Monday, May 19, 2008

Surpised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 7)

Having refuted the idea that history is about a radical redemption of the already existent, N.T. Wright moves on in chapter 7 of Surprised by Hope to talk about the meanings of the Ascension and Second Coming of Christ. As he did in chapters 5 and 6, in chapters 7 and 8 Wright first describes what is not true, and then moves on to what is true.

Wright refutes two extreme positions with regard to the Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus. The first view is that Jesus flew up into the clouds like a space man into another dimension called heaven and that He will one day return in the same way, riding the clouds like a space ship. Wright says that this is a "category mistake" based on a Platonic view of the cosmos, not a biblical one. The second view that Wright refutes is that the Ascension is just a metaphor for Jesus' spiritual filling of all believers, so that Jesus is more or less present now in the form of His church. The problem with this view, according to Wright, is that it more or less makes the church into God. he writes:

"If Jesus is more or less identical with the church--if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created the high road to the worst kind of triumphalism." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 112.

Wright concludes:
"The mystery of the ascension is of course, just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time." (115)

"What we are encouraged to grasp precisely through the ascension itself is that God's space and ours--heaven and earth, in other words--are, though very different, not far away from one another." (116)

Therefore, to Wright, the Second Coming is not about Jesus returning in his pimped out cloud spaceship, but about his healing of the current world--making it more like heaven.

I like Wright's theology, but I do question his abandonment of the cloud language. I have seen him ridicule that kind of thinking in several of his works, but I don't think you can escape the language that when Christ ascended, He went up into the sky. Acts 1:10 says that after he ascended, the disciples were looking into the sky. Now, I am willing to grant that such an exit was more for the disciples than it was an illustration of the reality of the cosmos. I don't think you can escape the idea that heaven is somehow this world in the sky where God lives.

Perhaps Wright wrestles with the question of how the human Jesus can exist in another dimension, but I think the same mystery is true of the whole trinity--God is somehow distinct from His creation and yet eminently present within it. How does that work? I don't know, but it does.

I love the point behind Wright's theology, though. We need to move the beyond the Left Behind escapist mentality. This is our world. This is where we will live for eternity. Yes, it will be renewed, but it will be the same world nonetheless.

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