This is the second post in a series examining N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Today we're looking at Chapter 2: Puzzled About Paradise?
In Chapter 2 Bishop Wright mounts a forceful critique of the state of contemporary Christian understanding or appreciation of the classic doctrine of resurrection. He outlines how current Christian practice – buffeted by over a century of sentimentality, hymnal, and liturgical reformulations – largely fails to reflect and convey Christian understanding of heaven, hope, and the resurrection. In particular Wright takes on two notions that find little – if any – support in the Bible: the so-called "immortality of the soul," and the existence of a heaven "up there" and a hell "down there."
until at least the late eighteenth century, many tombstones and memorials were inscribed with the Latin word resurgam, which means "I shall arise," indicating that the now-dead person believed in an intermediate sleep to be followed by a new bodily life at some future point (pg 16).
Drawing on the creed – I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come – Wright begins to describe traditional Christian belief about death, namely that upon death the deceased enters an intermediate state, a period of waiting, for the return of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead (about which I blogged here almost a year ago). No mention of entering heaven, no mention of an eternal spiritual journey, no mention of leaving one's body behind – notions that are common today. Citing several pieces of popular literature – including Maria Shriver's What's Heaven? – Wright briefly details how contemporary Christian belief is more akin to a Buddhist, Hindu, or Platonic ideas of life and death than it is to traditional Christian or Jewish ideas. "The idea [of a long spiritual journey] after death is itself now frequent, though again it has virtually no warrant in the Bible or early Christian thought" (page 19).
Many Christians grow up assuming that whenever the New Testament speaks of heaven it refers to the place to which the saved will go after death . . . But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn't work that way. "God's kingdom" in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God's sovereign rule coming 'on earth as it is in heaven.' . . . Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life – God's dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever (page 18-19).
Frankly, what we have at the moment isn't, as the old liturgies used to say, "the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead" but the vague and fuzzy optimism that things may work out in the end (page 25).