N. T. Wright Interview: Christians Wrong About Heaven

And to this I must say, Amen!

N. T. Wright is one of the best Bible teachers out there when it comes to eschatology and God’s ultimate purpose for mankind and the rest of the creation. One of the things he loves talking about is “life after life after death”. His point is that “life after death” is not the end. It’s not our final resting place. Heaven, as most Christians think today, is not the end goal of the Christian life. The “end”, instead, is the beginning of life as God always planned it to be. Life after life after death begins with resurrection. And in resurrection the Christian inherits a new heaven and a new earth.

In other words, heaven and earth will finally be one, God will be all in all, and man will finally dwell on the earth as God has always intended it to be. Had God decreed something other than the fall, Adam would have fulfilled his calling to expand the Garden and dwelling place of God on the earth (i.e. – to fill and subdue the planet, Gen. 1:26-28) and his descendants would have been brought into a new heavens and a new earth once the Genesis dominion mandate was fulfilled.

Let us thank God for the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, who fulfilled Adam’s calling and guaranteed a new heavens and a new earth to all who trust in him!

So, why the interview? Well, Wright has just published his second book in a trilogy of books on the essentials of the Christian Faith. Thankfully, Time has interviewed him for us here. I am reposting the interview below. Enjoy!


Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop

N.T. “Tom” Wright is one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought. As Bishop of Durham, he is the fourth most senior cleric in the Church of England and a major player in the strife-riven global Anglican Communion; as a much-read theologian and Biblical scholar he has taught at Cambridge and is a hero to conservative Christians worldwide for his 2003 book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which argued forcefully for a literal interpretation of that event.

It therefore comes as a something of a shock that Wright doesn’t believe in heaven — at least, not in the way that millions of Christians understand the term. In his new book, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne), Wright quotes a children’s book by California first lady Maria Shriver called What’s Heaven, which describes it as “a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk… If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go [there]… When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you heaven to be with him.” That, says Wright is a good example of “what not to say.” The Biblical truth, he continues, “is very, very different.”

heaven angels

Wright, 58, talked by phone with TIME’s David Van Biema.


TIME: At one point you call the common view of heaven a “distortion and serious diminution of Christian hope.”

Wright: It really is. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m going to heaven soon, and I won’t need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That’s a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.

TIME: How so? It seems like a typical sentiment.

Wright: There are several important respects in which it’s unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.

TIME: Is there anything more in the Bible about the period between death and the resurrection of the dead?

Wright: We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.

TIME: But it’s not where the real action is, so to speak?

Wright: No. Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I’ve called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will “awake,” be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.” That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God’s presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ’s kingdom.

TIME: That is rather different from the common understanding. Did some Biblical verse contribute to our confusion?

Wright: There is Luke 23, where Jesus says to the good thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” But in Luke, we know first of all that Christ himself will not be resurrected for three days, so “paradise” cannot be a resurrection. It has to be an intermediate state. And chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation, where there is a vision of worship in heaven that people imagine describes our worship at the end of time. In fact it’s describing the worship that’s going on right now. If you read the book through, you see that at the end we don’t have a description of heaven, but, as I said, of the new heavens and the new earth joined together.

TIME: Why, then, have we misread those verses?

Wright: It has, originally, to do with the translation of Jewish ideas into Greek. The New Testament is deeply, deeply Jewish, and the Jews had for some time been intuiting a final, physical resurrection. They believed that the world of space and time and matter is messed up, but remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. Belief in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity, both theologically and morally. But Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies. The church at its best has always come back toward the Hebrew view, but there have been times when the Greek view was very influential.

TIME: Can you give some historical examples?

Wright: Two obvious ones are Dante’s great poetry, which sets up a Heaven, Purgatory and Hell immediately after death, and Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel, which portrays heaven and hell as equal and opposite last destinations. Both had enormous influence on Western culture, so much so that many Christians think that is Christianity.

TIME: But it’s not.

