the world in the first place?’, and the atonement on the other hand being seen in terms simply of personal forgiveness, of the various categories set out movingly if ultimately inadequately in the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’. (Successive verses run through the various ways of saying what a personalized ‘atonement’ wants to say: ‘He died that we might be forgiven; he died to make us good; that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood.’) Much nineteenth and twentieth century Christian thought has accepted the framework offered by the Enlightenment, in which the Christian faith has the role of rescuing people from the evil world, ensuring them forgiveness in the present and heaven hereafter. The Enlightenment-based wider world has then accepted that evaluation of the Christian faith – not surprisingly, since it was driving it in the first place – and so has not through it necessary to factor in Christian theology to its own discussions of ‘the problem of evil’. How, after all, does a hymn like ‘There is a green hill far away’ have anything at all to say to a world dumbstruck in horror at the first world war, at Auschwitz, at Hiroshima? And even if theologians like Jürgen Moltmann have made a start on putting back together what ought not to have been split apart, we are still left with what seems a huge uphill task.
1. Re-Reading the Gospels
At this point, what we need is to re-read the gospels as what they are, not as what they are not. It often appears – as I know only too well from my years of teaching and examining students in the New Testament within a university world where the dominant paradigm was still at work – that there is not actually that much ‘atonement-theology’ in the gospels. Mark’s ‘theology of the cross’ often seemed to be reduced to one key verse, 10.45, which evoked Isaiah 53 in speaking of the Son of Man coming ‘to give his life a ransom for many’, lutron anti pollōn. Luke, who seemed to have deliberately avoided following Mark at that point, was often held therefore to have stood aloof from any real atonement-theology. The Lord’s Supper gave hints towards an atonement-theology, and the crucifixion narratives, especially in their evocation of biblical allusions, provided some further elements. But for the most part the gospels, as read within the mainstream tradition both of scholarship and of church life – and I mean the life of the churches that might be expected to be on the lookout for atonement theology and to exploit it where it was to be found – had little to contribute, except as a general narrative backcloth to an atonement theology which was grounded in Paul, Hebrews and 1 Peter.
When, however, we read the gospels in the holistic fashion in which, arguably, they ask to be read, we find that they tell a double story, in which the themes of our first two lectures are drawn together into a single point. They tell the story of how the evil in the world – political, social, personal, moral, emotional – reached its height; and they tell how God’s long-term plan for Israel – and for himself! – finally came to its climax. And they tell both of these stories in and as the story of how Jesus of Nazareth announced God’s kingdom and went to his violent death. In the main body of this lecture, to which I now turn, I shall unpack this dense statement, and then show how the gospels, read in this way, offer us both a richer theology of atonement than we are used to and also a deeper understanding of the problem of evil itself and what can and must be done about it in our own day.
(i) The gospels tell the story of the political powers of the world reaching to their full, arrogant height. All early readers of the gospels knew perfectly well that the word ‘gospel’ itself, never mind any teaching about ‘God’s kingdom’, was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar; Rome is in the background of all the gospel stories, and when Jesus meets Pilate at last the shrewd reader of the gospel has a sense of denouement, of the unveiling of the real confrontation that has been taking place all along. Similarly (a point we see particularly in Matthew) the presence of the house of Herod (Herod the Great, at the beginning, Herod Antipas during Jesus’ public career), and the story of John the Baptist, offer constant reminders that the local Jewish (or would-be Jewish) pseudo-aristocracy did not take kindly to the presence, or the proclamation, of rival Kings of the Jews. Finally, the corrupt Jerusalem regime of Caiaphas and his high-priestly house, who again we confront only at the climax of the story, are a deep part of the problem, as from very angle human systems overreach themselves and end up putting Jesus on the cross.
(ii) The gospels thus also tell the story of corruption within Israel itself, as the people who bear the solution have themselves become, with terrible irony that causes Paul to weep every time he thinks of it, a central part of the problem. The Pharisees are offering an interpretation of Torah which pursues a kind of holiness but only makes matters worse. The priests in the Temple are offering the sacrifices which should speak of God’s grace but which instead speak of their own exclusive and corrupt system. The revolutionaries try to get in on the act of God’s inbreaking kingdom (Matthew 11.12), but their attempt to fight violence with violence can only ever result in a victory for violence, not a victory over it. This means that the death of Jesus, when it comes, is bound to be seen as the work not only of the pagan nations but of the Israel that has longed, as (with further irony) on the day when it chose a king in the first place, to become ‘like all the nations’ (1 Samuel 8.5, 20) and now is reduced to saying that it has no king but Caesar (John 19.15).
