Earlier this year (2008) in a letter to an editor I mentioned that a book entitled “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn was one of the worst books I had read for a long time. I said in effect that I regarded it as a mixture of fiction, fancy and fallacy, in general a massive misunderstanding of Scripture. Imagine then my astonishment and consternation when I began reading the learned Bishop of Durham on “Surprised by Hope” (London, 2007) and discovered that he recommended Alcorn’s book (p.310) along with Chris Wright’s “The Mission of God” (p.326, Nottingham, 2006) which also centres attention on the redemption of creation. So what are my problems?
It is vital to realize that behind Wright’s book lies the traditional Augustinian worldview which asserts the original perfection of creation and of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. However, according to the Bible perfection (maturity, completeness, cf. Jas. 1:4) is the end or eschatological goal of mankind not its beginning (cf. Mt. 5:48; 19:21; Rom. 8:29f.; 2 Cor. 3:18). Though Adam and Eve may have attained to physical perfection (maturity) as individuals, their spiritual perfection, as those who were made in the image of God in contradistinction to the rest of the animal creation, constituted their challenge and objective (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:16f.; Ps. 8:5f.). Thus, as created from the temporal earth and regarded physically as dust (Ps. 78:39; 103:14, etc.), they were promised (eternal) life if they kept the commandment (Gen. 2:16f., cf. Rom. 7:9f.). They failed, died and underwent decay in the very ground from which they were taken (cf. Eccl. 3:19f.).
Second, Wright like practically all writers known to me believes that Genesis 3:17-19 lies behind Romans 8:18-25. This view, apparently universal in the West, conspicuously lacks substantiation. In the event, however, what it is taken to mean is that an originally perfect creation that has been marred or cursed as a result of Adam’s sin now needs redemption like Adam himself who was the image of God (Gen. 5:1-3).
Next, Wright like many others has a morbid fear of Platonic dualism and Gnosticism. For Plato the body was the evil prison house of the soul. He therefore believed that at physical death the soul or intellect could go to heaven but that there would be no resurrection of the body. For Wright as a Christian, dualism of any kind is therefore taboo. The problem here is that the Bible begins with dualism and remains intensely dualistic almost to the end (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28). Genesis 1:1 testifies to the inherent difference between the Creator and his creation and hence to the cosmological dualism which is the basis of the anthropological dualism which features so strongly throughout the Bible. Dualism pervades Scripture and is one of its hallmarks. The reader’s attention to the difference between the creation and (the word of) God is drawn time and time again (cf. Gen. 8:22; Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27; Isa. 40:6-8; 51:6,8; Mt. 24:35; 1 Pet. 1:23-25, etc.).
Then, less obviously, Wright lacks an adequate covenant theology and appreciation of the distinction between the somewhat materialistic earth-centred old and the spiritualistic heaven-centred new covenant. In effect, he fails to recognise the progression from flesh to spirit involved in the divinely ordained development or maturation of man(kind) noted by Paul (1 Cor. 15:46, cf. espec. Phil. 2:5-11).
Fifth, his false understanding of the resurrection of Jesus is the “key” (or “paradigm” or “prototype”) to his view of the world to come. First, he simply assumes that Jesus’ resurrection involved his transformation despite the fact that this is a blatant contradiction in terms and a denial of what appears to be incontrovertible evidence. In this world as opposed to the next, all resurrections are physical (cf. Lazarus, etc.). We are plainly taught in the NT that Jesus did not see corruption on the one hand (Acts 2:27-31; 13:34-37) and that he remained flesh on the other (Luke 24:39, cf. John 20, etc.). But second, given his wholly unsupported assertion, Wright concludes that at his resurrection from the dead Jesus was neither flesh nor spirit, but apparently a hybrid or a homogenization of both. This then is for him the key that unlocks the mystery of the nature or composition of the world to come. At death, despite John 14:2, for example, we do not go to a spiritual heaven (a temporary resting place) where we gain a spiritual body or body of glory like Jesus (Phil. 3:21), we go rather to what Isaiah called the new heavens and the new earth. (Wright is not happy with Alcorn at this point because he thinks he fails to differentiate adequately between heaven and the new earth, p. 310.) Since Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20,23), it should be noted that for Wright the Isaianic references (65:17; 66:22), admittedly re-appearing in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, assume an importance they certainly do not have in the NT. The truth is, surely, that Isaiah, since he lived before Jesus who alone brought heavenly things to light (John 3:31f.), had only a vague idea of heaven (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12) and like all OT writers saw it in very earthly terms. So far as they were concerned, as the recipients of the Promised Land which was their temporary rest (Heb. 3,4), God came down to them, especially to Jerusalem and the temple. This descent reached its climax when Jesus temporarily “tabernacled” with them (John 1:14). But then, Jesus, having accomplished his work of human redemption (Luke 12:50; John 17:4), ascended back to heaven from where he had descended in the first place (John 3:13; Eph. 4:9f.) and resumed his former glory, this time as man (John 17:5,24). As a true pioneer, he prepared his people’s path to spiritual and corporeal perfection in the presence of God. In other words, he blazed a trail from earth, God’s footstool, to heaven, God’s throne (cf. John 1:51). It is here, however, that Wright’s rejection of biblical dualism, unlike James Dunn emeritus professor at Durham, who distinguishes strongly between flesh (sarx) and spirit (pneuma) (Romans, p. 391; Theology, p.73), lands him in trouble, for he opines that Jesus, in direct contradiction of John 3:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 15:50, takes his (modified) flesh (dust) to heaven or ultimately to the new heavens and new earth which is a “marriage” (p.29, etc.) between the two like his resurrection body.
So whereas the Bible presents us with a way of escape from bondage to the physical creation with its inherent corruption exacerbated by the suffering and evil of this age (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17; Gal. 1:4), Wright would have us forever wedded to it, even though it is a much worse marriage than that portrayed in Daniel 2:43! This I freely confess is not the invisible hope of glory and the heavenly paradise that I entertain (Col. 1:5,27; 1 Pet. 1:3f., etc.). Though it is apparently anathema to the bishop, I hope to go to heaven when I die, to the new Jerusalem, which already exists as the seat of God’s kingdom (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22), for God and the Lamb are there (Rev. 22:3, cf. Ezek. 48:35)! At the last day, I expect Jesus to descend from heaven (1 Thes. 1:10; 4:16f.), as Moses returned to Egypt, to rescue his people (Heb. 9:28) from the dissolution of the visible material world (Heb. 12:27-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12) and gather together all believers (Mt. 24:31) prior to presenting his kingdom to his heavenly Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
The reader will have to come to his own conclusions regarding Wright’s new perspective on eschatology. For me it is theologically flawed like his new perspective on Paul. It should be added in fairness, however, that the bishop is rightly concerned about aspects of the judgement, which he handles sensitively, and many Christians’ failure to live out their faith as they should. Too many, he feels, are satisfied with the (false) assurance that as baptized members of the church they will automatically go to heaven when they die and as a result lapse into (social) apathy beforehand. However, I suggest that the biblical teaching on the destruction of the material creation and our escape from it is not its cause as references like 2 Peter 3:11; 1 John 2:15-17 and 3:3, make plain. Wright’s view could well be an example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For while he has much to say about the confusion of others, he is in my view confused himself. His fundamentalist (Augustinian) presuppositions make this inevitable.
(See further my Biblical Dualism, Romans 8:18-25, Perfection, Escape, Will Creation be Redeemed?, Thoughts on the Redemption of Creation, The Destruction of the Material Creation, Restoration and Resurrection, When Was Jesus Transformed?, Old Testament Intimations of Heavenly Immortality, etc.).