Does N. T. Wright believe in Heaven?

Bishop N. T. Wright was interviewed on ABC’s “Nightline” last week where he promoted his new book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. The segment was set-up to be a provocative piece about a bishop who doesn’t believe in heaven. N. T. Wright actually does believe in heaven; he just doesn’t believe that Christians go there to live forever after they die.

That may sound strange to some ears, but what he says on this point is actually orthodox Christian truth. The Bible teaches that while Christians do go to heaven when they die (Acts 7:55-56, 59; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23), their eternal destiny will be spent in physically resurrected bodies living on a recreated earth (Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; 50-58; 1 Thes. 4:13-18; 1 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1).

I think it’s interesting that Bishop Wright took time in the interview to express his profound disagreement with the idea of a “rapture” as it is described in Dispensational theology. Here’s a snippet from the interview to that effect:

‘But this interpretation is the exact opposite of what many American Christians believe. The hugely successful Left Behind series of movies and books is an acopalyptic vision of the end of the world — a view shared by many evangelicals. According to those who believe it, the end of the world will start with the so-called “rapture,” when all christians will be taken up to heaven in one momentous swoop. The earth then enters a period of cataclysmic wars until it eventually disintegrates, in a final chapter of fire. Wright says that is more mythical than Biblical.

‘”It’s a myth,” Wright said. “It is an attempt to make sense of some bits of the New Testament. It was always the literature of the dispossessed … it’s now become the literature of the rich masses in parts of America.”‘

Wright says that “rapture” theology leads Christians to have a careless attitude about the concerns of this life (caring for the poor, aids victims, etc.) because they are too concerned about their own afterlife. In other words, they are too concerned about “heaven,” the place to which they hope to be “raptured.” Wright argues that Christians should be more concerned about “life after life after death.” Heaven is life after death. Resurrection in the new heavens and new earth is life after heaven.

I’m not offering a full-throated defense of dispensational eschatology with what I’m about to say. But I would point out that within dispensational theology the rapture is a resurrection of believers from the dead. It is in fact “life after life after death” issuing in advance of the new heavens and the new earth. I’m wondering if perhaps there hasn’t been some misunderstanding on this point.

In any case, the entire interview is available online, and you can view it here: “What happens when you die?”

The video is also on YouTube.

13 Responses to Does N. T. Wright believe in Heaven?

  1. Bryan L March 5, 2008 at 12:17 am #

    I’m sure he’s speaking more of popular Left Behind type of dispensationalism.

    Have you not heard Wright on the resurrection before? He’s always stressing this point about the rapture and about heaven and the resurrection.

    BTW I think Philip Eslers view is interesting in that he takes Wright to task over his view of life after death (Wright seems to argue more for a sort of soul sleep type of thing before the resurrection) and argues for communion with the saints who are alive in heaven in sort of a Cathlic type of view (I don’t know if Esler is Catholic).

    Anyway I’m glad you’re finally posting on something different! Too bad nobody will want to comment on this stuff. ; )

    Bryan

  2. Brett March 5, 2008 at 1:09 am #

    Denny,

    Thanks for posting on this. I currently have this book on my wish list and am looking forward to purchasing it. I like Wright because he’s not only a scholar/theologian, but he’s also very much involved with the church…something I personally respect a great deal.

    I believe Wright is correct about his views on the ‘rapture’ theology. I don’t believe he is talking about the dispensationalism at like Dallas Seminary (at least not progressive dispensationalism!), but rather this extreme hyper-dispensationalism with guys like John Hagee and Tim Lahaye. I grew up hearing all that stuff, and as I’ve gotten older I have come to see what a load of junk it is.

    I certainly think he’s right about it festering a careless attitude about this life though. I remember riding with a friend in high school one time. He had a fast food bag next to him and threw it out the window while he was driving, then he said “it’s all gonna burn anyways”. I always thought their was something wrong with that way of thinking, and it turns out that this dude was really big into rapture theology stuff (trying to guess dates and that crap). I look at it now and just have to laugh at the people who actually believe what the ‘Left Behind’ series says.

