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Spring 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 1 · pp. 53–62 

Evangelical Versions of Jesus

Walter Unger

In my thirty-two years of teaching and administration at an Evangelical-Anabaptist theological institution, I have seen many popular Evangelical versions of Jesus propounded—some of them in Mennonite churches and schools. I have also noted that many of these popular notions did not lead to a deepened understanding of what it means to be the people of God living by kingdom principles. In many instances, these views fostered the opposite. A number of examples will illustrate the point.

According to N. T. Wright, Jesus’ whole life, not just his death on the cross in isolation, is “gospel.”

In the sixties we heard a great deal about Jesus the Revolutionary. This image suited the decade with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and freedom fighters in Latin America. The Jesus People Movement drew from this, as did the version which portrayed Jesus as the Poorest of the Poor. John Alexander, editor of the Other Side, argued that because Jesus owned no possessions, neither should believers. He wrote, “They say Gandhi could put all his possessions in a bag. I think that’s the road Jesus meant. That’s the gospel.” 1


The seventies spawned athletic models of Jesus: “Muscular Christianity.” Allied to this was the trim and fit Jesus: Jesus the Jogger. I recall seeing the record album “Firm Believer,” the cover of which featured two good-looking women in exercise clothing going through their paces to the beat of Christian music. Os Guinness put it well: “Firm believer is a matter of aerobics rather than apologetics, of human fitness rather than divine faithfulness. Shapeliness is now next to godliness.” 2 {54}

In a 1983 book on management, Myron Rush presented Jesus as the best manager and developer of human resources the world has ever known. We saw Jesus as Salesman of the Year, the Successful Business Executive, the Great Motivator. 3 The management model was adopted by many Mennonite churches.

Another popular portrayal of Jesus was (and still is) that of Jesus the Positive Thinker, the Great Self-Esteem Builder. In this paradigm, becoming like Jesus means having a positive attitude the way he did so that negative situations can make one a more sensitive, compassionate human being. Like Jesus, the believer can turn scars into stars.

One of the fastest growing versions of Jesus in the past two decades has been the Health and Wealth Jesus. This is the epitome of shaping Jesus by human desires and wants, not by divine revelation. This produces what James Packer calls “hot tub religion.” He observes: “The hot tub experience is sensuous, relaxing, floppy, laid-back: not in any way demanding. Many today want Christianity to be like that, and labor to make it so.” 4

All versions of Jesus are shaped by culture. A given society emphasizes certain values, e.g., health and stress-free living, high self-esteem, material wealth as symbols of the good life, and before long theology is modified. The “new” Jesus magically provides what the culture says is the signature of success. Being the people of God and being oriented by the timeless values of the kingdom, and not self-centered ones, is what is left out.


Although various popular versions of Jesus remain among us and continue to shape Mennonite understanding of the Christian life, some popular and scholarly correctives are also beginning to make an impact. For example, in 1995 Philip Yancey wrote his best-selling The Jesus I Never Knew in which he describes the deficiencies of the Fundamentalist Jesus of his youth and points to the scriptural Jesus rooted in Jewish culture and theology. 5 He urges following the Gospel narratives in our understanding of Jesus.

As Yancey sees it, the problem with most of our writing and thinking about Jesus is that we read the Gospels through the flash-forward lenses of church councils like Nicaea and Chalcedon, and through the church’s studied attempts to make sense of him. He writes that

creedal statements are light-years removed from the Gos-pel’s account of Jesus growing up in a Jewish family in the {55} agricultural town of Nazareth. I later learned that not even converted Jews—who might have rooted Jesus more solidly in Jewish soil—were invited to the Council of Chalcedon that composed the creed. We Gentiles face the constant danger of letting Jesus’ Jewishness, and even his humanity, slip away. 6


The past century has reiterated the many liberal versions of Jesus, but no group so well publicized as the Jesus Seminar. In his academic writings, in public debate, and in his more popular writings, British Evangelical scholar and Anglican theologian N. T. Wright has “taken on” the leaders of the Seminar and in the process produced some excellent New Testament theology. 7

Anabaptists need to study Wright carefully. His understanding of the normativeness of Jesus and the meaning of discipleship lines up with what J. Denny Weaver writes of as the

supposedly marginal Mennonite tradition [which] professes to believe that following Jesus produces a community of disciples in visible contrast to the world, and that rejection of the sword is integral to the teaching and life of Jesus who forms the community. These beliefs provide a different perspective on the classic formulas than those found in the standard books on the history of doctrine. 8

As will be noted in what follows, Wright pushes Evangelicals to rethink their views of Jesus in a manner which both reaffirms traditional views while at the same time redefining them.


