Revisiting N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope after the Death of My Dad
With the release of N.T. Wright’s instant classic, Surprised by Hope, Christian theology received a much-needed chiropractic adjustment to its basic theology of our blessed hope beyond the grave.
In brief, Wright reminded us that our ultimate end is not in a disembodied existence as wraiths in a cloudy elsewhere called heaven. Rather, he made a convincing case from the Scriptures of God’s plan is for the resurrection of our bodies in this restored world. Our telos is not an escape from material existence or an abandonment of God’s good creation, but rather, the restoration of all people and all things, however transfigured and glorified the upgrade might be. And in these matters, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the firstfruits of humanity’s endgame. For “when we see him, we shall be like him.”
For all the mystery involved, I think Wright’s corrective was on point. So far, so good.
But I’m also aware that whether it was his intent or not, his heavy emphasis on mending our eschatology to recover the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of the cosmos also profoundly impacted many of Wright’s readers in their view of what we call the “intermediate state.”
Specifically, some took (or mistook?) him to be eradicating “heaven” altogether, as if offering the hope of a heavenly existence now somehow negated our belief in a final resurrection. I’m not sure he would agree. I know I don’t. To the degree that his students oversteered into a new error, I’d like to humbly offer a critique for conversation.
I will particularly make the positive case that Christ’s resurrection not only promises the reality of a final resurrection (as Wright says), but it also directly (1) impacts the nature of death now, (2) the experience of those who have died, and (3) the experience of those who grieve.
The Resurrection and Death
Scripture and the Great Tradition proclaim that Christ is risen and that death is conquered. It is not only that death will be defeated in the End (it will be), but that even now, already, the Cross delivered a death blow to death itself such that Christ could say, “Those who believe in me will not die.” That is, dying no longer leads to death, but becomes a birth canal into the presence of God. We imagine and confess the forthcoming resurrection of our glorified and incorruptible bodies in the age to come. But we also insist that for those who have passed away, death is no longer the appropriate word. Christ and his apostles insist that those who have crossed over are not dead. “God is God of the living.”
The Resurrection and the Departed
Scripture and the Great Tradition proclaim that even while we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come” (Nicene Creed), the resurrection of Jesus Christ has an immediate impact on the departed even now. For Paul, “to be absent from the body” is not simply “to await the final resurrection.” It is to be “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). For the author of Hebrews, it is to join “the great cloud of witnesses who surround us” (Hebrews 12:1-2). For John the Revelator, it is to participate in “the great multitude standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 6:9). The New Testament everywhere regards the intermediate state as the Paradise we enter on the day of our death (Luke 23:43). Such passages describe a conscious existence in the presence of Christ prior to the final resurrection.
Wright’s followers bristle at the apparent “Greek dualism” that distinguishes our earthly bodies from our heavenly existence as we await our bodily resurrection. But Paul is not so sure. “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1). Note that for Paul, death does not mean that we will be found “naked” (bodiless, vs. 3), but that in heaven,we will be “clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling” (vs. 4). How does he describe the intermediate state? As a heavenly body in heaven.
This does not at all sound like the final resuscitation of these bodies in this renewed world. Wright insists (I think mostly correctly) that is still coming, in the “age to come” (Revelation 21-22) and at the “end of the ages” (1 Corinthians 15). But in Christ, it means that our loved ones are indeed alive now and they are embodied somehow (heavenly tents) and somewhere (in heaven), even as they too consciously ask, “How long, O Lord, until the final judgment?” (Revelation 6:10) and after that, the apokatastasis of all.
These assertions about an intermediate state climax in Hebrews 12, where we read,
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly; you have come to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, you have come to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, you have come to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…”
I glory to see in this paragraph that we who are alive in this world have already come to Mount Zion—before the throne of grace—and as we come there in adoration and worship, in intercession and supplication, we discover our communion with the angelic hosts, the church of the firstborn, and most striking, “the spirits (pneumasi) of the righteous made perfect (teteleiomenon).”
The difficulty with this last phrase, for both Wright and me, begins with the description of the departed as spirits. But this needn’t trouble us if we remember Paul’s distinction between natural and spiritual bodies, and not only in the future at the End (1 Corinthians 15:42, 49), but also now: “As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth, so also are those who are (present tense) of heaven” (vs. 48).
Much more perplexing is that he describes those in the intermediate state as already made perfect—and specifically, have attained their telos (the completion and fulfillment of their humanity)—now, in heaven, prior to the final resurrection. How can the author say they have been perfected if they have not yet received their incorruptible spiritual bodies on the final day?
