Friday, February 29, 2008

N.T. Wright on the Resurrection of the Body

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."


crystal said...

I like the idea of the resurrection of the body. Did you see what Keith Ward had to say about that and qutum physics? But I wonder .... what did Jesus mean when he told the other guy crucified with him that that day they would be together in paradise, what did he mean when he told the disciplles that they would be seated with him by God, that he was going to prepare rooms for them, etc? I think that Revelation has everyone in heaven gazing raptly at the beatific vision but I'm not clear on if that's before or after Jesus comes back. It's pretty confused for me.

Jeff said...

HI Crystal,

I wasn't sure if anyone was going to see this post buried down here. :-D

Yes, the case of the thief on the cross seems very different from that take, doesn't it? Sometimes St. Paul's writings seem so different from the Synoptics it's jarring to me. Here is what Wright said about that, however, in the article:

TIME: That is rather different from the common understanding. Did some Biblical verse contribute to our confusion?

Wright: There is Luke 23, where Jesus says to the good thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." But in Luke, we know first of all that Christ himself will not be resurrected for three days, so "paradise" cannot be a resurrection. It has to be an intermediate state. And chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation, where there is a vision of worship in heaven that people imagine describes our worship at the end of time. In fact it's describing the worship that's going on right now. If you read the book through, you see that at the end we don't have a description of heaven, but, as I said, of the new heavens and the new earth joined together.

What did Keith Ward say about the resurrection of the body? Like everyone else, I suppose, I hope I get a better one. :-)

crystal said...

It's true that he wasn't resurrected for three days, and where was he then? Did he go to harrow hell or was he in that intermediate state NT Wright mentioned? Maybe Jesus resurrection was different than ours will be? I find it hard to believe much of anything detailed and concrete about what happens, given all of what seems like contradictory info.

I posted something about Keith Ward and the book Timeline - he talks about the multiverse and physical resurrection in an article at the Tablet but I really didn't understand what he said either :-)

akhter said...


Soul is regarded as an immaterial aspect within the body of the human person. Some consider the soul to be an integral part of life and functions and also the source of the highest mental activities. Soul is almost synonymous with self, spirit or mind. The basic conception of soul in the ancient civilizations was life. Life of the body is regarded as the soul. Breath, life and movement are associated with the soul. At death all bodily functions stop and the soul departs from the body. The location of the soul could be any part of the body or function. The ancient Hebrews and Greeks viewed that the soul also ceases on death of the body. Greek philosophers Plato and Plotoinus believed that soul pre-exists the body and at death it separates from the body to attain its full and perfect state. Hindus and Buddhists believe that the soul is reincarnated through recurrent life cycles until it is relieved through moral, intellectual or spiritual perfection. The Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that the souls are held to rejoin their bodies on the day of Judgment/ Resurrection (1).

The basic Western concepts of the soul were shaped by the traditional Western Philosophy, which started with the ancient Greeks. Plato emphasized that the soul achieves a pure state only after release from its prison house in the body. On the other hand Aristotle championed the inseparability of the soul from the living organism (body). Aristotle connected the soul to the vegetative and animal functions. But Rene Descartes, the 17th century French Philosopher emphasized the thinking aspect of the soul and identified it with mind or understanding. He referred the soul to the vital forces in the animal bodies and called them mind or spirit. Many including Plato, Descartes, and George Berkeley hold the view that the soul is immortal, Bhagavad-Gita says that the soul is immortal and it changes bodies like human beings change their clothes. The 18th century German Philosopher Immanuel Kant said that no human has the knowledge of the soul, but he argued that for practical purposes to establish morals and ethics the existence and immortality of the soul must be postulated. U.S. empirical psychologist and philosopher, William James, maintained that the soul is an unnecessary concept, which could not be verified. The concept of soul is not required for personal identification or for purposes of moral responsibility. Modern scientists and philosophers generally follow James' views. They further say that one can understand man without any recourse to the notion of soul. Distinguished thinkers such as the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel pointed out that soul is a nonmaterial and immortal principle or aspect of the human person.

The spiritual groups believe man has three elements: spirit, soul arid body. The body encases the soul, and the soul encases the spirit. At death the body dies, but the soul and the spirit live on. Animals are believed to have souls but not spirits. Spiritualists believe that the human spirit exists eternally as a part of the Universal Spirit. The spiritualists hold that the soul enters the body at conception; some hold that this entry happens a few months after conception.


