Together We Wait: How N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope Changed My Views on Heaven

[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joni Thue received her Associate of Arts degree from Western Christian College (2008) and obtained a Bachelor of Education in Secondary Education (English major, Visual Art minor) from the University of Regina (2013). She taught for two wonderful and chaotic years at Balfour Collegiate and Regina Christian School. She is wife of almost 6 years to Daniel and mother to 8-month-old Eden. She loves being at home with Eden and wants to stay there for the next number of years, but plans to eventually return to teaching and perhaps pursue a Masters degree in the English Arts program. Right now, though, she is more than happy figuring out things like sleep and watching teeth poke through gums.]

You should know: As I wrote this piece I heavily consulted my dad, Lee Patmore (of the Lloydminster Church of Christ), who co-wrote portions and edited as well. Thanks Dad, for your contributions as well as pointing me to this book in the first place! 🙂

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons [and daughters] of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons [and daughters], the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18, italics added)

The last time the Riders won the Grey cup, I spent the afternoon sitting on a padded chair allowing my thigh to be struck, and struck, and struck with inky needles, knitting the words together we wait forever into my flesh. Ever since I had read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope almost two years earlier, my faith had been renewed. You see, for years I had this notion, largely because I had heard it both explicitly and implicitly in hymns and sermons, that when we die, our souls drift up to heaven, where we float around in a ghost-like fashion, doing things like harp-playing and singing praises. Our purpose as Christians, as it tells us in the great commission (Matthew 28), was understood to me as saving souls so that at the end of times they would be released from their fleshly prisons and leave this world, where we would finally be with God. Heaven, then, as it is popularly pictured, would be a cloudy, landless place we might arrive at by climbing a grand staircase–emphasis being that it is not here.”This world is not my home / I’m just a-passin’ through,” we sing, with all our Christian hope pinned on the idea that one glorious day God will rescue us and reward us for our servitude toward Him by removing us from our imperfect bodies and this thorny world.

stairs-to-heavenIn Wright’s Surprised by Hope, he asserts that this bodiless heaven is not actually a biblical notion, stating  that “there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die'” (18). The way that I had viewed the ultimate Christian hope – an other-worldly, bodiless existence – appears to be how most Christians perceive it today, but this is not the way hope is framed in the bible.  Instead this is a view which finds a home in the minds of the ancient Greek philosophers, most notably Plato (427-347BCE). This philosophy of a bodiless hope is what Paul encountered famously in Acts 17 when he, in presenting the gospel of the resurrected Jesus, was sneered at. The Athenians thought the idea of resurrection absurd. They were longing for the day to finally be free from the prison of the body. Who would want a resurrection?  Wright advocates that this Platonic view, although clearly not the view of early Christians, became popular hundreds of years after Christ as the Greek mindset gained a stronghold in the church (Gnosticism) and continues to be widely accepted today. Christians today have replaced what the early church believed—that our ultimate hope lie in resurrection – with a soul-admittance-only heaven, far away from this material existence. (Yes, there is an interim period after death where without our bodies we are with Christ. But this is not pictured in the bible as our final destiny; it is a period of waiting, waiting for resurrection.) Whenever the kingdom of heaven is mentioned by Jesus, it “refers not to post mortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven'” (18). Heaven, as explained by Wright (and please, just go read the book for a much more detailed explanation), “is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life–God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever” (19). Heaven and earth are interwoven, so to speak, in a way that we can’t understand: “God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they retain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles” (116).

The focal point of our hope, then, is on the imagery in Revelation 21-22, when God will make all things new and will bring a new Jerusalem, like a bride for her husband, so at last we will receive our adoptions as the sons and daughters of Christ (Romans 8:23), when death and decay will be defeated. Hope is not found in an elsewhere, an escape to an other-worldly dimension, but in a redemption of this earth. Romans 8 depicts this intense yearning from all creation—not humans exclusively—to be liberated, groaning like a mother in labour for the birth of something new. Our sin corrupted God’s good creation; to deal with sin—really deal with it—the curse must be reversed. When Jesus rose from the dead it signalled the start of the new heaven and new earth and will allow us to rise and be with him and the renewed creation. Jesus appeared transformed as the “beginning and firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:18), the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), the first to defeat death. While I had always put some emphasis on Christ’s resurrection, I always viewed the climax of the biblical story as the crucifixion, the forgiveness of sins; my newfound hope demanded the resurrection take the spotlight. Jesus has risen, and we will rise, too: for it is in this hope we were saved.

New-Earth-610x351

Once the skewed, popular version of heaven collapses, the Christian hope is no longer focused on leaving; the Christian mission, then, is not about saving some immaterial part of human beings – their souls – but is much more holistic than that. Our bodies, says Paul, are scheduled for redemption and our mission, therefore, is about participating in God’s mission to redeem and transform the whole of the created order. Wright explains that “because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now” (191). The hope of this redemption doesn’t rely on the ability of humans to accomplish it; neither are we to imagine somehow that the slow process of evolution will eventually bring us to utopia. But this does not mean we are tasked with nothing to do but sit back and relax until God completes this transformation. In the words of Wright:

To hope for a better future in this world–for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and the homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world–is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that immediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present. It is a central, vital, and life-giving part of it. (191-192)

Wright insists that what you do now “will last into God’s future” (193); that activities such as teaching, building schools, seeking justice–even painting or making music for God “are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom” (193). As stated previously, it’s not that we, as humans, are capable, by our own determined efforts to bring in the new heaven and new earth–the Bible is very clear that only God is able to complete this transformation–but we can be assured that the work we do now will somehow have a place in God’s kingdom. As Wright points out, at the end of 1 Corinthians 15 when Paul is addressing resurrection at length, he doesn’t tell his readers to sit back and relax until God brings it all about; he says: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Your passions, be it baptizing or finding homes for the homeless, is not in vain; it is valuable, it is vital, and it is important work towards God’s kingdom.

As I sat on that chair in 2013, I tried to focus on the hope the tattoo was representing: skeleton alongside creation, representing myself, long gone, but waiting for my bodily resurrection. Together we wait, creation and I, for God’s final transformation of new heaven and new earth. Today it reminds me that passions and desires that have long been mine, to heal this world in much more physical ways than soul-saving, to express myself through music and art, are not something bolted onto the side of real Christian mission but are central and integral to the work of proclaiming God’s kingdom. While I realize permanently etching this concept on my thigh doesn’t scream great idea to many–hey, maybe it won’t be there when we’re all like, transformed and stuff.

Joni tattoo

Works Cited:
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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