For All The Saints: N.T. Wright on What Happens When We Die


I just finished reading N.T. Wright's short treatise For All The Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed, which is a distilled version of his larger, academic work The Resurrection of the Son of God. Both works deal with what Wright believes is a "mismatch between what the earliest Christians believed about life after death--and what many ordinary Christians seem to believe on the subject today."

If you've got a week to kill, then by all means pick up the Resurrection of the Son of God and commence reading.  When Wright says it's "academic" he isn't kidding around.  But if you would like to visit his basic arguments about what the New Testament and early Christian tradition have to say about what happens to us when we die, then For All The Saints? is more than adequate.

For All The Saints? addresses particular controversies within the Anglican Communion surrounding the doctrine of Purgatory and also the inclusion of All Souls Day within the liturgical calendar.  For non-Anglicans, the time Wright spends addressing these issues might seem superfluous at first blush, especially if both are non-issues within the readers' particular religious tradition.  Still, Wright's basic arguments, the Biblical evidence to support them and the reasons for his writing the book in the first place contain a fairly universal appeal.

Essentially N.T. Wright asserts that the centuries-old belief in Purgatory (a place where the souls of the redeemed go to be refined and eventually purified) has been at the root of a lot of bad theology about heaven, hell and resurrection. He believes that even as Roman Catholic theologians are moving away from a robust belief in Purgatory, Anglicans seem to be drifting toward it.

Further, Wright also asserts that the majority of evangelical Christians have been unwittingly influenced by the basic framework of the doctrines surrounding Purgatory, and as a result have largely ignored the glorious hope of bodily resurrection that was held so strongly by the Early Church--a glorious hope, I might add, that is well-grounded in Scripture.

For Wright, Christianity seems to be preoccupied with the notion that the ultimate reason for becoming a Christian is simply "to go to heaven when we die."  This preoccupation diminishes, in Wright's estimation, what the Scripture teaches us and the Early Church believed about "resurrection of the body."  I put that last line in quotes because it is directly from the Apostles Creed, which is recited by millions of Christians every Sunday during worship in response to the question, "Christians, what do you believe?"

Basically, Wright believes (and he supports it through Scripture) that when those who are in Christ die, they do not "go to heaven" as most people imagine. According to Wright, those who die in Christ merely "sleep" in perfect peace in the presence of Christ, if you will, awaiting the "Day of the Lord" when the "dead in Christ" will rise, and the kingdom of God will be fully realized.

How these dearly departed perceive their location and in what state they exist during this time of rest is, as Wright asserts repeatedly, nothing more than conjecture on our part.  Perhaps they are aware of us on some level, who knows? And (here I am interjecting my own ideas) whose to say that in a place where a linear perception of time does not exist they are not already resurrected?

Wright does believe in the existence of "hell," though he wisely chooses not to remark on its geography.  "...a human being," he writes, "who continually and with settled intent worships that which is not God can ultimately cease completely to bear God's image.  Such a creature would become, in other words, ex-human: a creature that once bore the image of God but does so no longer, and can never do so again."

One can infer that for Wright, being beyond pity, devoid of humanity and thus separated from God is, in fact, hell.  He concludes his remarks on the subject by decrying the "fundamentalist arrogance that declares that only its own type of Christianity is the real thing, and that all others are a sham and heading for hell."  On the other hand, he calls out the opposite view that there is no hell, and everyone gets "in" as "equally arrogant--almost fundamentalist in its own way."

So how do we talk about those who have gone on before us?  How do we explain the fact that we seem to "feel" their presence?  What do we do with hymns, prayers, liturgies and sermons that implicitly seem to support doctrines that don't hold up under the careful reading of Scripture and the expressed beliefs of the first Christians?  According to Wright we might use modern metaphors.

Wright suggests contemporary language in describing how a Christian might have "personal continuity despite bodily discontinuity," He writes, "God will download our software on to his hardware until the day comes when he gives us new hardware on which to run our own software once more."  Or to put it another way, "...those who have died as part of God's people are sustained in life by God."

I highly recommend For All The Saints? for pastors, teachers and church leaders who are looking for solid, biblically-based answers to the incredibly difficult questions surrounding life after death... or as Wright would put it, "life after life after death."

If you want more information on any of the terms in this post, just click on the in-text links to learn about All Souls Day, Purgatory, Apostles Creed and even N.T. Wright himself.
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