No basis in the Bible for an afterlife

N.T. Wright and other scholars think our concept of heaven is all wrong. The Bible does not support some heavenly afterlife but a renewed life on earth. Huffington Post reports:

The oft-cliched Christian notion of heaven — a blissful realm of harp-strumming angels — has remained a fixture of the faith for centuries. Even as arguments will go on as to who will or won’t be “saved,” surveys show that a vast majority Americans believe that after death their souls will ascend to some kind of celestial resting place.

But scholars on the right and left increasingly say that comforting belief in an afterlife has no basis in the Bible and would have sounded bizarre to Jesus and his early followers. Like modern curators patiently restoring an ancient fresco, scholars have plumbed the New Testament’s Jewish roots to challenge the pervasive cultural belief in an otherworldly paradise.

The most recent expert to add his voice to this chorus is the prolific Christian apologist N.T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop who now teaches about early Christianity and New Testament at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Wright has explored Christian misconceptions about heaven in previous books, but now devotes an entire volume, “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” to this trendy subject.

Wright’s insistence that Christianity has got it all wrong seems to mark a turning point for the serious rethinking of heaven. He’s not just another academic iconoclast bent on debunking Christian myths. Wright takes his creeds very seriously and has even written an 800-plus-page megaton study setting out to prove the historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus.


“Our picture, which we get from Dante and Michelangelo, particularly of a heaven and a hell, and perhaps of a purgatory as well, simply isn’t consonant with what we find in the New Testament,” Wright said. “A lot of these images of hellfire and damnation are actually pagan images which the Middle Ages picks up again and kind of wallows in.”

Wright notes that many clues to an early Christian understanding of the Kingdom of heaven are preserved in the New Testament, most notably the phrase “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” from the Lord’s Prayer. Two key elements are forgiveness of debts and loving one’s neighbor.

While heaven is indisputably God’s realm, it’s not some distantly remote galaxy hopelessly removed from human reality. In the ancient Judaic worldview, Wright notes, the two dimensions intersect and overlap so that the divine bleeds over into this world.

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  1. Richard E. Helmer

    I wonder about the binary either-or Wright suggests. It’s good for selling books, but unless I’m much mistaken, the earliest texts of the NT (Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians) pretty clearly indicate some notion of an afterlife with Christ (i.e. 1 Thess. 4). It may not be Dante or Michelangelo, but it is more than suggestive that a sense of this was present in the earliest Christian communities. I believe it is fair, however, to argue that the afterlife is not the primary focus of the NT. Life following after, through, and in Christ is. And that is a life the earliest Christians appear to have believed transcended (and defeated!) death, right?

  2. Priscilla Cardinale

    I especially appreciated this quote:

    “First-century Jews who believed Jesus was Messiah also believed he inaugurated the Kingdom of God and were convinced the world would be transformed in their own lifetimes, Wright said. This inauguration, however, was far from complete and required the active participation of God’s people practicing social justice, nonviolence and forgiveness to become fulfilled.

    Once the Kingdom is complete, he said, the bodily resurrection will follow with a fully restored creation here on earth. “What we are doing at the moment is building for the Kingdom,” Wright explained.

    Indeed, doing God’s Kingdom work has come to be known in Judaism as tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” This Hebrew phrase is a “close cousin” to the ancient beliefs embraced by Jesus and his followers, Wright said.”

    My own understanding and belief is more akin to the words of the RC hymn “Gather Us In ” by Marty Haugen:

    Verse 4

    “Not in the dark of buildings confining,

    Not in some heaven light years away,

    But here in this place the new light is shining, Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.”

    I’m sure that this view is very disturbing to those who cling to a belief of an etherial heaven somewhere in invisible space but I take great comfort in it. I will read N. T. Wrights work eagerly.

  3. Bill Dilworth

    Well, so much for “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” And that bit about the Good Thief being with Christ in Paradise or Christ’s preaching to the “spirits in prison.” Ditto the story of the Transfiguration, or the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the references to ghosts in the Gospels and Acts. Oh, and the advice not to fear those who can kill the body, but not the soul.

    He is not God of the dead, but of the living.

    BTW, the article and this post’s title overstate the argument. NT Wright denies that the soul is immortal, but he does believe in the resurrection of the dead, which is a type of afterlife.

  4. Bill Dilworth

    “I’m sure that this view is very disturbing to those who cling to a belief of an etherial heaven somewhere in invisible space…”

    The belief in heaven is not tied to the idea of it being located in space, visible or invisible.

  5. The same thought came to my mind when reading this … “In my house are many mansions”, so I thought, “Hey, what about the place Jesus has prepared for us?” Our Christ Church Book Club is reading a book that has been bringing forth great discussions on these kind of subjects. I notice that many churches of all denominations are also reading and discussing this book… Love Wins, by Rob Bell. I DO believe there is an afterlife, and I DO believe the afterlife begins while we are still here in this place … and, it continues on, we continue to grow in Christ … to ponder that, to encounter God face to face, and to live for the Hope, and all it entails is awe-inspiring, and truly a blessing I yearn for and look forward to in my “afterlife”, as well in this life now.


    This is a misrepresentation of what Wright has actually written:

    “All the Christian departed are in essentially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though this is sometimes described as sleep, we shouldn’t take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as “being with Christ, which is far better.” 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.

    This state is not, clearly, the final destiny for which the Christian dead are bound, which is as we have seen, the bodily resurrection. But it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called heaven, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn’t call it that and uses the word heaven in other ways. (Surprised by Hope, p. 171-172)

    Matt Gunter

  7. Priscilla Cardinale

    Where is the denial of an afterlife? I read this as a different interoperation of what that afterlife can and may be and how it plays out. Perhaps this threatens the foundations of some kinds of faith? I don’t understand that at all but to each I wish peace and comfort in whatever measure they desire it. God is good.