(iii) The gospels then tell the story of the deeper, darker forces which operate at a supra-personal level, forces for which the language of the demonic is still the least inadequate, for all its problems. These forces of evil use all of the above human elements, but cannot be reduced to terms of them. The gospels introduce us to ‘the satan’, the quasi-personal ‘accuser’ which is doing its best to drag Jesus down into the trap into which Israel, like the rest of the world, has already fallen. The shrieking demons that yell at him as he performs healings, that rush at him out of the tombs, are signs that a battle has been joined at a more than personal level. The dark, stormy sea evokes ancient Israelite imagery of an evil which is more than the sum total of present wrongdoing and woe. ‘The power of darkness’ to which Jesus alludes immediately before his betrayal (Luke 22.53) indicates an awareness that on that night in particular evil was being given a scope, a free reign, to do its worst in ways for which the soldiers, the betrayer, the muddle disciples and the corrupt court were merely long-range outworkings. The mocking of the bystanders as Jesus hangs on the cross (‘If you are the son of God . . .’) echo the taunting, tempting voice that had whispered in the desert. The power of death itself, the ultimate denial of the goodness of creation, speaks of a force of destruction, of anti-world, anti-god power being allowed to do its worst. The gospels tell this whole story in order to say that the tortured young Jewish prophet hanging on the cross was the point where evil had become truly and fully and totally itself.
(iv) The gospels tell the story of Jesus as a story in which the line between good and evil runs, not between Jesus and his friends on the one hand and everyone else on the other, certainly not between Jews and Gentiles, but down the middle of Jesus’ followers themselves. Peter, called to be the rock, is immediately denounced as ‘Satan’. Thomas grumbles and doubts. James and John want the best seats in the kingdom. All of them argue about who will get the top jobs. Judas is Judas is Judas, the deepest enigma of all. In any case, once swords begin to flash in the garden torchlight, loyalty and courage desert them and they desert Jesus. We could perhaps make out a case for some of the women in the gospels being loyal and devoted while the men fall apart, but it would be largely an argument from silence. Granted the situation in which the gospels were being written up, the candour with which the failings of the church’s early leadership are described is remarkable.
(v) The story the gospels tell is a story about the downward spiral of evil. One thing leads to another; the remedy offered against evil has itself the germ of evil within it, so that its attempt to put things right merely produces second-order evil. And so on. Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial are simply among the last twists of this story, with the casual injustice of Caiaphas and Pilate and the mocking of the crowds at the cross tying all the ends together.
All of this leads us to say that the story the gospels are telling us is the story of how the death of Jesus is the result both of the major political evil of the world, the power-games which the world was playing as it still does, and of the dark, accusing forces which stand behind those human and societal structures, forces which accuse creation itself of being evil, and so try to destroy it while its creator is longing to redeem it. The gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death as the story of how the downward spiral of evil finally hit the bottom, with the violent and bloody execution of this man, this prophet who had announced God’s kingdom. And if this is the way the gospels are telling the story of Jesus, what conclusion do the writers want us to draw?
2. Jesus Dealing with Evil
We might stop at this point and say: Very well, the gospels tell us that evil, evil as we have analysed it already, was indeed the cause of Jesus’ death; but, by itself, this would not constitute a solution to the problem of evil, but simply a restatement of it. We cannot simply say ‘Yes, evil put Jesus on the cross, but the resurrection reversed all that’; the gospels tell a deeper, more complex story by far. This is where the second strand comes in: that the gospels are also the story of how God’s long-term plan, from Abraham through to the second-Temple period, finally came to fruition, the apparently ambiguous and risky plan which we explored in the second lecture.
We can see this close up in the way the gospels tell the stories of Jesus during his public career. I have written about this at length in various places (notably JVG chs. 5–10 and Challenge), and here simply summarize.
