Sunday, July 04, 2010

Sunday Readings: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope

The Christian hope is not simply for' going to heaven when we die,' but for 'new heavens and new earth, integrated together.'...

What are the results of construing the Christian hope in this way? It gives us a view of creation which emphasizes the goodness of God's world, and God's intention to renew it. It gives us, therefore, every possible incentive, or at least every Christian incentive, to work for the renewal of God's creation and for justice within God's creation. Not that we are building the kingdom by our own efforts. Let us not lapse into that. Rather, what we are doing here and now is building for God's kingdom. It is what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3.10-15: there is continuity between our present work and God's future kingdom, even though the former will have to pass through fire to attain the latter. It is also clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 15.58: the conclusion of Paul's enormous exposition of the resurrection is not an outburst of joy at the glorious life to come, but a sober exhortation to work for the kingdom in the present, because we know that our work here and now is not in vain in the Lord. In other words, belief in the resurrection, the other side, if need be, of a period of disembodied life in the Lord (cf Cor 15.29), validates and so encourages present Christian life, work and witness.

A suspicious reader might, perhaps, think that this is sliding down the hill towards some kind of naturalism or even pantheism. That would be quite wrong. This same theology, precisely because it speaks of a renewed heaven and earth, rules out any sort of pantheism such as (for instance) you find in New Age theology at the moment. It emphasizes that creation is good, but in need of renewal and restoration by a mighty act of God, parallel to the resurrection of Jesus. We cannot divinize nature as she stands; were we to do so, we would be locking ourselves in the cabin of a ship that is going down, since nature as she stands is subject to the long, slow (to our eyes) process of decay. 'Change and decay in all around I see'; but that does not mean that the cosmos is evil, merely that it is not divine.

The Christian hope cannot, therefore, collapse into individualism ('me and my salvation'). If we allowed it to, we might be making a similar mistake in our theological context to that of first century Israel in her theological context. We would imagine that God's whole purpose focused on us and us alone, instead of seeing grace as summoning us to be God's agents in mission to and for the whole world. (This, I suggest, is the way to a proper construal of being in the image of God-not simply that we as humans are somehow like God, a rather impressive thing to be, but that we as God's image are to reflect his saving, healing love into the rest of God's creation.)

As for the use of language, therefore, I suggest that it is all right to use the word 'heaven,' so long as we remember that it refers to God's dimension of present-to-hand reality. If we talk about' going to heaven,' we strictly speaking should remember that that means' going to be with God, with Christ, until the time when God makes new heavens and new earth and gives humans new bodies appropriate for citizens of this realm.' The language of 'going to heaven' is so ingrained in us that I sometimes despair of correcting the false impressions that are thereby given; but I think the attempt must be made. Another example from a popular hymn, 'Sun of my soul, thou saviour dear'; after a devout and humble sequence of prayer, the last verse suddenly turns from Christianity to Buddhism:

Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take;
Till in the ocean of thy love
We lose ourselves in heaven above.

One suspects that many devout Western Christians are blithely unaware of the way in which that thought, of the soul leaving the physical world and becoming lost, a drop in the ocean of disembodied reality, manages at a stroke to deconstruct the New Testament picture of the future life.

Should we continue, then, to speak of 'souls' at all? I see no problem with the word in principle (as Lewis Carroll suggested, you can use words how- I ever you like as long as you pay them extra on Thursdays); you can say 'soul,' as long as you are committed to meaning by that 'a whole human being living in the presence of God.' Soul-language, within a Christian context, is a shorthand for telling a story of that sort, a story about the way in which human beings as wholes are irreducibly open to God. It is not, within Christian theology, a shorthand for a story in which a partitioned human being has a soul in one compartment, a body in another, and quite possibly all sorts of other bits and pieces equally divided up. We can then continue to (use the word 'soul' with fully Christian meaning; but we should be careful, l because the language has had a chequered history, and may betray us.

The language of 'soul' is telling a story; the trouble with shorthands is that they can become absolutized. The story is of a person as a person living with God and towards God, , departing and being with Christ.' I prefer not to push beyond where Scripture takes us on such things; Paul does not speculate as to what more precisely happens when one has thus' departed.' In 2 Corinthians 5.1-5 he is stressing that the eventual goal is a totally renewed vi' body, not a disembodied spirit. It is natural for us to use the language of separation of body and soul, in order that we then have a word available to talk about the person who is still alive in the presence of God while the body is obviously decomposing, But we should not think of the soul as a part of the person that was always, so to speak, waiting to be separated off, like the curds from the whey.

The language of immortality itself, then, has to be held within the whole sweep of thought from creation to new creation. Some churches, I have noticed, have stopped saying merely, of the departed, 'may they rest in peace,' and have added 'and rise in glory.' That, it seems to me, is a thoroughly proper thing to say of those who have gone on ahead of us...

Christian hope, therefore, is for a full, recreated life in the presence and love of God, a totally renewed creation, an integrated new heavens and new earth, and a complete humanness complete not in and for itself as an isolated entity, but complete in worship and love for God, complete in love for one another as humans, complete in stewardship over God's world, and so, and only in that complete context, a full humanness in itself.

Of course, the most glorious feature of the whole renewed creation, the new heavens and the new earth, will be the personal presence of Jesus himself. 'When he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is' (1 John 3.2). Or, as another hymn puts it, 'And our eyes at last shall see him/ Through his own redeeming love' (though the hymn then spoils it somewhat by implying that this seeing will be in 'heaven above,' rather than in God's complete new-heaven-and-newearth new creation.) Since the Greek word for 'presence,' particularly for 'royal presence,' is parousia, it seems to me that that word is misunderstood if we think of it as simply' coming.' Jesus will indeed 'come again,' from the perspective of those still labouring here in the present earth; but I believe it is more appropriate, and more biblical, to see Jesus' personal presence, within the glorious renewed cosmos, as the ultimate feature of Christian hope. But that is another subject, for another occasion.

-NT Wright
from his talk The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope

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