December 5, 2020

NT Wright: The Problem = Abandoning Our Vocation


Set forth the goal accurately and diagnose the problem correctly, and you have a much better chance of finding the right solution.

I’m currently reading the first part of N.T. Wright’s new book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, and I find his diagnosing skills and his ability to communicate his findings exceptional.

In his other books, particularly Surprised by Hope, Wright has been critical of the goal that has been set forth (especially in popular presentations of the faith) as the Christian hope: going to heaven when we die. In The Day the Revolution Began, he reiterates this.

The death of Jesus, “freeing us from our sins” and “purchasing a people for God,” was not simply aimed at rescuing humans from “hell,” so that they could go to “heaven” instead— which is the picture most Christians have when they think about Jesus’s death.

But Wright insists: “Humans are not made for ‘heaven,’ but for the new heavens and the new earth.”

In contrast, the hope of dwelling with God forever in heaven as often presented and understood is a “Platonized” hope, a blessed eternal future that involves overcoming some problem with our “earthly” and “fleshly” selves so that our “souls” may escape this wicked world and find peace and rest in a perfect spiritual realm.

Wright’s formulation of the Christian hope is quite different: “The ‘goal’ is not ‘heaven,’ but a renewed human vocation within God’s renewed creation.”

If we get this wrong, we will misunderstand the true nature of the human plight.

In light of the Platonized goal of “heaven,” we have concluded that the problem is human “sin,” defined as bad behavior that deserves God’s punishment. Wright describes how much Christian theology has been built upon what he calls “the works contract.”

The “works contract” functions in the popular mind like this. God told his human creatures to keep a moral code; their continuing life in the Garden of Eden depended on their keeping that code perfectly. Failure would incur the punishment of death. This was then repeated in the case of Israel with a sharpened-up moral code, Mosaic law. The result was the same. Humans were therefore heading for hell rather than heaven. Finally, however, Jesus obeyed this moral law perfectly and in his death paid the penalty on behalf of the rest of the human race. The overarching arrangement (the “works contract”) between God and humans remained the same, but Jesus had done what was required. Those who avail themselves of this achievement by believing in him and so benefiting from his accomplishment go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal fellowship with God; those who don’t, don’t. The “works contract” remains intact throughout.

N.T. Wright spares few words in rejecting this paradigm, calling such a view of the relationship between God and human beings a “travesty” that is “unbiblical.” It ignores the message of Israel’s scriptures. The plight it concocts is trivial, compared with the actual plight in which we find ourselves.

What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Those who do so are the “royal priesthood,” the “kingdom of priests,” the people who are called to stand at the dangerous but exhilarating point where heaven and earth meet….

…Within this narrative, creation itself is understood as a kind of Temple, a heaven-and-earth duality, where humans function as the “image-bearers” in the cosmic Temple, part of earth yet reflecting the life and love of heaven. This is how creation was designed to function and flourish: under the stewardship of the image-bearers. Humans are called not just to keep certain moral standards in the present and to enjoy God’s presence here and hereafter, but to celebrate, worship, procreate, and take responsibility within the rich, vivid developing life of creation. According to Genesis, that is what humans were made for.

The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear— though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t just that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences. When we worship and serve forces within the creation (the creation for which we were supposed to be responsible!), we hand over our power to other forces only too happy to usurp our position. We humans have thus, by abrogating our own vocation, handed our power and authority to nondivine and nonhuman forces, which have then run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell…

The problem we humans have gotten ourselves into, the “sin” that has exiled us from God, is that we have rejected the vocation for which we were created — to be God’s image in the world, his royal priests who reflect his glory back to him in worship and into the world in faithful stewardship — and we have turned from thus serving the living God to worship idols. This has unleashed the powers of disorder and corruption to enslave humans and the good creation.

It ought to be clear from all this that the reason “sin” leads to “death” is not at all (as is often supposed) that “death” is an arbitrary and somewhat draconian punishment for miscellaneous moral shortcomings. The link is deeper than that. The distinction I am making is like the distinction between the ticket you will get if you are caught driving too fast and the crash that will happen if you drive too fast around a sharp bend on a wet road. The ticket is arbitrary, an imposition with no organic link to the offense. The crash is intrinsic, the direct consequence of the behavior. In the same way, death is the intrinsic result of sin, not simply an arbitrary punishment. When humans fail in their image-bearing vocation, the problem is not just that they face punishment. The problem is that the “powers” seize control, and the Creator’s plan for his creation cannot go ahead as intended.

It is important to get the goal properly in focus: we are destined for renewed human life and vocation in the new heavens and new earth.

