Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wright on Life After Death

Bishop N.T. Wright recently gave an interview to Time Magazine where he explained why the traditional view of life after death is wrong. I found this article because of Barb at Whilin Away the Hours who defends Bishop Wright as teaching "very good" and did not see this article as a rejection of Christian teaching despite the name of the article which Wright agreed with when asked. So, I thought I would quickly show exactly where Wright is rejecting orthodoxy and the traditional view of heaven and life after death.

I should start with some agreement, so let me agree with Barb that the main point of Bishop Wright’s’ article is to describe the ultimate state, the one of a reunited soul and body after the return of Jesus. Bishop Wright wants to put more emphasis on this final state. That is not wrong. All Christians have believed that the ultimate state is one of a resurrected bodies, and perhaps one can make the case that this is too often ignored. Bishop Wright’s motivation comes from a desire to recapture that doctrine of Christianity. However, it seems he may desire to emphasize that because he thinks that the traditional view allows people to do whatever they want with their bodies now, and that might lead people to not care about "acid rain or greenhouse gasses" or even if we bomb "civilians in Iraq". So, it is fairly clear that Bishop Wright wants to draw attention to an orthodox point of doctrine; however, his motives may indeed be based in politics and social gospel stuff.

Now that we all agree the ultimate state of man is both resurrected body and soul, we can move on to his rejection of what happens to the dead believer prior to the return of Christ. Of course, Bishop Wright mischaracterizes it and uses a book by Maria Shriver (Arnold’s wife) to buttress his point rather than an actual book by a theologian. The traditional view of life after death is that a man’s soul goes to be with the Lord in heaven, and there awaits the final resurrection, but while there the soul is engaged in activity such as worship. Bishop Wright does not deny that we are somehow in the presence of God, but Wright goes on to say we are:

resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep.

He quotes another idea favorably:

"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.

Of course the ultimate reason that church has believed the wrong thing for so long is that we are too Greek and not Jewish enough. Same old, same old. Plato is the real enemy and Second Temple Judaism is the savior. Yada, yada, yada. He does briefly touch on a few verses that uphold the traditional view. He rejects Jesus saying to the thief ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ because Jesus is not resurrected for three days, so it must be some intermediate state. Wright here ducks the question by trying to answer it as a resurrection question rather than what happens right after you die question. He also seems to imply that Revelation 4 and 5 are about the worship of the church on earth right now and not in heaven, but I must admit I may not be completely understanding him at this point as there really are a lot of possible views on the book of Revelation.

So in essence Bishop Wright is advocating some sort of peaceful conscious sleep that is like being uploaded into God to wait until we get bodies. This is not the traditional view, and allow me to give some Scriptures that more clearly deal with life after death. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus given in Luke 16 is the best example. There the rich man is suffering torment and Lazarus the beggar is with Abraham. Yet, communication is possible. The Rich man pleads with Abraham, who is also there, and the two talk. Clearly, no bodily resurrection is in view, but hell exists, punishment is being given and rewards are being given. The Soul, sans the body, is able to feel and communicate. They are not sleeping nor simply downloaded. They both seem very active. Another place is Revelation 6. Regardless of how one reads 4 and 5, chapter 6 presents a problem for Bishop Wright. Verses 9-11 tell of the fifth seal where the Martyrs cry out. Here the martyrs are under the altar and crying out for God to avenge them. So we can see we are pre-bodily resurrection because the word "souls" is used in verse 9 so this is not soul plus body. We know it is pre-return of Christ because that appears to be what they are asking for. And we know that the souls are crying out. Speaking. Communicating. They are active in a sense that Bishop Wright seems to reject. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 prove problamatic for Wright as well. As Paul speaks of a man being caught up into the Third Heaven which he also calls Paradise (providing problems for Wright’s rejection of the Thief on the Cross), and in that third heaven Paul heard wonderful words. It was not a place of rest, but rather a place of revelation from God. Of course Elijah provides problems as a man who avoided death. But even more of a problem is the Transfiguration where Elijah and Moses appear with Christ. Clearly we do not yet have a bodily resurrection, but two men are seen with Christ and they are recognized. And then John 14:2-3 seem to militate against the Wright redefining of life after death. There Jesus tells the people he goes to prepare a room for them in His father’s house. And he shall receive them Himself. Now Wright seems to indicate that Jesus always spoke of coming again to us, but here is one clear occasion where Jesus spoke of us going to Him.

In conclusion, I think that Wright wants to place more emphasis on the body, and there may be a real place for that, but Wright has gone to the other extreme and minimized the soul. He seems to say that without the body man is unable to do things like worship, communicate, and exist in a physical place. He prefers the software to hardware analogy. Software is useless without hardware, but that is hardly the picture we get from the Bible of our souls after death. He starts off worrying that we ignore our bodies, and ends up making us almost nothing but bodies.

