His father had died recently, and when I saw him I expressed my sympathy at his loss. “Thanks,” he said. “But actually it was pretty much a blessing. Dad had been suffering lately, and we feel that it was the right time for the Lord to take him home.”
I didn’t try to correct his theology. Truth be told, I did not think there was anything much in what he said that needed correcting.
N. T. Wright would disagree. He does not like talk about our “heavenly home.” He makes that clear in his fine book Surprised by Hope. He says there that we should not really be singing that verse in “How Great Thou Art” that talks about “when Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” He even objects to the childlike prayer in “Away in a Manger,” that Jesus would “fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.”
I just said that Surprised by Hope is a fine book, and it is. It would be odd for me to disagree with the basic perspective that Wright lays out there since—as some folks have pointed out to me—it is a lot like the perspective I set forth in my book When the Kings Come Marching In (first published in the late 1980s). Our ultimate hope is the Resurrection, when we will be raised up to reign with Christ in the new creation that will be ushered in when Christ proclaims “Behold, I make all things new.” This means that we can look forward to an embodied existence. What that will be like, to be sure, is a mystery. But believers can nurture hope that we will be raised up to a life that is not less than, but far more than, the kind of embodied existence we now experience.
But the son who had recently lost his father was not talking about the resurrected state. He was saying that his dad was now in heaven with Jesus—and that the arrival there was a homecoming of sorts. And I fully agree.
This raises the theological question, of course, about the “intermediate state.” Tom Wright says he believes in that state. But he wants to make it clear that it is not the believer’s final destiny. At one point he makes his point by saying that “if we want to speak of ‘going to heaven when we die,’ we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. Resurrection isn’t life after death; it is life after life after death.”
That is nicely said. I fully agree. What I don’t understand is how believing exactly that—if we want to talk about heaven as home, then this is how we should understand it—rules out singing “How Great Thou Art” and “Away in a Manger” without having our theological fingers crossed behind our backs. When I talk to grieving Christians who have lost a believing loved one, I do “want to speak about ‘going to heaven when we die.’” I also want to sing about it. And I’m going to continue to do so with the confidence that Tom Wright has given me permission—of a rather grudging sort—to do so.
A final qualm about this strong emphasis on the Resurrection. It is linked—certainly in N. T. Wright’s theology—to a correspondingly strong emphasis on the Kingdom. I like that too. But what I don’t find said clearly enough in writings that set forth this emphasis—including in what I have read by Tom Wright—is that we will not only be raised up to life in the Kingdom, but we will be raised up to see the King. “When He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3: 2-3).
In her important writings on conceptions of the afterlife, Carol Zaleski distinguishes between God-centered conceptions and human-centered ones. Often the life-in-the-Kingdom motif has the feel of a human-centered perspective. We shall be changed. We will have bodies. We will be active in a transformed creation. The older “heavenly” scenarios featured the idea of the visio Dei—as in Frederick Faber’s wonderful lines: “Father of Jesus, love’s reward! What rapture it will be, Prostrate before Thy throne to lie, And gaze and gaze on Thee!” There is something there—a contemplative “gazing” aspect of the eternal state—that I don’t want to lose. “Soon and very soon, I’m going to see the King.” Visio Christi. A glorious hope. And to have even a less-than-final, admittedly “first stage,” experience of the presence of Christ in an “interim” disembodied state—surely that too will feel like “home”!