Thinking about life after death

I've just turned 75, so perhaps that's why I’m more curious than I used to be about life after death. Recently I came across Scot McKnight’s 2015 book The Heaven promise: Engaging the Bible’s truth about life to come (London: Hodder Faith; synopsis here). That reminded me that in 2010 I had read Tom Wright’s 2007 Surprised by hope (London: SPCK), so I dug out my ‘notes’, if you can call them that: 28 pages on a 300-page book.[1] 

Both books pay close attention to scripture, and their exegesis has the same theological result. Both look forward to the new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1) that will replace the current heaven and earth and in which God’s people will have new bodies like those of the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23) and live in God’s presence as they never can on the present earth. Both anticipate that after death and before God inaugurates the new heaven and new earth (a perfected version of the earth on which we live now), his people will live in Paradise (Luke 23:43). I will come back to this below.

This summary just about exhausts the similarities between these books. In other respects they are strikingly different. The heaven promise is a scripturally founded, imaginative account of what Heaven (with a capital H: Scot McKnight’s chosen term for the new heaven and new earth) will be like. Surprised by hope is what I have come to expect from Tom Wright: a detailed exegesis of the biblical passages that relate to the nature of eternal life—so detailed that my 2010 notes won’t fit into a blog post (they are here). The focus of the two books is different. McKnight’s purpose is to show that Heaven is indeed promised to believing Christians (and to answer a number of questions about it that have been often put to him): his focus is on life after death. Wright’s purpose, at least in part, is to show that what the scripture tells us about life after death has a resounding consequence for how we live now. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection inaugurated God’s eternal Kingdom. That Kingdom has already begun, even if much of humanity gives little allegiance to it.[2]  God’s intention is that Christian believers live life now in a way that gives more than a foretaste of Heaven: they are to be part of the means by which God shapes the new earth.

I can’t do anything like justice to Surprised by hope in a few words, so I append my notes here. I have tried to do justice to The Heaven promise on this page, but before I get that far, there is an issue implicitly raised by both books but addressed by neither.

The issue is at root a personal one: I simply cannot get my head around the concept of eternity—I can imagine very little about it. Obviously, 'eternity' is related semantically to 'time'. The question is, how? In his special theory of relativity (1905) Albert Einstein proposed that time is intimately related to space: space and time are inseparable features of the architecture of the created universe. That is, when the universe was created, time was part of that creation. As creator, God is by definition not part of his creation. That is, God is outside time. He lives in eternity, and eternity is where we ‘go’ to be in his glorious presence eternally.

The early Christian imagining of time and eternity is, on Wright’s New-Testament-based account, rather different from this—and I trust his historical expertise and his exegesis. In this view, time is divided into ‘the present [evil] age’ and ‘the age to come’. The ‘age to come’ in early Christian thinking is the age of the new heaven and new earth, into which believers will be resurrected with new physical bodies, but with a physicality immeasurably superior to that of our bodies now, in ‘the present age’. The ‘age to come’ was evidently conceived as following on from ‘the present age’ in chronological sequence, and was the age in which believers would have ‘eternal life’.[3] 

As far as I can tell, Tom Wright does not question this sequence of the two ages. He sees Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension as constituting the breakthrough of God’s kingdom into history, so that the life of the age to come is available now in the present age. Christians are to exemplify the life of the age to come, living and loving the way God designed them. They exemplify this life by living at the intersection of this world and the world of heaven, God’s world.

So we have two versions of the relationship between time and eternity. In the New Testament version, eternity follows the present age. In the Einsteinian version[4]  eternity lies outside (created) time. How do we reconcile the difference? There are (at least) three alternatives. The first asserts that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and so the Einsteinian version is simply wrong. A second says that the Einsteinian version has survived a century of science and is the best account we have, so the biblical account must be dismissed. A third sees Jesus as the Word, and the Bible as a witness to the Word, comprising documents in several genres, each written in a particular cultural and temporal context. We need scholars like Wright with the expertise to interpret these documents in their contexts, and so that we can then see what they are saying to us in our cultural contexts in the 21st century. My preference is this third alternative, with all the risks and complications this may bring.[5]  I realise that some evangelical Protestant readers of this post will object, and that some will think me a liberal—but it is the second alternative above that is liberal. The third has enjoyed support since the early Church Fathers, and has come increasingly to the fore in the writings of evangelical authors.[6]   One reason for this, but by no means the only one, is that the stand-off between ‘religion’ and ‘science’, largely centred in the USA, is a misconception. Christianity and science are both concerned with truth. As there cannot be two alternative truths (unless we embrace postmodernist relativism), we must seek their reconciliation.[7] 

