I’ve been reading Tom Wright’s book ‘Surprised by Hope’ and he is very adamant that it isn’t. His main contention in the book is that the main focus of preaching and teaching in the western church has been about ‘fitting us for heaven’. It’s the place Christians go when we ‘shrug off this mortal coil’. There’s no better achievement than to leave this world behind and for our immortal souls to live eternally with God. It’s the focus of much of Evangelicalism – saving souls. It’s reinforced by our hymns, prayers and liturgy. And it’s also utterly wrong, or at least short-sighted, according to Wright.
To focus on heaven as an end point is to bow to a Platonic understanding of life – essentially, what is physical is undesirable, what is spirit is to be desired. It’s a dualistic world-view where physical is bad and spiritual is good. And yet, when God created the universe (the physical) He declared that ‘it was very good’. Furthermore, the teaching of the New Testament does not give heaven as our final destination. We are not destined for some nebulous, cloud-sitting, harp-playing, spiritual existence. The focus of the Gospel, the good news, is that ‘death has been defeated’. Not in some spiritual sense but it bodily actuality. The resurrection of Christ bears testimony to that. He is the ‘first fruits’. He is the pattern to which we will all, one day, be conformed – a new, physical, life, not bound by death and glorified by God. And what’s more, this is not a promise for people, but is for all creation. After all, where are the physical to live if not in a new world – a new-created and joined heaven and earth? And that resurrection body overcomes the decay of death, not by our own power, but by that of the Spirit.
This is the main thrust of Wright’s book and he explores some of the implications of this. Perhaps the single, biggest implication is for the here-and-now. In re-creating us in resurrection life, God affirms the goodness of creation, of physicality. Life matters! And it matters in the here-and-now as well. What we have, in the gift of the Spirit now, is a foretaste of that resurrection life, albeit a pale shadow, seen in a mirror dimly. Wright suggests that in the new heaven and earth, there will be work to do. We will be called to fulfil our duties as stewards of creation – a duty we’ve largely failed at now. Our Spirit-filled life now should be a reflection of that. The purpose of evangelism is indeed salvation, but not for the sake of ‘saving souls’ (that’s back to the dualist view of physical bad/spiritual good), but for bringing people to Christ so that they may know the Spirit and thereby be empowered to bring about God’s kingdom on earth (Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven) as a foretaste of the full glory yet to come.
And yes, there’s still a place for heaven, hell and judgement but you’ll need to read the book for that (or catch me in a quiet time to blog about it).
This is the first time I’ve read any of Wright’s work, apart from a brief foray into it last semester for academic purposes. But, I have to say, so much of what he writes (in this book anyway) resonates deeply with my own outlook. As my theology has been shaped by my learning at uni, I’ve been aware of many gaps. I’ve also been aware of deeper discontent with the Evangelical focus on a future in heaven (often to the detriment of our duties on earth). This book has filled in some of those gaps (or at least given me much raw material with which to start filling them in) and I look forward to reading more of Wright’s work. I’m told that his commentary on Romans is excellent, so I guess I’ll have a busy reading list over the summer.