It is not my intention to here survey and evaluate the entire body of Wright’s theology. This has been capably done by others. Although I will refer to numerous books Wright has written, my main analysis will be of his views as expressed in his 741-page tome, Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG). Even here, my brief closing critique will be confined to issues relevant to an Anabaptist view of Jesus. An excellent, extensive critical assessment of Jesus and the Victory of God appeared in 1999 under the title of Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, edited by Carey C. Newman. 9

Wright states at the outset of JVG the absolute importance of the {56} Jesus question, i.e., what one says about Jesus affects one’s entire worldview. 10 Further, since 1978 he has devoted himself to the broader understanding of “The Gospel in the Gospels,” i.e., how Jesus’ whole life, not just his death on the cross in isolation, is “gospel.” 11 This was certainly a sixteenth-century Anabaptist agenda and continues to be a contemporary one.

Wright insists on the nature of the gospels as literature which discloses true historical insights into Jesus’ life and times. He is convinced that there need not be a “deep ditch” separating the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. 12 That divide came from the failure of the Old Quest for the historical Jesus ending with Schweitzer. The New Quest, begun in the 1950s and continued in the Jesus Seminar, has left Jesus studies in a quagmire of uncertainty. Wright, convinced of the absolute importance of the historical task, invented the phrase “Third Quest”

to denote one particular type of contemporary Jesus research, namely, that which regards Jesus as an eschatological prophet announcing the long-awaited kingdom, and which undertakes serious historiography around that point. 13


Jesus was a prophet bearing “an urgent eschatological, and indeed apocalyptic, message for Israel.” 14 Jesus’ prophetic praxis was in continuity with John the Baptist, i.e., an oracular and leadership prophet inaugurating a renewal movement. He in his person fulfilled the great prophecies of restoration from exile.

In his interpretation of the parables, Wright sees the exile and restoration theme. For example, in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the return from exile is being fulfilled, but it does not look like what was expected.

Israel went into exile because of her own folly and disobedience, and is now returning simply because of the fantastically generous, indeed prodigal, love of her god. But this is a highly subversive retelling. The real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus’ own ministry. 15

Wright suggests Jeremiah 31:18-20 as the possible background to Luke’s parable. Thus the true Israel is coming to its senses and returning {57} to its father as Jeremiah had foretold. Those who grumble at the gracious forgiving love being shown in the parable are the Jews who did not go into exile and who opposed the returning people. They are outside the true Israel of God. The son is not the only prodigal in the story. 16

Wright ties Luke 15 in with the Acts 15 account of the conversion of the Gentiles. In both passages people are being welcomed in from beyond the boundaries of normal respectability. The guardians of the ancestral traditions grumble. The reply is that Israel has entered the time of renewal, of return from exile. It is time for the Gentiles to come in. The Messiah has come at last, the temple rebuilt in him.

After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago. 17


We have now come from a “hot tub” version of Jesus and Christianity to the challenge of living like the renewed people of God, a very Anabaptist understanding of Jesus and his message.

Wright plants the words of Jesus firmly in Palestinian soil—words of challenge to a way of life, a way of forgiveness and prayer, and a way of Jubilee that first-century Jews could practice in their own villages, right where they were. Indeed, “the inbreaking kingdom Jesus was announcing created a new world, a new context, and he was challenging his hearers to become the new people that this new context demanded.” 18

The Sermon on the Mount is not, first and foremost, a private message for individuals to find salvation in Jesus, although this is the broader application. And although it does contain some shining examples of great moral precepts, it is not simply a great moral code. It is a challenge to Israel to be Israel. 19

The challenge is to be the true people of God in an entirely different way than expected, i.e., through a restored temple and through overthrowing the Roman oppressors. The people of God are not to get involved in the ever-present resistance movement. They are to be peacemakers, salt and light; not wagers of battle but senders of light, fulfilling their mission to be a light to the nations.