(i) We see it in Jesus’ healings. He reaches out and touches the leper, and somehow, instead of the infection being passed to him, his wholeness, his ‘cleanness’, is transmitted to the leper instead. He allows himself to be touched by the woman with the issue of blood, whose every touch would render a man unclean; but power flows from him to her, and she is healed. He touches the corpse of the widow’s son at Nain, and instead of him contracting uncleanness the corpse comes back to life. The gospel writers intend us, I believe, to see the same phenomenon at work all the way to the cross, as Jesus at last identifies himself with the Jewish revolutionaries in their failing cause, in order to bring the kingdom for which they had longed but in the way they had refused.
(ii) We see it in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners. He celebrates the kingdom with all the wrong people, incurring anger and hostility from those who knew in their bones that God’s kingdom was about holiness and detachment from evil, never suspecting that evil people could be, and were being, redeemed and rescued. His mother and brothers come to take him away, thinking him to be out of his mind, and he responds by declaring that the crowd around him, hanging on his every word, were his mother and brothers. He tells stories – a lost sheep, a lost coin, two lost sons – to indicate, for those with ears to hear, that this policy was not an accident but a heaven-sent priority. He invites himself to lunch with Zacchaeus the Jericho tax-collector, while the crowds wait, shocked to the core, outside the door: ‘He’s gone in to eat with a sinner!’ Finally, he goes out to die with the rebels, sharing their shame though himself innocent, as Luke in particular makes clear. The taint of evil lay heavy on him throughout, and somehow he bore it, took it all the way, exhausted its power.
(iii) We see it as Jesus articulates and models the call to Israel to be Israel, now that he is there to express God’s call in a new way and with the summons of the kingdom. Israel is to be at last the light of the world, the city set on a hill. Israel is to show the world what it means to be God’s people, God’s servant-folk for the world: turn the other cheek, go the second mile, don’t resist the pagans who want to take you for all you’ve got.
Then, with those deeply challenging sayings from the Sermon on the Mount ringing in our ears, we read on in Matthew’s gospel and we observe the Son of Man bringing God’s judgement to the world, putting the world to rights, winning victories over evil, declaring forgiveness of sins on his own authority, announcing that he had the right to suspend sabbath-regulations. Then we observe the Messiah coming into his kingdom, winning the real battle, cleansing the Temple, bringing God’s rule to the world as Psalm 2 had said he would, but doing so in a way previously unimagined. Then, finally, we watch the Son of Man, the Messiah, as he takes on himself the role of the Servant, the ultimate representative of Israel, bearing the sin and shame of Israel and so of the world. And as the story winds to its violent conclusion we realise with a start that he has been obedient to the Israel-vocation which he had himself announced in the bracing, and so often misunderstood, Sermon on the Mount. He had turned the other cheek. He had picked up the Roman cross and gone the second mile. He was set up on the hill, unable to be hidden. He was acting as Israel, the light of the world, on behalf of the Israel that had embraced the pagan darkness. Mark 10.45 is not, after all, an isolated or detached statement of theological interpretation superimposed upon an otherwise bare and theologically neutral narrative. It is the tip of the iceberg which tells us what is going on all through; and what is going on could be summarized like this:
(i) Jesus had warned his people of God’s impending judgment for their failure to follow his call, to be the light of the world, for their failure to embody within their own life that justice and mercy to which God had called them.
(ii) Jesus had identified totally with Israel, as the Messiah, the Servant, was bound to do, taking its vocation upon himself, coming to the point of pain, of uncleanness, of sickness, folly, rebellion and sin.
(iii) Jesus was thus taking upon himself the direct consequences, in the political and in the theological realm alike, of the failure and sin of Israel. He was dying, quite literally, for their sins – just as, in a bumper-sticker I once saw beside an Indian reserve on the shores of the Ottawa river to the west of Montreal, it could be said that ‘Custer died for your sins’. This is not a piece of strange or arbitrary theology read into the narrative at a later stage. This, the gospels are telling us, is what it was all about all along.