Without reviewing other workarounds, one way we might speculate on this mystery (that’s all we can do) is to think about those who die in Christ having received their incorruptible resurrection bodies already—not a temporary “spare” until they’re fully equipped at the End. Like Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor, the righteous have in fact been glorified, made perfect, and clothed in their incorruptible resurrection bodies. What is intermediate is not their bodily state, but their location in the heavenly realms until the City of God descends to transfigure the earth and the two realms are revealed as the one dwelling place of God, devoid of tears, pain, and death (Revelation 1:1-4).
The Resurrection and the Living
On the other hand, to imagine the natural, earthly realm and the spiritual, heavenly realm as two separate and separated stories is precisely the type of dualism erased by the resurrection of Christ. Whether the dualism separates the living from the “dead,” or the risen today versus someday, or the earthly and heavenly realms, it fails to appreciate and appropriate their union in the Lamb—crucified and risen, ascended and “pentecosted.” Fr. Stephen Freeman addresses this issue thoroughly in Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Story Universe.
Thenceforth, Jesus Christ’s resurrection dramatically impacts not only our understanding and experience of death and the departed but changes everything for those of us who remain:
- It means we no longer fear death for ourselves or the departed because death is not the end for any of us.
- It means we are no longer only people of the earth, but also already people of heaven, present now before God’s throne and even seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, far above the clamor of fallen world systems.
- It means that our loved ones are not simply ‘gone’ or ‘departed’ to some other place, but rather, gathered in one and the same sacred space we share with them now. They are present with the Lord who is present to us.
This last point can profoundly minister to those who grieve, because while we no longer know our departed loved ones “according to the flesh,” to call them “departed” refers only to their departure from their natural bodies, and not to their departure from us. We believe they have graduated to the cloud of witnesses who surround us and with whom we enjoy “the communion of the saints” as one undivided church of the living.
These convictions, held by faith, offer greater comfort to the bereaved than either imagining (1) they are off in a distant heaven someplace else, or (2) contra Wright (if he even believes this), that we won’t them again until somewhen else in the age to come.
Thus, to speak of our loved ones enjoying heaven now is decidedly not a relapse into Greco-pagan worldviews devoid of a bodily resurrection, but a New Testament testimony of the power of the resurrection here and now, everywhere and everywhen—a witness articulated in the Orthodox prayers for the ‘departed,’ which I prayed for my father at his funeral:
O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who has trampled down death and overthrown the devil, and given life to your world, we ask You, the same Lord, to give rest to the soul of your departed servant Lloyd Jersak, in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away. Pardon every transgression that he had committed, whether by word or deed or thought. For you are a good and merciful God and you love mankind; because there is no one who lived without sin but you, and your righteousness is to all eternity, and your word is truth.
For you are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of your servant Lloyd, who has fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and to You, we ascribe glory, together with your Father, who is from everlasting, and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.
My father’s graveside service was brief but beautiful. We began under storm clouds and a short shower as my brother read a tribute to Dad from our West Coast cousins. I then read the quote below from Sergius Bulgakov. And as my son Dominic read Psalm 23, the rain stopped, the skies parted, and the sun shone to the words, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Here was Bulgaov’s poignant encouragement:
Our companions in life depart to that world, and each one calls to us: come this way! And, summoning us like a clanging bell, each one speaks of the approaching and imminent hour of death. The death of sinners is grim, and dreadful is the hour of death for every sinner and for me, wretch that I am. But I place my hope in the mercy of Your loving kindness. My soul has long heard and known this call, not as something unfamiliar and foreign, but rather as a summons both native and familiar.
Death is both dreadful and not, for death itself decays and dies the nearer we draw to it. And after the terrible and distressing event of the grave and of corruption, a new life is ignited, a new youth. For thy youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s [Psalm 103:5).
We need not wrap ourselves up in a Stoic toga of dispassion and indifference—because that is pride and hypocrisy—but we must humbly give ourselves up to the loving hand of the Lord. It is as if, little by little, the leaden gates of death become ever more transparent, a light shines through them, the singing on the other side reaches us, we become aware of the souls who dwell there. The soul is sprouting its wings, it’s like teething—there is still a long way to go, yet there is already a beginning, already life proceeds with the feeling of the break of dawn, and the soul basks in the morning air… We must live with complete fulness: with all love, with total effort, but we must bear in ourselves this knowledge that everything is for a time, that everything is not only going to end but must end, must receive… the new.
—Bulgakov, Spiritual Diaries, 126