Trevin Wax’s readings of N.T. Wright is how I first came across his work, and his recent post comparing the early Wright and the later Wright on heaven serves as an excellent example of why he’s one of the brightest lights in the Christian blogging world:

According to the preface of Small Faith, Great God, Wright doesn’t believe that his earlier (wrongheaded) notions of heaven do any substantive damage to the book. I agree. But this leads us to an internal contradiction. Most of Wright’s work on this subject presupposes that getting this doctrine wrong does inflict damage – even severe damage – to one’s understanding of Christian theology and our task in the world. That’s a contradiction that leaves Wright’s readers in a conundrum.

Trevin goes on to cite a theme I’ve sounded before:  “heaven” functions as theological shorthand for a much more complex set of beliefs about the afterlife that includes the resurrection of the dead, even if it’s not emphasized as much as we all might want.

Yet I was intrigued by Wright’s own reservations about his earlier work, as I found more there to agree with than he seemed to.  Consider this bit on Phillipians 3 from Wright’s later work:

When Paul says, “We are citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King – all of those were of course imperial titles – will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. (Surprised by Hope, 100).

Wright is correct that Paul doesn’t use “citizens of heaven” to point to where we go after we die.  But he’s wrong to interpret Paul’s phrase through the subsequent clauses.  Paul’s point in that phrase is about our current status, rather than our future resurrection.  Paul goes on to say that we await Christ’s return from that place, but our citizenship for Paul is–in one important sense–not here.

What Paul does in Phillipians 3 can’t be understood properly, I think, without his personal revelation in Phillipians 1:23 that he longs to “depart” this world and “be with Christ.”  For Paul, there is no contrast between waiting for the return of the King and longing to join him where he is now.  While Phillipians can’t be understood without a robust pneumatology, Paul also recognizes that there is something even better about being with Christ in his bodily presence than we have in our union with him through the Holy Spirit.

The point hinges on what “heaven” is for Paul, and here I think the traditional evangelicals have it exactly right that “heaven” is primarily the place of God’s presence. In fact, in Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright states regarding Phillipians 1:23, “This is the clearest answer we ever get from Paul to…the question of an intermediate state.  He does not speak of ‘going to heaven,’ though he presumably would have given that as the present location of the Messiah. His present life is defined in terms of the Messiah, and his future life will be as well.”

This understanding of “heaven” as primarily the place where Christ dwells bodily and, as a result, a proper object of our longing makes more of Wright’s early work salvageable.  Consider:  “We lift our hearts to heaven, where our citizenship belongs and where Christ himself is, and we taste here in our colony the food that is eaten in the mother city. And we long, naturally and rightly, for the day we will be there ourselves.”

While it’s easy to see how such language could minimize the bodily resurrection, the opposite danger is possible as well. For Paul, what makes the bodily resurrection significant is Christ and our fellowship with him (to the point of having bodies like his).  His unremitting focus is where Jesus is and how we can join him there, even if that means dying and departing from this world.   If we maximize the bodily resurrection to the point where it drowns out passages like Phillipians 1:23 (as Wright’s later writings tend to do) we will miss the fullness of the ways in which Paul’s theology shapes our longing for God.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

3 Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ntwrightnews and Joel Lindsey, Trevin Wax. Trevin Wax said: @MattLeeAnderson writes about N.T. Wright, Heaven, and the Future Resurrection | Mere Orthodoxy http://bit.ly/dUFwvd […]

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  2. Richard Worden Wilson December 18, 2010 at 1:31 am

    There was a response to NTWright’s apparent recent denials of a heavenly future presented at Wheaton last April by Markus Bockmuehl: “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?” You can view or listen here:

    He pretty well tore him up.

    There is nothing like an author her/himself to defend a point of contention. My guess is that NTWright sees more compatibility than contradiction in this case because he was the same believing person growing toward a different understanding within the same larger framework, and especially one that sees the need to contend against the other-worldly emphasis of much of the churches’ teaching on the afterlife. This appears to me to be more a “pastoral” or “preaching” emphasis that a purely historical-exegetical one.

    The theological interpretive problem regarding that “more complex set of beliefs about the afterlife” is, it seems to me, that New Testament eschatology has a multiplicity of trend lines that don’t converge into an altogether coherent whole. There are strands of focus on the intermediate “go to be with Jesus in heaven when I die,” Old Covenant prophecies of the faithful being exalted to rule on earth, as well as prophecies and visions of the apostles or believers ruling over the nations from heaven, and there are plainly promises of being bodily resurrected, but whether to a heavenly existence or within a restored creation isn’t necessarily clear in each case. There seems to be enough divergence of perspectives to both provide a variety of future outcomes which God might fulfill and perhaps to provide various “reward” states if that is God’s will for the faithful.

    I wouldn’t quite go as far as saying that “for Paul, there is no contrast between waiting for the return of the King and longing to join him where he is now,” but rather that there is no contradiction. Paul would certainly acknowledge the difference.

    The ultimate need and challenge is to somehow grasp more of the diversity of Second Temple eschatological expectations that form the background matrix that gets transformed through the teaching of John the Baptist, Jesus especially, then that of the Apostles. It is no doubt the case that a greater sense of balance is needed between the major prophetic focus on the resurrection to a bodily existence in a renewed creation and the heavenly-spiritual focus that reflects our personal devotion to being with Christ above all else. However, it seems unlikely that one would be committed to the former without the latter, whereas the reverse is not apparently the case!

    It seems to me that it is especially needed at this time in the church’s life that a refreshing new concentration on the original conceptual context in which the New Testament witness was conceived and written, over against, or perhaps rather above and beyond, the trend lines of much of what is believed and practiced even by traditional evangelicals. This is what NTWright provides more than many, if not most, other Christian scholars. This is why his work pushes us all to dig a little deeper into the New Testament while we question whether his or our inclinations better represent the NT witness, and why even though much of his thought makes us uncomfortable and we might wish we could, we really can’t dismiss or ignore him.
    All the best in Christ,
    Richard

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    1. Richard,

      Thanks for the fantastic comment. I agree with just about everything, including your revision from “contrast” to “contradiction.” Precisely right.

      I’d never want to dismiss or ignore Wright. I’ve learned plenty from him, and I think his stuff on the Gospels in particular is simply fantastic.

      At the same time, there is a tendency within those who are trying to understand the “original conceptual context in which the New Testament witness was conceived and written” to view the Bible simply as perpetuating that context, rather than altering it and (at points) repudiating it. While that context may help for understanding the NT, theology is not historical sociology and neither will that context ever properly explain the text itself. I think the address by Richard Hays at Wheaton got into this a little, but I could be remembering that incorrectly.

      Matt

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