Thursday, December 06, 2007

Wright on heaven on earth

[The book of] Acts, which of course begins with the story of the Ascension, never once speaks in the way [...our] whole tradition [...] so easily does. At no point in the whole book does anyone ever speak, or even sound as though they’re going to speak, of those who follow Jesus following him to heaven. Nobody says, ‘well, he’s gone on before and we’ll go and join him’. And for a very good reason. When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, as Jesus himself taught us to pray. We have slipped into the easygoing language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in the sense of God’s kingdom being ‘heaven’, but the early church never spoke like that. The point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. Heaven is the CEO’s office from which earth is run – or it’s supposed to be, which is why we’re told to pray for that to become a reality. And the point of the Ascension, paradoxically in terms of the ways in which generations of western Christians have seen it, is that this is the moment when that prayer is gloriously answered.

- N. T. Wright, 'On earth as in heaven', sermon preached 20th May 2007.

I have posted an sixteen-part series on this necessary corrective to our thinking, singing and expectation about heaven and hope. Wright's sermon is a very interesting brief exploration of "what the kingdom of God looks like when it’s on the road, arriving on earth as in heaven."
Eight points for correctly naming the city.

32 comments:

Michael Canaris said...

Is that North Sydney?

psychodougie said...

i've read his stuff on this subject before (tho not this particular sermon), and generally find it quite helpful.

it doesn't include things like acts 17:32, which speaks of a general resurrection, so i'm not sure if he's included that in his paradigm?

Glen said...

Hi Byron,
Does Wright believe in soul sleep do you think? Don't know if you feel able to comment, just wondered.

Justin said...

Of course, the 'going to heaven when you die' was proposed and believed and assumed by most of my peers while growing up. We had to be re-orientated.

But here is my question: Is anybody *defending* the view anymore? (Not just re-proposing it? Where would I read that? What are the arguments *for* the 'going to heaven when you die' view? Reasonable ones.

Mike said...

Glad to find your series. It sounds like it will be an interesting read!

Anthony Douglas said...

Glenn Davies (always good to drop a name early) did a spot at after college training last week, in which he argued for the intermediate state being 'being with Jesus' as we wait for death to be defeated so we can be reintroduced to our bodies. He saw the thief's 'in paradise' and the saints in Revelation ('How long O Lord?) as examples of the intermediate state.

So Justin, perhaps your question is whether 'going to heaven when you die, and staying there' is defended...

byron smith said...

Michael - no, and I hadn't offered any points (yet), though well done for picking the image last night and asking that question.

Doug - would you be able to expand a little on your question? I'm not sure I've understood what you're getting at. Wright certainly speaks (a lot!) about resurrection. He's written the book on it! His point is that resurrection is not the same thing as going to heaven when you die. Or is your question about his treatment of the general resurrection? A quick skim of his scriptural index in The Resurrection of the Son of God indicates he mentions that passage (Acts 17.31-32) at least four times.

Glen - he doesn't. He believes in a conscious experience of 'being with Christ' (Philippians 1.23). He discusses this explicitly in Resurrection, 216: "Some interpreters [...] speak of the 'sleep of the soul' [...]. But this is almost certainly misleading. [...] Paul [...] does not employ this term ['soul'] when referring to the intermediate state [...] it is the body that 'sleeps' between death and resurrection, but in all probability Paul is using the language of
sleeping and waking simply as a way of contrasting a stage of temporary inactivity, not necessarily unconsciousness, with a subsequent one of renewed activity." My friend Tony Wright (who commented on my previous post) wrote his fourth year project on death and the intermediate state and disagreed with N. T. Wright. Strictly speaking, N. T. Wright is outlining Paul's view in this passage, and he is not entirely ruling out soul sleep, just saying that it is not the only way of reading the 'sleep' metaphor in Paul, and probably not the best way. Later, on p.226, NTW says of Philippians 1 that "Paul describes this in such glowing terms ('better by far') that it is impossible to suppose that he envisaged it as an unconscious state." Wright has probably addressed the question of what he personally believes on this topic a number of times (and I assume he follows what he thinks Paul thinks), but I'm not sure where.

Justin - good question. I have seen a few popular level ones (in sermons), though no careful academic defences. However, the sentiment saturates our songs, particularly hymns of a certain age. I started something of a list back here. And I still think heaven-when-you-die* is the majority assumption amongst (at least Western) Christians.