In particular, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are declaring, each in their very different ways, that all this was simultaneously Jesus’ own intention, in a vocation whose roots went deep into the Old Testament and into his personality, formed in prayer and study from boyhood and confirmed dramatically at his baptism, and the intention of God himself, the God who had long promised that he would return to Jerusalem to rule, to judge, to heal and to save, and who now came to the city with all of that in mind, telling stories about the king who had promised to come back and warning of the consequences of not being ready. He was the hen who longed to gather the chickens under his protective wings. He was the green tree, the only one with life within him, while all around were branches dead and dry, ready for burning. He had realized, in that kind of vocation at which one can only stand amazed and awed, that the peirasmos, the great ‘time of testing’ of which prophets and oracles had spoken, was about to burst upon the world like a great tidal wave, and that he had to take its full force upon himself so that everyone else could be spared. ‘Watch and pray,’ he said to his followers in the garden, ‘so that you may not enter the peirasmos’; if all he meant was the general advice that after a good meal with rich wines one should say one’s prayers lest one be tempted to commit some everyday sin, the scene is reduced to bathos, almost to farce. No: the great, dark, horrible force of evil was bearing down upon him, and Jesus had realized, had long realized, that as Israel’s representative it was his task and his alone to do what, according to the same scriptures, Israel’s God had said that he and he alone could do. He knelt there, a mile or so from the Gehenna he had predicted as the city’s smouldering fate, believing that he had to go ahead, to stand in the breach, to take that fate upon himself. There is no way around this extraordinary, breathtaking combination of theological, personal, cosmic themes. The only way of doing justice to what the gospels are trying to tell us is to grasp the picture in its entirety and swallow it whole.
3. Early Christian View of Evil’s Defeat
Two themes emerge from all this which constitute, at one and the same time, the foundation of early Christian atonement-theology and the start of the New Testament’s answer to the problem of evil.
(i) Paul saw, in his dramatic statement in Romans 7.1—8.11, that in the death of Jesus God had condemned sin, passed and executed judicial sentence upon it (8.3). God’s great No to evil had been acted out in the person of Jesus, the person who could and did represent Israel, as its Messiah, and hence the whole world.
(ii) The New Testament writers report, in various ways, the remarkable sign of evil doing its worst and being exhausted: when Jesus suffered, he did not curse, and when he was reviled, he did not revile in return. ‘Father, forgive them’; that is a radical innovation in the long and noble tradition of Jewish martyr-stories, where (as e.g. in 2 Maccabees 7) the heroes, while being tortured to death, call down God’s vengeance on their persecutors and warn them of coming judgment.
The immediate result is of course the resurrection of Jesus. It would be possible to understand this statement in an utterly trivial and superficial way, simply as a reward for a supremely difficult job finally completed, or perhaps as the sign that, since Jesus was divine, the whole thing had been an elaborate charade. Unfortunately, I suspect that there are some Christians who think in some such ways. But the resurrection is far, far more than anything like that. Evil is the force of anti-creation, anti-life, the force which opposes and seeks to deface and destroy God’s good world of space, time and matter, and above all God’s image-bearing human creatures. That is why death, as Paul saw so graphically in 1 Corinthians 15, is the final great enemy. But if in any sense this evil has been defeated; if it is true, as the gospel writers have been trying to tell us, that evil at all levels and of all sorts had done its worst, and that Jesus throughout his public career and supremely on the cross had dealt with it, taken its full force, exhausted it – why then, of course, death itself had no more power. ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally; and Death shall be no more! Death, thou shalt die!’. John Donne saw clearly what so many modern readers of the gospels have missed entirely. Indeed, we might even say that the gospel writers were telling their entire story so as to explain why the resurrection happened, to make it clear that this was not simply an odd, isolated bizarre miracle, but rather the proper and appropriate result of Jesus’ entire, and successful, confrontation with evil.
But at the same moment as we say ‘resurrection’, and for the same reason (as, again, Paul saw in 1 Corinthians 15), we must say ‘forgiveness of sins’. The two are, in fact, the same thing. To be released from sin is to be released from death; and, since Jesus died in a representative capacity for Israel and hence for the whole human race and hence for the whole cosmos (that is how the chain of representation works), his death under the weight of sin results immediately in release for all those held captive by its guilt and power. This is where all the old hymns come into their own, but now with renewed force and deeper meaning. Forgiveness of sins in turn – just as in Isaiah 54 and 55 – means new creation, since the anti-creation force of sin had been dealt with. And new creation begins with the word of forgiveness heard by the individual sinner, as in the matchless scene between Jesus and Peter by the lake in John 21.