“Do not resist evil”; “turn the other cheek”; “go the second mile”— {58} these are the way of creative, nonviolent resistance. Drawing from Walter Wink, Wright notes that a blow on the right cheek is given with the back of the hand as both insult and injury. To offer the left cheek is not mere passivity, but the affirmation of one’s own equality with the aggressor. This is an enormous statement in a culture where “losing face” was regarded as one of the greatest misfortunes. 20

Jesus gives warning and rebuke, as well as challenge in his sermon. Israel will fulfill her true vocation as the godly city set on a hill—i.e. Jerusalem—or suffer dire consequences. From this city the one true God desired to reveal himself for all humankind. At the heart of Jerusalem was the temple, the house built on the rock. Thus the sermon ends with a coded but very sharp warning. “The real new Temple, the real house-on-the-rock, will consist of the community that builds its life upon Jesus’ words. All other attempts to create a new Israel, a new Temple would be like building a house on the sand.” 21

Wright sees these warnings clustering together in Mark 13 (with parallels in Matt. 24 and Luke 21) as a prediction not of the end of the world but of the catastrophic events of 70 C.E. In what is likely the most controversial aspect of his theology, Wright insists that the language of Mark 13 about the Son of man coming on the clouds should not be taken with wooden literalism. The coming of the Son of man does not refer to the “parousia” in the sense popularly thought of, i.e., a human figure traveling downwards towards the earth on actual clouds. Daniel 7 portrays the scene from the perspective of heaven, not earth. The “Son of man” figure “comes” to the Ancient of Days. He comes from earth to heaven, vindicated after suffering.

The “coming of the son of man” is thus good first-century metaphorical language for two things: the defeat of the enemies of the true people of god, and vindication of the true people themselves. Thus, the form that this vindication will take, as envisioned within Mark 13 and its parallels, will be precisely the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. 22

Israel refused Jesus’ kingdom agenda and killed her Messiah. He thus became the atoning sacrifice of Isaiah 53, the lamb that was slain not only for Israel’s sin but for the sin of the world. Those who accept this sacrifice become the new Israel, the true people of God for whom the kingdom agenda of the Sermon on the Mount is normative. This is the foundation for the church.



As amply documented in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel and in other sources, N. T. Wright’s theology has received considerable scrutiny. 23 For our purposes, I will mention a few points of concern.

The theme of Jesus and the continuing exile of Israel has been critiqued as either spurious or at least overdrawn. 24 It can be vigorously argued that most Jews believed the exile was over; Jews came to the temple from all over Israel and the Diaspora for the major feasts. Sacrifices were going on in the temple. Jesus was dedicated there and taught there. He called the temple “my Father’s house.” He attested to God’s presence there, “and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it” (Matt. 23:21 NRSV).

It appears to me that Wright’s system has done injustice to texts that do not fit his paradigm. To assert that Jesus’ call to repentance was national and not individual, i.e., the revolutionary design to overthrow Rome was to be repented of, is to overlook the passages in the New Testament which affirm the joy in heaven when one sinner repents.

The most obvious flaw in Wright’s hermeneutic, however, has to do with his dismissal of the literal return of Jesus at the end of the age, which he says is not a feature of Jesus’ teaching but that of Paul and the early church. All Jesus taught was vindication for his cause and his people in the destruction of Jerusalem, as already documented.

One might ask, How did the fall of Jerusalem really vindicate Jesus? Did not the early church see in the resurrection, not the destruction of Jerusalem, the vindication of their Lord (Rom. 10:9-10)? While it was difficult for Jesus’ immediate followers to understand his imminent death even when he alluded to it so many times, it is true that for them to understand that their Lord was predicting a second coming at the end of the age would have been a monumental stretch, as Wright states. However, would it not have been just as huge a stretch for them to believe that the horrendous atrocities of 70 C.E., followed by continued domination by foreign powers, was a return from exile?

I look forward to Wright’s expositions on Pauline theology and the apostle’s eschatological views. Wright’s interpretation of the Petrine letters as well as Revelation should also be a challenge to harmonize with his realized eschatology.

