N.T. Wright asks: Have we gotten heaven all wrong?

RNS photo courtesy HarperOne

(RNS) The oft-cliched Christian notion of heaven — a blissful realm of harp-strumming angels — has remained a fixture of the faith for centuries. Even as arguments will go on as to who will or won't be “saved,” surveys show that a vast majority Americans believe that after death their souls will ascend to some kind of celestial resting place.

But scholars on the right and left increasingly say that comforting belief in an afterlife has no basis in the Bible and would have sounded bizarre to Jesus and his early followers. Like modern curators patiently restoring an ancient fresco, scholars have plumbed the New Testament's Jewish roots to challenge the pervasive cultural belief in an otherworldly paradise.

Christian apologist N.T. Wright's insistence that Christianity has got it all wrong seems to mark a turning point for the serious rethinking of heaven.

Christian apologist N.T. Wright's insistence that Christianity has got it all wrong seems to mark a turning point for the serious rethinking of heaven.

The most recent expert to add his voice to this chorus is the prolific Christian apologist N.T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop who now teaches about early Christianity and New Testament at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. Wright has explored Christian misconceptions about heaven in previous books, but now devotes an entire volume, “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” to this trendy subject.

Wright's insistence that Christianity has got it all wrong seems to mark a turning point for the serious rethinking of heaven. He's not just another academic iconoclast bent on debunking Christian myths. Wright takes his creeds very seriously and has even written an 800-plus-page megaton study setting out to prove the historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus.

“This is a very current issue — that what the church, or what the majority conventional view of heaven is, is very different from what we find in these biblical testimonies,” said Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary in New York. “The end times are not the end of the world — they are the beginning of the real world — in biblical understanding.”

Still, the appearance of a recent cover story in Time magazine suggests that putting-the-heaven-myth-to-rest movement is gaining currency beyond the academy. Wright and Morse say they have both made presentations on heaven research at local churches and have been surprised by the public interest and acceptance.

“An awful lot of ordinary church-going Christians are simply millions of miles away from understanding any of this,” Wright said.

Wright and Morse work independently of each other and in very different ideological settings, but their work shows a remarkable convergence on key points. In classic Judaism and first-century Christianity, believers expected this world would be transformed into God's Kingdom — a restored Eden where redeemed human beings would be liberated from death, illness, sin and other corruptions.

“This represents an instance of two top scholars who have apparently grown tired of talk of heaven on the part of Christians that is neither consistent with the New Testament nor theologically coherent,” said Trevor Eppehimer of Hood Theological Seminary in North Carolina. “The majority of Christian theologians today would recognize that Wright and Morse's views on heaven represent, for the most part, the basic New Testament perspective on heaven.”

N.T. Wright's 'How God Became King'

N.T. Wright's 'How God Became King'

First-century Jews who believed Jesus was Messiah also believed he inaugurated the Kingdom of God and were convinced the world would be transformed in their own lifetimes, Wright said. This inauguration, however, was far from complete and required the active participation of God's people practicing social justice, nonviolence and forgiveness to become fulfilled.

Once the Kingdom is complete, he said, the bodily resurrection will follow with a fully restored creation here on earth. “What we are doing at the moment is building for the Kingdom,” Wright explained.

Indeed, doing God's Kingdom work has come to be known in Judaism as “tikkun olam,” or “repairing the world.” This Hebrew phrase is a “close cousin” to the ancient beliefs embraced by Jesus and his followers, Wright said.

“It's the recovery of the Jewish basis of the Gospels that enables us to say this,” Wright said. “We are so fortunate in this generation that we understand more about first-century Judaism than Christian scholarship has for a very long time. And when you do that, you realize just how much was forgotten quite soon in the early church, certainly in the first three or four centuries.”

Christianity gradually lost contact with its Jewish roots as it spread into the gentile world. On the idea of heaven, things really veered off course in the Middle Ages, Wright said.

“Our picture, which we get from Dante and Michelangelo, particularly of a heaven and a hell, and perhaps of a purgatory as well, simply isn't consonant with what we find in the New Testament,” Wright said. “A lot of these images of hellfire and damnation are actually pagan images which the Middle Ages picks up again and kind of wallows in.”

Wright notes that many clues to an early Christian understanding of the Kingdom of heaven are preserved in the New Testament, most notably the phrase “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” from the Lord's Prayer. Two key elements are forgiveness of debts and loving one's neighbor.

While heaven is indisputably God's realm, it's not some distantly remote galaxy hopelessly removed from human reality. In the ancient Judaic worldview, Wright notes, the two dimensions intersect and overlap so that the divine bleeds over into this world.

Other clues have been obscured by sloppy translations, such as the popular John 3:16, which says God so loved the world he gave his only son so that people could have “eternal life.”

Wright offers a translation that radically recasts the message and shows how the passage would have been heard in the first century. To hear it today is to experience the shock of the new: God gave his son “so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God's new age.”

“And so it's not a Platonic, timeless eternity, which is what we were all taught,” Wright said. “It is very definitely that there will come a time when God will utterly transform this world — that will be the age to come.”


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John Murawski


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  • When N.T. Wright wrote about the physical nature of the resurrection, and the fact that heaven will be a transformed earth, he was attacked for teaching a “Mormon” view of the afterlife, even though he does not mention Mormons or their specific beliefs anywhere in “Surprised by Hope”. He responded to his critics by noting simply that the Mormons have been more careful than others in reading the New Testament.

