N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, was called by Newsweek “the world’s leading New Testament scholar.” I recently listened to a podcast in which he talked to Eric Metaxas about his latest book, but during their conversation he mentioned this earlier work, subtitled Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. These are topics that have been on my mind lately, so I decided to dive in.
Wright is a historian, so his books usually start off with a section that will orient the reader to the mindset of Jesus’ audience, the Jewish people of the first century A.D. His attention to historical detail can seem overwhelming, but it is important to prove his main thesis, which is that the church has lost its way in its teachings on the afterlife. He traces this confusion through the centuries, paying particular attention to the medieval church’s wholehearted embrace of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism, which taught that earthly things are merely a shadow of heavenly realities. Gnosticism had been around for centuries by that point, as well, which is the belief that matter is temporary and evil, and that the spirit is the higher realm. These two philosophies still intrude into much of Christian theology, and after the many wars of the twentieth century, people just wanted to escape the earth, so much so that what I call the “winged kitten” vision of heaven—disembodied spirits floating around on clouds with harps and such— has become entrenched in the popular imagination, and even, unfortunately, in Christian hymns and sermons.
Jesus’ Jewish audiences had no such understanding of the afterlife. Rather, they had believed in a bodily resurrection at the end of time for centuries before Jesus was born on the earth. Wright shows that humans were created for earth and vice versa, and that before the fall, God called all of his creation “good.” The whole story of scripture is about restoring all things, including our loving relationship with God, and when Jesus tells us to pray, “your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven,” he means here, now. We know from Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross that there is an interim time, which he calls “paradise,” where our souls go to be with God until the resurrection, but that is temporary. The concluding chapters of Revelation, to mention just one example, affirm that our final destination will be on the new earth.
I won’t reveal all the details of Wright’s ideas about the location of heaven or what our resurrected bodies will look like, but it is fascinating. Furthermore, he explores the major implications that a firm belief in this sort of future would have on environmentalism and the mission of the church today. I can’t say that I agree with him on all of the particulars, especially his beliefs about hell and judgment, but our eschatology is in dire need of this sort of scholarly examination. Perhaps because we live in first world countries, where we enjoy good health and long, peaceful lives, we rarely have serious discussions about the afterlife, and our popular theology has taken us far off course.
Toward the end of the book, Wright focuses on the importance of Easter, asserting that this holiday celebrates the crux of our faith, even though our culture makes the most of Christmas. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, our faith is futile. But he has been raised, and that very act is the point upon which all of Christianity rises or falls. As we approach that celebration, Wright offers up suggestions of ways that we can enjoy that day more fully, coming from a delightfully British and Anglican perspective. He starts with champagne before breakfast. I like the way he thinks.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and may not reflect those of my pastor, church, or any particular denomination.