One of the most prestigious and prolific contemporary biblical scholars, N.T. Wright, builds upon and nicely summarizes his earlier, magisterial work. The Resurrection of the Son of God, to set forth his position in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, c. 2008). He asks us to ponder two questions: “What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?” (p. xi). This leads us to hope for eternal life (Paradise and Heaven) hereafter and commit ourselves to working within the Kingdom of God here and now. Importantly, “the robust Jewish and Christian doctrine of the resurrection, as part of God’s new creation, gives more value, not less, to the present world and to our present bodies” (p. 26).
Wright repeatedly stresses the centrality of Christ’s Resurrection to the early Christians. Without that event, there simply would have been no Christians! “Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament and most of the second-century fathers as well” (p. 43). “The only way we can explain the phenomena we have been examining is by proposing a two-pronged hypothesis: first, Jesus’s tomb really was empty; second, the disciples really did encounter him in ways that convinced them that he was not simply a ghost or hallucination” (p. 58). They believed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and, consequently, looked forward to their own bodies’ resurrection. The body will be transformed through, not annihilated by, death. It will be a different kind of body. But like our risen Lord’s, it will still be a body!
We deal here not with science, but history and its concern for singular events, not repeatedly observable experiments. “Historical argument alone,” Wright admits, “cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, but historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have long been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity” (p. 64). Still more and most importantly: Christ’s resurrection “is not an odd event within the world as it is but is the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new world. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation” (p. 67).
Wright evaluates the Christian’s hope vis-à-vis the secular optimism regarding “the myth of progress,” showing how much more realistically Christians face their world. Marx and Darwin—and all the champions of endless development—look less and less credible as the 21st century dawns. Christians who know their Faith put little faith in “progress.” They hope for the “new creation” embodied in the resurrected Jesus. Colossians 1:15-20 and I Corinthians 15 are crucial texts Wright embraces and builds upon to demonstrate what the world really needs.
Several pages are devoted to Jesus’ Ascension. Rarely have I heard preached, or taught, much about this post-resurrection event. Yet, Wright says, “some kind of belief in Jesus’s ascension has recently been shown to be not just a strange added extra to Christian belief, as has sometimes been thought, but a central and vital feature without which all sorts of other things start to go demonstrably wrong” (p. 109). The Ascension opens to us this truth: “Basically heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on the earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. ‘All Authority is given to me,’ said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, ‘in heaven and on earth’” (p. 111). Still more, he continues: “The mystery of the ascension is of course just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time” (p. 115). Heaven and Earth mysteriously but actually intertwine. Heaven is not far away but near at hand. Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, is not remote from us but immediately and always present. Our departed loved ones are not in a distant land but right next door. To try and imagine all this, Wright refers us to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
Moving from the Ascension to the Second Coming, Wright resists some of the millennialism popular in evangelical circles while firmly reminding us that Christians do await the day when God’s purposes in history are attained and the Son can fully reign over a new creation. For us, this will mean a “new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life” (p. 147). There is a remarkable consensus in the N.T. on this subject. “The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes about” (p. 149). Wright notes that the Greek word translated “mansions,” monai, was “regularly used” to indicate a place where one briefly paused on a longer journey. Similarly, the word “Paradise,” spoken to the thief on the cross, meant “not a final destination but the blissful garden, the parkland of rest and tranquility, where the dead are refreshed as they await the dawn of the new day” (p. 150). As did Randy Alcorn in Heaven, Wright stresses that our ultimate Heaven is a new creation, a new earth, where we will enjoy a transformed bodily life. When Early Christians spoke of resurrection, “It wasn’t a way of talking about life after death. It was a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death” (p. 151).
“This is where one of the great Easter hymns [attributed to Thomas a Kempis] gets it exactly right:
O how glorious and resplendent
Fragile body, shalt thou be,
When endued with so much beauty
Full of health, and strong, and free!
Full of vigour, full of pleasure,
That shall last eternally” (p. 154).
Some of the earliest and best Christian thinkers—Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen—stressed bodily resurrection. They pondered the nature of matter and spirit, wondering what, exactly, “spiritual bodies” would be like. Early Christians discerned that the matter in our bodies (what we label molecules and cells) continually changes while we ourselves remain the same. There is a real physicality about us, but what we are is the inner essence, the form our bodies take. “(C.S. Lewis, summarizing this argument, offers an illustration: I am in that respect, he says, like a curve in a waterfall.) This argument is repeated by Thomas a millennium after Origen and nearly a millennium before Lewis. It’s a good argument” (p. 157). As developed by Hugh of St. Victor, this position holds that the resurrected body “’will be immune from death and sorrow; it will be at the height of its powers, free from disease and deformity, and around thirty years old, the age at which Christ began his ministry. It will surpass anything we can imagine, even from the accounts of Christ’s appearances on earth after his own resurrection’” (p. 158).
