Posted by: gmscan | May 21, 2012

N.T. Wright, Continued

So last time we left N.T. Wright saying that heaven is not up in the clouds or in outer space somewhere, but right next to us in another dimension, and the resurrection and ascension of Jesus was the first hint of how heaven and earth will merge into a New Heaven and a New Earth. We can’t really imagine what it will be like, but it will involve some form of physical bodies living in a physical world, but one without death, disease, and sin. God will not destroy the creation he once declared Good, but will redeem and purify it.

This is quite different than the childish image we grew up with (and still have embedded in our heads) of heaven being a place where we sit on clouds and play harps all day. Speaking of childish images, remember the Soviet cosmonaut who came back to declare that he looked and found no God up there?

Luke for one keeps quoting Jesus as saying the Kingdom of God is near us or in the midst of us. Consider —

  • Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Luke10: 8-11)
  • Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17: 20-21)
  • And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  (Luke 21: 29-33)

Now, maybe Jesus was saying it is near in the sense of time, but maybe in the sense of distance as well.

Is this fanciful? Not at all. Even scientists are increasingly accepting the possibility of there being multiple universes, to the point that some believe they can detect “bruising” of our universe as it encounters others. Now scientists are well equipped to track phenomenon within our natural universe, our sense of time, space, matter, and energy. But they would be totally clueless about any other dimension. Such a thing would be outside of our nature – supernatural—by definition.

Isn’t that the core of the conflict between science (at least atheistic science) and Christianity? They keep arguing that what we are saying is not possible within nature, and we keep responding that we are not talking about nature, but about something outside of nature. Something supernatural. Many scientists (not all) are simply not equipped to talk in those terms. They tend to get frustrated and angry and call us crazy. We are tempted to get angry right back at them, but we shouldn’t. They really can’t help themselves. They have not yet been given the gift of faith we have received. If anything we should pity them for their close-mindedness and their limited ability to perceive.

But then Wright asks, “so what?”  What difference does it make if heaven is right next door, in outer space, or just a place where disembodied souls go? And this is what the second half of the book is about.

He argues that the hope of eventual resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth is “not what the New Testament sees as the main result of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” It is “not simply about ourselves and about whatever future world God is ultimately going to make.” Rather, it is “a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission.” He writes:

“As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen as saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality… then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.”

When I read this I immediately thought of Ephesians 2, which includes (in my opinion) the best summary of what this is all about –

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2: 8-10)

We are not simply saved for our own benefit. We are saved so that we can perform the work God has assigned us.

Wright notes that Jesus himself “got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing. They saw him saving people from sickness and death and heard him talking about salvation…” And this was not just parlor tricks to get their attention, it was a demonstration in the here and now of what the new heaven and new earth would be like.

So what is the work God has assigned to us as a resurrection people? Wright says:

 “Heaven’s rule, God’s rule, is thus to be put into practice in the world, resulting in salvation in both the present and the future, a future that is both for humans and through saved humans, for the wider world. This is the solid basis for the mission of the church.”

He explains this is not man trying to build the kingdom in the here and now, but to build for the kingdom which is still to come. He has quite a laundry list of projects, some of which I will come back to in the next post. These include:

  • Working for justice,
  • Creating beauty, and
  • Supporting evangelism.

He also has a great deal to say about how the church has in the past, and should continue, to influence the space, time, and matter of this world through its worship, prayer, and sacraments, ultimately to become representatives of God’s love for mankind.

As far as all this goes, I agree 100%. God has given us a gift of faith that has transformed us into new people who are required to respond in our own time and place. It is not an option.

In my view Wright gets into trouble when he gets specific about what he thinks that response should be. I will deal with that next time.




  1. Greg,
    I just saw an interesting bumper sticker today. It said, “don’t believe everything that you know.” The word PISTEUO, in Greek, is translated both “believe” and “faith.” Your comment that faith is a gift is held by others, but I wonder if the verse in Ephesians is really saying that you are saved by grace and that it is grace which is the gift, not the faith.
    James emphsizes that faith (PISTEUO) without works is dead, which seems to say that you need to act on what you know and believe.

    • Jerry,

      It is sometimes hard to project a modern understanding of causality into biblical texts. But the words “by grace” mean “for free”. Grace is not the object of the gift, but the condition by which the gifts of “salvation” and “faith” are granted: For free.


  2. Jerry:
    At a synagogue around 20 years ago, I asked the rabbi about that statement from James.
    The reason I did so, was that he was speaking about how Christianity is simply a religion in which belief is the key – not works.
    After asking the question, his reply was nothing. He simply went on to the next question.

    As far as where heaven is located, Judaism has little to say about this. There will be a fierce war between gog, and that other fellow!
    In addition, people will go to 2 extremes. We will see profound kindness and profound evil increase.
    The messiah will arrive when the third temple is built – by God.

    In Pirke Avot, The Ethics of oUr Fathers, which Chasidic Jews consider part of the Oral Torah, it speaks of “The world to come.”
    As far as experiencing that, there were several prohibitions for entering the world to come. None had to do with belief. The most interesting prohibition for me, was not to “humiliate a fellow human being in public.”
    That says volumes about Judiasm’s interest in preserving the dignity of our neighbor.
    Don Levit

    • Don,

      My own Rabbi friend was a little more clear on the distinction he was trying to make. Jews are perplexed by the Christian reliance on centralized authoritative doctrine. Christianity for them is a religion in which you are told what to believe, and you are not allowed to question.

      And when you do question and end up against something that is explained away as “it’s a mystery”, they find that to be humorous… a great mystery.

      This is not as opposed to works but as opposed to questioning the logic behind the doctrine. Judaism as a Faith is a richly argumentative Faith. There is no central authority telling you WHAT you must believe. There is a tremendous amount of effort put in to HOW you believe. Every idea put forth must be rigorously tested.

      It shows up in everyday life. Richard Feynman described his mother’s quizzing him after school as not asking him if he learned anything good at school today, but asking him if he asked any good questions at school today.

      It is no accident that for such a small minority in the human population, Jews are so highly represented in the sciences and other fields of intellectual achievement.

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