I continue my reading and blogging of NT Wright’s recent book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church with the second chapter, “Puzzled about Paradise?” The first section is titled “Setting the Scene,” which is what Wright continues here and will do for two more chapters after this.
In this chapter, Wright is concerned with laying out his understanding of the basic confusion within the church, both in its beliefs and in how those beliefs give rise to practices, concerning resurrection. Having quoted the poet John Donne (“And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.”), Wright says that
Donne grasped what we shall discover to be the central New Testament belief: that at the last, death will be not simply redefined but defeated. God’s intention is not to let death have its way with us. If the promised final future is simply that immortal souls leave behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules–since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply of death itself, seen from one angle. (p. 15)
In the Apostles’ Creed we say we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” “But do we?” Wright asks. (p. 16)
As Wright explores the options, he points out that there has been “an oscillation between two poles.” On the one hand, “some envisage death as a horrid enemy, stalking its prey.” On the other hand, however, “Many hymns, prayers, and sermons have tried to soften the blow by presenting death as a friend coming to take us to a better place.”
Confusion and popular misunderstandings abound concerning heaven, both within generically spiritual culture and within the Church. In response, Wright states: “there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’ and not a lot about a postmordem hell either.” In Matthew’s gospel, for example, references to “heaven” are to the “kingdom of heaven” (Mark is referring to the same concept in his use of the phrase “kingdom of God.”). “Heaven” in this connection to God’s kingdom is not about our escape after death to a different world, but is instead about “God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.'” (p. 18)
The notion of heaven as another world in which we at last escape the present one is problematic on at least two biblical grounds. First, it leads to a devaluing of our bodies, which are a part of God’s “good” creation. How do we reckon them as worldly suits that trap our soul/spirit during its sojourn on the earth if Genesis 1 teaches that God made them and called them “good.” Of course, I have already misspoken biblically, because the language and narration of Genesis 1 does not distinguish between soul and body, referring simply to the humanity and to the human person. Second, it leads to forgetfulness and therefore neglect of our mission, both the original mission given to care for and serve as stewards of his good creation, and the redemptive mission through Christ, which includes, as my friend reminds us at the conclusion of each blog post, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19). So, the present view of heaven, present in much of the Church, but most forcefully put forward (it seems to me) by the conservative evangelical branch, struggles biblically not only in terms of its lack of grounding in the text as a whole, but also in the fact that its plain implications (and we see these played out in the church’s practices as we will soon discuss) are counter to biblical notions of creation as good, of creation as entrusted to the caring stewardship of humanity, and of the redemptive mission of Christ that is cosmic, including all of creation, as well as being personal in nature.
The effects of confusion over the resurrection in the church’s life and practices include some of our hymn lyrics (even in some favorite hymns), our practice of the Christian year in the way Christmas is elevated beyond Easter, and our practice of some of our funerals.
At this point, Wright states his desire for the book:
I hope that those who take seriously the argument of this present book will examine the current practice of the church, from its official liturgies to all the unofficial bits and pieces that surround them, and try to discover fresh ways of expressing, embodying, and teaching what the New Testament actually teaches rather than the mangled, half-understood, and vaguely held theories and opinions [presented so far].
The stakes are high, in his view, because “what we say about death and resurrection gives shape and color to everything else.” (p. 25)
Wright next looks at the ramifications for belief in bodily resurrection or “spiritual” resurrection. Comparing the “spiritual” resurrection to Marx’s opium of the masses, Wright presses the question, “Why try to improve the present prison if release is at hand?” It’s a good and very fair question. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection, on the other hand–he says, “gives more value, not less, to the present world and to our present bodies” (p. 26) and has the effect of pushing us to work out the implications of God’s good creation and God’s justice in the world in which we live now instead of helping us pine away apathetically for escape while watching the present world go down the tubes. To the point, Wright observes: “English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead.” (p. 27)
Finally, Wright poses the questions that will guide his work from here forward. I’ll not list them all here, but deal with each chapter as it comes. That said, I will end with a quote that captures the essence of where the book is headed as a whole.
The whole book thus attempts to reflect on the Lord’s Prayer itself when it says, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” That remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary sentences we can ever say. …Our task in the present–of which this book, God willing, may form part–is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.