Category: N.T. Wright

C.S. Lewis on the need for a Christian point of view

As one perpetually caught between literature and theology, C.S. Lewis’s words here make me pay attention:

We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone far away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and text book undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round… It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern [person] a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books… The first step to the reconversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguins and the Thinkers’ Library on their own ground.

– “Christian Apologetics” in Timeless At Heart, p. 18

(To my mind, Tom Wright says it better and closer to my way of thinking when he imagines – in “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative” –  ‘a novel which grips people with the structure of Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart and structure of the narrative, so that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.’ For Wright, the purpose isn’t simply conversion or even apologetics, although that is part of it. The purpose is to embody and redeem all elements of life and infuse them with a background story of the kingdom. A sign and foretaste of Jesus’ reign. Lewis would probably agree. But I’m not sure Wright would call for the ‘reconversion’ of Britain – that horse has bolted, surely? Do we want to go back to Constantinianism? Not us Anabaptists, anyway.)

Yet I was genuinely struck by this passage. I picture Lewis as a sharp, kindly great-uncle, and he’s dispensing some pointed advice to me when I read his books. (For this analogy to work, he’s a great uncle I avoided until recently, because all the other great-nephews and nieces kept saying how great he was.) There’s a generation gap, but also genuine wisdom to be found.

For me, I am drawn to in-house Christian writing and thinking because I see too much of the church in the grip of fundamentalism and other unhealthy forms of Christianity.

Lewis writes here specifically about the need for more science books written by Christians, but I’m sure he’d urge me to persist with novels too. He is one of the few to be a respected voice in both.

Quote: Tom Wright on the ‘delay’ in Christ’s return

The problem of the delay of the parousia is a modern myth. The problem is caused by liberal Christianity’s no longer believing in the resurrection, which means that the weight of God’s activity is pushed forward in time. There’s not much evidence that the early church was anxious about this. First-century Christianity didn’t see itself so much as living in the last days, waiting for the parousia, as living in the first days of God’s new world.

We are still awaiting the final outworking of what God accomplished in Jesus, but there are all kinds of signs to show that, though the situation is often bleak, we are in fact on the right road.


Resurrection and Renewal: Bigger and Better Than Going to Heaven When You Die

Here’s the text of that sermon I gave at  Network Vineyard Church on 12 July 2009.

1. Introduction

I want to talk about an area of faith where my whole way of thinking was turned upside down. And that’s about heaven. I’m anticipating three possible reactions – boredom, disagreement and excitement. I hope the excited group of people is the biggest one. If you already know everything I’m going to say, come see me and I’ll arrange for you to get your money back out of the offering. If you disagree with me because you have a strong contrary opinion, I understand, but have a think about it. But I’m thinking there are some of you here today who will be inspired to find new hope and meaning in your life and your understanding of what your faith is all about.

I spent the first nineteen years of my life with an unhealthy view of physical reality. I believed that God was going to destroy the Earth one day. I believed that my future state was to live as a soul floating around in heaven, with no physical body.

When you think that God is going to destroy his creation, plucking out as many souls as he can before he throws the Earth on the fire, you tend not to care as much about what happens here and now. The injustices that plague our world become unimportant. Doing good seems futile. Things can only get worse; why try to do good? Why care about the environment? About climate change? It’s only going to get worse; the whole earth’s going to be thrown out like a disposable cup. More than that, all of life feels a bit pointless. You’re waiting around for heaven, and the only useful thing you can do is evangelise.

When I was nineteen and studying theology at uni, at one stage I got overwhelmed. I had so many questions and challenges to what I’d thought in the past. Fortunately, there was a man named Ian who was a mentor to me. I rang him and he told me to come around. I didn’t have a car, so I had to catch a bus into the city and then one out to his place; it took nearly two hours. When I got there, I was ready to pounce on him with all my questions about the sources and authorship of Genesis and Deuteronomy and the history behind them. But instead, he asked me a question. I think the Holy Spirit inspired him to ask it, because on the face of it, it had nothing to do with my situation.

He asked me, ‘What happens after we die?’
I said, ‘We go to heaven.’
But then he asked, ‘What about after that?’
And when I looked at him like he was playing a trick on me, he told me two things.

First of all, that the Earth wasn’t being thrown in the bin, but was going to be redeemed and renewed.

