Wright challenges the conventional view of Heaven
Paul looked intently at the Sanhedrin and said, "My brothers, I have conducted myself with a perfectly clear conscience before God to this day." The high priest Ananias ordered his attendants to strike his mouth. Then Paul said to him, "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall. Do you indeed sit in judgment upon me according to the law and yet in violation of the law order me to be struck?" The attendants said, "Would you revile God's high priest?" Paul answered, "Brothers, I did not realize he was the high priest. For it is written, 'You shall not curse a ruler of your people.'" Paul was aware that some were Sadducees and some Pharisees, so he called out before the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees; I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead."
When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the group became divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection or angels or spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all three.
A great uproar occurred, and some scribes belonging to the Pharisee party stood up and sharply argued, "We find nothing wrong with this man. Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" The dispute was so serious that the commander, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, ordered his troops to go down and rescue him from their midst and take him into the compound.
-- Acts 23:1-10
Christ in Majesty,
by Matthias Grünewald (1510-1515)
I urge everyone to bookmark Kevin McManus's fine "Portinexile" blog, Stranger in a Strange Land. He always has links to, and excerpts from, great topical articles on matters of faith (he had a pretty good one recently linking to some Irish Hurling clips too). One of his links that caught my eye a couple of weeks ago was Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop, which made reference to this Time Magazine article, an interview with the biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham, N.T. (Tom) Wright.
In his new book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright appears to be challenging the conventional view the Church has had of Heaven. He raises interesting questions, using scriptural exegesis, of what was meant by the "Resurrection of the Dead" in the Gospels and in the Letters of St. Paul. Have our traditional views of Heaven been shaped more by Hellenistic Neo-Platonism, or by the Pharisaic view of "resurrection" enunciated in the scriptures? Do we see the soul trapped inside the body, like the Greeks did, or do we see a body animated by a soul, like the Jews did? In the Time interview, Wright explains what he interprets the biblical view to be... It's challenging and though-provoking, although I'm not not necessarily sure that I find it as comforting as the traditional viewpoint...
It … comes as a something of a shock that Wright doesn't believe in heaven — at least, not in the way that millions of Christians understand the term. In his new book, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne), Wright quotes a children's book by California first lady Maria Shriver called What's Heaven, which describes it as "a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk... If you're good throughout your life, then you get to go [there]... When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you heaven to be with him." That, says Wright is a good example of "what not to say." The Biblical truth, he continues, "is very, very different."
Wright: There are several important respects in which it's unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, "Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven." It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation….Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do.
We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says "the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God," and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.
Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I've called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus' resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will "awake," be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: "God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves." That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God's presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ's kingdom.
TIME: That's very different from, say, the vision put out in the Left Behind books.
Wright: Yes. If there's going to be an Armageddon, and we'll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn't matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.
TIME: Why, then, have we misread those verses?
It has, originally, to do with the translation of Jewish ideas into Greek. The New Testament is deeply, deeply Jewish, and the Jews had for some time been intuiting a final, physical resurrection. They believed that the world of space and time and matter is messed up, but remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. Belief in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity, both theologically and morally. But Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies. The church at its best has always come back toward the Hebrew view, but there have been times when the Greek view was very influential.
More on this, from an older article here :
In the New Testament portrayal, Jesus arose with a different, glorified body, which is promised to all believers as part of the Easter hope.
Wright's acceptance of that point runs into objections from Alan F. Segal, a Jewish historian at Barnard College who is completing a major work titled Life After Death, covering Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Segal and Wright agree on many basic issues, including that the Gospels teach a material, physical concept of resurrection. But Segal opposes Wright's contention that first-century Jews and Christians all meant the same thing when they spoke about resurrection.
According to Segal, they "all talk about a bodily resurrection but not all believe it is physical," and the Apostle Paul conceived of a "spiritual" body in the pivotal passage, 1 Corinthians 15, written about 20 years after the Easter events.
In this crucial and rather technical argument, Wright insists that what Paul meant by "spiritual" was that after Resurrection the body is "animated by the spirit," not that it is a nonmaterial body.
Segal and Wright agree that many Christians today think their immortal soul will simply "go to heaven" when they die -- and ignore their own bodily resurrection.
Yet Wright says Christianity has always believed that after death and an undefined period in the presence of God, each individual will receive a resurrection body like that of Jesus.
What difference does it make whether resurrection involves material bodies?
First, Wright says, because the church should teach what the first Christians believed. Second, the physical reality of a future world after death shows "the created order matters to God, and Jesus' Resurrection is the pilot project for that renewal."
With that sort of robustly materialistic theology, Wright will be a fitting successor to another former bishop of Durham, A. Michael Ramsey, who later went on to become archbishop of Canterbury.
Writing at the end of World War II, Ramsey stated that eternal life without a body would be "maimed and meaningless," although he acknowledged the Easter message is mind-boggling.
"The resurrection of the body is inconceivable," he said, "because it suggests a richness of life, in the blending of old and new, that defies human thought."