    I’m glad he’s speaking up about it, because sadly this is the majority view in non-academic circles (hence, the church). It seems like it is fading fast from academia, with even many professors at Dallas Seminary being more ‘progressive’ now (which is totally different that classical).

    Anyways, thanks for something different. I wish there were more posts like this one.

  3. Matt Svoboda March 5, 2008 at 8:48 am #

    Denny,

    It is funny to me that Nightline thought what Wright believed was unual when it is what orthodox Christians have ALWAYS believed! When I thought about it more I think us believers have given the world a bad/false picture of what we believe on this issue. Preachers preach merely about going up to heaven when you die. When we evangelize that is the way we make it sound. I think our Eschatology should affect more of what we do. The world should know about our beliefs about the new heaven and the new earth!!! It is a big deal and in my opinion a VERY big part of our faith and yet the outside world barely knows that we believe it.

  4. MatthewS March 5, 2008 at 10:04 am #

    The post is about the interview and the book, so this is a side note, but I would point out that no one eschatology guards against carelessness. Those who believe in an apocalyptic rapture might feel an urgency to live for the Lord since his return is imminent; they might accuse those who don’t believe in a rapture of becoming careless, living comfortably with no urgency.

    Meanwhile, Wright shows that you can accuse those who believe in an apocalyptic rapture of being careless with the here and now – a complaint oft repeated by emerging church folks as well as others.

    It’s a bit cliche, but after one’s eschatology is decided, it is still an issue of balance and an issue of the heart. One who actively loves God with heart, soul, mind, strength, and loves his neighbor as himself will not stray far from what he should be doing, eschatology aside. Eschatology matters, but it is no guarantee of right behavior. It takes the Spirit working in one’s heart to do that.

  5. Ian Clary March 5, 2008 at 2:11 pm #

    I don’t know if you’ve read the book yet, but I’m interested to you know your thoughts on Wright’s “half-way” view between the classical view of hell and annihilationism. If memory serves me well, he believes that the image of God is removed from humans in hell; thus making them non-human creatures.

  6. Brett March 5, 2008 at 4:11 pm #

    Why is nobody commenting?

  7. Andrew March 6, 2008 at 1:27 pm #

    I am a little confused. If there will be a new heaven and new earth, which the Bible seems pretty clear about. How does that make for an arguement about us trying to fix all the problems in this world? Even if this world is recreated… why would that mean we need to take care of it. I am not saying we shouldn’t take care of the world. I just don’t follow the arguement.

  8. Bryan L March 6, 2008 at 3:03 pm #

    Andrew,
    Great question.
    I think an easy answer is to show the similarity between your question and another that pops up in the Bible: if our bodies are going to be recreated anyway then why bother taking care of them or why can’t we do whatever we want with them (see 1 Corinthians)? Also there is the view that there are things that will survive the fire(1 Cor. 3:15)

    Ultimately I think it comes down the fact that if the world is going to be recreated then God is saying it is good and needs to be cared for (the same as the body). Hope that helps.

    Ian,
    That’s an interesting perspective and attractive in many ways. But since I’m an annihilationist I’m fine with just sticking with that view.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  9. Debbie Mosley March 8, 2008 at 4:48 pm #

    Even though the Left Behind novels are fictional in context. Their theory is right.

  10. Brett March 8, 2008 at 6:35 pm #

    No Debbie, that’s what we’re arguing against. They’re just about dead wrong if you ask me.

  11. Mike Templin March 21, 2008 at 1:21 pm #

    The “rapture” of the Church apart from the Second παρουσία is a poisonous fallacy, on the verge of heresy! I cannot fathom how this false reading of Jesus (specifically the Olivet Discourse), and St. Paul (I Cor 15, I Thess. 4, etc.) have been “forced” as proof-texts for a pre-Trib rapture theology. They are clearly teaching either an eschatological resurrection in the likeness of Messiah (Pauline texts), or the destruction of Jerusalem in the case of the Olivet Discourse. Then dispensationalists transfer their hermeneutically fallacious reading of the scripture and apply it to the Αποκαλυψις Ιωαννου, which destroys magnificent picture found in the bibles description of the Eschaton!

    Sola scriptura,

    Mike Templin

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