Second of all, I wasn’t going to live as a disembodied soul in heaven forever, but at Christ’s return, I would be resurrected to live on the renewed Earth. Our resurrection bodies were to be more physical, more real than our current ones – not less. Heaven, he told me, was only a waiting place for something better.

Basically he told me that Christianity was bigger and better than going to heaven when I died.

Resurrection and Renewal

You can now hear the sermon I gave on Sunday on the Network Vineyard website.  It’s about resurrection of our bodies and life on a renewed earth as the substance of our future hope, rather than eternity in a disembodied heaven. I took the dangerous step of opening the floor for questions at the end. It was nerve-wracking, but I love thinking on my feet. (I just have this problem of obsessing over how I could have given a better answer or have not made that embarrasing gaffe.)

A summary of Tom Wright’s ‘Building for the kingdom’

Here’s a summary of Tom Wright’s chaper on ‘Building for the kingdom’ in Surprised By Hope. It talks about our role – our mission – as disciples in enacting signs of the kingdom here and now.

1. Introduction

God builds God’s kingdom, not us. But he’s ordered his creation in such a way that his own work in the world takes place through humans who reflect his image. Through the work of Jesus and the power of the Spirit he equips humans to help in the work of getting the project back on track.

We are not building the kingdom itself, but we are building for it. ‘Our labours in Christ are not in vain’ (1 Cor 15:58) – everything done for God will become a part of God’s new creation, his recreation when he brings together heaven and earth. We don’t know how he’s going to do this; only that he will. We haven’t seen the architect’s drawing of the whole building with our bit in its proper place. But we can get on with doing our bit, and one day God will enhance and ennoble it.

Our calling, then, is to enact signs and symbols of the new creation here today in the midst of the old creation.

This makes the task of the church very different than if we were just saving souls for a disembodied heaven. With that in mind, Wright wants to sketch three important aspects of our work of building for the kingdom; there are many other aspects of our work he could have written about.

2. Justice

Justice is the setting right of the world, evident in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It’s one of the main aspects of our task of building for the kingdom. Fundamentalists claim it’s hopeless trying to make things more just because it’s only going to get worse till Jesus returns; liberals attempt to make it better without the power and promise of the resurrection.

The resurrection was a revolutionary doctrine – that’s why the Sadducees hated it. It promises a new exodus, a liberation from slavery, a defeat of evil in the world.

For Wright, the main justice issue in the world today is third world debt. Like slavery in its time, there are lots of ‘common sense’ arguments against doing something to overturn it. But it is our duty as Christians to call for a radical transformation of how we live as a worldwide community, anticipating the recreation of all things.

3. Beauty

Wright believes that taking creation and new creation seriously is a way to recover the importance of beauty for the church today.

He writes, ‘To make sense of and celebrate a beautiful world through the production of artefacts which are themselves beautiful is part of the call to be stewards of creation, as was Adam’s naming of the animals.’ (234)

The challenge is the balance between the temptation to ignore ugliness and sin and pretend all is beautiful (leading to sentimental art) and the temptation to wallow in ugliness and pretend all is darkness (leading to brutal art). Wright believes there is an impasse between these tendencies and that Christian artists should be breaking the impasse and leading the way out. (I’m unconvinced of his account here; I don’t know any writers who make the mistake of ignoring ugliness – there is no such impasse from my observation, more just a balancing act that particularly confronts Christian artists.)

As Christian artists we should be describing the world not just as it is or should be, but also as it one day will be. He writes, ‘And we should never forget that when Jesus rose from the dead, as the paradigm, first example and generating power of the whole new creation, the marks of the nails were not only visible on his hands and his feet. They were the way he was to be identified. When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection, and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission.’ (235-6)

4. Evangelism

If beauty and justice are two key signs or tastes of the kingdom, then evangelism is the call of Jesus for every person to join the kingdom.

Wright starts by clearing away some objections. Even though most evangelism has been done with a very deficient gospel, God can still use it to draw people to him and despite the weakness of the message, people’s faith and relationship with God are still real. But it would still be better to have the full biblical gospel.

The proclamation of good news is much more credible where the signs of the kingdom are shown in the life and work of the church. The announcement of good news makes sense when a church is working for justice and demonstrating the beauty of the (re)creation.

