STILL READING WRIGHT (see previous post) AND UNLEARNING THE OLD SO I CAN RELEARN THE NEW (Check out this quote and see if you might want to get a copy of the book).
The common view has been that the ultimate state (“heaven”) is a place where “good” people end up, so that human life is gauged in relation to moral achievement or lack thereof. This sets up a “works contract” in the sense we outlined earlier. Then, this usual view goes on, humans fail the moral test and so need to be rescued, and this is the effect of Jesus’s death. This leads, in some very popular schemes of thought, to a view of “salvation” in which the “punishment” for moral failure is meted out elsewhere while the “moral achievement” that was lacking in everyone else is supplied by Jesus himself. Some versions of this, I have suggested, are closer to the pagan idea of an angry deity being pacified by a human death than they are to anything in either Israel’s scriptures or the New Testament.
In other words, in much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of “salvation” (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore).
This is a fairly drastic set of charges. Some will no doubt accuse me of caricature, but long experience of what people in churches think they have been taught suggests otherwise. Others will perhaps accuse me of pulling the house down on top of myself, denying things that are basic to the faith. However, it seems to me – and I hope the rest of the book will demonstrate this – that, once the new way of looking at things is grasped, all that was best in the old way will be retained, but in a new framework through which it loses its frankly unbiblical elements. The new creation will indeed be “heavenly,” possessing in complete measure that heaven/earth overlap we sense fitfully in prayer, in scripture study, in the sacraments, and in working for God’s kingdom in the world. The human vocation certainly includes a strong and nonnegotiable moral element, which is enhanced rather than eliminated when placed within the larger category of the “image-bearing” vocation. And the means of salvation, as we shall see throughout this part of the book, does indeed involve the death of Jesus as the representative and then substitute for his people, though not in the sense that many have understood those rather abstract categories.
At the heart of it all is the achievement of Jesus as the true human being who, as the “image,” is the ultimate embodiment (or “incarnation”) of the creator God. His death, the climax of his work of inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, was the victory over the destructive powers let loose into the world (and, to be sure, breaking any moral codes that might be around, but this is not the focus). And the reason his death had this effect was that, as the representative and substitute in the senses we shall explore in due course, he achieved the “forgiveness of sins” in the sense long promised by Israel’s prophets. Once we step away from Platonizing, moralizing, and paganizing schemes of thought and back into the world of Israel’s scriptures (“The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible”), this all makes sense, though it is a different kind of sense from what many Christians imagine.