Mercy has a new curiosity surrounding death. She has brought it up more frequently lately, and I have found myself talking to her about death and resurrection and heaven. I just read an interesting interview with N.T. Wright (and have been following this same discussion on Scot McKnight’s blog as he is currently reviewing Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope) where he shares a bit about Christian beliefs surrounding heaven.

In discussing the sources of our misconceptions about heaven in the interview, Wright says this:

It has, originally, to do with the translation of Jewish ideas into Greek. The New Testament is deeply, deeply Jewish, and the Jews had for some time been intuiting a final, physical resurrection. They believed that the world of space and time and matter is messed up, but remains basically good, and God will eventually sort it out and put it right again. Belief in that goodness is absolutely essential to Christianity, both theologically and morally. But Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato saw our cosmos as shabby and misshapen and full of lies, and the idea was not to make it right, but to escape it and leave behind our material bodies. The church at its best has always come back toward the Hebrew view, but there have been times when the Greek view was very influential.

And in discussing why our beliefs about this matter now, he states:

If people think “my physical body doesn’t matter very much,” then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn’t matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.

I realized that I have defaulted to the more “mythical” way of talking about these things with my daughter, though perhaps that is not all bad for now. At least she no longer thinks that when people die they go to be with our good friend, Kevin (and why does that make Mommy so sad?), which is progress. But I also realized in general how muddled and undeveloped our “life-after-death” theology can really be. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I want to get my hands on Wright’s book.


  1. N.T.Wright is a great theologian. I just wish more Protestant theologians would be more precise when they talk about “the Greek view” as opposed to the “Hebrew view.”

    Aristotle was Greek, and yet did not bifurcate reality so that the material world was something to be “escaped.” In fact, his view of the cosmos was far more fit to speak about the incarnation, as theologians like Thomas Aquinas later demonstrated. Much better, then, to say, “… but there have been times when the PLATONIC view was very influential.”

    Here Wright is careful to limit his statement to the Hebrew view OF THE COSMOS, but others are not always so clear. Many Protestants I know have the idea that the church is at its best when it is “Hebrew,” period, as opposed to “Gentile + Hebrew.”

    Catholic Christians would certainly question that exclusivity, seeing Jesus as the Logos, in which there is neither “Greek” nor “Hebrew.” Moreover, at least one great theologian of the early church by the name of Paul seemed to have agreed!

  2. I’m with Beth though I really appreciate you raising this kind of atypical topic on your blog. Not many bloggers move from poopy diapers to philosophy as readily as you do.

    I think the N.T. is deeply deeply Jewish and deeply deeply Greek. The fact that the NT was written in Greek assures that tension and synergy. Diligently translating a cultural and religious tradition into another language usually creates a life giving hybrid. In my experience pretty much by definition. And certainly by experience. Missionaries like Paul seem to understand that intuitively when at their best and most thoughtful.

    I think the church at its best always returns to its reconciled and culturally hybrid roots. And I’m guessing the church at its best in the days to come will always look forward to its culturally hybrid and reconciled future as it continues to cross cultures.

    As Beth mentions, various respected old timey Greeks held pretty much every view of the body and the afterlife. That kind of openness was characteristic of paganism which was arguably more democratic both philosophically and politically than the Christian historical tradition was until the development of modern western cultures that arose out of a cross between neo-pagan (Enlightenment) and Christian thought.

    If the church bought into a spiritualized ‘by and bye’ and disrespected the body and the environment I’m not sure the fault lies with letting ‘the Greeks’ into church practice and theology by way of a cultural Trojan horse.

    Maybe the problem lies with misunderstanding what both the Jews and the Greeks in all their richness had to teach and oversimplifying each.

    Or in other words, ignorance and fundamentalism.

    I’d love to see more thoughtful Protestant theologians make those their target than poor Plato.

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