Heaven Ahead? How Right is Wright?

Heaven Ahead? How Right is Wright?
By Donald Shoemaker

Onward to the prize before us! Soon His beauty we’ll behold;
Soon the pearly gates will open, We shall tread the streets of gold.
When we all get to heaven, What a day of rejoicing that will be!

That Gospel Song was a favorite of mine in my young Christian experience and I still enjoy singing it, while making some mental adjustments for its rather loose eschatology (theology of the future).

“Scholars on the right and left increasingly say that comforting belief in an afterlife has no basis in the Bible and would have sounded bizarre to Jesus and his early followers.” (All references come from the column “What’s Heaven?” in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, May 19, 2012.  This blog is not intended to be a scholarly assessment of Wright’s overall position on this topic, which he has expressed elsewhere as well.)

Watch out whenever a caption starts, “Scholars say…” It implies a consensus that may not exist and puts those who disagree into the position of low-level thinkers.

The article focuses on the “heaven theology” (or lack thereof) of N. T. Wright, an outstanding scholar who teaches on early Christianity and the New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Two statements reflecting his understanding:

• In classic Judaism and first-century Christianity, believers expected this world would be transformed into God’s Kingdom—a restored Eden where redeemed human beings would be liberated from death, illness, sin and other corruptions.
• First-century Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah also believed he inaugurated the Kingdom of God and were convinced the world would be transformed in their own lifetimes. This inauguration, however, was far from complete and required the active participation of God’s people practicing social justice, nonviolence and forgiveness to become fulfilled. Once the Kingdom is complete…the bodily resurrection will follow with a fully restored creation here on earth.

I won’t claim parallel knowledge with N. T. Wright on early Christianity, but I do want to make some responses. I do agree, “We are so fortunate in this generation that we understand more about first-century Judaism than Christian scholarship has for a very long time.” Thus, for example, the Epistle to the Romans must be re-examined in light of better understanding of Judaism.

First, the above perspective (build the Kingdom, then the resurrection and presumably the return of Jesus will follow) is known as “Post-millennialism” [always two “l’s” and two “n’s”!!]. That was hardly the prophetical outlook of the early church, which was more “Pre-millennial” (the return of Christ will usher in the Kingdom). I find it hard to reconcile the statement that early believers “were convinced the world would be transformed in their own lifetimes” with the thought that the church would do the “far from complete” transforming in that short a period, especially considering the world circumstances at that time. It more befits Christian missional thinking in the Western world of the 19th Century.

Second, while social justice themes are very pronounced in the OT Law and Prophets, one searches the New Testament and finds considerably less emphasis in the Gospels and other writings than in the OT’s theocratic material. I say this as one with a strong passion for social justice and with a strong desire to move away from the evangelical non-involvement I’ve seen most of my life. Themes of “social justice, nonviolence and forgiveness” are mostly in the Sermon on the Mount and the church has always struggled with its interpretation. I find “peace church” thinking on justice, nonviolence and forgiveness sometimes inspiring, other times inadequate and maybe harmful (concentration camps were liberated by soldiers with guns, not pacifists with candles).

Third, as to Heaven, I concur with Wright and observe an over-playing of “heavenly thoughts” in much of contemporary Christianity, such as in Gospel music as exemplified above. In this regard, here are my perspectives on a lot of contemporary evangelical thought on this topic:

