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a parsing parson
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The following article is about an interview with Anglican Bishop N. T. (Tom) Wright. I have been reading some of his Theological tomes for over 15 years now. I have probably 7 or 8 of his books. Some are highly academic; others written for the layman. He is well respected in Biblical studies circles through-out the church, even in Rome. He has 'Catholic' friends in high-places - as well as critics - and his critics are present in Protestant realms, too...they think he is too Catholic. I think he is as good a Pauline scholar as many these days, and better than most.
Note to non-Protestant readers of this blog: The below material is written by a fairly conservative and orthodox Protestant publishing company. Does it differ from your understanding?
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Anglican Bishop Says Resurrection Commonly Misunderstood
The Wired Word for February 17, 2008
In the News
Last week, TIME magazine featured an interview with N.T. "Tom" Wright, the bishop of Durham (England), in which the cleric maintained that the common view of heaven is a distortion of what the Bible actually teaches. He also said that as a result, many people miss the real hope about life after death that the Bible presents.
The article was published under the sensational title "Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop," but what Wright, who is the fourth most senior cleric in the Church of England, was actually talking about is what the Apostles' Creeds calls "the resurrection of the body."
In the interview, Wright said that the usual view of heaven as an otherworldly place where you go after death if you were good in this life is unsupported in the New Testament in three ways.
The first unsupported view, Wright contends, concerns timing. Many people assume we go to heaven immediately after death, but Wright points out that the apostle Paul said clearly that Christ has been raised from the dead already but that nobody else has yet.
The second view that Wright says is unsupported regards our physical state in the resurrection of the dead. Many people assume we live on after death as a disembodied soul, but Wright says the biblical view is that we receive a resurrected body.
And the third view Wright says is a misunderstanding of Scripture concerns location. He points out that the gospels nowhere say, "Jesus has been raised; therefore we are all going to heaven." Rather it says that Jesus is coming here to join together the heavens and the earth in an act of new creation.
In another interview, this one with the preaching journal Homiletics, Wright explained it this way: "The word 'resurrection' has commonly been used by Christians for many years now to mean effectively, 'life after death.' So that when people read the Easter story they think, 'Isn't that wonderful? Jesus died, then he was raised, then he went to heaven; well, we'll die, we'll go to heaven and that's pretty much the same thing.' And they miss the whole point of the bodily resurrection, which has to do with 'new creation,' because most Christians … don't actually have in their minds a picture of what resurrection really is, which is: a new bodily life after a period of being bodily dead."
Wright went on to say, "resurrection is not life after death, it's life after life after death. We're talking about a two-stage post-mortem reality. A time of being bodily dead, and then -- if you want to talk about going to heaven, then that's what's going on at that point. But then, the new heavens and new earth that were promised will form the theater or stage within which we'll be given new bodies to live within God's new world." (Quoted with permission from Homiletics.)
In the TIME interview, Wright explained that Jesus' resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return, and that part of that event will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will "awake."
Wright said that the common misunderstanding came in part from the translation of Jewish ideas into Greek. The Jewish view was that although the world of space and time had gotten messed up, as God's creation, it was still basically good. Thus, "God will eventually sort it out and put it right again," Wright said. The Greek-speaking Christians who were influenced by Plato, however, "saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies."
Wright said that the Greek view has been very influential, but that at its best, the church has always come back to the Hebrew view.
The bishop also says that what the New Testament actually says is that "God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfill the plan, you won't be going up there to him, he'll be coming down here."
The TIME interviewer noted that the scenario Wright laid out sounds like "work," to which Wright responded, referring to the traditional view of heaven. "It's more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music." He went on to say, "In Revelation and Paul's letters we are told that God's people will actually be running the world on God's behalf."
More on this story may be found at this link:
The Big Questions
1. What do you find appealing in the explanation of resurrection Wright offers? What do you find troubling?
2. What implications does the view of bodily resurrection have in terms of how Christian should regard the physical, created world?
3. What is the difference between "the immortality of the soul" and "the resurrection of the body"? Which one is the Christian view?
4. In terms of how you live your life today, does it make any difference whether you understand resurrection as a bodily event or an event of the soul only? Explain your answer.
5. How do theological discussions such as this one affect your personal faith in Christ?
Confronting the News with Scripture
Here are some Bible verses to guide our discussion:
"[the Lord] will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces ." (For context, read 25:6-10a.)
"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (For context, read 12:1-4.)