Wright: Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do.

TIME: That sounds a lot like… work.

Wright: It’s more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music. In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it’s a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.

TIME: And it ties in to what you’ve written about this all having a moral dimension.

Wright: Both that, and the idea of bodily resurrection that people deny when they talk about their “souls going to Heaven.” If people think “my physical body doesn’t matter very much,” then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn’t matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.

TIME: That’s very different from, say, the vision put out in the Left Behind books.

Wright: Yes. If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.

TIME: Has anyone you’ve talked to expressed disappointment at the loss of the old view?

Wright: Yes, you might get disappointment in the case where somebody has recently gone through the death of somebody they love and they are wanting simply to be with them. And I’d say that’s understandable. But the end of Revelation describes a marvelous human participation in God’s plan. And in almost all cases, when I’ve explained this to people, there’s a sense of excitement and a sense of, “Why haven’t we been told this before?”

4 thoughts on “N. T. Wright Interview: Christians Wrong About Heaven”

  1. It reminds me of Randy Alcorn’s book on heaven – a very thorough look. He did a good job pointing past the common view of “heaven” to the new heavens and earth. I’m not quite sure I would say they are the same since scripture refers to them as two things, but they will surely not be foreign – one from the other. But then again, I have not really looked at it critically in a couple of years.

    I’d be curious to see how close Wright’s view of the “intermediate state” of “resting and being refreshed” comes to the idea of soul sleep.

  2. Drew, thanks for the comment(s). 😉 I think I’ll hold back on putting any more tags… Hehe

    Well, I will point you to a couple of things regarding your first comment. To clarify, I came to strong convictions about Wright’s position through my class in New Testament Theology by G. K. Beale that I took last year through Gordon-Conwell Semlink.

    There are several reasons to believe that the new heavens and new earth represent heaven and earth as finally being one.

    1) In the beginning, God called Adam to expand the Garden. The Garden was where God came to dwell and it was the first temple. By definition, the Bible teaches that heaven is the place where God dwells. I think All Christians should agree on that.

    2) The same thing occurred with Israel and their temple. The Holy of Holies was where God dwelt. It was heaven on earth. Also, Beale makes an extremely convincing argument in his book, The Church and Temples Mission, that the Israelite temple was a micro model of the entire creation. But, as you know, the Israelite types were only shadows of what was to come on a global scale.

    3) Given that Adam was to expand the temple/garden and fill the earth with God’s presence, filling the earth with God’s image bearers and making the whole earth suitable for God to dwell, God original intent was to make heaven and earth one. This was Adam’s calling and task, which he failed at completely.

    4) Christ was the Last Adam and completed what the first did not. This is why Christ gives us the great commission, to go and make disciples of all nations (fill the earth with Christ’s image bearers through this) in order to prepare for His return and the revealing of the new heavens and the new earth.

    5) In Revelation 21, the new heavens and new earth are only mentioned in the first verse. “Why?” Beale asks. Because the next part is a masive city coming down from heaven. Beale says that the new city is simply another way to represent the new heavens and the new earth. The city descending from heaven represents heaven and earth becoming one. The city is not in a certain location on the earth… the new Jerusalem IS the new earth. In other words, the city where God and Christ dwell FILLS the entire earth. This is the same idea that Paul brings us when he tells the Corinthians in chapter 15 of the first letter that God will finally “be all in all.”

    6) The ultimate purpose of Creation was not for God to remain separate from it. God’s purpose was always to be “all and in all”. Peter says in 2 Peter 1:4 so that “you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Having been made in God’s image, we were always meant to enjoy full UNION with God in a new heavens and a new earth where heaven and earth are finally one and God’s dwelling place (not omnipresence) is in every square inch of the world.

    Those are my thoughts, in brief. If you want to discuss more, I would love to. I may have to spell check this later, but I think it gets my points across, even with some grammar or spelling errors. 🙂

  3. Here is what NT Wright supports

    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

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