    Since the very word “heaven” derives from a now thoroughly disproven theory of the structure of the universe with the flat Earth as the center and heaven being the vaulted ceiling of blue sky/clouds, where God supposedly dwelt with the angels, it seems pretty safe and smart to me to explore other explanations of what Jesus meant when he talked about life after death.

    We have pierced the vault of heaven and even taken pictures from outer space. God and the angels are not there, at least not in any recognizable or visible form known to modern humanity in this plane of existence.

    If one can accept that there must be other planes of existence that are invisible (or the alternative that there is nothing there at all and death is a final end, I guess) then why is it difficult to re-understand the Kingdom as the “new heavens and the new Earth” with the “new Jerusalem” descending from the clouds to replace the broken and imperfect Earth we have now? Why can’t the bodily resurrection of the dead happen here on Earth when the Kingdom is achieved? I don’t see any contradictions or denials of anything important myself. But to each their own reading.

    I for one do not claim knowledge that I have no way of attaining this side of death nor do I fear challenges to the mythology that may have made sense 2000 years ago but that fails utterly in light of modern science and knowledge.

    Whatever and wherever and however God and Jesus meant by the “many mansions” and “paradise” and all the other metaphors and similes and images reported by their followers in the bible books I’m sure it is beyond my mortal comprehension or need for understanding.

    I will simply trust that it is good and will be given to all who believe and accept it. And I thank the modern biblical scholars for helping this all to make some kind sense to me that doesn’t violate logic, common sense, observable science, and yes, even my faith.

  8. Bill Dilworth

    “Where is the denial of an afterlife?”

    The title of the post itself states that belief in the afterlife – not belief in heaven, but in the afterlife – is scripturally unwarranted.

    “Since the very word “heaven” derives from a now thoroughly disproven theory…”

    Priscilla, I don’t see that a word’s etymology drives its meaning. The fact that the word “heaven” was originally used to mean only “sky” does not mean that belief in the existence of the soul’s survival after death necessitates locating the afterlife in the stratosphere, or even “some distantly remote galaxy,” as the article would have it. Any more than the fact that the word “organ” was originally only used for musical instruments means that the sentence “The stomach is an organ” suggests the speaker believes that animals digest their food in musical instruments.

    Matt, thank you for pointing the misrepresentation of Wright’s view.

  9. Priscilla Cardinale

    Bill, I agree that we disagree on pretty much everything regarding faith, the afterlife, reading comprehension, etymology, etc.

    Peace to you, brother in Christ.

  10. Priscilla Cardinale

    Oh, and PS “No Basis For an Afterlife in the Bible” as a headline and actually reading the HuffPo article are different things. And just because something isn’t in the bible doesn’t make it exist or not exist, at least to me.

  11. Bill Dilworth

    “Bill, I agree that we disagree on pretty much everything regarding faith, the afterlife, reading comprehension, etymology, etc.”

    Well, thank God etymology isn’t decided by popular vote.

    The only teaching about Heaven that I’ve ever heard of in the Episcopal Church is that it’s not a physical place, but a state of being. If you’ve got a source that shows otherwise – that educated Anglicans who believe in Heaven believe that it’s located in the sky and that it’s populated by harp-playing angels – please share it. But from my experience – and what I’ve been able to decipher with my lamentable reading comprehension – it’s not really that revolutionary to assert that Heaven isn’t some place “up there” where harp-playing angels lounge around on clouds.

    “Oh, and PS “No Basis For an Afterlife in the Bible” as a headline and actually reading the HuffPo article are different things”

    I did read it. I originally thought that the article itself was denying the existence of the afterlife entirely, but it the relevant sentence is a little ambiguous. The unambiguous thing about the article, though, is that the author is misrepresenting Wright’s work, as Matt shows.

  12. Priscilla Cardinale

    Bill, I find attempts at communication with you to be most unpleasant. You come across to me as always wanting to be “right” and acknowledged as such. I don’t think you are “right”.

    I’m sorry for this shortcoming in myself. Forgive me for disliking you so much.

    I pray for God to bless you. And I stand by my remarks about my personal reaction to the article whether you agree with me or not. The end?

  13. Bill Dilworth

    Priscilla, I’ll forgive you for disliking me, if you forgive me for having judgmental thoughts about your using pietistic rhetoric as a cover for a attack and insult. Deal?

  14. Mary Ann Hill

    Back to our regularly scheduled programming… I’ve read a lot of Wright and have quoted him extensively when teaching and preaching about the Kingdom of God. I think the title is misleading. His issue is with the notion of some kind of “disembodied heaven” that we get to go to to escape this world, if we’re good. One of the problems with that idea is that some Christians use it as justification not to care about this world. Jesus mentioned the many mansions but he also said that the Kingdom of God is among us. Wright believes that the Kingdom is present here and now and that nothing we do to help advance the Kingdom is wasted (which it would be if this world were a place to escape). He believes that we get to be with God when we die, but that’s not the goal. The goal is the Kingdom and the resurrection of the dead at the last day.

    I’m not doing a great job explaining this, but if you’re interested do read Surprised by Hope. This perspective can really open our eyes to the importance of working for God’s kingdom here and now, to help “move the world from where it is to where God means for it to be”. It’s had a pretty significant impact on my parishioners, helping them to see how important their ministry is to this world.

  15. William R. MacKaye

    Tom Wright isn’t a “former Anglican bishop” either. He’s still very much a bishop, just no longer bishop of Durham.

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