No matter how Christians understand resurrection, the Bible is clear that in God's ultimate plan, death loses, and everlasting life is the destiny for the righteous.
Question: How do these verses from the Old Testament apply to the understanding of resurrection in the New Testament?
1 Corinthians 15:22-23
"... for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ." (For context, read 15:12-26.)
Bishop Wright is referring to such verses as this one from Paul when he maintains that the New Testament says Christ has been raised but that no one else has yet. Here Paul says quite plainly that there is a divine timing in the order of the resurrection, that the resurrection of "those who belong to Christ" awaits Christ's return.
Questions: Does Paul's statement have to be read as a timetable? If not, how should it be understood? What expectations were present in Paul's day about the timing of Christ's return?
"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (For context, read 23:39-43.)
These words are Jesus' response from the cross to the dying thief, who asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. In the TIME interview, Wright said that this Bible verse has caused a misunderstanding of the timing of resurrection. He explained that whatever "paradise" is, it has to be an intermediate state because Jesus himself would not be resurrected for three days, and thus paradise cannot equal resurrection.
Questions: Does "today" in this Bible verse have to be understood as meaning "immediately after we die"? How else might it be understood?
1 Corinthians 15:42-44
"So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body." (For context, read 15:35-57.)
Be sure to read the entire context for these verses, for it is the New Testament's primary passage about the resurrection of the body. In popular notions about life after death, the picture is often that our body decays and our soul sort of floats up to God and lives on. This concept is sometimes called "the immortality of the soul," and frankly, that is not what Christianity teaches. This mistaken idea has it that we can be separated into two parts -- a physical part that is mortal and dies, and a spiritual part that is immortal and cannot die. As long as one trusts God and follows Christ there is perhaps no great harm in picturing things that way, but it does miss some important affirmations of Christianity about the sovereignty of God.
Actually Christianity teaches not immortality, but resurrection, and it goes like this: When a person dies, his or her whole being dies, body, mind, soul, spirit -- every aspect of that person dies. But then, for those who have accepted God's grace, God, who gave them life in the first place, gives it to them again. We all go to the grave completely expired, every part of us 100-percent deceased. But then, in God's own time, he raises the faithful, not resuscitating the old body, but giving the person a new resurrected body. That's what Paul is saying in the passage above.
Resurrection is significantly different from immortality. To suggest that the soul is immortal puts it on a par with God. If our souls cannot die, then why do we need God? We'd have the ability to prevent our own extinction. As opposed to this idea of immortality, resurrection says that God comes to the faithful dead with a new gift of life and re-creates us -- not just the soul part of us but all parts of us.
Thus the Apostles' Creed's insistence that we believe in the resurrection of the body, for in biblical thought, we don't just have a body, we are a body. We are not just spiritual beings trapped inside a prison of flesh. Rather, the body is part and parcel of who we are, and resurrection tells us that in eternity, the faithful in Christ will function as full beings -- body, mind, soul, spirit.
In short, Christianity's teaching is that: 1) human beings are a unity of soul and flesh, 2) our earthly life does not exhaust the meaning of whom we are created by God to be, and 3) immortality is not something we inherently possess, but is given to the faithful in the next life as a gift of God.
Question: What images would you use to explain the difference between immortality and resurrection?
"And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them .'" (For context, read 21:1-8.)
These verses are among those to which Bishop Wright refers when he talks about the location of heaven. Note that this passage refers the new Jerusalem "coming down out of heaven" and of the home of God being "among mortals," which suggests that it is not some otherworldly place but a remade creation here.
Questions: Are there other ways of interpreting these verses in terms of the location of the kingdom of God fully come? What are they?
Questions for Further Discussion
1. Comment on the following, heard in a sermon: "The doctrine of the resurrection of the body helps us to picture a time when the reoccurring sinfulness that is within us will be removed. If our souls were immortal, it would mean that we would go into eternity with the same character flaws, prejudices, sins, distorted viewpoints and self-centeredness that interferes with our lives in the here and now."
2. One Christian said this about the resurrection of the body: "I find this distinction between immortality and resurrection very comforting. Who wants to be immortal if it merely means wandering around forever as some sort of disembodied ghost with no place to call home? I'd rather have resurrection, which comes with Christ's assurance that even death cannot cut me off from God's love and care. The same God who loved me enough to give me life to begin with loves me enough to give me life again." Do you agree with his perspective?
3. How does 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 fit into today's discussion? It reads, "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first."
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