In Chapter 2, Wright immediately points to how though the cross was foolish to the Romans and a scandal to the Jews, the leaders of the early Christian movement did not back away from it, but embraced it with vigor and enthusiasm:

But over against this downplaying or mocking we also see, from the earliest documents of the New Testament right on through the first five or six centuries of church history, the resolute affirmation of the cross not as an embarrassing episode best left on the margins, but as the mysterious key to the meaning of life, God, the world, and human destiny.[1]

Then Wright warns us not to get stuck on defining the cross. The early Church did not, and it was only later that some attempted to assume to do so. Instead, Wright encourages us to focus on the “flesh and power” of what God is doing, and that the same “wisdom and power” might work in us.

But Jesus died for our sins not so that we could sort out abstract ideas, but so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right. That is how the revolution works.[2]

On the other hand, Wright warns that we should be like adults rather than children and attempt to understand the foundations of the truth in the wisdom and power of God revealed in the cross. We should be asking “why” in order that the cross does not become a one-line slogan lacking the same wisdom and power that God desires us to enter into. As Wright frequently writes, it is the task of every generation to explore the central question of “why”.

The aim, as in all theological and biblical exploration, is not to replace love with knowledge. Rather, it is to keep love focused upon its true object.[3]

Here again, Wright gives the why we need to attempt to explain the cross. It is about love, more so than knowledge. Ultimately, love is to seek understanding so that it may deepen, and grow, and flower in to its fullest expression.

The next step for Wright is to look at the models and doctrines that developed through the ages since the scandalous and foolish act was committed upon the Messiah of the Jews. Wright argues that the early centuries of the church leadership held loosely several concepts of the “why” together. Jesus died for our sins; Christ won a great victory; Jesus died in our place; and used sacrificial imagery. The creeds of the early church were trinitarian, focused on God, Jesus and Spirit. They lacked any formulation of atonement, only restating 1 Corinthian 15.

Wright proposes that it was at the split  between the Eastern and Western Christianity, that more detailed formulations of the atonement began to appear. Because, the Eastern Orthodox church did not have an Anselm, the argument goes, it points to that many of the great controversies that follow came from “fresh interpretive schemes” rather than the Bible itself.[4] Anselm proposed that God’s honor was damaged by human sin, and needed to be satisfied. Wright, correctly, points to how this makes sense within the codes of chivalry of the High Middle Ages. An alternative, known as the “moral example” theory was developed by Abelard. It primarily argued that the cross was a generous act of love by God for humankind, thus leading humankind to love God in return. The Orthodox church did not feel it necessary to ask similar questions of the cross.

Next Wright explores what followed with the Reformation.

These two polemical targets— purgatory and the Mass— thus ensured that when the Reformers were developing their own ways of explaining what the death of Jesus achieved, they were understandably eager to ward off what they saw as ecclesial abuse. I am not a specialist in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it does seem to me that in general terms the Reformers and their successors were thus trying to give biblical answers to medieval questions. They were wrestling with the question of how the angry God of the late medieval period might be pacified, both here (through the Mass?) and hereafter (in purgatory?). To both questions, they replied: no, God’s wrath was already pacified through the death of Jesus. Not only does this not need to be done again; if we were to try to do it again, we would be implying that the death of Jesus was somehow after all inadequate. (Echoes of this controversy can still be seen when exegetes tiptoe around Col. 1: 24, in which Paul seems to be saying that his own sufferings are somehow completing something that was “lacking” in the Messiah’s own sufferings.) They did not challenge the underlying idea that the gospel was all about pacifying divine wrath. It was simply assumed that this was the problem Paul was addressing in Romans 1: 18– 32 or indeed 1 Thessalonians 1: 10 or 5: 9. [5]

Quite fairly, Wright also states that Luther and other Reformers were strong biblical exegetists, and that they had strong affinity for the love and grace of God unfolding in the biblical story. Wright’s point of view is that Luther and the other Reformers had the right biblical answer for the wrong questions raised in the Middle Ages.