[The following should be viewed as redacted. I did not corretly remember and represent the position of Philip Schaff. I leave it set off in italics for historical purposes. See discussion in comments for more details]
And for those of you wondering about how this fits into the thesis that most of the FV/Shepherd/Wright stuff is a revival of Mercersburg Theology, Philip Schaff taught a Middle State very similar to this. It was the only time he was censured by the Board of Visitors of Mercersburg. He promised to not teach it, and the Visitors agreed not to turn him over to Synod for a trial. However, we now know that it appears he continued to teach it anyway. There is nothing new under the sun.


Andrew Duggan said...

Yeah, even John 8:52-58 demonstrates your point. Jesus in replying to the Jews, who trying to make a point said that Abraham was dead, said "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad." Seeing and rejoicing is hardly like sleep or software without hardware.

Barbara said...

I don't think so. Didn't you notice the section where NTW mentions that worship is happening in heaven by deceased believers as we speak? That pretty much undoes your criticism.

Alastair Roberts said...

The language of sleep is biblical (e.g. Daniel 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16). Wright is not advocating the unconscious soul sleep that the WCF and other traditional writers reject. Somehow we have to do business with the language of Scripture. Wright takes this Pauline language and qualifies it by making clear that unconscious sleep is not being referred to. I really don't see what the problem is here.

I don't see any denial of Paradise in Wright. Read the passage again. All he is trying to do is distinguish the intermediate state from the resurrection state. As for the Revelation 4 and 5 reference, where does Wright say that they 'are about the worship of the church on earth right now and not in heaven'? All he says is that they refer to the present time, not to the final time of the new heavens and the new earth. He nowhere claims that the worship is taking place somewhere other than in heaven. His point is that this worship is taking place in heaven now.

Nor do I see Wright denying that the soul can communicate; it is conscious after all. What Wright is saying is that the period after death and before the resurrection is akin to sleep because we are 'not active in our own bodies' [emphasis mine]. Absent from the body, the soul is limited in its capacity for action, which is why the state is similar to that of sleep and resurrection to waking up. I do not see why - except to those who must find something to object to in everything that Wright says - any of this should appear problematic. Wright is using a biblical metaphor here and the metaphor shouldn't be pushed too far. I really don't think that Wright is doing so.

Once again, the software analogy shouldn't be pressed too far. I think that it makes the point that it wants to make very well, but you are pressing it far further than Wright seems to be.

A little more charity in your reading of Wright on this issue might go a long way.

Lee said...

I saw the section about Revelation 4 and 5 and I believe I admitted I found him a little confusing there. If he is saying that Revelation 4 and 5 is going on right now, then yes, I think that would mean Bishop Wright is advocating a traditional view of heaven. However, allow me to show you why I read him as speaking of worship on earth instead of worship in heaven. Here is the entire section.

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.

Now again, I admit this is a little confusing with his wording. But he simply says that the worship is going on right now. He does not say where it is going on. I think we can both agree that there is a view out there that says Revelation 4 and 5 speaks of earthly and not heavenly worship. Just so we agree I am not making a view up. His next sentence is what make me think he is speaking of worship on earth. Wright states that the Book of Revelation does not give a description of heaven. Now if he thought Revelation 4 and 5 was a description of heavenly worship of dead saints now, why would he say that the book only describes the New Heavens and New Earth without a description of heaven now? That is the reason I believe he is not advocating an active worship of God now by the souls of dead saints.

If this passage were clarified by Bishop Wright to mean what you are claiming rather than what I am claiming, I would gladly retract my post.

Lee said...

I don’t think my problem is a lack of charity. I explained why I think he is speaking of earthly worship in Revelation 4 and 5 in my response to Barb. You add to that the facts that he out right states he is rejecting the traditional view of life after death in the opening paragraph, his denial that the gospels say that we are going to heaven to be with him but rather that they always say Jesus is coming again to be with us (second answer), the software analogy (fourth answer), and his denial that dead saints are together in a way that they can recognize one another (last answer), and I believe that I have not been uncharitable.

It is possible, I freely admit, that I am mistaken in my reading of Wright. I am by no means infallible. However, I think there is plenty of evidence within the article to at least support my supposition. More clarification from Wright could shed light on whether I am wrong or not. However, to say that my reading is uncharitable I find hard to understand. After all the point of the article is that traditional Christian understanding of heaven and life after death is wrong. To read him as simply reaffirming the traditional view is a little hard to understand.

Barbara said...

Lee, I'm going to make one more comment & then drop it. It's not a huge deal to me. Men like Luther & Tyndale believed in true, unconscious soul sleep, yet they are held in high esteem.

