It’s Monday, so today we continue our discussion on NT Wright’s fascinating book “Surprised by Hope,” in which the Bishop of Durham argues that Christian eschatology should focus less on life after death and more on “life after life after death” - the bodily resurrection of the dead and the reign of Jesus in the redeemed creation. Today I’d like to focus on Wright’s ideas concerning the role of the Church in preparing for this new world.
Wright does a good job of examining and dismantling several competing theories that have become prevalent in Western Christian thought:
One is the dichotomy between evolutionary optimism (the idea that the world is getting better as people morally evolve) and Platonic escapism (the idea that the world is an entirely evil place from which our souls must escape and which God will completely destroy). Second, is the dichotomy between social gospel (the idea that if we work hard enough we can usher in the Kingdom of God on our own) and giving up (the idea that any attempts at redeeming this world are futile).
I don’t know about you, but most of my evangelical experience has included the teaching that God will ultimately destroy the world and that anyone who thinks the purpose of the Church is to try and fix it is naïve. I’ve seen this sort of theology applied to global warming, (“God is going to destroy the world anyway”), humanitarian aid, (“It’s more important to give people the gospel than to give them food”) and to social justice, (“Just let God straighten it out in eternity”).
While I’ve become disillusioned with this approach, I’ve also found the evolutionary optimism/ social gospel route to be discouraging because, as Wright suggests, “it will never solve evil retrospectively…(and it) underestimates the nature and power of evil itself…”
So when Jesus says that we should pray for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” what does He mean? And is Paul being a bit too hopeful when he urges believers to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”?
Central to Wright’s response is 1) his understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven, and 2) his insistence that with the resurrected Christ is Lord.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Wright looks at the Kingdom of Heaven this way: “God’s kingdom in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’…Heaven, in the Bible is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life-God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” (18-19)
The story of Jesus, he writes, is “the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as it is in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.”
Jesus is Lord
Wright is also convinced that Jesus is Lord of this new Kingdom.
“…The gospel, in the New Testament, is the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world’s true lord.” (227)
Wright then addresses the question I immediately found myself asking:
“But how can the church announce that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil, corruption, and death itself have been defeated, and that God’s new world has begun? Doesn’t this seem laughable? Well, it would be if it wasn’t happening. But if a church is…actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and if it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation…and if, in addition, its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community-then suddenly the announcement makes a lot of sense.” (227)
Building for the Kingdom by Following Jesus as Lord
This brings us to Wright’s response to the objection that working for social justice is an attempt to build the kingdom by our own efforts:
“Let’s be quite clear on two points. First, God builds God’s kingdom. But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image…He has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation…So the objection about us trying to build God’s kingdom by our own efforts, though it seems humble and pious, can actually be a way of hiding from responsibility, of keeping one’s head well down when the boss is looking for volunteers…” (207).
Wright believes that while we are presently involved in building the kingdom, it will not come to complete fruition until the Second Coming of Christ.
I suppose my question is this: Do you think that the Church is meant to simply be a picture of this future kingdom or do you think that it is meant to help inaugurate this future kingdom? Do we get into tricky territory when we start talking about the lordship of Christ, with His followers being, (as Wright puts it), “agents of that authority”? Hasn’t that attitude led to some big mistakes in history-like the Crusades, for example? Or does this cease to be a problem when we properly understand the fact that participating in this kingdom means loving others as we love ourselves, with the expectation that God will be the one to ultimately join the kingdom of heaven with the earth?
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