    A Mormon might suggest that this is just one example where some of the Mormon beliefs that traditional Christians find most outrageous are precisely those which demonstrate an affinity for First Century Christianity. Mormon beliefs and practices are very consciously intended as preparation of church members to live in the literal Kingdom of God on a literal transformed earth. That includes most specifically their belief in the eternity of marriage and of family relationships.

  • Surprised to read this. IMO, Wright is ‘off his rocker,’ here. There’s a major division in Christianity between those who hold that you get rewarded AFTER this life, after death, in Heaven; and those who hold that paradise comes here and now, in THIS world. The former way promotes humility and daily sacrifice and Hope; the latter way promotes inflated expectations and thus selfishness, world-wide solutions (taking matters into their own hands), and even messianic claims (e.g. Hitler). The former way WAITS for the return of the king; the latter way will lead to Antichrists (Matt. 24:23-24). As Christians, we are “not of this world” (Jn. 15:19). We have “no permanent city here” (Heb. 13:14). The world itself will give birth with violent birth pangs to the age to come, and will be destroyed, in the process. This is no Heaven, by my book.

  • You will be relieved to hear that this is not Wright’s position, David.

    And “this world” is not referring to the physical realm in which we dwell – take a look at a good NT Greek dictionary.

  • Nothing new here…

    Sounds like a Protestant learning to be Catholic, or maybe he took a peak at the Catechism of the Catholic Church? The Catholic position has always been THIS world is transformed, restored to its original pristine, immaculate state – in Genesis God creates the world and looks at his creation and says ‘it is good’. Man is led into sin by Satan and the world is corrupted. Jesus restores it – from Revelation, “Behold I make ALL THINGS new!”

    Catechism of Catholic Church:
    At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be RENEWED:

    The Church . . . will receive her perfection only in the glory of heaven, when will come the time of the RENEWAL of all things. At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to man and which attains its destiny through him, will be perfectly re-established in Christ.

    Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious RENEWAL, which will TRANSFORM humanity and the world, “new heavens and a new earth.” It will be the definitive realization of God’s plan to bring under a single head “all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.

    The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be TRANSFORMED, “so that the world itself, RESTORED TO ITS ORIGINAL STATE, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just,” sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ.

    Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

    At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. Then the just will reign with Christ for ever, glorified in body and soul, and THE MATERIAL UNIVERSE ITSELF WILL BE TRANSFORMED. God will then be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), in eternal life.

    God bless you.

  • I should like to add, the Catholic position has always been the world never ends, but it is transformed, restored to its original state.

    And that is why the title of a famous Catholic book on the time of the end is titled, “End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life” by Charles Arminjon. Note the deliberate use of the word ‘Present’ in the title – the text speaks to how this present world never ends but instead is transformed, restored to its original glory. The current book A While Longer has a chapter on the End of the World and says the same things.

    God bless.

  • Genesis and the Pauline epsitles do not teach that God is restoring creation to Eden or some prelapsarian utopia but rather a new creation. The meta-narrative many have read into the Bible (God made creation perfect, human sin ruined it so God had to send Jesus to fix it) doesn’t jive with either scripture or science. Millions of years before humans existed suffering and death did. When we came on the scene we too were viciously fighting for survival against nature and each other.

    Human sin is not responsible for why evil, suffering and death exist. Genesis 3 is not about a fall downward into depravity but a fall upward into recognizing our true created state: Fallible, finite, incomplete, free-will beings who are destined to find their wholeness in God and be transformed/redeemed into what he has destined us to be. It’s a happy ending but we’ve got the beginning all wrong.

  • Heck, we haven’t even gotten Earth straight yet, how would anyone think we have begun to scratch the surface of “heaven.”

  • I am so infuriated at continuing references to The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Like everything about God can be contained between the covers of any book, or within the walls of any library, or many libraries. How dare we presume to belittle such infinite considerations as God and the attributes of God and pop things of religion? There is a line from an opera story title after the Devil, “Mefistofele.” The line is in reaction to a beautiful woman, but it holds true for anything of beauty: “Arrestiti, sei bello!” Translation? “Stop, stay, you are beautiful.” That’s all. Just soak it up. Contemplate. Don’t speak as if you can describe the Infinite, not even partially.

  • lutherans are looking for a new heaven and a new earth the home of righteousness . as Jesus said my kingdom is not of this earth .

    our pastors could show him why Millenarianism is not biblical.

    yet even they must admit a man convinced aganist his will .
    most often keeps his same opinion still .

  • I can’t believe it’s taken a major theologian this long to say all this. I’ve known this for over thirty years – maybe because I was given a key book on heaven and hell (which was, I believe, a Christadelphian book!) by the late great Jim Punton in 1981. Then I married an ex-Christo whose family were still in the Christos – they may be raving fundies but they have it absolutely right about the new heaven and new earth. About time other Christians learned this.

  • Dadgommit! I’m a conservative Baptist in the Bible belt and I have never thought of heaven as some “Platonic, timeless eternity” with harps and clouds and floating around like a bunch of zombies. Wright talks as if we ALL believe that malarkey, and so, voila!, he writes a book on the “real” heaven to clarify things for us. And the next thing that happens, is that people–who ARE untrained and fragile sheep–get confused about it all, and think that their fundamental beliefs in God’s Kingdom have come under attack. Read the book. Fine. Let is challenge you. Great! But don’t tell me that I’ve “got it all wrong,” and that I need N.T. Wright to lead me back to the path. I’m really sick of that.

    ahem…God bless.

  • I see heaven as a solid white space filled with joy and completeness, with an infinite numbers of infintiely long lines of many colors, vibrating with the feelings. I see people as the lines.