Time Magazine online jumped into eschatological waters yesterday with an interview with N.T. Wright concerning his latest book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. An introduction to the interview states:
N.T. “Tom” Wright is one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought … and is a hero to conservative Christians worldwide for his 2003 book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which argued forcefully for a literal interpretation of that event.
It therefore 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 Bishop Wright suggesting that John Lennon was on to something when he wrote, “Imagine there’s no Heaven?” Well, not really. But, perhaps – if you believe the Dante version of Heaven. Wright explains what he means in his phone interview with Time writer David Van Biema, which actually is one of the better “Christian” interviews I’ve seen in the secular press, although the headline – Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop – is a bit melodramatic.
As my faithful readers know, NT Wright is one of my favorite theologians (definitely my favorite contemporary theologian), for a number of reasons. He is not an American Evangelical, for one thing (he’s Anglican), which is very refreshing. He is also an historian, he understands modern and postmodern philosophy, and he writes very plainly without being condescending or “popish.” He also makes a ton of sense, and is pretty consistent with traditional theology, although he does occasionally present some new approaches to understanding the New Testament.
It has been interesting that the Evangelical community has embraced him to the extent that it has; it seems to indicate that Evangelicals don’t understand their own theological positions. Unless it comes down to a “pet issue” like predestination or in this case, eschatology, they don’t seem to realize that Wright – as well as traditional, historic theology – undermines a lot of contemporary Evangelical thinking. He’s become quite a favorite with many of the “Emerging” folks such as McLaren, who try to appropriate his ideas but just muck them up as they try to incorporate in their emergent-evangelical theological stew.
I first heard about Wright’s newest book, which was just released this month, on the Jesus Creed website. Scot McNight has been providing a chapter-by-chapter peek at the book, which seems to be a perfect follow up to Evil and the Justice of God, which I have mentioned before. In Surprised…, Wright has chapters dealing with the meaning of the Cross, the Resurrection and the Atonement, but it seems it his thoughts about Heaven which have some people in a tither. Per Wright, it’s because all of that “Left Behind” thinking is wrong.
Wright seems to have this old-fashioned idea that what we believe impacts how we live. The Publisher’s blurb about the book states, “Wright convincingly argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death.” In the interview, Wright states:
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.
This, of course, is not proof of Wright’s point of view, but it is reason enough to work through what the Bible really teaches about the future. If Wright is right, the truth about Heaven could change how we want to live today.
One more book for my reading list…
I’m half way through it and hope to get a review soon. Very good as you’d expect from Wright.
Steve, it depends a bit on how in-depth you want to go, and your particular interests. For a very general (but excellent) overview, I’d suggest Simply Christian, which has been called this decade’s “Mere Christianity.” I did an online class on the book last year, if you want to get more of a feel for it – go to http://smallvoices.net/simplychristian/ and click on the various chapters – I provide an overview of each one, then the students each did their own discussion.
I also recommend “The Challenge of Jesus,” which is one of the first books of his I read. If you’re a student of Paul, “What Saint Paul Really Said” is also excellent.
Alden, with which book should I start if I’ve never read Wright?
I, too, have my doubts about the standard evangelical heaven, recognizing, as does Wright, that Dante has had a profound influence on popular conceptions.
As far as questionable conceptions go, we might add the Platonic version of an immortal soul distinct from the body which is a keystone concept for nearly all of Western Christendom, but which is difficult to surmise from the Biblical testimony.
To this we could add the related evangelical concept of death as not really death. The Medieval philosophers really had a problem with this one.
Wright’s reservations are timely but not new. Even amid the monolithic evangelical consensus, there are a number of contemporary theologians who do not subscribe to its metaphysic.