The story the gospels are trying to tell is a story in which evil and its deadly power are taken utterly seriously, over against the tendency in many quarters today, in the ridiculous clinging to an older liberal idea that there wasn’t really very much wrong with the world or with human beings. With a fully-blown theology of the cross such as the evangelists offer, there is no need to shrink back from the radical diagnosis, since the remedy is to hand. To be sure, it is humiliating to accept both the diagnosis and the cure, but as our world lurches more and more obviously into a demonstration that when you pretend that evil isn’t there you merely give it more space to operate, so perhaps it is high time to look again at both the diagnosis and the cure which the evangelists offer.
The evangelists, in fact, draw all this together in the sequence of three events which together both set the scene and give the deepest explanation for what was going on. First, the Temple-action: Jesus was embodying and expressing the judgment of Israel’s God on the Temple as the focal point of the life of the whole people, the people who had refused God’s call through the prophets and now was refusing it through the Son. Jesus’ action, a clear symbol (like Jeremiah’s) of judgment to come, pointed the way forward to the sense that now Israel’s God would be known, not through the sacrificial system but through the launching of a new covenant in which God’s people would learn to love him with heart, mind, soul and strength (see Mark 12.28–34, in its context, where most of the surrounding scenes are about the coming destruction of the Temple).
Second, the Supper. This was Jesus’ own chosen way of expressing and explaining to his followers, then and ever since, what his death was all about. It wasn’t a theory, we note, but an action – a warning to all atonement-theorists ever since, and perhaps an indication of why the church has never incorporated a specific defining clause about the atonement in its great Creeds. Perhaps after all atonement is, at its deepest level, something that happens, so that to reduce it to a proposition to which one can give mental assent is a deep-level mistake, something of the same kind of mistake that happens when people imagine that they can solve the problem of evil. Perhaps, in fact, it is the same mistake in a different guise. . . In any case, at the Supper the King shares his life with his friends, and in particular, solemnly makes them the beneficiaries of his kingdom-bringing death. The shepherd gathers the sheep together for the last time before going to do for them what only he can do.
Third, the crucifixion itself. The evangelists tell, through each of the small stories and minor characters which make this narrative so rich, something of what the event means, much as the minor scenes in a Shakespeare play enable the audience to draw out the full meaning of the central plot. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus for burial; Simon of Cyrene carries the cross; Barrabas goes free; one brigand curses, the other repents; bystanders mock, soldiers gamble, a centurion stops for a moment in his tracks. Jesus on his cross towers over the whole scene as Israel in person, as YHWH in person, as the point where the evil of the world does all that it can and where the creator of the world does all that he can. Jesus suffers the full consequences of evil, evil from the political, social, cultural, personal, moral and religious angles all rolled into one, evil in the downward spiral hurtling towards the pit of destruction and despair. And he does so precisely as the act of redemption, of taking that downward fall and exhausting it, so that there may be new creation, new covenant, forgiveness, freedom and hope.
The gospels thus tell the story of Jesus, in particular the story of how he went to his death, as the story of how cosmic and global evil, in its suprapersonal as well as personal forms, are met by the sovereign, saving love of Israel’s God, YHWH, the creator of the world. This, the evangelists are saying to us, is what ‘the kingdom of God’ means: neither ‘going to heaven when you die’ nor ‘a new way of ordering earthly political reality’, but something which includes and thoroughly transcends both. What the gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it. This raises for us all the echoes of the ancient stories of the Exodus from Egypt, and the return from Babylon, and it is no surprise that the earliest Christians, both the NT writers and others on into the liturgical traditions of the second, third and fourth centuries reached for imagery from both those events to explain what had happened on the cross. This, they are saying, is how God rescues his people from the evil in which they are trapped; and he does so through the suffering of Israel’s representative, just as with the martyrs only much more so. This is what it looks like when YHWH says, as in Exodus 4, ‘I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to set them free’. This is what it looks like when YHWH says ‘Behold, my servant’. As Isaiah says later (ch. 59), it was no messenger, no angel, but his own presence that saved them; in all their affliction he was afflicted. And the result of it all is of course that the covenant is renewed; that sins are forgiven; that the long night of sorrow, exile and death is over and the new day has dawned.