Next, Wright asks what conversion is in his account of the gospel. It’s a regeneration, a turning around, a sign of new life in a person so that they can be said to be a little part of this new creation.

Seeing conversion in these terms has three consequences over against individualistic accounts offered by popular evangelicalism:

1. It’s an incarnational faith, not a rejection of God’s good creation.
2. It’s a kingdom faith, not an individualistic one where the primary reality is a private relationship with God.
3. It’s a faith of discipleship, where what we do matters because Christian ethics are an expression of Christian hope.

5. Conclusion

In his conclusion, Wright brings his three themes together and shows how they interact in the context of his ministry in a post-industrial wasteland, where factories have closed, leaving many unemployed, and a sense of despair pervades the ugly landscape and passive lives of television.

In this situation, the church needs to take up the cause of justice, speaking out against the injustice of a system that has led to this state of affairs. At the same time, it can embody hope by being place where the beauty of ‘new creativity bursts forth for the whole community’. Which will lead to chances to give an account for the hope which the church is embodying – that is, the task of evangelism.

Tom Wright on beauty

In Surprised By Hope, Wright has a chapter on ‘Building for the Kingdom’. He sees building for the kingdom as the task of Christians today. The ‘for’ is important. It’s not building the kingdom by our own effort. Instead, it’s getting on with the tasks God’s given us, which he will – in ways we don’t understand yet – use (and is using) in his kingdom.

He explores three areas of the task – justice, beauty and evangelism. Beauty is the one which surprised me. He sees it as the task of artists to show the world beauty. Beauty, he believes, endures.

He sees an impasse between artists who show the world’s ugliness without hope and those who refuse to recognise the ugliness and whose art is thus untrue. He wants Christians to help break this impasse.

The beauty of creation, to which art responds and which it tries to express, imitate and highlight, is not simply beauty which it possesses in itself, but the beauty which it possesses in view of what is promised to it : back to the chalice, the violin, the engagement ring. We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as – by God’s grace alone! – one day it will be. And we should never forget that when Jesus rose from the dead, as the new paradigm, first example and generating power of the whole new creation, the marks of the nail were not only visible in his hands and his feet. They were the way he was to be identified. When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection, and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission. (235-6)

I don’t have any startling insights here. I don’t know how to think eschatologically in writing novels (my art form). I’m aware that at the moment I’m striving to be less ideologically driven in my writing – not more. I tried in the wrong way to write theological fiction and it caused problems.

But I do know that I want to write about beauty. Too long in literature I’ve been fascinated by ugliness. Perhaps in response to the kitschy sentimentalism that I felt evangelicalism was pushing me to like. Time to restore beauty. Not that it wasn’t there, but now as a conscious drive.

Tom Wright’s Hell

Some cursory personal comments on a subject that deserves much better.

For nine years I have believed in conditional immortality. Eternal life is a gift which God gives to those who love him. For those who don’t want to be a part of his kingdom, life ends. It’s the only way to make sense of the idea that God will rule over all creation, that rebellion will be ended. Within a new creation, restored and perfect, it doesn’t make sense that suffering goes on in the form of hell. It also – as opposed to universalism – recognises that God gives us freedom to reject him. I like to think that in the end the vast majority of people will want to be a part of what God’s doing and that only a few will be determined to shut themselves off from his love and the love of others.

I thought Tom Wright would be with me on this one, but he’s not. He’s reluctant to give a position at all, because (rightly so) the focus of eschatology should not be on the fate of the individual but God’s glorious renewal and restoration of creation.

However, he knows that in the end he has to say something, and so he takes a few pages in Surprised By Hope to outline a fourth option. Not universalism (everyone will be a part of God’s kingdom); not conditional immortality (those who don’t want to be a part of God’s kingdom won’t go on existing); not eternal torment in hell. Well, not quite; instead the damned become ex-humans:

When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance and worship to that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship, not only back to the object itself but outwards to the world around… My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choices, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all… [T]hey pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity…. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite, in themselves or others, the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal. (195)

I find Wright’s proposal horrific. It sounds just like hell, only now the condemned don’t even deserve sympathy. If he’s right, I’ll still feel sorry for them. God’s reign doesn’t seem total and restored while there’s ex-humans no longer even deserving sympathy. I think his proposal is simply, in the end, a speculation on the state of people within hell. It is not a new option but a revision of a traditional one.