So how do we reconcile the two views of the relationship between time and eternity? What are the consequences of assuming the Einsteinian version of the relationship between time and eternity? Actually, they simplify Tom Wright’s exegesis in at least two ways. The need to account for the period between death in the present age and the inauguration of the age to come disappears: we have no need of the sequence ‘paradise’ then ‘new heaven and new earth’ (or McKnight’s ‘heaven’ and ‘Heaven’), as we die in the present age and exit time directly into eternity. Second, Wright himself visualises earth and heaven as overlapping and interlocking worlds, with Christians constituting their intersection. This interpretation meshes more effectively with the Einsteinian version than the sequential version.

More difficult matters to reconcile—and they are matters on which Wright places emphasis is a number of his writings—are Paul’s concept of our resurrection with bodies of superior physicality (1 Corinthians 15:20–25, 35–58) and the New Testament insistence that the new heaven and new earth will be a recreation of the present heaven and earth. The first of these lies in any case beyond our comprehension, and I confess that the second at the moment defeats me, unless of course the recreation is present in eternity. But it is clear to me that, as the title of one book says, there is a ‘Heaven promise’, and that we can play with the title of the other to assert that we will be ‘surprised beyond hope’.

I still can’t envisage eternity, but if it is the Einsteinian version, I can accept that I am not currently embodied to live outside time or to imagine eternal reality. And I am not faced with the repugnant thought of a life that goes on for ever and ever.
"anchor"
Tom Wright is particularly concerned about the growth since the Middle Ages, and particularly since the mid-19th century, of neo-platonist thinking in western churches. Specifically, the Christian’s future hope has come to look like Plato’s vision of souls departing to disembodied bliss rather than the New Testament picture of bodily resurrection, which Wright’s exegesis so clearly reveals. He associates this change of vision with another change, namely the idea that the goal of salvation is just to ‘go to heaven’, and finds that a return to belief in a physical resurrection into a perfected earth will energise the Church for its work in today’s world.

I realise that I could be seen as slipping afresh into neo-platonism. The simple truth, though, is that I don’t understand the bodily resurrection of which Paul speaks, but I am willing to accept that it means something unimaginably wonderful. And I am privileged to take up the idea that as a Christian I am called to live at the intersection of time and eternity—at the intersection of the present age and the new heaven and new earth.

A final note: there are very few references to scripture here. They are plentifully present in the two books mentioned in my first paragraph and in the footnotes to my notes on them.



Footnotes


  • [^1]   I notice that there are far more books about Heaven out there than I had appreciated. One on my reading list is Alister McGrath's A brief history of Heaven.
  • [^2]   N.T. [Tom] Wright has written in more detail on this and related topics in How God became King: Getting to the heart of the Gospels (London: SPCK, 2012) and The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2016).
  • [^3]   The New Testament Greek term for ‘eternal’ was aiōnios, derived from aiōn ‘age, epoch’, and there is no doubt that this meant ‘lasting an age, perpetual’, and had done so for centuries before the New Testament documents were written.
  • [^4]   I take the liberty of using the term ‘Einsteinian’ as a convenient label. Einstein did not believe in a personal God, and it follows that he did not believe in eternity as I use the term.
  • [^5]   My preference needs justification. This is a complex issue, and I hope to return to it in a future blog.
  • [^6]   See Christian Smith, The Bible made impossible: Why biblicism is not a truly evangelical reading of scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012) and the numerous quotations and references therein.
  • [^7]   The matter is of course complicated. For one thing, reconciling science and Christianity is not itself a ground for the third alternative (this would be a liberal approach). For another, science never claims to know the truth, only to propose theories that more and more approximate the truth.
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