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The New Testament Doesn’t Say What Most People Think It Does About Heaven

The Pilgrims ascend, circa 1910. Scene from "The Pilgrim's Progress," by John Bunyan. - The Print Collector via Getty Images
The Pilgrims ascend, circa 1910. Scene from "The Pilgrim's Progress," by John Bunyan. The Print Collector via Getty Images

N. T. Wright is the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University and the author of over 80 books, including The New Testament in Its World. His new book is God and the Pandemic.

One of the central stories of the Bible, many people believe, is that there is a heaven and an earth and that human souls have been exiled from heaven and are serving out time here on earth until they can return. Indeed, for most modern Christians, the idea of “going to heaven when you die” is not simply one belief among others, but the one that seems to give a point to it all.

But the people who believed in that kind of “heaven” when the New Testament was written were not the early Christians. They were the “Middle Platonists” — people like Plutarch (a younger contemporary of St Paul who was a philosopher, biographer, essayist and pagan priest in Delphi). To understand what the first followers of Jesus believed about what happens after death, we need to read the New Testament in its own world — the world of Jewish hope, of Roman imperialism and of Greek thought.

The followers of the Jesus-movement that grew up in that complex environment saw “heaven” and “earth” — God’s space and ours, if you like — as the twin halves of God’s good creation. Rather than rescuing people from the latter in order to reach the former, the creator God would finally bring heaven and earth together in a great act of new creation, completing the original creative purpose by healing the entire cosmos of its ancient ills. They believed that God would then raise his people from the dead, to share in — and, indeed, to share his stewardship over — this rescued and renewed creation. And they believed all this because of Jesus.

They believed that with the resurrection of Jesus this new creation had already been launched. Jesus embodied in himself the perfect fusion of “heaven” and “earth.” In Jesus, therefore, the ancient Jewish hope had come true at last. The point was not for us to “go to heaven,” but for the life of heaven to arrive on earth. Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” From as early as the third century, some Christian teachers tried to blend this with types of the Platonic belief, generating the idea of “leaving earth and going to heaven,” which became mainstream by the Middle Ages. But Jesus’ first followers never went that route.

Israel’s scriptures had long promised that God would come back in person to dwell with his people for ever. The early Christians picked this up: “The Word became flesh,” declares John [1:14], “and dwelt in our midst.” The word for “dwelt” means, literally, “tabernacled,” “pitched his tent” — alluding to the wilderness “tabernacle” in the time of Moses and the Temple built by Solomon. Studying the New Testament historically, in its own world (as opposed to squashing and chopping it to fit with our own expectations), shows that the first Christians believed not that they would “go to heaven when they died,” but that, in Jesus, God had come to live with them.

That was the lens through which they saw the hope of the world. The book of Revelation ends, not with souls going up to heaven, but with the New Jerusalem coming down to earth, so that “the dwelling of God is with humans.” The whole creation, declares St. Paul, will be set free from its slavery to corruption, to enjoy God’s intended freedom. God will then be “all in all.” It’s hard for us moderns to grasp this: so many hymns, prayers and sermons still speak of us “going to heaven.” But it makes historical sense, and sheds light on everything else.

What then was the personal hope for Jesus’ followers? Ultimately, resurrection — a new and immortal physical body in God’s new creation. But, after death and before that final reality, a period of blissful rest. “Today,” says Jesus to the brigand alongside him, “you will be with me in Paradise.” “My desire,” says St. Paul, facing possible execution, “is to depart and be with the Messiah, which is far better.” “In my father’s house,” Jesus assured his followers, “are many waiting-rooms.” These are not the final destination. They are the temporary resting-place, ahead of the ultimate new creation.

Historical study — reading the New Testament in its own world — thus brings surprises that can have an impact on modern Christianity, too. Perhaps the most important is a new, or rather very old, way of seeing the Christian mission. If the only point is to save souls from the wreck of the world, so they can leave and go to heaven, why bother to make this world a better place? But if God is going to do for the whole creation what he did for Jesus in his resurrection — to bring them back, here on earth — then those who have been rescued by the gospel are called to play a part, right now, in the advance renewal of the world.

God will put the whole world right, this worldview says, and in “justification” he puts people right, by the gospel, to be part of his putting-right project for the world. Christian mission includes bringing real advance signs of new creation into the present world: in healing, in justice, in beauty, in celebrating the new creation and lamenting the continuing pain of the old.

The scriptures always promised that when the life of heaven came to earth through the work of Israel’s Messiah, the weak and the vulnerable would receive special care and protection, and the desert would blossom like the rose. Care for the poor and the planet then becomes central, not peripheral, for those who intend to live in faith and hope, by the Spirit, between the resurrection of Jesus and the coming renewal of all things.

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