Critiquing N.T. Wright’s Eschatology: Why the Huffs and Puffs?

N.T. Wright commends an eschatology that is supported by three fundamental structures of hope: 1) the goodness of creation, 2) the reality of evil in God’s permissive will and 3) God’s work of redemption as a re-creation. His vision of the future is comprehensively explored through six biblical images:

1. Seedtime and Harvest [1 Cor. 15]
2. The Victorious Battle [1 Cor. 15]
3. Citizens of Heaven, Colonizing Earth [Phil. 3:20-21]
4. God will be all in all [1 Co.r 15:28]
5. New birth [Rom. 8], and
6. The marriage of heaven and earth [Rev. 21-22]

[Source: N.T.Wright, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection & the Mission of the Church (Harper Collins,  2008)

Wright’s eschatology marches towards an exciting grand finale when there will be a union of the new heavens and the new earth, “the final accomplishment of God’s great design, to defeat and abolish death forever—which can only mean the rescue of creation from its present plight of decay.” [p. 105] He emphasizes there will be both continuity and discontinuity between the old and new creation. He ends with a flourish, “In that coming together, the “very good” that God spoke over creation at the beginning will be enhanced, not abolished. The New Testament never imagines that when the new heavens and new earth arrive, God will say, in effect, “Well, that first creation wasn’t so good after all, was it? Aren’t you glad we’ve got rid of all that space, time and matter?” Rather, we must envisage a world in which the present creation, which we think of in those three dimensions, is enhanced, taken up into God’s larger purposes, no doubt, but certainly not abandoned.” [p. 259]

Wright displays a deep assurance that divine providence will usher in God’s final reconciliation at the final ‘marriage of heaven and earth’ (Rev 21-22), where God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). To all his commendations, we gladly echo with a resounding “Amen.”  Since some of my earlier posts have been critical of Wright, it may surprise readers to find that I concur with much of Wright’s eschatology, especially when he goes beyond the gospels and takes into account the fuller evidence from the rest of the Bible. The agreement even extents to the issue of the “intermediate state” where those who are dead in Christ are resting in provisional blessedness in God’s presence while they await the resurrection body.

So, why the theological huffs and puffs when critiquing Wright’s eschatology?

I think Wright could be more sympathetic towards the imaginary outlook of the “lowly Christians” when he argues that the Bible is not so much interested in the life after death, as in the final resurrection, that is, life after life after death. For all their deficiencies, the images of the afterlife drawn from Christian tradition do help the ordinary Christians take comfort in the thought that their dearly departed are now in a better place, resting in God’s presence (which Wright would have no problem anyway, given his view of the intermediate stage).  In any case, preachers invariably comfort the bereaved with the glorious hope of bodily resurrection during the burial service at the cemetery.

It is fair to say that, folk Christianity aside, no serious evangelical preacher, not even one who relishes in the great imageries of Dante’s magnificent poem, “Divine Comedy” (I strongly recommend all Christians to study this poem) would be long detained by the materialistic and visually sensual images of inferno, purgatory and paradise when comforting ordinary, congregational members in memorial services. Regardless, let us not deprive ordinary grieving Christians of the images of hope and comfort from the Christian tradition (however, imperfect the images may be) in their hour of need.

Indeed, if we follow Wright’s iconoclastic critique, we wouldn’t be allowed to follow the book of Revelation or Ezekiel, and describe the afterlife as a place where “every tear is wiped away from every eye”, not to say about “streets of gold”. We must give more consideration to the ‘lowly’ Christians. It may be sufficient for the academic elite and genteel Anglicans to remain at the level of general theological discourse about recreation and the union of heaven and earth, but surely we should be allowed some pedagogical liberties when teaching kindergarten children, new believers and grieving Christians? It may even be argued that poetic sensibility, appropriately guided by Scripture is an indispensable complement to propositional theological analysis. It is telling that while Wright discourages extra-biblical symbolic explorations for simple folks, he himself could not escape from the need to speculate in some details on the fate of those condemned to hell – I am actually much in agreement with his speculation on this dreadful topic (without going all the way of annihilationism) which is of course inspired by C.S. Lewis.

What then is the reason for frustrations when one is critiquing Wright? His polemics is naturally an over-correction (that’s the way of polemics) that can end up as caricatures. However, any rejoinder to Wright’s over-correction polemics will be referred to his more refined and balance caveats given elsewhere. This happens not just on the issue of heaven, but on his view of Christ’s second coming and justification (granted, he steadfastly rejects imputation). That is why I included this line in my earlier post – “How this squares with his claim to adhere to inaugurated eschatology is another matter, although there are occasions where Wright will in another piece of writing include a further qualification to his earlier polemics.”

Perhaps it is best to take Wright at face value, that is, critique his polemics as they stand, and let him or his defenders point to the more nuanced qualifications as the discussion goes along. This process can be quite frustrating, but that’s also N.T. Wright – brilliant in his delicious prose as he delivers an unsettling punch at our taken-for-granted beliefs. He is edifying and frustrating at the same time.

If I may psychoanalyze Wright a bit – he exaggerates the deficiencies of some well-established teachings in the Christian tradition, presents himself as the good subversive and then suggests himself (albeit, slightly) as representing the avant-garde offering a revolutionary but balanced corrective! (Sorry if I appear hard on Wright, but a forceful critic should be able, and big enough to take it).

Still, we ignore Wright to our own detriment. Frustrating or not, he is one of the most stimulating writers in town – anchoring the Bible in concrete history and enthralling his readers with the grand narrative of divine salvation with all its expansiveness – not just the salvation of the soul in the future, but the present experience of salvation which restores fullness to the broken individual, brings reconciliation to communities in conflict, and ushers in the renewal and transformation of creation. Wright possesses the singular ability to challenge us to wipe clear our hermeneutical spectacles so that we may see afresh theological truths that may have been clouded by tradition and conventional wisdom.