1. Wright is correct that a large segment to the church has dwelt on going to heaven in a disembodied state as a final destination. If you doubt that, check the WND poll:

Allow Wright to address this problem. He can reach so many more people than the Reformed Ghetto. If he's not as clear as you'd like about the intermediate state, give him a charitable judgment. Don't be like Fesko, who told the world that Wright didn't believe in the virgin birth of Jesus because he (Wright) didn't bluntly say so. Fesko was shown to be wrong when someone bothered to ask Wright directly. Fesko's attack on NTW's ortodoxy on that point was unresearched and it made him look like a lousy scholar.

2. Wright unambiguously says that deceased believers are conscious and present with God in heaven. What more do you want? As Alastair said, sleep is Biblical language. "Though this is sometimes described as 'sleep', we shouldn't take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness." Wright clarified that sleep referred to the physical body. "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."

Soul sleep is unconcsious. Period. Wright does not believe in soul sleep.

3. Wright is referring to Rev 4 & 5 as current worship in heaven. He says ppl interpret that passage incorrectly to mean in heaven at the end of time. He's saying, no. It's now. And further proves his point by saying that at the end of the book, at the end of time, worship will not be in heaven but on earth. So Rev 4-5 is in heaven now, and Rev 21 is on earth in the future Eschaton.

Barbara said...

ok... one more comment sort of on the side. As I understand it, the censure against Schaff had to do with his view that the dead who never heard the gospel entered an intermediate state in which they could hear the gospel and receive salvation.

If you're attributing this to Wright, the burden of proof is heavy upon you. I'm all ears if you can do it.

pduggie said...

Nah, Revelation 4-5 is worship in heaven circa 60 AD.

Jesus hasn't taken the scroll yet, and in chapter 6, deceased beleivers are UNDER the BASE of an altar, crying out for vengeance.

Hardly blissful. When they stand on the other side of the sea of glass, then you're talking!

Granted thats a complex (and disputable) point.

Barbara said...

pduggie, we may disagree with Wright re: Rev 4 & 5, but that has nothing to do with how Wright is using it to explain the experience of souls prior to the resurrection.

Lee said...

First, I want to point out that I never said Bishop Wright believes in soul sleep. I was very careful to avoid that phrase because I do not think he holds that position. I even quoted Bishop Wright saying that it was 'conscious'. I aslo never objected to the word sleep. It is a very biblical word.

Second, My objection is to what I see as a rewriting as to what happens inbetween death and the physical resurrection at the return of Christ. My concern is that he has changed what happens to the soul after death and denies the active nature of the soul in heaven post death and pre-bodily resurrection. He seems to reject the idea that we will see other saints in the Intermediate state. That along with his statement about not being invited up to heaven, but rather Christ will return to us on earth is what has raised some question for World Net Daily and at least me. Even the charitable reading of his Revelation portion does not negate those concerns.

Third, Thank you for the link. I think it points to a difference between us and perhaps me with Wright. The Bible teaches answer number one which the majority of voters chose. Wright should not attack so a view, if he is doing so. Upon our death our bodies are in the grave, yet we are with Christ (Phil. 1:21-23), and that is in a place called heaven or Paradise (Luke 23:43 and other previously quoted passages). You seem to imply that Wright is right to attack such a position, and that is how I read him as well. I wonder which one you would pick from that poll. I assume you might pick number 2. That one states that the soul is in an intermediate place awaiting a final destination. This one seems to me to be describing purgatory. It does not say the soul is with Christ, which I think we agree is true. Perhaps there is confusion because you seem to assume the poll is asking about the ultimate final destination when all it asks is what happens when you die. When a person dies they go to be with Christ in a place rightly 9in my opinion) called heaven. That statement in no way implies I do not believe in a bodily resurrection as well.

I have no problem allowing Bishop Wright to address a problem about neglecting the body. However, if he does not speak about what happens right after you die, he is not answering the questions of people. That is clearly what the interviewer was asking about, and it is what I am asking about. That 'intermediate state' cannot be ignored.

I hope that clears some things up.

Lee said...

Thanks also for the point about Schaff. I went back and looked up exactly what Schaff taught, and it turned out I misremembered. You are correct that what he was censured for was his belief in a place for those who did not hear the gospel. Although the paper he wrote that caused the investigation was a much broader place where many more people went and it was bascially a purgatory view. My mistake, and I am not trying to say Bishop Wright holds place for a second chance of salvation by any means.

I will insert a note in the post to show my mistake, but because I have some qualms about altering posts I will not remove it completely. It should be plain that I am wrong, and if not let me know. Thank you for bring that up.

Barbara said...

Lee, thanks. Just the other day I had to acknowledge that I'd misread something. Humble pie doesn't taste good, but it's good for us. ;-)

I'll continue with our discussion tomorrow. I was ready to call it quits, but your congenial tone encourages me to continue.

See you tomorrow.

Barbara said...

OK... one more crack at this.

