2016-06-30
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.”Back to happier matters. Let’s talk about the resurrection some more.

That’s much more fun.

Some say the story of Jesus' resurrection became so popular because people in the "first" century (1–100 CE) were more likely to believe such things, and that today we're not likely to get caught up in such nonsense. Do you think there is a kind of ancient credulity associated with the tradition of Jesus?

C.S. Lewis said the reason Joseph was worried about Mary’s pregnancy was not that he didn’t know where babies come from, but that he did. First-century people weren’t stupid. Pliny and Plato and Homer and Cicero and Seneca—all sorts of people faced the question, “Could dead people rise?” They can imagine it happening, but they know it doesn’t. The early Christians lived in a world where everybody took it for granted that dead people don’t rise. It was just as absurd when Paul said it in Athens as it was when I said it in a lecture in London last week.

By the same token, you believe that there is sufficient historical evidence to support belief in the resurrection.

Yes. It's not so much one piece of compelling evidence, but there are 1,000 pieces of evidence, which, when you put them together as any detective or historian would, you say these are all going in a particular direction.

The way I’ve done it, very simply, is to say, Let’s look at ancient beliefs about life after death, and let’s look at ancient Christian beliefs about life after death. The unanimity of the early Christians' beliefs about life after death is a fact of enormous significance. The early Christians all say they believe in bodily resurrection, which hardly any of them would have done a few years before. So how come they all believe that if it’s so bizarre, if it didn’t actually happen? What do they say happened? And that's the point at which you can face down the arguments because, again and again, the arguments of the skeptics just run into the brick wall of history.

Explain one of those beliefs, one of those 1,000 pieces of evidence.

For instance, Jewish burial at that time was almost always a two-stage burial. First, you wrap up the body and embalm it and put it in a tomb on shelves [where there are] more bodies. After somewhere between one and three years, that body will have decomposed. And then you say, “Well, great uncle Joe, he’s just bones now, so we will get a little box and we will fold up his bones and put them in an ossuary (a bone box). And we’ll either store that at the back of the cave somewhere or maybe a different burial ground all together.” We've found thousands and thousands of those bone boxes. That’s how it was done—it’s a secondary burial.

Jesus was buried in a rock tomb of that sort. If the ordinary procedures had been followed, then at a certain point somebody would have come back and said, “Well, I guess Jesus is thoroughly decomposed now, we better do the thing with the bone box,” at which point the game would have been up. With the nature of Jewish burial, it would have been kind of obvious that he hadn’t been raised.

In Surprised By Hope, you also talk about cultural ramifications of the resurrection event as evidence for a literal interpretation—such as how Sunday became the day of worship for Christians because they believed Jesus was raised on that day.

Yes, Saturday was absolutely endemic in the Jewish world, but for the early Christians, Sunday becomes the key day from very, very early on. It’s there in 1 Corinthians, written within 25 years of Jesus’ death.

Another thing is, we have lots of evidence about early Christian worship. There is no evidence of anyone worshiping at Jesus’ tomb, but lots of evidence of other Jews worshiping at the tombs of martyrs and so on.

How do you expect people who do not believe to respond to this kind of information?

Let's be clear. This doesn’t force anyone to believe in the resurrection. What it does is clear away the undergrowth behind which skeptical arguments have been hiding, and force a choice of worldviews.

I gave my big book on the resurrection ["The Resurrection of the Son of God"] to my old philosophy teacher. He’s a lifelong atheist. And he read the whole thing and said, “Great argument. I see exactly where you’re going. I choose to believe that something else must have happened to the body, even though I have no idea what that was.”

He’s a very clear-headed philosopher and he knows exactly what he’s doing. And my argument does not force him to believe. It forces him to the recognition that it is a worldview choice.

What would be your personal hope be for your average skeptic regarding all this, if they read either "Surprised by Hope" or the "The Resurrection of the Son of God"?

I would hope and pray that they would say, “My goodness, maybe it is actually conceivable. I need at least to hold my mind open to that possibility. And I owe to myself and my humanness to examine the evidence, the arguments for myself, and to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, etc. and just see if maybe there is a worldview within which this makes sense, and maybe I ought to be part of that.”


I have one more related question. It’s a big question, but I hope you can give me a layman’s answer. What we know—or think we know—and believe is such a mixture of our time, our place, our personal experiences, and the amount of information that we’ve been presented with. How does knowledge work, in your view? How we can be sure of anything, especially anything that requires faith?

Most of the things that really matter require faith. How do I know that my wife loves me? How do I know that Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony is sublime and beautiful? There are all sorts of things which come at a more lowly level than that--how do I know that two plus two equals four? There are different layers, different types of knowing. When people discuss how we know things, they tend to go in one of two directions. Either there is objective evidence that you can see: "This is a table.” Or it’s subjective: “I like eating fish on Fridays.”

But in fact, most of the things that really matter are at a different level, which includes objective and subjective.

How do we operate at that other level of knowledge? And how can we be sure of what we find there?

Here the notion of love is hugely important. When I love someone, I say, “I’m glad that you’re you and that you’re not a carbon copy of me. You’re free and you’re not conditioned by who I am.” Love is not just tolerance. It’s not just distant appreciation. It’s a warm sense of, “I am enjoying the fact that you are you.”

In the same way, when I love Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, I’m not just loving the bits that I can sing or whistle. I’m loving this awesome thing, which I can’t even hold all in my head, but which does things to me.

Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony is an objective thing. It’s out there. There’s the musical score. There are the recordings. Go and listen to them. But, my knowledge of it is not just that I know what the notes are. I know that it ends on a wonderful bottom C. But my knowledge of it is that it is an intimate, loving thing, which makes me more human.

So forget the objective-subjective divide and think about love, which carries both of those into a new place.

So love is a way of making sense of something new, strange, or wonderful. How does this relate to the resurrection?

Sometimes when we are faced with things that just don’t fit our worldview, we attempt either to ignore them or to squash so that they do fit. That’s what we’re asked to do many times in our lives, like when you fall in love. Somehow, I’m going to have to rethink all sorts of bits of who I am and what I think I know about the world because there is this massive new reality which is forcing me to change.

The resurrection does that. You cannot fit the resurrection of Jesus into pre-existent worldviews, Jewish, Christian, pagan, whatever. You need to develop the genuine Christian worldview, which says, “Put this in the middle, and you’ll see everything else clearly.” You can’t prove it by saying, “Two plus two equals four. Here are five arguments, therefore you have to believe the resurrection.” That’s inviting people to put the resurrection into the worldview they’ve already got.

Instead, the resurrection needs to challenge the worldview they’ve already got and say, “It meshes with that but it challenges it, and you’d be much, much better to have a bigger worldview that would include it.”



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