N.T. WrightMost Bible scholars talk only to other Bible scholars, but the work of N.T. Wright has reached far outside the academy. He serves as Bishop of Durham, travels and speaks widely, and is creating a library of his own writing—it is not unusual for two new Wright books to appear each year. He is perhaps best known to Christian fans as the man who argued an extensive historical case for the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ (in "The Resurrection of the Son of God"), and to Christian foes as the man who has challenged the received wisdom on thorny theological topics such as justification.

In his latest book, "Surprised By Hope" (HarperOne), Wright offers a newly accessible version of his resurrection argument, and directly takes on an issue that is sure to surprise, bother, and disorient many of his evangelical fans: heaven, Wright says, is "not the end of the world."

Beliefnet's Patton Dodd recently spoke with Bishop Wright about his views on heaven, hell, and the resurrection of Jesus.

You say that many Christians today have the wrong idea of heaven. What's wrong with the normal view?

In a word, heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world. The Bible gives us a two stage post-mortem reality. When Jesus said to the dying thief, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” it was Good Friday. Jesus doesn’t rise again for two days yet. "Paradise" is a word for a beautiful garden where you go to be rested and refreshed before you go on to somewhere else. Jesus says in John 14, “There are many dwelling places in my father’s house.” "Dwelling place" doesn’t mean a place where you live forever and ever. It means a wayside inn, a nice place to go and be refreshed and rested before you then continue your journey.

So, heaven is stage one. There’s nothing wrong with saying you die and go to heaven. It just doesn’t stop there.

After heaven…resurrection?

Yes. Many Christians have tended to treat the word "resurrection" as simply a fancy word for life after death, and it isn’t. It’s a very precise word for life after life after death. Resurrection is a newly embodied life on a new earth after that initial phase of paradise.

Western Christians have imagined that, at the end of the day, God is going to throw the present space-time universe into a trashcan and we’ll be sitting on clouds playing harps. The ultimate future that we’re promised is much more interesting than that. It’s new heavens and a new earth with new bodies to live in. The last passage in the Bible is about the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, not about souls going up from earth to heaven.

What about the alternative? What do you believe about hell?

The word "hell" has a checkered career. In the New Testament, "Gehenna" [the term translated as "hell"] is the smoldering rubbish dump outside the southwest corner of Jerusalem. To be sure it has other, bigger resonances, but when Jesus talks about being condemned to Gehenna, the first thing it means is, "If you, Jerusalemites, don’t come the way of peace, your entire city is going to be transformed into a large-scale extension of your own smoldering rubbish dump." That is the very sharp-edged warning in the gospels. Hell is actually something that happens on earth when people don’t follow God’s way of peace.

So Jesus' warnings had urgent, this-worldly implications. But are we also meant to see in those passages an eternal aspect to God's judgment?

It is ultimate as well as penultimate. I’m not a universalist, and the way I talk about final loss is this: People worship idols--money, whatever. Their humanness gets reshaped around the idol—you become like what you worship. That's one of the basic spiritual laws. If someone chooses to go that route, what they are choosing is to collude with the deconstruction of their own humanness.

That’s a lot of big clunky words for saying that they are in love with death. They don’t know it, but that’s what it is.

God has made us in His image. And if we choose to say, “I’m going to deconstruct myself,” then, God, with great sorrow, will say, “Okay, go ahead.” He’ll keep on wooing us and calling back to us: “Do you really want to do this? Are you sure?”

So hell is necessary as part of the ethics of heaven.

Otherwise, it’s chaos. Unless God hates child murderers, child rapists, whatever, then God is a bad God.
But God wants them to change. If they say, “No, this is the way for me to be human. I like doing this stuff,” then God will say, “Well, I’m sorry. There is no place in my new creation for somebody who insists on remaking their own humanity in that deadly way.”