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.