Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals: Answering the Challenge of N. T. Wright
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N.T. Wright believes that many Christians have it wrong about life after death. In his 2008 book, Surprised by Hope, the Bishop of Durham (England) and noted Biblical scholar argued that many Christians have allowed a fuzzy mixture of more contemporary teachings about life after death, reincarnation, and Stoic and Gnostic ideas of body/mind dualism to weaken if not replace what he sees as the clear witness of scripture and the teaching of the church. So pervasive is a non-biblical vision, Wright asserts, that “most people have little or no idea what the word resurrection actually means or why Christians say they believe it.” (Surprised, p. 12)
Christians are partly to blame for this state of affairs, notes Wright. Too many Christian hymns, stories, and sermons perpetuate reassurances that death happens only to the body, not the “important” part of a person. Wright maintains that Christians are called to correct such views and confess a biblical understanding of resurrection.
Getting the Theology Right
A biblical, Christian understanding of resurrection begins by affirming bodily resurrection. The body of Jesus is raised from the dead, not just his soul. After the resurrection, his body has some unusual abilities to interact with his environment (appearing inside locked rooms or suddenly disappearing, for example), but he remains physically embodied in every way. Jesus eats, drinks, walks, talks, breathes, retains the scars from his crucifixion, and even cooks a breakfast for his disciples. Wright confidently asserts that such a mysterious yet very much physical resurrection is at the core of the true hope awaiting Christians, as individuals, after death.
But not immediately at death. Rather than moving from this life to the resurrection, Wright asserts, “all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness… firmly held within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Christ,” awaiting resurrection (pp. 171-172).
We are resting in God’s keeping, but this “waiting state” is not “heaven,” nor is “heaven” the name of our final destiny. Rather, citing Revelation 21 and 22, Wright notes that earth is heaven’s destiny. We do not go there. Heaven comes and dwells among us, raised and embodied, here, as part of the remaking of all things including a new heaven and a new earth.
And the new earth and new heavens are part of an entirely new cosmos. God’s intention in salvation from the beginning, says Wright, is nothing less than the rescue and recreation of all things, including but not limited to humans or earth. “The wrath to come,” to use John Wesley’s phrase, is not primarily about destroying sinful humans, but rather about a remaking of all things, restoring them, with the redeemed in Christ, to God’s purposes from the beginning.
This, then, says Wright, comprises a biblical, Christian vision of life, death, resurrection and the new creation. We die and are buried. We are held in God’s keeping. God renews and restores all things, the whole universe, wedding a new heaven with a new earth where all those raised with Christ dwell in resurrected bodies.