It is also important to diagnose the problem accurately: we have abandoned our creational vocation and have turned from God to idols, unleashing the powers of darkness and death upon this world and our lives.

Then, we can begin to talk about why Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1Cor 15:3).


  1. “Wright’s formulation of the Christian hope is quite different: “The ‘goal’ is not ‘heaven,’ but a renewed human vocation within God’s renewed creation.”

    I like that very much; Heaven is so much more than simply escaping Hell. it’s some much more than simply escaping sin. Someday I’ll write about that on my own blog.

    • But Wright’s point (made explicit in the Surprised By Hope) is that ‘heaven’ is not the goal at all! Heaven is, as he puts it, the ‘intermediate state’ not the ultimate goal. It is where Christians go to await the resurrection and new creation. It is a temporary state. The goal, the ultimate hope of Christians is living out a bodily (resurrected body) existence in a new creation – the new heaven and earth.. He says the early Christians were not concerned with ‘life after death’ (heaven) but ‘life after life after death’ (resurrection, new creation). His point is that the typical Christian concept of going to heaven when you die is a pagan concept – a disembodied Platonic existence, not the hope of Jews or Christians in the first century.

      • I’m not sure that’s what Seneca Griggs was saying, Greg. All he said, and what I really liked, was that Heaven was more than simply escaping Hell and more than simply escaping sin. I don’t see that as necessarily running counter to your critique of his statement.

  2. Many days, looking myself and at the human race, it’s hard to believe that we have such a high-calling. When we aren’t behaving atrociously (and I’m not assuming that we always are mostly are), our actions seem so paltry and feeble, even the good ones, with unintended consequences even at their best, there seems to be a lack of symmetry and proportionality between them and the calling described.

    • Yes Robert! And as for being “image bearers” we too readily conform ourselves to the cultural image that we THINK is closer to Christ than to Christ Himself. I just don’t see that happening in the world and culture as it is now.

      I am generally an optimistic person, but on THIS subject I am NOT! We THINK we are conforming to His image but, in truth, we are covering ourselves with the detritus of our surroundings and ASSUMING that we look like Christ. Worse still, we then pass judgement on others who look different from us! We are doomed.

      • Ronald Avra says

        Unfortunately, Oscar, I am pretty much in complete agreement with you on this one.

        • Yep. We’re ragamuffins loved by God. And every now and then we might, just might, conform to His image.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          I agree as well. I do not think Mr. Wright is wrong [no pun intended]. But I am skeptical if such a Grand Narrative is [ever] illustrative in the specifics of anyone’s life. Many things are true without being helpful.

          I here about the Benedict Option, and all manner of secular political /economic perspectives, that like to claim to be speaking In Principle, but quickly cow-out of being specific about anything. “No, no, we are speaking in principle – you are being too specific!” Okay, but…

          I admit that I have become quite skeptical of Grand Narrative thinking.

          • Finn,

            one of the things about Fr John Behr’s book and talks I referenced yesterday (still the last comment there) is that he posits that the disciples, even as good Jews, didn’t understand the issue – even after having seen the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus. Perhaps they understood the narrative of Israel from having heard scripture all their lives, but nobody knew how it all fit together in relation to Jesus…. UNTIL they recognized him in the breaking of the bread, after he had unfolded the meaning of those scriptures to them on the road to Emmaus. It was then, and at other times Jesus appeared to them before his Ascension, that he explained how he was connected to the narrative of Israel.

            And right on the verge of his Ascension, they still didn’t quite get it: “Lord, are you now going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” It took the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for them to be able to finally put it all together. The point wasn’t “The Grand Narrative”; the point was that Jesus was the fulcrum of everything, first of all the stories the Jews told about themselves. (And every culture tells stories about itself;it’s how people know who they are.)

            I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m sure going to. In other places, Wright is specific. The thing is, acting as we were meant to as truly human beings is a jewel with many facets. Some of those actions may not be exactly directly transferrable to other contexts. (…like Christians and others taking the incentive and making an old bank building into a credit union, a day care for low-income families, and a place where the community can get other types of social assistance, as actually happened in northeastern England while Wright was bishop.)


  3. So, exactly what is a ‘creational vocation’? Doing what? How can you tell if you are doing it? How can you help others to achieve it?

    • pilgrim, don’t hold your breath waiting to hear from Wright about practical applications. He is, for the most part, a cerebral writer, one who can lift your intellect and tickle your emotions by proposing a ‘higher” and “better” way of looking at an ancient faith tradition.

      As an inspirational writer he excels and causes the reader to think about possibilities. But as for the “feet on the ground” results you will hear very little. I am not criticizing him in this, I am just am just stating how I see his writing style and function. He is an intellectual and philosopher.

    • It’s becoming the Truly Human Beings we were meant to be, the very first of whom was Christ himself. (Behold, The Man!)

      The way you do it yourself is to, little by little in the safety of God’s love and forgiveness, learn how to give yourself in love even to the point of death (most likely not physically in our day, but in all other ways) for the good of others. You die before you die – because in Christ, we have already sacramentally died in Baptism, and you live out that death in self-giving love, step by step – because in Christ we shall all be raised. Death has lost its sting.

      How to help others? You love them, and speak and act when and as necessary.

      Simple, but very difficult. We’re all engaged in self-preservation even to the detriment of others; that, I think, is the most significant fallout from our rejection of our vocation as rejecting being God’s image-bearers.. The Cross shows us how God is: Jesus gives himself up to death to rescue everyone. That’s how God is, period. To be Christ-like, uncovering the image of God in us, is to reject that self-preservation (again, little by little, as we see it in our lives) and turn in trust to God (the combination of those two is repentance, changing our entire thought mechanism, especially about this thing) so that we can live a life of self-giving love as Jesus did and as every human was meant to from the beginning.


    • I think this is actually a very L’Abri emphasis – we are redeemed to live out fully human lives to God’s glory. There’s a wealth of lectures & so on on any of the L’Abri websites, not to mention the books.

  4. Agree with Oscar on this, too. We always want conformity so we can measure how ‘close’ we are to getting it ‘right’ , and who is in and who isn’t.
    I am reading this book, also. It looked so intriguing, and I’m not disappointed. Thank you for your on-going commentary/summary of Wright’s book. It was supposed to be by reading material when I travel next week, but, alas, I cannot put it down! But, it’s loaded, so I am taking my time reading it.
    “But Jesus died for our sins not so 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.”
    And the book only gets better…..

    • –> “But Jesus died for our sins not so 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.”

      Oh, I don’t know. The Internet Monk is often about sorting out abstract ideas, and I think sorting out abstract ideas is okay, especially when it helps me see God in a healthier light and helps me become “put right.” There are a lot of folks out there (Christian, Muslim) who think they’re part of God’s plan to put his whole world right, but are so off the mark they could use a lot of sorting out of abstract ideas!

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > they could use a lot of sorting out of abstract ideas!

        I am ever more skeptical that the sorting out of abstract ideas results with much consistency in better results/practice. Abstract Ideas receive a *LOT* of air time… yet.

        More and more the world appears upside down.

        The Devil lounges luxuriously in the abundance of the details, while the scholars squabble over scraps high in their cold tower.

        Aside from a few idealists, are people, in truth, led by Grand Ideas.

        • Burro [Mule] says

          Most of the people I know, myself included most of the time, are “led” by the desire for security, comfort, and diversion for ourselves and our own, in that order. Our brain peptides kind of require it, and the end result is the mess we are in.

          If somebody, somewhere, puts aside the squabble and makes a decision against raw self-interest, what else could it be based on rather than a Grand Idea? Where else would the idea come from that we ought to love this mass of Blodgetts that so infuriatingly gets in our way? Unless you are a far better man than I, it certainly doesn’t arise from the Blodgetts.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > what else could it be based on rather than a Grand Idea?

            I’ve met those people – one of the reasons I am so skeptical of the power of the Grand Idea. If there is a Grand Idea it often sounds bolted on, as if what happened would have happened anyway but an intellectual explanation is a requirement – so box checked.

            It could be motivated by Affection, possibly Patriotism, or maybe even Boredom. And often there is someone at the center who is conditioned to respond that way – even if they are a train wreck of a human being, and others enter there orbit in something almost as inexplicable as gravity. At this point I will pit discipline, conditioning, training, social capital, etc… against Theology, Philosophy, Eschatology, et al any day of the week and with strong odds. The ability of the later to motivate anything to so much as pick up liter – doubtful.

            That I have no explanation does not require me to accept the explanation offered; when it doesn’t ring true.

  5. Great discussions. There is the paradox. How do we live “in reality” what we were meant to be. I think it starts with our life in the family. Next, our sphere of influence in the world & our hobbies. Also our church. Are we contributing to truth and a lived-out faith ?

    Part of this is NOT participating in things that would destroy God’s purposes for creation and culture.

    Oscar: You are right. It mostly doesn’t happen in the “world & culture”, but there are streams of God’s people, even unbelievers, who do contribute to a changed world. I guess they are “pockets” of renewal in a vast sea of regress.

    No wonder we are waiting for the 2nd coming…

  6. CM, Dana, and other commenters: knockin’ it out of the park today. Thanks! (Also, go Cubs!)