Is our idea of heaven all wrong?

By John Murawski, Religion News Service… 

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.

N. T. Wright

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 restoring an ancient fresco, scholars have plumbed the New Testament’s Jewish roots to challenge the pervasive cultural belief in an otherworldly paradise.

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. Dr. 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.

Dr. 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. Dr. 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 the putting-the-heaven-myth-to-rest movement is gaining currency beyond the academy. Dr. Wright and Dr. Morse say they have both made presentations on heaven research at local churches and have been surprised by the public interest and acceptance.

The two scholars 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.

“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,” said Trevor Eppehimer of Hood Theological Seminary in North Carolina.

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, Dr. 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,” Dr. 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, Dr. Wright said.

“It’s the recovery of the Jewish basis of the Gospels that enables us to say this,” he 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, Dr. 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. 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.”

He notes that 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 remote galaxy hopelessly removed from human reality. In the ancient Judaic worldview, Dr. 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.”

Dr. 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,” Dr. 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.”

Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Is our idea of heaven all wrong?"

applications-education-miscellaneous.png
The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
rwfitzg
Guest

I suggest you actually read the book before you go on a rant. Clearly the "fathers of the faith" got a lot right, and a lot wrong. They were human.

Wright is a strong proponent of those who have have handed faith to us over the centuries, but that doesn't mean we have to accept all they said and believed. It is the biblical text we should be concerned about, and if we've misread it somehow then a humble Christian would want to know. So read the book, then comment.

john
Guest
I never fail to be amazed at how much the church has had wrong for the last 2,000 years, at least according to modern scholars. As ignorant as folks like Augustine, Thomas, Luther, and Wesley were, it's a wonder the faith has survived all these years. They didn't translate scripture right, they didn't understand the first century culture, they didn't know the historical Jesus, and apparently failed to understand the true faith in all kinds of areas. Yet somehow they spread Christendom throughout the globe. We know so much more now, except perhaps in areas like Africa, South America, and… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Google+
%d bloggers like this: