I have a “guest-blogger” today, sort of. Excerpted from N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church:
When we turn to Paul, the verse that has always struck me in this connection is I Corinthians 15:58. Paul, we remind ourselves, has just written the longest and densest chapter in any of his letters, discussing the future resurrection of the body in great and complex detail. How might we expect him to finish such a chapter? By saying, “Therefore, since you have such a great hope, sit back and relax because you know God’s got a great future in store for you”? No. Instead, he says, “Therefore, my beloved ones, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”
What does he mean? How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with work in the present? Quite straightforwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in I Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called. What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself–will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
…But let us note… that the promise of new creation… is not and cannot be simply about straightening out ideas about life after death. It is about the mission of the church. There has been a lot of talk where I work about a “mission-shaped church,” following a report with that title, urging today’s church to regard mission not as an extra, something to fit in if there’s any time left over from other concerns, but as the central and shaping dynamic of its life. But if this is to mean what it ought to mean, we must also reshape our ideas of mission itself. It’s no good falling back into the tired old split-level world where some people believe in evangelism in terms of saving souls for a timeless eternity and other people believe in mission in terms of working for justice, peace, and hope in the present world. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the new Testament and everything to do with the silent enslavement of many Christians (both conservative and radical) to the Platonic ideology of the Enlightenment. Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight. If we want a mission-shaped church, what we need is a hope-shaped mission.
Mention salvation, and almost all Western Christians assume that you mean going to heaven when you die. But a moment’s thought, in the light of all we have said so far, reveals that this simply cannot be right. Salvation means, of course, rescue. But what are we ultimately to be rescued from? The obvious answer is death. But if, when we die, all that happens is that our bodies decompose while our souls (or whatever other word we want to use for our continuing existence) go on elsewhere, this doesn’t mean we’ve been rescued from death. It simply means that we’ve died.
And if God’s good creation–of the world, of life as we know it, of our glorious and remarkable bodies, brains, and bloodstreams–really is good, and if God wants to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last, then to see the death of the body and the escape of the soul as salvation is not simply slightly off course, in need of a few subtle alterations and modifications. It is totally and utterly wrong. It is colluding with death. It is conniving a death’s destruction of God’s good, image-bearing human creatures while consoling ourselves with the (essentially non-Christian and non-Jewish) thought that the really important bit of ourselves is saved from this wicked, nasty body and this sad, dark world of space, time, and matter! As we have seen, the whole of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, speaks out against such nonsense. it is, however, what most Western Christians, including most Bible Christians of whatever sort, actually believe. This is a serious state of affairs, reinforced not only in popular teaching, but also in liturgies, public prayers, hymns, and homilies of every kind.
Life before death is what is threatened, called into question, by the idea that salvation is merely life after death. If we’re heading for a timeless, bodiless, eternity, then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world? But if what matters is the newly embodied life after life after death, then the presently embodied life before death can at last be seen not as an interesting but ultimately irrelevant present preoccupation, not simply as a “vale of tears and soul-making” through which we have to pass to a blessed and disembodied final state, but as the essential, vital time, place, and matter into which God’s future purposes have already broken in the resurrection of Jesus and which those future purposes are now to be further anticipated through the mission of the church. Life after death, it seems, can be a serious distraction not only from the ultimate life after life after death, but also from life before death. To ignore this is in fact to collude not only with death but also with all sorts of other powers that gain their force from their own alliance with that ultimate enemy.
Salvation, then, is not “going to heaven” but “being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth.”