*Anthony, yes, thanks for reminding us that we're talking about belief in a post-moterm heavenly flight as the consummation or highlight of Christian hope.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Justin: As well as seconding Byron's comment (about heaven-when-you-die saturating the atmosphere in our tradition) I'd like to pick up on your statement that this was proposed and believed and assumed by most of my peers while growing up. We had to be re-orientated.

At various times I've likewise gone through the process of seeing what's wrong with some teaching, attitude, or way-of-behaving, either in myself or the church or whatever. For me, part of this process has always been realising that this thing, that I am repudiating at 22 or 27 or 32 or 38, was already noxious to some other people when they were 15 or 18 or 22. This is mortifying enough, until it occurs to me that I may have been fighting or judging such people back-then, whereas I now find them to be right (or partly right, on this point).

This is all an obvious and standard part of growing in wisdom, so why do I labour it? I labour it because I think it's an evangelical blind-spot: I don't hear or see the appropriate behaviour --- an intellectual form of repentance --- from the movement as a whole.

I have always been uncomfortable with heaven-when-you-die, and other aspects of our tradition reflecting its low (or inadequate) doctrine of creation. But then, at least I know to call it that. Some people do not have this knowledge, and the response can be the simply visceral one of reacting against a felt air of unreality: I just can't believe this stuff.

Wright elsewhere makes provocative use of the parable of the prodigal son to represent the prodigal as the wider culture, and the elder brother as the "faithful" church. This parable has some application here. It's not enough for enlightened individuals to quietly stop defending indefensible positions. We --- more broadly defined --- should repent, and acquire some humility towards people who don't share our (former?) flaws, however questionable the rest of their behaviour.

psychodougie said...

yeah sorry just came back from NTE doing the resurrection strand, and reflecting, it seems to me wright's focus regarding the kingdom of heaven is around the theme of the "protectorate of heaven", not so much the new creation.

that is to say, as he reads the new testament, he sees over and over again (and rightly so), that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead declares him to be Lord over all, thus we need not fear, as we are under his protection.

i readily admit to not having read enough of Wright (noteworthily not having read his 800pg tome you refer to).

but passages like the one i refer to speak not of being in the kingdom (ie protectorate) of heaven, but look forward to the general resurrection.

byron smith said...

Doug - I assure you that an underemphasis on the new creation is not one of NTW's weaknesses.

Bruce - thanks for the reminder. As O'Donovan says, the most fundamental freedom is the freedom to repent.

Gordon Cheng said...

Really struggling here.

Read Wright's sermon 3 times, admittedly only slowed down the third time, because I just wasn't getting it using my normal Evelyn Wood speed reading techniques, which annoys me because I paid good money for that course back in 1982.

Anyway.

It was complex. It was prolix. And I still for the life of me haven't worked out what he was getting at.

One time I copped a speeding fine which I know I didn't deserve, because I knew the car wouldn't go that fast (136 km/h? Come on.)

Anyway, I wanted to defend the charge, but I didn't even get a chance to speak, so I wrote the magistrate a letter saying I was innocent.

He wrote me a nice letter back, which I kept although I'm pretty sure I couldn't find it if my life depended on it.

Anyway, I gather that according to NTW I did the right thing, but I'm not quite sure.

And I will send $50 via Paypal to the first person who shows a link to anything that was actually relevant to the passage he purported to be explaining.

Hope one of you lot can help.

Gordon Cheng said...

PS sorry for all the 'anyways' in that post. And

PPS I am only talking Australian dollars, although our currency has lifted under the latter years of the Howard government, so get in quick.

byron smith said...

Gordon, I'm a little perplexed at your comments. I found the sermon both lucid and challenging. After I had looked up 'prolix', I was all the more confused by your experience. At a little over 2,000 words, this sermon would have taken a little under 20 minutes to deliver - hardly 'tediously lengthy', particularly compared with some churches. And putting it through an automatic language tester (always a risky move) suggests that the language is no more difficult than a high school reading level in terms of 'wordiness'.

Making the sermon a little more complex (though I would say 'rich') is the fact that Wright draws upon the Prayer Book collect for that week, the church calender, the theology of Acts, the passage from Acts 16 (and the verses following), the passage from John 17 (and the chapters following), the Psalms, a verse in 2 Corinthians, the contemporary British political situation, a quote from bishop Stephen Neill (a mentor of Wright, and a co-author with him of The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986), the Western theological tradition concerning 'heaven', and probably more that I haven't mentioned.