The gospels thus tell the story, centrally and crucially, which stands unique in the world’s great literature, the world’s religious theories and visions: the story of the creator God taking responsibility for what’s happened to creation, bearing the weight of its problems on his own shoulders. As Sydney Carter put it in one of his finest songs, ‘It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.’ Or, as one old evangelistic tract put it, the nations of the world got together to pronounce sentence on God for all the evils in the world, only to realise with a shock that God had already served his sentence.
Results: Atonement and the Problem of Evil
Where does all this take us when we come to consider the questions of atonement, the problem of evil, and how we put them together?
The first thing to say is that theories of atonement are all, in themselves, abstractions from the real events, and that the events, the flesh-and-blood, time-and-space happenings, are the reality which the theories are trying to understand but cannot replace. In fact, the stories are closer to the events than the theories, since it is through the narratives that we are brought close to the events. And it is through other events in the present time that we are brought still closer: both the eucharist, which repeats the meal Jesus gave as his own interpretation of his death, and the actions of healing, love and forgiveness through which Jesus’ death becomes a fresh reality within the still-broken world.
But, that said, I find myself compelled towards one of the well-known theories of atonement, not as a replacement for the events or the stories, but one which carries me further than the others towards the heart of it all, and that is the Christus Victor theme, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come in to play their respective parts. For Paul, Jesus’ death clearly involves a judicial or penal element, being God’s proper No to sin expressed upon Jesus as Messiah, Israel’s and therefore the world’s representative. This is the point at which the recognition that the line between good and evil runs right through the middle of me, and of every one of us, is met by the gospel proclamation that the death of Jesus is pro me, in my place and on my behalf. Because, as Messiah, he is Israel’s and the world’s representative, he can stand in for all: for our sake, writes Paul, God made him who knew no sin to be sin, to be an offering for sin, for us (2 Corinthians 5.21). Throughout the New Testament, this death is therefore seen as an act of love, both the love of Jesus himself (Galatians 2.20) and the love of the God who sent him and whose bodily self-expression he was (John 3.16; 13.1; Romans 5.6–11; 8.31–39; 1 John 4.9–10). Within these, not as the foundation but as the outworking, we see that Jesus’ suffering and death are an example of how we are summoned to love one another in turn.
In and through all of this, we must continually remind ourselves that we are speaking and thinking within the realm of eschatology. That is to say, what is achieved on the cross is not a timeless, abstract accomplishment located, if anywhere, among Plato’s forms, well away from the reality of space-time history. It is not enough to say that God will eventually make a new world in which there will be no more pain and crying; that does scant justice to all the evil that has gone before. We cannot get to the full solution to the problem of evil by mere progress, as though provided the final generation was happy the misery of all previous generations could be overlooked or even justified (as in the appalling hymn-line, ‘Then shall they know, they that love him, how all their pain is good’, a kind of shoulder-shrugging acquiescence in evil which the New Testament certainly doesn’t countenance). No: all theories of atonement that are to do the job required must include both a backward look, seeing the guilt, sin and shame of all previous generations heaped up on the cross, and a forward dimension, the promise that what God accomplished on Calvary will be fully and finally implemented. Otherwise the cross becomes merely an empty gesture, ineffective unless anyone happens to notice it and be influenced by it this way or that.
This is where the personal meaning of the cross becomes very clear. There will be a time when I – even I, sinner that I am! – will be totally sinless, when God has completed the work of grace within me. But I already enjoy, in anticipation of that future fact, forgiveness in the present and the new life of the Spirit that is made available precisely when Jesus has been ‘glorified’ by being ‘lifted up’ on the cross (John 7.39; 20.22). And, as we should expect granted the tight sacramental link between eucharist and cross, the eucharist embodies and expresses the first (forgiveness) and strengthens and enables the second (the life of the Spirit). The personal message of Good Friday, expressed in so many hymns and prayers which draw on the tradition of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) and its New Testament outworking, comes down to this: ‘see all your sins on Jesus laid’; ‘the son of God loved me and gave himself for me’; or, in the words which Jesus spoke at the Supper but which God spoke on Good Friday itself, ‘This is my body, given for you’. When we apply this, as individuals, to today’s and tomorrow’s sins, the result is not that we are given license to sin because it’s all been dealt with anyway, but rather that we are summoned by the most powerful love in the world to live by the pattern of death and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness, in daily Christian living, in sure hope of eventual victory. The ‘problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his son, the Messiah. That is why some Christian traditions venerate the cross itself, just as we speak of worshipping the ground walked on by someone we adore. The cross is the place where, and the means by which, God loved us to the uttermost.
