N.T. Wright’s works have had many good effects. Inspiring eager readers to police people’s use of heaven is not one of them. “Heaven” in much of evangelical discourse functions as shorthand for a whole nexus of ideas that are, well, pretty Biblical and not nearly as opposed to the body as Wright made it seem. The difference is one of emphasis, which is important but not everything.
To underscore the point, I decided to excerpt a little from Earthen Vessels about D.L. Moody’s understanding of the body.
D.L. Moody was one of America’s most famous preachers in the early 1900s and a central figure in one of evangelicalism’s dominant strands: the revivalist movement. The revivalists have been (often justly) criticized for developing a theology that was inwardly focused and a piety that is wrapped up in spiritual experiences; all the sorts of things that generally accompany distaste for the physical body.
Moody, however, has a more nuanced view of the body than we might expect. Consider what he wrote before dying, a passage that his son would use to open his biography:
Someday you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody of East Northfield is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal—a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body. It is as clear a statement about the hope of the resurrection as one could possibly hope for.
When it comes to the afterlife, N. T. Wright is correct that Moody’s focus is on “heaven,” which Moody thinks is “up there,” and that it is a place where we will someday “go.”
But even though Moody reads John’s description of “streets of gold” rather literally, heaven is not a glorious place because of the stones or the physical splendor but because of the presence of the triune God. Throughout his sermons, Moody is always focused on the center of theology—God. But the center doesn’t consume everything else, and Moody never rejects the resurrection of the body. In fact, in his sermon on the resurrection of Jesus, he suggests that it and the cross are the “chief cornerstones of the religion of Jesus Christ.” And that has serious implications for us as believers:
We shall come up from the grave, by and by, with a shout. “He is the first fruits;” he has gone into the vale, and will call us by and by. The voice of the Son of God shall wake up the slumbering dead! Jacob will leave his lameness, and Paul will leave his thorn in the flesh; and we shall come up resurrected bodies, and be forever with the Lord.
Moody clearly isn’t bashful speaking about the resurrection of the body, even though he emphasizes the presence of God in the afterlife rather than the resurrection of our physical bodies.