This is what might make it feel more complex, as Wright is integrating material and ideas from many sources. However, it seems to me that the central point of coherence is not either of the passages, but the theological concept/reality of Christ's ascension. This is not intended to be an exegetical sermon, but a theological one. Of course every sermon should be both (as well as pastorally applicable), but I'm talking about emphasis.

Thus, this sermon was not (as its primary aim) purporting to explain either passage, though an explanation of both was a crucial part of it. There were two lengthy paragraphs (§§6-7) in which he retold the story in Acts 16 in such a way as to highlight the social transformations that the preaching of the gospel of the reign of the ascended Christ brought to Philippi. These paragraphs were saturated with the passage, and the link (mentioned near both the start and end of the discussion of the passage) was that this story is an example of "what it looks like when the gospel impacts a new community" or This is what the kingdom of God looks like when it’s on the road, arriving on earth as in heaven. This passage is thus part of the story of the church as it proclaims to the powers that their time is up, that God's kingdom in the ascended Jesus has relativised their claims. Paul exorcises a spirit from a slave girl in the name of Christ and this has economic and social implications. Paul and Silas answer a distraught gaoler's plea for safety by welcoming him into the Christian family. The embarrassed local authorities are called to honesty and apology for injustice by those who do not fear them because they submit first to Jesus. The apostolic proclamation of Christ's rule over the powers threatens and transforms the economic, social and political order in Philippi. That's what the passage is illustrating, within a sermon reflecting upon the rule of the ascended Christ.

The penultimate paragraph also drew connections between the passage in John and the ascension's implications for our social and political life. I take it that Wright selected neither passage, but was simply following the lectionary readings. He therefore sought to answer a potential objection to his thesis based on a misreading of John.

Sounds like you probably did do the right thing with the magistrate, though I suspect that Wright is wanting to transform not just our actions, but our imagination. He is inviting us to broaden our assumptions about what it means that Jesus is king, not just for us individually, nor even for us as church, but also for the rest of society. That we are more used to thinking about the first two kinds of implications might also make the sermon more challenging: both to understand as it may be 'new' to us, and to our assumptions and practice.

Hope this helps. Peace.

Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Byron.

My use of the word 'prolix' is probably one of those kneejerk things whenever I see people using 5 words where 2 will do the trick. Perhaps I am being unfair in this case.

I'll go away and have a careful think about the issues of substance you raise.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Perth?

byron smith said...

No.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Brisbane?

byron smith said...

Nope.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Melbourne?

Have you read 'Surprised by Hope' yet?

byron smith said...

Not Melbourne and not yet, since it still hasn't arrived...

Moffitt the Prophet said...

I thought you had received it for Christmas?

I also am waiting, waiting, waiting...(for Acts for Everyone too).

byron smith said...

Well, I "received" it for Christmas in the sense that someone said they had ordered it for me but it hadn't arrived. It might have now arrived but they haven't given it to me.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

I've had it on order at Moore books for a month! What was I thinking?

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Chatswood?

byron smith said...

No.

Craig Bennett said...

Byron is the photo Clontarf?

byron smith said...

No, not Clontarf. I'm looking for the city, not the suburb.

Brandon M said...

NT Wright on Soul Sleep

Here is what NT Wright supports, I obtained this quote from another site:

Wright definitely does not advocate soul sleep. He thinks that the intermediate state is some sort of restful, conscious existence in the presence of the Lord (hence the use of 'paradise' as a description which wouldn't make much sense in terms of soul sleep), until the day of resurrection when we will be re-embodied.

To quote from Surprised by Hope: "all the Christian dead are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though this is sometimes described as 'sleep', we shouldn't take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as 'being with Christ, which is far better'. Rather, 'sleep' here means that the body is 'asleep' in the sense of 'dead', while the real person - however we want to describe him or her - continues.

... it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ, while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called 'heaven', though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn't call it that, and uses the word 'heaven' in other ways." pp.183-184

Explicitly, Wright states that "the Christian dead are conscious" (p. 185). This is from the section in the book on ‘Paradise’, pp. 183-187

byron smith said...

Brandon, thanks for that summary and those references. I had assumed that that was his position, but good to have it confirmed.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

chatswood?

byron smith said...

Many apologies to everyone, especially Michael. The photo is of course North Sydney. I really have no idea why I said that it wasn't back at the start. Perhaps I was just in a phase where I didn't want to offer points immediately in order to give a chance for other discussion to flourish. Eight points to Michael.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Punk :p The search continues...