A concluding concern which Evangelicals and Anabaptists will have, and which I wish to allay, is Wright’s lack of strong, traditional explications regarding the great christological question, “Was Jesus God?” Wright’s chief concern in the first two volumes of his series on Christian origins and the question of God—The New Testament and the {60} People of God (NTPG) and JVG—has been to understand the narratives of the Synoptics in their cultural/historical setting and not to go further into the christological formulations as they arose in the epistles and the early church. Such studies he promises in future volumes. Nevertheless, scattered throughout his writings, Wright does affirm that Jesus believed that the one true God, the God of Israel, was “somehow present and active in him.” 25

Furthermore, Wright states that Jesus believed that Israel’s destiny would reach its fulfillment through his own life, death, and resurrection. Yahweh was returning to Zion, defeating evil, and in Jesus restoring the temple. In JVG Wright proposes

as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation: a vocation, given him by the one he knew as “father,” to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, god had promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant god. 26

The key to understanding Wright’s portrayal of Jesus is to be certain one has a truly biblical picture of God in view. In New Testament times as in postmodernity, people gave and give their allegiance to many gods and goddesses. Thus in NTPG and JVG, Wright uses the word “god” without the upper case so that readers will not equate the many indiscriminate uses of “God” (referring to essentially pagan or deistic concepts) as equal to the god of creation, covenant and exodus, and the god supremely revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. 27

In the more popular renditions of his New Testament theology, Wright asserts that we really do not know who the true God is. We can, however, discover him by looking at Jesus. Wright affirms that “the being we refer to as ‘God’ was, and is, fully present, and fully discoverable, in Jesus of Nazareth.” 28 Indeed, Jesus is God with a human face, crowned with thorns.

For Anabaptists, who hold to a high Christology (as opposed to the popular Evangelical versions mentioned at the beginning of this essay), no statement could be more reflective of such a high view than Wright’s conclusion that

the closer we get to the original Jesus, to the storytelling Jesus, the welcoming Jesus, the Jesus who declared God’s {61} judgment on those who rejected the way of peace and justice, the closer we come to the kingdom-of-God Jesus, the closer we are to recognizing the face of God. 29


  1. As cited by Douglas Webster in A Passion for Christ: An Evangelical Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Academic Books, Zondervan, 1987), 62.
  2. As cited by Walter Unger, “Whom Then Can We Follow?” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 18 September 1987, 23.
  3. Ibid.
  4. J. I. Packer, Hot Tub Religion (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1987), 68-69.
  5. Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), ch. 3.
  6. Ibid., 49-50.
  7. The two-hour ABC television special, “The Search For Jesus,” hosted by Peter Jennings and aired on June 19, 2000, drew on four Jesus Seminar scholars and one conservative, N. T. Wright, for extensive interviews. Again it was Wright who stood his ground in a panel with Jesus Seminar members at the 1998 gathering of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting at Orlando, Florida. In The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1999), written together with Jesus Seminar member Marcus Borg, Wright counterpoints Borg on eight christological issues. See the following of Wright’s books for an overview of his theology: The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), The Original Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999).
  8. J. Denny Weaver, “Confessing Jesus Christ from the ‘Margins,’ ” Direction 27 (Spring 1999): 29.
  9. Carey C. Newman, ed., Jesus and the Restoration of Israel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999). See also ch. 9 of Mark Allan Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1998). {62}
  10. JVG, xiv.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Who Was Jesus? 7
  13. JVG, xiv. Wright devotes a dense forty-two page chapter to “The Third Quest,” ch. 3, JVG.
  14. Ibid., 150.
  15. Ibid., 127.
  16. Ibid., 126-27.
  17. Ibid., 128, Acts 15:16-17 (Wright’s translation). Chapter seven of JVG fleshes out the return-from-exile theme, including Jesus’ offer of forgiveness of sins, “another way of saying ‘return from exile,’ ” 268.
  18. The Challenge of Jesus, 46.
  19. Ibid., also JVG, 288.
  20. JVG, 290-91.
  21. The Challenge of Jesus, 46.
  22. JVG, 362.
  23. The November 15-17, 2000, meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) devoted two sessions to discussing various aspects of Wright’s theology.
  24. Although coming out in favor of Wright’s thesis, Craig Evans documents arguments against it, such as those of Maurice Casey (see chapter five of Jesus And The Restoration of Israel). At the ETS seminar, Darrell Bock critiqued the return-from-exile theme, points essentially made by him in the above-mentioned volume, 117-18.
  25. Who Was Jesus? 103.
  26. JVG, 653.
  27. NTPG, xiv-xv; The Meaning of Jesus, 157-58; The Original Jesus, 79.
  28. The Original Jesus, 79.
  29. Ibid., 83.
Walter Unger is president of Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he teaches Anabaptist theology.

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