Friday, February 8, 2008

Christians Are Wrong About Heaven

I just came across a fascinating Time Magazine interview with N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, in which he takes on the dualistic body-versus-soul view of the afterlife espoused by many Christians in favor of what I agree is a more biblically and creedally orthodox view. Here's how the interview is introduced:

N.T. "Tom" Wright is one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought. As Bishop of Durham, he is the fourth most senior cleric in the Church of England and a major player in the strife-riven global Anglican Communion; as a much-read theologian and Biblical scholar he has taught at Cambridge 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 his new book, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne), Wright quotes a children's book by California first lady Maria Shriver called What's Heaven, which describes it as "a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk... If you're good throughout your life, then you get to go [there]... When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you heaven to be with him." That, says Wright is a good example of "what not to say." The Biblical truth, he continues, "is very, very different."

Read it all.

I note that there's a chapter in Bishop Frank E. Wilson's Faith and Practice (Morehouse, 1967) entitled "Paradise" that supports Bishop Wright's argument. According to Wilson, during the first fifteen centuries of the Church's life it was taught that there are "three stages of life - first, the probationary stage in this world; second, the waiting stage in Paradise; third, the final completion in heaven" (p. 234). "All through the writings of the early Church Fathers," he continues, "it appears again and again - an Intermediate state for waiting souls" (p. 235). Wilson argues that the Reformers strong reactions against the doctrine of Purgatory and related teachings about "a Treasury of Merits and Indulgences" helped to blur the lines between the intermediate and final stages, such that we ended up with what Wright is attacking as contrary to scripture - namely, that we go straight to heaven as disembodied souls after we die. So regardless of whether it's the influence of Greek philosophy, or the Reformers going too far, or some combination of both, Wright and Wilson are recovering a more biblically faithful theology of "the afterlife."

(You can watch a story and interview with Wright about all of this here.)


Anonymous said...

Wright also dealt with this issue in his book For All the Saints . There is a very good study guide to this book at the St. John-in-the-Wilderness Episcopal Church's Adult Education site:

Bryan+ said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your comment and for sharing the link to the study guide. It looks like good stuff.

Robert Schmid said...

While I have not read any books by N.T. Wright, I do agree with his premise that “We don’t go to heaven when we die.” Death is the absence and opposite of life, not life in heaven, hell or purgatory. Since we live in the computer age, we should all be familiar with the fact that hardware is useless (dead) without software, just like software is useless (dead) without hardware. Not until we bring the two together do they become useful (alive). It is the same with man. Man consists of a body (hardware) and a spirit/mind (software) and as long as they are together they are useful, the man is alive. At death the body (hardware) returns to the dust where it came from, and the spirit/mind returns to God (put in storage) who gave it to begin with. The Bible says the dead know not anything. The man is dead, and his only hope is a resurrection from the dead when the body and his spirit/mind are brought together again.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your comments, Robert. This reminds me of something Wright says in the TIME Magazine interview:

"John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: 'God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.' That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God's presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ's kingdom."

Robert Schmid said...

Bryan, after (finally) reading the Time Magazine interview with Tom Wright, questions came to mind in regards to the period between death and resurrection. Wright says that “we know (do we?) that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed.” That sounds to me like that we will be in heaven after all, when we die? So, which is it? Are we, or are we not?
Wright also speaks of this time period as an “intermediate state” that will be “conscious” and yet “like being asleep.” This comes across as a contradiction in terms. When I am asleep I am not conscious, and when I am conscious I am not asleep. He writes, “that the period after death is a period when we are in God’s presence but not active in our own bodies.” What does that mean? Does it mean that we are active in someone else’s body?? Yes, “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware…,” but, does that mean we are conscious, in heaven, not really dead after all?
Sorry, I know, these questions need to be asked of N.T. Wright, but maybe you care to make some comments, just in case I misunderstand what is being said.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your great questions, Robert. The shortest response would simply be to say, "Read Wright's book Surprised By Hope!" And I encourage you to do so if you find all of this interesting.

I probably won't answer all of your questions sufficiently (again, Wright's book is the place to go for in-depth discussion), but perhaps the following passages from Surprised By Hope will be helpful. It's part of a section entitled "Paradise":

" ... all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though that is sometimes described as sleep, we shouldn't take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as 'being with Christ, which is far better.' Rather, sleep here means that the body is 'asleep' in the sense of 'dead,' while the real person - however we want to describe him or her - continues" (p. 171).

Wright goes on:

"This state is not, clearly, the final destiny for which the Christian dead are bound, which is, as we have seen, the bodily resurrection. But it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called heaven, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn't call it that and uses the word heaven in other ways" (pp. 171-172).

In light of all of this, I have a question for Wright. If the authentically Christian view of personhood and of "life after death" signals a rejection of the neo-Platonic/Gnostic view that embraces body/soul dualism, then in what specific way does it make sense to talk about "the real person" apart from his/her body? Does that fall back into the very dualism Wright argues against?