Like so many of us, Wright pays “homage” to C.S. Lewis, who helps us imagine “what the risen body might be like.” Thus in The Great Divorce Lewis “manages to get us to envisage bodies that are more solid, more real, more substantial than our present ones. That is the task that 2 Corinthians in particular invites us to. These will be bodies of which the phrase ‘the weight of glory,’ taken from that letter (4:17), will be seen, felt, and known to be appropriate” (p. 159). When I first grasped the fact that “solid” walls are mostly empty space I was able to imagine that Jesus walked through walls because his resurrected body was more dense than the walls and thus quite capable of penetrating what seems to our senses hardened stone. We will not be disembodied “immortal souls” throughout eternity. Rather, inasmuch as our bodies are both now and then formed by our souls they will be the same (transformed) bodies we now know.
We will have bodies in Heaven because God’s original design was for us to rule on Earth. This world—time and space and matter—are good. They are flawed by sin. But they are good. Thus, in God’s good time, a new world (the old world restored) will come into being. As Lewis said, in Miracles, “’the old field of space, time, matter and the senses is to be weeded, dug, and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of that old field: God is not’” (p. 163).
Wright discusses purgatory (he discounts it) and paradise (where Christians who have died rest for a time) and hell. We need not believe in purgatory to maintain concern for our departed loved ones. “I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should . . . that they should be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace. Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God?” (p. 172). While rather reticent regarding Hell, Wright insists the justice of God must be carried out. “God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end” (p. 179). And people who refuse God’s gracious offer of salvation will suffer forever without it. “I wish it were otherwise,” he confesses, “but one cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ in the darkness of” the past century’s atrocities (p. 180).
In the second part of this book, dealing with the mission of the Church, Wright develops a major part of his thesis: God intends to establish His Kingdom, and we’re privileged to help out while anticipating eternal life therein. Salvation is not an exclusively individual blessing. Nor is it something reserved for the “sweet by-and-by. The resurrected Jesus is truly Lord of heaven and earth. As Paul proclaimed in Athens, in Jesus “God has unveiled himself and his plan for the whole world by appointing a man to be judge of the whole world and has certified this by raising him from the dead. This is what the resurrection does: it opens the new world, in which, under the saving and judging lordship of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, everything else is to be seen in a new light” (p. 244). So what are we to do, this side of the grave? In a memorable passage, Wright says: “I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that there will be in God’s recreated world, though I do remember Martin Luther’s words about the proper reaction to knowing the kingdom was coming the next day being to go out and plant a tree” (p. 209).
Beyond planting trees, however, much that Wright says about establishing the Kingdom in our day reflects the social gospel mindset one expects of current Anglican clergymen. He’s especially concerned that wealthy Western nations forgive debts of poorer nations. But however one evaluates his personal convictions regarding politics, his main thesis stands: we who await the new creation should, it seems obvious, cooperate in preserving and cultivating and developing this one.
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N.T. Wright focuses on “the communion of saints” in a brief treatise, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (New York: Morehouse Publishing, c. 2003), wherein he discusses the saints and their enduring estate. Parts of the book deals with controversies within the Church of England and are thus rather irrelevant to us who are not part of that communion. But the central points (also made in Surprised by Hope) are quite persuasive and helpful. For a quick (75 pp) read that sums up Wright’s theology, this book is useful. He is particularly alarmed by the creeping notion of purgatory in Anglican circles. This is not so much the Roman Catholic notion (which he also stoutly rejects), but rather the current and notably universalistic view that everyone will somehow be saved through some sort of purgatorial process. (Note, for example, the ease with which the British public assumed Princess Diana passed from earth to heaven).
He declares, with biblical evidence, that saints are God’s people and are all saved through the atoning work of Christ. All saints, following death, enter Paradise, where they await the final resurrection and the triumphant establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. He believes the departed saints “are at rest; they are conscious; . . . but they are not yet enjoying the final bliss which is to come in the New Jerusalem. This is in line with the classic Eastern Orthodox doctrine which, though it speaks of the saints, and invokes them in all sorts of ways, does not see them as having finally experienced the completeness of redemption. Until all God’s people are safely home, none of them is yet fulfilled. That is why the Orthodox pray for the saints as well as with them, that they—with us when we join them—may come to the fulfillment of God’s complete purposes” (p. 24).
