WILLIAM WRIGHT Lifestyles Editor — 423-472-5045
BiographyThe Washington Post recently ran an article on former Anglican bishop Nicholas T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar, who is raising the question, “Have we gotten heaven all wrong?”
The May 16 online article said surveys show a vast majority of Americans believe that “after death their souls will ascend to some kind of celestial resting place. But scholars on the right and left increasingly say that comforting belief in an afterlife has no basis in the Bible and would have sounded bizarre to Jesus and his early followers.”
Wright, who teaches about early Christianity at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, has explored Christian misconceptions of heaven in previous books, and said, “An awful lot of ordinary church-going Christians are simply millions of miles away from understanding any of this.”
Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary in New York said, “This is a very current issue — that what the church, or what the majority conventional view of heaven is, is very different from what we find in these biblical testimonies.”
The Post also reported, “Wright and Morse work independently of each other and in very different ideological settings, but their work shows a remarkable convergence on key points. In classic Judaism and first-century Christianity, believers expected this world would be transformed into God’s Kingdom — a restored Eden where redeemed human beings would be liberated from death, illness, sin and other corruptions.”
Wright added, “We are so fortunate in this generation that we understand more about first-century Judaism than Christian scholarship has for a very long time. And when you do that, you realize just how much was forgotten quite soon in the early church, certainly in the first three or four centuries.”
This revelation may surprise many readers, inasmuch as very few religious organizations ever share this kind of insight into Biblical theology. Since nothing in the Scriptures indicates that if Adam and Eve had remained faithful to God they would have had eternal life somewhere other than on earth, an earthly resurrection in physical bodies was the normal belief among God’s chosen people, even when Christ walked the earth.
The 1971 Encyclopedia Judaica admits, “The belief that ultimately the dead will be revived in their bodies and live again on earth” is “a major tenet” of Judaism. In his article “The Old Testament view of life after death,” Dr. Alexander Desmond, a lecturer in Semitic Studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, stated, “The after-life, if one can call it that, consisted of a silent existence in Sheol, the realm of the dead, where both righteous and wicked shared a common fate, isolated for eternity from God and the living.”
This view of death without any conscious existence is reflected in the Biblical words of Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 where it states “the dead know nothing at all” and “there’s no work, thought, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave (Sheol), which is where you are headed.” — Common English Bible.
Since the person ceased to exist at death, the only hope of returning to life was in a bodily resurrection on earth. We see this again at Isaiah 26:19 where it says, “But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy.” — New International Version. Also, Daniel 12:2 states, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” — New International Version.
So where did the idea of an immortal soul that survives the death of the body come from? The Encyclopedia Judaica added, “It was probably under Greek influence that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul came into Judaism.” Wright affirmed, “Our picture, which we get from Dante and Michelangelo, particularly of a heaven and a hell, and perhaps of a purgatory as well, simply isn’t consonant with what we find in the New Testament. A lot of these images of hellfire and damnation are actually pagan images which the Middle Ages picks up again and kind of wallows in.”
As astonishing as this may sound to some believers today, Jesus Christ, who existed in heaven before coming to earth, had already made it clear whether anyone dead was existing in heaven as spirits, at John 3:13: “No one has gone up to heaven except the Son of Man, who came down from there.” — Contemporary English Version. This explains the conversation of Jesus and Martha regarding her deceased brother, Lazarus, at John 11:23-24: “Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.’ Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” — King James Version.
“Christianity gradually lost contact with its Jewish roots as it spread into the gentile world,” Wright explained. “On the idea of heaven, things really veered off course in the Middle Ages.”
Granted, there are Scriptures that require further explanations, but most Bible scholars will likely not be surprised by Wright’s findings. The article reported Wright and Morse said they have both made presentations on their research at various churches and have been “surprised by the public’s interest and acceptance.”
While the early belief of returning to physical life on a restored paradise earth under the Kingdom of God finds Biblical support, there is no question that God’s Word also states at 1Peter 3:18 that Jesus Christ “was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” — New International Version. As such, Jesus became “a life-giving spirit,” as stated in 1Corinthians 15:45.
This opened the way for many of Jesus’ followers to go to heaven after death and enjoy life as immortal spirit creatures “at the last trumpet,” according to 1Corinthians 15:50-54. If Wright and Morse are not accepting this Biblical truth as well, I think these learned men are missing the biggest picture about the Kingdom of God.
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