Book review: Japanese Perspectives on the Death of Christ

Reviewed by Michael Widmer
OT Lecturer at Hokkaido Bible Institute

Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 31

Japanese Perspectives on the Death of Christ
How Chuang Chua. Oxford: Regnum, 2021. ISBN 978-1506483702. 308pp.


Writing with an international theological background and years of experience as a missionary in Japan, Chua offers a well-researched and insightful study in contextualized Christology. The book is based on Chua’s PhD dissertation submitted to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Prof. Netland (doctoral supervisor) greatly endorses the book and provides a thoughtfully written short biography up to the untimely death of How Chuang Chua in 2015.

The book starts with an anecdotal story. A missionary was preaching the gospel in Japan and concluded with the following plea: “Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins. If you accept him as your personal Lord and Savior, you will have everlasting life.” After the meeting, so the story goes, an elderly lady approached the missionary saying: “Sensei, how can the death of Jesus cause me to go to heaven? Besides, I don’t want to go to heaven, I just want to be where my ancestors are.”

Most missionaries to Japan can relate to the challenge of communicating the message of the cross in a way that is both intelligible and is perceived as truly good news. Chua acknowledges all the effort that missionaries have put into creative and culturally intelligible ways of communicating the gospel. However, he takes contextualization a step further by looking at how influential Japanese Christian thinkers have appropriated the cross for themselves.

By providing an overview of the history of Christianity in Japan and a summary of the development of Christian theology in Japan, Chua sets the context for the heart of the book, which contains three in-depth expositions of three modern Japanese thinkers: Kitamori Kazō (1916–1998), a theologian; Endō Shūsaku (1923–1996), a novelist; and Koyama Kōsuke (1929–2009), a missionary and theological educator. All three agree that the cross demonstrates God’s suffering love. For Kitamori, the cross is the site where the God of love embraces his enemies—the very ones who have betrayed that love and hence come under his wrath. The divine embrace is thus an act characterized by deep pain.

In Endō’s religious writings, the theme of the divine embrace is also prominent. It is an indiscriminate embrace of a maternal God—especially of the weak, the helpless, and the cowardly. Endō departs considerably from biblical teaching by focusing only on divine love and ignoring divine judgment. For Koyama, the cross reveals an impassioned God who continually moves toward the periphery in search of that one lost sheep. He develops a missiology of the cross using the motif of the crucified mind. Through the writings of these three Japanese scholars, Chua insightfully illuminates cultural themes, religiosity, and the nature of Japanese Christianity. Common to all three writers are the themes of suffering, self-negation, and universal embrace. Chua evaluates their writings both in the light of biblical teaching on the cross and classical Western theories of atonement, and shows how these themes have parallels in Japanese culture.

Suffering is an existential human reality in Buddhism. All three writers project the motif of patient suffering onto God. Self-negation finds concrete expression in Japanese cultural values, such as harmony (wa) and modesty (kenkyo), and in the aesthetic qualities of simplicity. The cross provides the model for Christian life and service based on another-centered self-denial. Universal Embrace highlights parallels between the universal mercy of Amitabha Buddha and the grace of the Christian God. In a highly communitarian society like Japan, the exclusion from one’s group is highly stressful and repugnant. It is probably for this reason that there is no mention of the subject of hell in the writings of any of these authors. Interestingly, the three are less interested in how the cross saves than they are in the divine demeanor displayed through it. Chua summarizes their views as “Christ suffered because of us; Christ suffered like us; Christ suffered for us.”

The impassioned God who identifies with the suffering of the people seems to resonate more readily with Japanese than the sovereign God who judges them. For this reason, Chua suggests that gospel preaching should focus on the manner of God’s suffering love and on what God has done through the painful death of Christ in order to redeem us from judgment of sin and death.

In the final chapter, Chua offers three suggestions for an evangelical approach to cross-cultural theologizing, suggesting that we appropriate: (1) the incarnation as a theological model; (2) epistemic humility as a theological virtue; and (3) canonicity and catholicity as theological principles. Missionaries must avoid what Koyama calls a “passive answer-theology,” and should cultivate a “lively invitation-theology,” meeting people on their own terms and inviting them to walk with Jesus so that they can taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8).

Overall, this book is an excellent model of how to do theology in conversation with the global church. It is a treasure trove of contextual insights into Japanese appropriations of the cross. Any reflective practitioner who is involved in cross-cultural communication of the gospel will greatly benefit from this work.

Picture of Written by Michael Widmer
Written by Michael Widmer

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