So it is perfectly normal and good to feel bonded with our departed loved ones. We rightly pray for them, but not that they move quickly through Purgatory! “True prayer,” says Wright, “is an outflowing of love; if I love someone, I will want to pray for them, not necessarily because they are in difficulties, not necessarily because there is a particular need of which I’m aware, but simply because holding them up in God’s presence is the most natural and appropriate thing to do, and because I believe that God chooses to work through our prayers for other people’s benefit, whatever sort of benefit that may be. Now love doesn’t stop at death—or, if it does, it’s a pretty poor sort of love! In fact, grief could almost be defined as the form love takes when the object of love has been removed; it is love embracing an empty space, love kissing thin air and feeling the pain of that nothingness. But there is no reason at all why love should discontinue the practice of holding the beloved I prayer before God” (pp. 73-74). He goes on to note that Professor Sir Norman Anderson, a distinguished evangelical Anglican thinker, lost all three of his children, early in their adult lives. And, on a very personal level, Wright relates, he came “to realize that it was perfectly in order to continue to hold those beloved children before God I prayer, not to get them out of purgatory, nor because he was unsure about their final salvation, but because he wanted to talk to God about them, to share as it were his love for them with the God who had given them and had inexplicably allowed them to be taken away again” (p. 74).
Wright never retreats from the New Testament claim that Jesus arose from the dead with a transformed, resurrected body. The tomb was truly empty. The vacuous liberalism that portrayed the Resurrection as a “spiritual” experience of some sort has no credibility. He further believes that there must be a Hell of some sort—and folks who actually go there forever. While restrained in describing it, while hopeful in regards the numbers who will go there, Wright cannot take seriously Jesus’ words without allowing the reality of Hell.
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Folks interested in the scholarly foundation for N.T. Wright’s more popular works should consult The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, c. 2003), the third volume of his magnum opus (“Christian Origins and the Question of God”) which has established him among the most highly acclaimed (and orthodox) of contemporary biblical scholars. Indeed, he builds a strong case for rejecting many of these scholars’ (Bultmann, Schillebeeckx, Crossan, et al.) positions! For example, as a somber historian he seriously questions the existence of the mysterious “Q” document routinely cited by New Testament scholars. Furthermore, as he carefully studies the resurrection narratives in the Gospels he finds them remarkably different, testifying to the reality of the central event but providing unique details treasured by the writer. Importantly, he declares: “The idea that faith must never have anything to do with history, so popular in certain circles for many years, is long overdue a decent burial” (p. 716).
He endeavors, in this treatise, “to investigate the claim of the earliest Christians, that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. In order to be sure we are aiming at that target, it is important to locate their claim where it belongs, within the worldview and language of second-Temple Judaism. In addition, since the (still recognizably Jewish) claim was quickly advanced within the wider non-Jewish world of the first, century, it is important also to map out where the claim belonged within that larger universe of discourse” (p. 28). Consequently, he devotes considerable (nearly 200 pp!) attention to primary sources revealing the ancient world’s views on death. Remarkably few pagans were strict materialists who denied any life after death. Overwhelming, like Plato, they firmly believed in the immortality of the soul—but not of any resurrected body. A few first century Jews, notably elite Sadducees, denied any resurrection, but most of them, represented by the Pharisees, devoutly believed in a final resurrection of the nation of Israel.
Into that world came Christians proclaiming what had never been proposed—that Jesus had in fact arisen from the grave. And with that assurance they looked forward to the resurrection of the bodies of all who believed in Him. Faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus was the absolute source of their faith—not an addition to a primitive spiritual ecstasy spawned by His message. This is evident, Wright shows, in Paul’s letters, which he explores in depth (200 pp.), providing sufficient exegetical information to prove his point. The same can be shown in the Gospels and other New Testament books, as well as a wealth of material in second century Church documents.
What is clear, in Wright’s historical documentation, is this: “The early Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah; and they believed this because of his resurrection” (p. 554). And so does Wright! After presenting all the evidence, he explains why, as a disciplined historian, he finds the early Christian claims persuasive. “The language of ‘resurrection’ and the specific modifications within Jewish resurrection belief which we have seen in early Christianity, could only have occurred, I suggest, if the early Christians believed they had clear evidence, against all their own and everyone else’s expectations, both of continuity between the Jesus who died and the Jesus who was now alive of a transformation in his mode of embodiment” (p. 696). Following a brief explanation of historical logic, he says: “We are left with the conclusion that the combination of empty tomb and appearances of the living Jesus forms a set of circumstances which is itself both necessary and sufficient for the rise of early Christian belief” (p. 696). Still more: good historians follow “inference to the best explanation, which is one variety of ‘abduction’” (p. 716). Historians, like detectives, deal with singular bits of evidence and try to construct the best conclusion possible. To Wright, the conclusion is inescapable: Jesus is Lord. And He is risen!
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