At Easter each year, we celebrate Christus Victor, the victory of our Lord over sin, death, and the devil. It’s the perfect season to reflect on the meaning of the resurrection, and N.T. Wright’s lucid Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Harper, 2008) helps us to do just that.
Why does it matter to say as we do in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body”? N.T. Wright tackles the question with gusto, putting the resurrection back on center stage where it belongs. This begs the question: And exactly what has been front and center? Wright argues that a form of Platonic dualism (even Gnosticism) dominates, where “salvation” has been narrowed to whether we’re ready to go to heaven. Lurking behind such thinking is a downgrading of the importance of our bodies. In this mistaken view, what is important is an immortal soul and whether it’s fit for an eternal dwelling in heaven. Such a position narrows our focus to the next world, undercutting our engagement in this one — more on that in Part 2 of this review.
N.T. Wright maintains that the New Testament does not teach that every human being has an immortal soul. Rather, 1 Cor. 15:53 is clear that what is mortal (our present body) must put on what is “immortal” (our resurrection body). At the same time, Wright affirms that there is consciousness that continues after our death. In an illustration borrowed from John Polkinghorne, he writes (p. 163):
“God will download our software into his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again.”
This post-mortem existence (for the Christian) will be in Paradise (Luke 23:43) or — if your prefer — “heaven,” though Wright reluctantly calls it such. Christians upon their death are with Jesus. This is an interim state that awaits the New Creation at the end of time as we know it, when the entire cosmos will be renewed, and as part of the cosmos, believers will receive a new and improved body, Body 2.0, if you will (my term, not Wright’s), one that can serve meaningfully in God’s Kingdom come to a new earth. In the New Testament, we don’t “go to heaven.” Instead, God in the end brings heaven to us, joining us in the work of New Creation that we as His servants have already begun: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” The interim period is “life after death.” The resurrection will be “life after life after death.”
Since we will be with the Lord forever, we will need a body capable of participating in the advancement of God’s eternal reign. Disembodied spirits simply cannot do that. For this reason, Paul says that when this “earthly tent” collapses, we will “long to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” so that “we will not be found naked” (2 Cor. 5:1-3). To exist only as spirit is to be “naked” — the interim period points us to the greater reality, the resurrection (new creation) of our bodies when Jesus returns.
Where N.T. Wright is silent is the interim dwelling for those who reject God. If at the moment of death the Christian passes into the presence of Jesus, where does the unbeliever pass the interim period? I’ve yet to read the final section of Surprised by Hope, so perhaps Wright will answer the question. He does speak of hell, though very reluctantly. Uncomfortable with a view that hell is eternal punishment, Wright dismisses the belief that unbelievers will simply be snuffed out after a resurrection for judgment (John 5:28-29). The first position seems to deny God’s love and mercy, while the second appears to treat sin too lightly and soft-pedals divine judgment. Wright attempts to find a middle ground, where those who refuse to repent doom themselves through their own habitual sin to a state that is no longer human. Since they will be no longer human, they will be “beyond pity.” His thinking approximates that of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Those who have refused God in this life will of their own free will refuse Him in the life to come. To these, God will finally say: “Thy will be done” as they voluntarily make an eternal journey away from His presence.
The practical value of Surprised by Hope is immense. It clears up confused thinking about the order in which God will bring renewal to His creation, and that creation includes us as humans. Often, we will say of someone who died following a period of physical infirmity: “Well, they’re in heaven now running around.” Yet is that what Scripture teaches? Yes, at the resurrection, we will all have new bodies as part of God’s New Creation, but can disembodied spirits “run around”? Doesn’t that take legs? Instead, it would be better to simply say that our loved ones who died in faith are with Jesus, awaiting the resurrection. God has not yet completed what He began when He raised His Son from the dead, but we can rest assured that “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the da of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). There is an “already” but also a “not yet.” We believe in the resurrection of the body.
But what are the ramifications of our firm belief in the resurrection? If salvation is not “checking out” of this world, but participating with God in the New Creation, how will that inform how we live?
Jesus is Risen! He is risen, indeed.