Life after life after death
CH: What is the biblical hope? Why is bodily resurrection crucial to that hope?
NTW: The biblical hope is for “new heavens and new earth,” that is, for the utter renewal and reordering of the Creator’s project—begun in Genesis 1 and 2 but aborted, or at least radically distorted, because of human rebellion. The Resurrection of Jesus is the launching of this new creation. His body seems to be at home in either heaven or earth or both, so that he embodies and encapsulates this new creation in himself. Those who belong to Jesus are thus signed on as new-creation people, not just as parts of new creation but (since this is what humans were made for) as agents of new creation.
At the moment this is partial and puzzling; Jesus is raised, the rest of us are not. He conquered death; but death still takes us. But because of the resurrection and the Holy Spirit, what we do “in Christ” in the present is in fact part of, and preparing for, the new creation, whether or not it looks like that. In the new creation, decay and death will have been abolished, but it’s clear from Romans 8 that this will be the same world, only rid of its corruption and decay, just as Jesus’ risen body was the same, only different because now it is incapable of disease, suffering, or death itself.
CH: What should Christian views of the future look like?
NTW: Like the Resurrection of Jesus, transposed to all of creation; like the coming together of heaven and earth in a way we only glimpse momentarily at present in great beauty, in great works of putting-right (justice), and above all in prayer, sacrament, Scripture, and ministering to the poor. The reality will be that coming-together that we sense in music, sometimes, or in human love. It will be like all that, only much, much more. It will be both our ultimate homecoming and our ultimate arrival somewhere totally new—since we’ve never before encountered anything totally incorruptible and without-decay.
CH: What does this mean for how we think about salvation and the kingdom of God?
NTW: For many people “salvation” means “being rescued from the world.” In the Bible the world is God’s world, and we are supposed to be looking after it and making it fruitful, so there isn’t much point in being rescued from it. Rather, we are saved FOR the world—rescued to be rescuers, put right (justification) to be putting-right people (justice); restored to the beauty of being image-bearers so that we may be beauty-bringers, beauty-creators, for the world. We are, in other words, to be saved ultimately, in the future, from corruption, decay, and death; from being “out of line,” unjust; from ugliness. So, the new “you” will be the “you” that God had in mind all along.
Gnosticism at this point whispers, “Yes, the real ‘you’ is deep inside somewhere—so just get in touch with it and let it express itself.” But the answer is, “No, the real ‘you’ is God’s fresh gift in the death and resurrection of the Messiah.” At present we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him.
God’s kingdom means God’s sovereign, saving rule. Jesus taught us to pray that it would come “on earth as in heaven.” Salvation happens when this prayer is answered, whether partially and in anticipation (as in all the people whose healing Jesus himself described as “salvation”) or fully at the end (Rom. 8, Rev. 21–22.) The church exists to serve the kingdom-purposes of God; it’s a cliché to say we are “saved to serve,” but it’s true.
Jesus’ Resurrection launched the new creation. The Easter stories in the Gospels do not say, “He’s risen; therefore we’re going to heaven.” They say, “He’s risen; therefore God’s new creation has begun (under his lordship); therefore we have a job to do!” That’s why the disciples are then given the Spirit.
CH: What are some practical implications of this?
NTW: People sometimes say to me, “I’m overwhelmed—I see all the things that need doing in God’s world, and I don’t know where to start!” That’s a good reaction. The answer is: (A) Prayer. Prayer itself models, exemplifies, and lives within the new creation, the coming together of heaven and earth—that’s why it’s hard work and why we are easily distracted. (B) Scripture. In the great story, Scripture tells of creation and new creation—the latter effected through covenant and new covenant—we are shaped for our tasks, attuned to the voice of God and, simultaneously, to the cries of pain in the world (think of the Psalms!) (C) Sacrament, especially the Lord’s Supper. Mother Teresa spoke of meeting Jesus in the sacrament and then meeting him on the street. (D) Service, in whatever way we’re called. Here being part of the body of Christ is vital: each local worshiping community will gain a sense, in its own locality, of where the pressure points are, what needs doing (food banks? drug rehab? youth employment? hospice care?). We regularly find our vocations, part-time ones as well as full-time ones, by sharing with others who are committed to God’s kingdom.From Genesis 1 to Revelation 21, God’s purposes are temple-shaped. The temple is where heaven and earth came together. That is why the first Christians saw Jesus himself as the true temple and why Paul sees the church itself as the temple, the place where the Spirit dwells. So images of the temple being destroyed and rebuilt come into play in terms of new creation. And at the moment, our life of prayer and worship is the genuine, Spirit-filled anticipation of that great day. CH
By N. T. Wright
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #112 in 2014]N. T. Wright is research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the University of St. Andrews and the author of over 80 books including Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
Learn more about the long history of Christian reflection on heaven and put today’s “heaven headlines” into context with resources recommended by CH editorial staff and this issue’s contributorsThe editors
The forgotten Inkling
Owen Barfield (1898-1997) insisted on the imagination as a road to truth. It profoundly changed his friends—and through them, usEdwin Woodruff Tait
A Christian revolutionary?
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) proclaimed Christ as Lord over areas from theater to economicsSuzanne Bray
“We still make by the law in which we were made”
Tolkien and “subcreation” — the making of a secondary, fictional worldColin Duriez
Christian History Magazine #112 - Heaven
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