No basis in the Bible for an afterlife

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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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William R. MacKaye
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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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Mary Ann Hill
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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.

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Bill Dilworth
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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?

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Priscilla Cardinale
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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?

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Bill Dilworth
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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.

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