I want to talk about the poll first to get it out of the way. Yes, I would choose #2 though it's very poorly worded. I would change it to, "Their body remains dead in the grave, but their conscious soul goes to heaven, waiting for a future resurrection." This is what the Bible teaches and, I contend, what NTW teaches. I understand your point about #1, but it's deficient since it makes no mention of future resurrection (and redeemed creation). #1 is what most people believe without considering that it takes no notice of life beyond life after death (Wright's term) - which is exactly what the Time interview was about. That deficiency needs to be corrected.

Yes I agree with you that the poll is designed to see if people believe the soul goes to heaven or not but it was based on WND's erroneous view that NTW believes souls do not go to heaven. The point of the Time article, however, was to urge readers to think more Biblically by looking beyond heaven to the consummated new creation, not to say that believers don't go to heaven when they die. Unfortunately, the most Biblical answer was very poorly phrased by WND.

You wrote, "That along with his statement about not being invited up to heaven, but rather Christ will return to us on earth is what has raised some question for World Net Daily and at least me." But Wright doesn't say that souls don't go to heaven! When NTW says "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." he is referring to the return of Christ to Earth at the end of this age, not to where souls go at death. He pointedly said the thief on the cross would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. You're mixing the categories of things Wright is talking about. Remember, he's trying to get people to see that heaven isn't the final stop.

In the very brief Time article, NTW doesn't offer a comprehensive description of the state of souls in Christ's presence. He says they are conscious & resting. He also says they are worshiping. That implies interaction, doesn't it? But the article is so brief, one couldn't expect Wright to say all there is to say. Maybe the following will help:

"Nor does Paul imply that this 'departing and being with Christ' is *the same thing* as the eventual resurrection of the body, which he describes vividly later in the same letter (3.20-21). No: all the Christian dead have 'departed' and are 'with Christ'. The only other idea Paul offers to explain where the Christian dead are now and what they are doing is that of 'sleeping in Christ'. He uses this idea frequently (1 Corinthians7.39; 11.30, 15.6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-15), and some have thought that by it he must mean an unconscious state, from which one would be brought back to consciousness at the resurrection -- so much so, perhaps, that it will seem as though we have passed straight from the one to the other. The probability is, though, that this is a strong metaphor, a way of reminding us about the 'waking up' which will be the resurrection. Had the post-mortem state been unconscious, would Paul have thought of it as 'far better' than what he had in the present?

This picture is further confirmed by the language of Revelation. There we find the souls of the martyrs waiting, under the altar, for the final redemption to take place. They are at rest; they are conscious; they are able to ask how long it will be before justice is done (6.9-11); but they are not yet enjoying the final bliss which is to come in the New Jerusalem. (NTW, For All the Saints, pages 23-24)

NTW affirms that the souls of the saints are with Christ in heaven, actively worshiping and asking for justice.

Lee, I really think you're picking at some imaginary nits.

Andrew McIntyre said...

As one of the Anglican readers of this blog, I should probably chime in on this topic:). I have not read Bishop Wright's work on the subject, although I intend to do so. But, from what I understand from other Anglicans who have read him, his thought is in line with Barbara's comments. The media played it up as if he were denying heaven, but I am told that it was merely hype and unfair. Although I say with shame that the world is used to hearing preposterous statements from Anglican bishops lately, if Wright did deny the conscious intermediate state entirely, I am sure he would be catching a lot more flack from the orthodox Anglican world.

The concept of our solidarity with the saints who have gone before us is a fundamental aspect of Anglican Ecclesiology, as we join in worship with angels, archangels, and the dead in Christ, being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. If he were denying this, he would have a lot of 'splainin' to do. In other words, although I am ignorant of the reference, I don't think he means to deny the complete consciousness of the intermediate state. I hope he is simply underscoring that the state is, in fact, intermediate.


Lee said...


Thank you for that further quote. I did find that helpful. I don’t have that book, so thank you very much. I wish he had been a bit more clear in this interview. It seems to me the questioner is asking about heaven and Bishop Wright answers about the New Heaven, and the questioner asks about life after death and Bishop Wright responds about life after life after death. I think that is the reason other media outlets like World Net Daily thought he was denying the traditional view of heaven. Thanks for taking the time to work me through the interview. I appreciate it.

I appreciate your assurances as well. I enjoy having Anglican readers, and your assurances are assuring, trust me.

Joel said...

I've used "our software / God's hardware" analogy on numerous occasions to explain Thomas Aquinas' view of the soul after death when teaching excerpts from the Summa. That's actually a pretty standard analogy in the literature on hylomorphic understandings of the soul and the intermediate state and not original with Wright.

Barbara said...

Lee, thanks for hanging in there!

Barbara said...

Lee, I don't see an email address for you, so I'll just post this:

NTW is on Nightline tonight (Tues) to talk about heaven etc: