Thursday, 24 January 2013

Heaven - perceptions and misconceptions

As part of my calling I speak rather a lot about heaven and the hope we have as Christians. By the way when I say the word 'hope' I mean it in the Christian and New Testament sense of the certainty rather than the uncertainty of something. But what do we mean by heaven and just as importantly, what are people's perceptions of heaven?

I remember the atheist comedian Dave Allen saying something about how boring Heaven was sitting on clouds all day playing a harp and singing! Of course he was being tongue in cheek but he was also repeating one of the common misconceptions about heaven as being a place "up there" somewhere. And so death - for some who are on the edges of belief - is somewhere where mum, dad, gran or granddad have been taken and are now watching over us.

Obviously one does not challenge or contradict this misunderstanding or wishful thinking at the time of visiting the bereaved, but it is not a Christian perspective and is both inaccurate and wrong. But what is the Christian view? Amongst the more interesting - and biblically convincing - views put forward in recent years is that of Bishop N.T.Wright now 'retired' bishop of Durham. In an interview with Time Magazine in February 2008 he puts forward a different view than has been commonly accepted. Here is an excerpt from the Magazine:

TIME: At one point you call the common view of heaven a "distortion and serious diminution of Christian hope."
Wright: It really is. I've often heard people say, "I'm going to heaven soon, and I won't need this stupid body there, thank goodness.' That's a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.

TIME: How so? It seems like a typical sentiment.
Wright: There are several important respects in which it's unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, "Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven." It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.

TIME: Is there anything more in the Bible about the period between death and the resurrection of the dead?
Wright: We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says "the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God," and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.

TIME: But it's not where the real action is, so to speak?
Wright: No. Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I've called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus' resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will "awake," be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: "God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves." That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God's presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ's kingdom.

TIME: That is rather different from the common understanding. Did some Biblical verse contribute to our confusion?
Wright: There is Luke 23, where Jesus says to the good thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." But in Luke, we know first of all that Christ himself will not be resurrected for three days, so "paradise" cannot be a resurrection. It has to be an intermediate state. And chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation, where there is a vision of worship in heaven that people imagine describes our worship at the end of time. In fact it's describing the worship that's going on right now. If you read the book through, you see that at the end we don't have a description of heaven, but, as I said, of the new heavens and the new earth joined together.

TIME: Why, then, have we misread those verses?
Wright: It has, originally, to do with the translation of Jewish ideas into Greek. The New Testament is deeply, deeply Jewish, and the Jews had for some time been intuiting a final, physical resurrection. They believed that the world of space and time and matter is messed up, but remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. Belief in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity, both theologically and morally. But Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies. The church at its best has always come back toward the Hebrew view, but there have been times when the Greek view was very influential.

If you want to read the full interview go to: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html#ixzz2IuFmLcnt

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