Brian of the blog sunestauromai – living the crucified life has the good fortune to pastor a church at a place which in some ways must be heaven on earth: the rim of the Grand Canyon. But is it in fact the nearest he will get to heaven? I don’t mean the altitude, although from there it must be unusually easy to imagine what it would be like to fall into hell.
Brian has been reading what Bishop NT Wright has had to say about heaven, in a new Christianity Today article (from where I have taken my post title) and a slightly older interview in Time Magazine. To these Brian has written a response, with a follow-up. I am sure he is not the only Christian, not even the only pastor, to be a little confused by the way in which Wright seems to be undermining the traditional understanding of the Christian hope, that we go to heaven when we die and that is the end of it.
So I will take a break from explaining the Reverend Jeremiah Wright to explain the Right(!) Reverend NT Wright, as I understand him.
In fact I am completely with NT Wright on this issue. The understanding which he is undermining, even if according to Nick Norelli it is not in fact widespread, is not biblical teaching but a distortion of it. Bodily resurrection – of every Christian in future, as well as of Jesus on the first Easter Sunday – is central to the Christian hope as explained by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others.
1 Corinthians 15:16-19 (TNIV)
Paul’s affirmations that the stuff of this risen body is spirit, not flesh and blood or soul / natural life.
This of course ties in with the discussion I recently reopened about whether the risen Jesus has blood. For it is clear in Paul’s teaching, if not always in the teaching of the church, that the future resurrection bodies of ordinary Christians will be the same in essence as Jesus’ resurrection body.
And it is also clear that Doug’s summary here is quite wrong. Yes, the resurrection body is a spiritual body, but it is also a physical one; it is not less than the old earthly body, but the old body transformed by the addition to it of a new dimension:
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
1 Corinthians 15:53 (TNIV)
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippans 3:20-21 (TNIV)
It is sad to see how so many Christians have gradually lost this faith in physical resurrection. First, they have lost this hope for themselves and come to expect simply that their souls will go to heaven to live some kind of disembodied existence in the clouds. Then, increasingly, they have come to reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as speculation abounds that his bones remained in a grave somewhere and that his resurrection appearances were effectively of a ghost, without flesh, bones or blood.
As Bishop Wright makes clear on the third page of his Christianity Today article, this watering down of the Christian faith and hope has profound effects not only for the future but also for our Christian lives and mission today:
The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.
If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both.
In the Time article, Wright dismisses the idea that
All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.
On the contrary, as he summarises the New Testament teaching on the Resurrection:
Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do. … God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.