We shall explore the significance of forgiveness more fully in the final two lectures in this series. But it is time now to return to the larger dimensions of the problem of evil, as we expounded them in the first lecture, and to see the ways in which the cross enables us to approach them in a fresh way.
I spoke in the first lecture of the shallow analysis of evil and of the immature reactions which it produces. It is fascinating that the best-known of the gospel ‘atonement’ passages occurs, in fact, in the context of a sharp saying of Jesus about the nature of political power and the subversion of it by the gospel events themselves. The request of James and John, that they should sit on either side of Jesus when he comes into his kingly power, is a political question which receives a political answer: earthly rulers lord it over their subjects, but it must not be so among you. Rather, those who are great must be the servants, and those who are chief must be slaves of all, because the Son of Man came not to be served but so serve and to give his life a ransom for many. This evocation of Isaiah 53 – exactly, in fact, as in Isaiah 40—55 as a whole! – sits in the middle of the political analysis of empire and subverts it by showing how all the traditions of Israel, the people through whom God would address and solve the problem of the world’s evil, come to a point which overturns Babylon and its ways. We find the same point in Luke 9.54, where once more James and John want to do things in the world’s way, calling down fire from heaven on their enemies. Jesus’ rebuke to them is directly cognate with ‘Father, forgive them’ in Luke 23.34.
What then is the result? The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love. The cross is not just an example to be followed, it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example none the less, because it is the exemplar, the template, the model, for what God now wants to do, by his Spirit, in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won. To this we shall return in the last two lectures.
What if, someone will ask, the people who now bear the solution become themselves part of the problem, as happened before? Yes, that is a problem, and it must be addressed; the church is never more in danger than when it sees itself simply as the solution-bearer, and forgets that every day it must say ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’, and allow that confession to work its way into genuine humility even as it stands boldly before the world and its crazy empires. In particular, it is a problem as and when a ‘Christian’ empire seeks to impose its will, dualistically, on the world, by labelling other parts of the world ‘evil’ while seeing itself as the avenging army of God. That is more or less exactly what Jesus found in the Israel of his day, and the cross was and is a call to a different vocation, a new way of dealing with evil, and ultimately a new vision of God.
What, after all, would it look like if the true God came to deal with evil? Would he come in a blaze of glory, in a pillar of cloud and fire, surrounded by legions of angels? Jesus of Nazareth took the total risk of speaking and acting as if the answer to the question were this: when the true God comes back to deal with evil, he will look like a young Jewish prophet journeying to Jerusalem at passover-time, celebrating the kingdom, confronting the corrupt authorities, feasting with his friends, succumbing in prayer and agony to a cruel and unjust fate, taking upon himself the weight of Israel’s sin, the world’s sin, Evil with a capital E. When we look at Jesus in this way we discover that the cross has become for us the new Temple, the place where we go to meet the true God and know him as saviour and redeemer. The cross becomes the place of pilgrimage where we stand and gaze at what was done for each one of us. The cross becomes the sign that pagan empire, symbolized in the might and power of sheer brutal force, has been decisively challenged by a different power, the power of love – and that this decisive challenge shall win the day.
The question is then posed to us in the strongest and clearest possible way. Dare we stand in front of the cross and admit that all that was done for us? Dare we take all the meanings of the word ‘God’ and allow them to be recentred upon, redefined by, this man, this moment, this death? Dare we address the consequences of what Jesus himself said, that the rulers of the world behave in one way, but that we must not do it like that? Dare we thus put atonement-theology and political theology together, with the deeply personal message on one side and the utterly practical and political message on the other, and turn away from the way of James and John and embrace the way of Jesus himself? Only so, I believe, can we even begin the task, to which the subsequent lectures will return, of working in our own day with mature, Christian and sober intelligence to address the problem of evil which still haunts the world which God loved so much.