The Islamic views presented here are solely based on the following Qur'anic revelations and commentaries given by Allama Yusuf Ali. Mankind created from single soul:

"0 mankind reverence your Lord, who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath scattered countless men and women." ………… 4:1

"0 ye who believe Guard your own souls, if ye follow (right) guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray. The goal of you all is to God: it is He that will show you the truth of all that ye do." ---5: 105


"Whoever works righteousness benefits his own soul, whoever works evil, it is against his own soul." --41:46


"Every soul earneth only on its own account, no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another. Your goal in the end is towards God: He will tell you the truth of things wherein ye disputed (differed)." 6:164

"On no soul does God place a burden greater than it can bear (in terms of material wealth or spiritual duty)." ---2:286; 23:62

"But those who believe and work righteousness, - no burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear." 7:42

"On the day when every soul will be confronted with all the good it has done, and all the evil it has done, it will wish there were a great distance between it and its evil." -3:30

"Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds." 74:38

[Man cannot shift his responsibility to vicarious saviors or saints. His redemption depends upon the grace of God, for which he should constantly and whole-heartedly strive by means of right conduct. If he does so he will be redeemed. ]

"One day every soul will come up struggling for itself, and every soul will be recompensed (fully) for all its actions, and none will be unjustly dealt with." 16:111

[When the reckoning comes, each soul will stand on its own personal responsibility. No one else can help it. Full justice will be done, and all the seeming inequalities of this world will be redressed].


"And I do call to witness the self-reproaching Spirit." --75:2.

Our scholars postulate three states or stages of the development of the human soul:

1. AMMARA: Which is prone to evil and, if not checked and controlled will lead to perdition (total destruction, ruin),

2. LAWWAMA: Which feels conscious of evil, and resists it, asks for God's grace and pardon after repentance and tries to amend; it hopes to reach salvation;

3. MUTMAINNA: the highest stage of all, when it achieves full rest and satisfaction. The second stage may be compared to conscience, except that in English usage conscience is a faculty and not a stage in spiritual development.


"It is God that takes the souls at death, and those that die not during their sleep. He keeps that (soul) for which He hath ordained death and dismisseth the rest till an appointed term. Verily in this are signs for those who reflect." --39:42

We can see more clearly many spiritual truths: e.g.

1. that our bodily life and death are not the whole story of our existence;

2. that in our bodily life we may be dead to the spiritual world, and in our bodily death, may be our awakening to the spiritual world,

3. that our nightly sleep, besides performing the function of rest to our physical life, gives us a foretaste of what we call death, which does not end our personality; and

4. that the resurrection is not more wonderful than our daily rising from sleep, "twin - brother to death".


"Every soul shall have a taste of death." 21:35; 29:57

The soul does not die but when it separates from the body at the death of the body, the soul gets a taste of death. In our life of probation on this earth, God tests our virtue and faith, by many things; some are tested by calamities, and some by the good things of this life. If we prove our true mettle, we pass our probation with success. In any case all must return to God, and then will our life be appraised at its true value.


(To the righteous soul will be said) "0 (thou) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction! Come back thou to thy Lord - well pleased (thyself) and well pleasing unto Him Enter thou, then among My devotees! Yea enter thou My Heaven '. " 89:27-30

Commenting on these verses Allama Yusuf Ali says: "The righteous enter into their inheritance and receive their welcome with a title that suggests freedom from all pain, sorrow, doubt, struggle, disappointment, passion, and even further desire: at rest, in peace; in a state of complete satisfaction. In Muslim theology, this stage of the soul is the final stage of bliss."


The physical world consists of material objects that occupy space and have properties like mass, electric charge, extension, etc., whereas the mental world is populated not by material objects but by thoughts. The Old Testament presents the soul as synonymous with breath or life. On the other hand the New Testament identifies soul with the self and mind. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines soul as the "source of thought activity." (2) Paul Davis (3) says "the mind (or soul) is not located inside the brain, or any other part of the body; or indeed anywhere in space at all. Mind is not a physical substance, but a tenuous, elusive, ethereal sort of substance, the stuff that thoughts and dreams are made of, free and independent of ordinary ponderous matter." The above concept of soul appears to be necessary because soul is neither visible nor its physical presence be detected in any direct way. If soul is not space, then it exists in time. Here the issue 1s more subtle. If soul is the source of the human perception then this must include the human perception of time. If a concept is abstract rather than substantial does not make it unreal or illusory. For example one's nationality.

One's nationality does not occupy a space inside one's body. It cannot be measured or subjected to physical laws. Another example is the number pi (pie), which is immutable and cannot be located in space and time. In computer analogy if body is the hardware then soul or mind could be compared to software. Therefore in principle it is possible for the mind to survive after death of the brain by transferring it to some other mechanism or system. A deeper and better insight is obtained by studying quantum physics and mysticism regarding the nature of soul.