• The body tends to be diminished in the future plan of God, as if it’s something of no consequence or even bad. It is as if “out of the body” existence is preferable, whereas the Apostle Paul made “no big deal” of such a possibility (2 Corinthians 12:1-4) and the body is held in high regard, though needing transformation (1 Corinthians 6:13-14, 15:50-53). It’s time to admit to the inadequacy of “I’ll fly away, O glory!”
• Confusion and a mixing of teaching exist between our understanding of life after death (in theology, “the intermediate state”) and life after resurrection (“the eternal state”). Details about heaven are drawn from biblical passages on the eternal state and transported into our understanding of the intermediate state. (I once heard a pastor speak of a recently-deceased saint this way: “She is now glorified!” This is borderline heresy and almost makes the resurrected state a redundancy.)
• “Heavenly thinking” has directed us away from our two-kingdom citizenship responsibilities. Christians have washed their hands of the present world and told the oppressed to look up and wait rather than strive. After all, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through. My treasure is laid up somewhere beyond the blue!”
• Our understanding of heaven is influenced by “hymnbook theology” (sadly, sometimes an oxymoron), even as the church has been influenced by Dante* and other extra-biblical depictions of the hereafter. Hymns should reflect good theology, not perpetuate idealized notions of the Christian life (as I write this, I joyfully listen to “Third Day” sing “[The Apostles] Creed”!!).

All that said, may we gain no understanding of the pre-resurrection “hereafter”?
I think we can:

• “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42 NIV). By itself this promise would be problematic, but other NT texts support us seeing the traditional understanding of the afterlife in Jesus’ words.
• “We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:7-8). This preference is not because of disembodiment, which is not desirable, but because we are “with the Lord.” Even better is being “with the Lord” while in the body (“We do not wish to be unclothed, but to be clothed” – v. 4).
• In a delightfully provoking heavenly scene full of imagery, John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain” (martyrs). “They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, …until you judged the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ …They were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”  Notice: (1) these martyrs have a contemporary existence with saints suffering on earth, (2) they have at least a measure of knowledge of what is happening on earth, (3) they pray to God for him to intervene in behalf of the suffering saints, and (4) they are told to “wait a little longer” (till all is completed by the Second Advent—Revelation 6:9-11). Hmmmm…
• Clearest of all, “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain…I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:21-24). To introduce the resurrected state here as a third option is to do damage to the text. Paul was torn “twixt the two”: (1) to stay in the body and serve Christ or (2) to depart from the body through death and be with Christ.

So, here’s the truth of it all…

• We await Jesus’ return and, with no illusion that we will transform the world into the Kingdom, we fulfill our assigned tasks and do what we can (we do “polish the brass on a sinking ship” because God told us to!).
• Should we die before Jesus returns, we will be apart from our bodies and be “with Christ” in an existence otherwise mostly undefined.
• Whether in the body or apart from the body, we await the return of Jesus, who will transform our bodies and fit them for his eternal Kingdom, for which we pray and, in measure, strive to realize in the “here and now”.

So, hold off on “pearly gates” (“gates of pearl”) until the New Jerusalem arrives. “Heaven” is best put in two words: “with Christ”. How can we improve on that?

Donald Shoemaker
May, 2012

*I have to say, Dante’s fascinating depiction of Hell tries to reflect the Bible’s understanding of different levels of “accountability” and that judgment is based on works, even though one whose name is not in the “Book of Life” is cast into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:11-15).

Dante’s “Hell” goes down nine levels [from my 2008 sermon on Revelation 20:11-15]:

• The most desirable level is “Limbo”. It contains the souls of infants who died without baptism, pagans who lived pretty good lives, moral philosophers, and noble leaders.
• The least desirable one (the 9th level down), is the coldest place in Hell, where the warmth of God’s love is completely lacking. The worst of the worst are there, including Satan and people who lived treacherous lives—treachery against everyone—family, nation, humanity, God—terrorists are there. Ebenezer Scrooge would have gone there too, had he not turned his life around.
• The 8th level down (next to the worst) intrigues me. It’s the place where corrupt politicians go, along with businessmen and others who cheat people and commit fraud. Financial bandits on Wall Street will make themselves at home there! These crooks will be afflicted by devils with gross names like “Evil Claw” and “Bad Dog.” Not good—not good at all! So, Washington, Wall Street—take heed and repent!
• One Website had a test you could take to see which level would be yours. I took the test, submitted it, and got the answer back: “We are unable to process your answers.” So, I guess you might say, “I’ve been left in Limbo!”

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