I Want to Go to Heaven, but I’m Not Going to Stay There

Last night I finished N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. When I was writing the blog entry Joe Klein, Rick Warren, and Heaven I came across a review of the book and it piqued my curiosity. Based on my reading of Wright, I realised that I had fallen into the same misconception as Joe Klein.

Both Klein and I were writing from the presumption that dying and going to heaven (or not) is for eternity. It’s not that the New Testament teaches this, but only that it has become presumed in much of Western Christianity, from which I built my theology and Klein has used as his straw man. Wright demonstrates that the New Testament is much more concerned with the Resurrection. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus’ Resurrection (having long been one of the most vocal scholars  in the battle against liberalism and the mythologising of Gospel)  and clarifies how death is simply the way station on the on the road to our own resurrections.

As an Orthodox Christian, I don’t entirely agree with Wright’s view of the saints in heaven, but it is closer than most Protestant perspectives. He is mostly concerned with distinguishing his view from the Roman Church. At times he refers to ideas that have been preserved in Orthodoxy and lost in the West.

In the last part of the book, Wright explains how he sees this theology of the Resurrection as it affects the role of the Church today. While Wright eschews the liberalism of the Social Gospel, as an American Christian, I have not had the same view as Wright regarding the role of the State, particularly in the welfare of the individual or in the intervention with business or the free market in effecting social justice. Unlike some Amazon (and other online retailer) reviewers, I don’t think that this makes Wright a neo-Marxist or neo-socialist. Rather, I think those reviews substantiate Wright’s view that conservative Christians in the US have tied conservative theology and conservative economics so closely together that to challenge any assumption of the latter is to lose any credentials as a proponent of the former.

I think it is good that Bishop of Durham and highest ranking evangelical in the Church of England has challenged some of the presumptions of evangelical American Christianity. Most Americans get very defensive about any challenge to anything American, especially by Europeans. This may be because most European challenges to most things American are based in nonsense rather than good theology. Tom Wright is not talking nonsense. This is not wishy-washy Emerging Church neo-liberal evangelicalism.

This is a book which focuses first on personal and cosmic eschatology. It is not a pop-theology revelation of The Revelation. It is a look at what the New Testament and the early Church viewed as the hope for the Christian, the essence of the Gospel. Wright’s view is that if we are hoping for life after death we are too short-sighted. We have to re-focus on life after life after death and this will change the way we look at ourselves and our place in the world.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Every chapter in it is almost worth the entire price. It is so good that I have ordered copies of it for a couple of friends. Even though I haven’t ordered a copy for you, you need to go out and get it anyway.

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9 Responses to “I Want to Go to Heaven, but I’m Not Going to Stay There”

  1. Steve Says:

    He emphasises the centrality of Jesus’ Resurrection (having long been one of the most vocal scholars in the battle against liberalism and the mythologising of Gospel) and clarifies how death is simply the way station on the on the road to our own resurrections.

    I thought it was (theological) liberals (like Bultmann) who wanted to DEmythologise the gospels.

    After that it gets even more confusing, but then I havne’t read NT Wright.

  2. sol Says:

    Maybe I’m using the wrong terminology. Wright believes the Resurrection really happened and is opposed those who would say it is just a story from which we can draw helpful spiritual meanings or insights.

    Wright isn’t confusing at all.

  3. Mary Says:

    Hoping one of those copies is heading my way…

  4. sol Says:

    I stand by my last sentence.

  5. Michael Says:

    I haven’t read the book by Wright that you’re referencing, so I’m wondering, by “life after life after death,” do you mean the eternal state rather than the “intermediate state” before the Resurrection? If that’s what Wright is talking about, then what does it have to do with Eastern vs. Western theology? It’s true that when people die today, before the return of Christ and the general resurrection, they do not yet go to their final destination. And this is certainly one of the most widely misunderstood doctrines, even among Christians. But I’ve been clearly taught in my circles that “Paradise” (referencing Jesus’ promise to the penitent thief, “Today you shall be with me in paradise”) is one state and the new heaven and new earth after the resurrection is another. I’ve seen the same clear distinction from various Western sources, most notably the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which believes that the intermediate state is unconscious and strongly emphasizes the resurrection. They would believe only in life after death, not life after life after death. So where does the issue of Eastern vs. Western come in?

  6. sol Says:

    Yes, I mean the eternal state. “Life after life after death” is Wright’s catch phrase for the fact that we don’t just die and go to heaven, as is popularly preached and understood. I’m not denying that there are those, such as yourself, who have been taught and understand the resurrection of the dead and the new heaven and new earth. However, Wright addresses the common emphasis on heaven and how this is both derived from and perpetuates a dualistic pietism. Ultimately, Wright is concerned with how whether we live in the hope of a bodiless existence or a new body existence affects how we live our life in this present existence.

    As for ideas perserved in the East, Wright sees it in a variety of things, including the rejection of cremation, the rejection of purgatory, the formulation of the prayers for the dead, and the demonstration of the relationship between heaven and earth in Orthodox worship.

  7. Mary Says:

    How would the difference between a spirit body or new body existence cause a different affect on how we live now? In either case, there is eternal life with our God and thus how we live now is still in accord with His wishes.

  8. sol Says:

    I don’t know what a spirit body is. However, as to how the diiferent views of personal eschatology affect how we live, I refer you once again to the last sentence of my post. 🙂


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