Ultimately the question should have been bigger, less about purgatory and heaven, but should have been a robust challenge of the “heaven and hell” framework. (This is one of the qualities I most appreciate about Wright’s work) For the answer that they discerned, lacked a proper biblical eschatology.

Atonement (how humans are rescued from their plight and restored to their intended place within the loving and creative purposes of God) must dovetail with eschatology (what God ultimately intends for the world and for humans). And if we rethink our eschatology, as I have been trying to do over the last decade or two, we must rethink our view of atonement as well. In fact, the two go together very closely in the New Testament: the cross was the moment when something happened as a result of which the world became a different place, inaugurating God’s future plan. The revolution began then and there; Jesus’s resurrection was the first sign that it was indeed under way. That is what the present book is about. [6]

In the opinion of Wright, among many others, the 18th century dawn of the Enlightenment, weakened a biblical understanding by the adoption of Epicureanism by the periods leading thinkers. Thus, earth and heaven became separated, and eschatology was getting to heaven, and more focus on the penal substitution that focused the church on “my sin, my heavenly (that is non worldly) salvation, and of course my Savior.”[7]

Here Wright takes the opportunity to address what he sees a major flaw in 20th century theology, the separation of personal sin from the evil of the world. Atonement became to be only about personal sin. Rightfully, Wright argues that the cross is about a cosmic redemption, thus the cross deals with evil both in personal sin and evil at work throughout the world.

In the 20th century (and 21st), confusion remains about the cross. The symbol of the cross has become to many a symbol of fear, loathing, and a hateful God who desires to murder sinners. Others have read earlier Christian writers and taken to pointing to God’s love in Christ that would die for others, or a sign of victory over death and evil. Wright, however, says all of these various concepts of atonement ultimately hide the most important New Testament statement on the cross “something happened as a result of which the world is a different place.” [8] The first Christian thinkers appearing in the New Testament were convinced something new was happening, a revolution was beginning with the crucifixion.

Wright’s direction is in sharp contrast to how many read and interpret Scripture today. Many who are teachers and preachers in the church focus on the personal story of salvation, and the satisfaction of an angry if not blood-thirsty God, while Wright argues it is about a much bigger issue, God’s kingdom being initiated by the death of Jesus on the cross. It is from this big picture stance, that Wright will move to the difficulties of the late 20th and early 21st century with the violence of the cross and the violence of the world now revealed 24/7 through industrialized weaponry and instant social media images of that violence. These are the questions that are heard in the pews and on the sidewalks of the community.

Wright is led to ask questions about what if we do go to look at the bigger context of Jesus’ death on the cross:

What might happen if, instead of an ultimate vision of saved souls going to heaven, we were to start with the eschatology of Ephesians 1: 10, with God’s plan to sum up all things in heaven and earth in the Messiah? What if, instead of a disembodied “heaven,” we were to focus on the biblical vision of “new heavens and new earth,” with that renewal and that fusion of the two created spheres taking place in and through Jesus himself? What if, instead of the bare “going to heaven,” we were to embrace (along with theologians like John Calvin) the biblical vocation of being the “royal priesthood”? What would happen if we thought through the ongoing cross-shaped implications, writ large as they are in the New Testament, of the once-for-all event of Jesus’s death? What difference might that make to our view of salvation— including once more its philosophical and political dimensions? How, in other words, does the cross fit into the larger biblical narrative of new creation? What would happen if, instead of seeing the resurrection (both of Jesus and of ourselves) as a kind of happy addition to an otherwise complete view of salvation, we saw it as part of its very heart? [9]

[1] Wright, N. T. (2016-10-11). The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 530-533). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 549-550)

[3] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 579-580)

[4] Ibid, (Kindle Location 604]

[5] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 530-533)

[6] Ibid, (Kindle Locations 735-740)

[7] Ibid, (Kindle Location 743)

[8] Ibid, (Kindle Location 810)

[9] Ibid, Kindle Location 965 – 973)