N.T. Wright on Heaven & Rapture Theology

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities.

He was the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England from 2003-2010. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies.

As I’ve said many times before, I sincerely believe he is one of the most important of Christian scholars alive today, particularly in the area of early Judaism, historical Jesus studies, and the theology of the apostle Paul.

Wright’s work offers fresh insights and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity. In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

What about the resurrection of the dead? What about renewed creation? What about the gospel of the kingdom come to earth?

For newcomers to the blog, I have reviewed Surprised by Hope in a series of five books that I believe are helping to shape a new vision for 21st century evangelicalism. I think you need to read all of them. Make it a group study!

In the following ABC News interview, Wright talks about how evangelicals, especially those in America, have distorted the Christian hope by obsessing over heaven, while neglecting the NT teaching of new heaven and earth—a future reality in real space and time (Rev 21).

In this video, Wright also critiques rapture theology and provokes us to rethink the implications of embracing such an escapist view of the church and a subsequent cataclysmic destruction of the earth.

Do you agree or disagree with Wright? Have many believers neglected the real Christian hope? Do you see a conflict with rapture theology and the NT vision of the Kingdom coming to earth? Do you believe that a person’s view of future things shapes their behavior and actions in the present?

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

15 responses to “N.T. Wright on Heaven & Rapture Theology

  • naturalchurch

    I have not read Wright on this, but the issue clearly has to do with a vision of spirituality (and eternity) that is derived from the type of dualistic Greek mythology that gave us Gnosticism and a nonconcrete heaven filled with diapered winged boys. This has certainly undermined a reasonable Christian hope, for who hopes to become Cupid? The hope of glory is not an escape from matter, but the glorification of matter, as the doctrine of resurrection teaches us. (Polls reveal that two thirds of American Christians believe in disembodiment after the resurrection.) I don’t think the rapture has anything to do with this (I’m a-mil, btw). Whether I disappear secretly, pretribly, posttribly prewrathly or whatever, it does not change how I view my arrival on the other side. Some rapturists, like MacArthur, understands the afterlife quite well, whilst some amillenialists are practically gnostic in their expectations.

  • Cindy

    Amillennialism always confuses me — I’m not even sure how to spell it! Hopefully I got it right. I’ve never ever believed that we spend eternity “in heaven” in some kind of disembodied existence. Scripture has always said to me that we’ll be here on the earth, and that’s been since I was old enough to read bible story books. The bodily resurrection seems clear. Jesus came back from among the dead ones. What was He doing there? We have a hint or two, but there’s not a lot of hard information on that.

    What will WE be doing after we physically die? I really think we’ll be present with Him while absent from the body, but I’d never get into an argument over it. Our long-term hope is in a physical resurrection and life in the renewed heavens and earth, and it surprises me that many Christians discount that. I suspect that a lot of them haven’t read their bibles, or perhaps, have read them through the filters of what they “already know” and have been taught.

    But the question that always seems to come to me when I look at amillennialism is whether this theory teaches a bodily resurrection of people (which you personally appear to acknowledge) and a second coming of Christ as a separate and discrete individual (as much as a member of the Trinity CAN be an individual). I understand that He is here in His body the church and that as He is manifested more and more through us, His presence will be more and more apparent. But is HE coming as Himself, as the Bridegroom? I understand the arguments against this, but I just wonder where amillennialism stands on this? Or where you stand?

    To me the idea that the earth will never be a safe place until WE make it so is dreary and frankly hopeless. Yes, it is ours to work toward this every day by adding our small share of kindness to the surroundings and doing our best to bear the burdens of the weak, love the unlovable, heal the broken-hearted and so on, and that is absolutely non-negotiable. It seems an overwhelming task, but in Christ, we’re to do what is set before us and there’s a lot of joy in doing that.

    Nevertheless, there are things we didn’t do and for which we seem to have no ready answers. Storms, sicknesses, “acts of god” (as insurance companies call them), birth defects, accidents, and the ever-present enemy, death. Do amillennialists believe there will ever be an end to these things? Surely they don’t think it’s up to us to stop them? Or maybe they do think that. If so, it would be good for us to get a move on, only I’m not sure how to start . . . .

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Cindy, I always appreciate your input.

      Like many things, you will find that there are nuances of belief within amillenialism. As I said in Then the End Will Come, I strongly believe that a great deal of the Kingdom is to be known in the earth through the church. Rapture theology has conditioned us, even those of us who reject it, to be pessimistic about the future. I actually think this thinking is demonic and has a great deal to do with why we haven’t seen more of the Kingdom manifested in our communities throughout the earth. So while I believe greater things are yet to come, only Christ can bring the Kingdom in its fullness. This stands in contrast to secular humanism or social Darwinism. We are hopeful realists.

      As for natural disasters and such, I recommend reading Terrence Fretheim’s Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (2010).

      Greg Boyd has touched on this issue in a couple of his books. Have you read my summary of his views? He proposes that some (not all) natural disasters should be seen as being brought about demonic influence. Some of it is clearly creation out of whack and playing out its imperfection. However, creation care is important because we’re God’s stewards, and we manifest the Kingdom of God coming to earth when we attribute value to creation.

      • Cindy Skillman

        Okay, yes — I guess I missed that post. You do explain and I’m sorry to have re-asked the question. 😳 A lot of the amillennialism I’ve seen has Jesus returning only ever as His body the church and leaves the resurrection of people kind of up in the air. I can’t see that at all.

        And I agree that the idea that WE, as humans evolving into better and better creatures, will somehow create perfect community through government and laws is a forlorn hope. Not going to happen. IMO that is more or less the desire to return to the Garden, but without God. Wrong tree.

        So . . . now I’m wondering . . . I really believe we could go a lot farther than we do in displaying God’s power in the world, as a witness to Him. Yes, not every person is going to be healed, but still . . . it’s hard for people to believe in a God whose power they don’t see. He does answer prayers and especially for those who need to see His hand. Are you suggesting we can (or should be able to) calm the storms, etc.? If it’s demonic activity, and we’re engaged in war with demonic forces, it seems to follow. Am I off here, or taking this too far? People say they do this — they try to do it anyway, and sometimes it at least appears to work. What do you think?

        • David D. Flowers

          Cindy, ooh… that’s a good question. I do believe that Jesus has given us the ability to perform miracles by the power of his own Spirit. I think folks often forget that Jesus did all of his divine work in his humanity. I do think that there are other factors involved though (e.g. a person’s spiritual gifting, is it demonic or natural, are forces of evil preventing a “miracle” by blockading the will of God, etc.). There are many complexities to a spiritual warfare worldview.

          So, while I can’t say I’ll be the first one up on the roof rebuking the hurricane (we have them quite often in Houston), I also shouldn’t think it foolish. I once heard Tony Evans describe in vivid detail of how a little black woman at a Christian gathering prayed against an ensuing storm. The outdoor venue was in the direct path of the storm. The dark sky very mysteriously dissipated. Evans attributed this to the prayers of that little old black woman.

          I suppose if we believe the things that the NT reports, we should also believe that maybe that little old black woman rebuked the storm, which may have involved demonic powers. Something to think about. 🙂

        • Cindy Skillman

          You reminded me — I actually did do that last winter. I was on my way home through the mountains in the dark and it started snowing like crazy. I couldn’t see even to pull off the road. So I remembered one of the brothers had been joking about rebuking locusts and I rebuked the storm. Because, you know, I really wasn’t sure how else I was going to get home. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it slowed down immediately to a picturesque flurry until I made it the rest of the 20 miles or so. I was glad of it, whatever caused it.

          As for those little old ladies — They’re sometimes pretty amazing — scary amazing. Is it because they’re naive enough to believe, or because they’re old enough to have learned how to be like little children? 😉

        • David D. Flowers

          Great story, Cindy. Yes! I have wondered the exact same thing about those little old ladies. 😉

  • Tobie

    Hi David. Sorry about that. I’m constantly logged into WordPress on the username of my blog & I tend to forget that. (I can’t stand anonymous comments!) Name is Tobie van der Westhuizen.

  • Victor McQuade

    I would highly recommend reading Surprised by Hope along with “Simply Jesus”, “Simply Christian”, and “After You Believe – Why character matters”. This group of books completely changed my reason for being a Christ follower and finally gave meaning to my life here on earth; this after having gone to Bible college, teaching in another Bible College and been active in the church all my life. I am looking forward to his new book, “Surprised by Scripture”.

  • William Lee

    The Word of God certainly does talk about heaven, as does Jesus. There are both references to a rapture, althought it is not called that, more like being caught-up in the air when Jesus returns and also awarded rule in the revised kingdom by believers who’s glorified bodies bring new dimension to living with the Trinity. I prefer to remind myself of C.S.Lewis works that communicate truth about the hereafter like The Great Divorce and The Chronicles of Narnia, not to mention others.

  • Rick

    I am a member of a Canadian Reformed Church which holds generally to an amil view of eschatology. But amil only refers to the belief in a symbolic 1000 years (Rev. 20) during this age, after which Christ will return as Judge, the dead will be physically raised and believers will spend an eternity with God in glorified bodies on a renewed earth. We view the rapture (1 Thess. 4) as referring to Christ’s visible appearing and the saints (dead and alive) being transformed instantly to meet the Lord as the returning King of kings and Lord of lords. I am rather mystified that so many American evangelicals are so ignorant to the truth of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting on the new earth. When Tom Wright addresses this issue it seems incredulous to me that so many believe in a disembodied eternity “in heaven.”

  • David LaDuke

    I have some serious questions I’d like to ask Tom Wright on the topic of the rapture. I’m a Christian that happens to believe in a literal “rapture” before the judgement. The question I have is how does he explain the scriptures that tell us to “watch and be ready, for we know not when the son of man will return”, the parable of the ten virgins, and so on. If the tribulation period will last seven years as the Bible declairs, we know that Christ will return at the end of that seven years, so how do we explain what Jesus meant by “Behold the Lord cometh as a thief in the night”, and ye know not what hour the son of man comes. Well, if there is no rapture these verses, and those like them, really have no meaning since the bible is clear when Christ will return at the end of the seven year tribulation so we may as well be watching for the anti-christ instead of Jesus if there’s no rapture.

  • Ruth L

    I don’t see how the doctrine of the Rapture contradicts the fact that our ultimate destiny is living on a restored earth. The Rapture is the deliverance of living believers from the Tribulation period and the resurrection of the dead believers. We return to a restored earth with Jesus and eventually there is a a new Heaven and a new earth. If Wright thinks believers in the Rapture have a wrong concept of Heaven, he needs to become acquainted with what they actually believe. Wright probably believes in Christianizing society rather than preaching the Gospel, Rather like Rick Warren’s Global P.E.A.C.E. Plan. Things will supposedly get better and better and then the Church will welcome Jesus back to what they have perfected for Him. Totally contradicts what Jesus told us about conditions before His return.

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