Surprised by Hope - Part II
by N.T. Wright
by Barbara Buzzard
Bishop Wright feels that American Christians have an obsession with the second coming of Jesus. Since we can always learn a good deal by seeing ourselves through the lenses of someone else, let us proceed (but of course, with caution and with those Berean spectacles on): “The first thing to get clear is that, despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return.” Dear reader, you do remember that I promised you a surprise? At this point, Wright contends that he has written at length in his other books about this and has no space to go into it in this book. He says that when Jesus speaks about the Son of Man coming on the clouds (Dan. 7) he is talking about his vindication after suffering. On the one hand Wright says, “In fact, the New Testament uses quite a variety of language and imagery to express the truth that Jesus and his people will one day be personally present to each other as full and renewed human beings.” (Sounds good to me.) On the other hand, second coming texts are about Jesus’ vindication at his ascension or later in 70 AD. Wright reveals that he has been attacked by American readers who charge him with not believing in the second coming. He answers by saying this is absurd and that “The fact that Jesus didn’t teach it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (Similarly, the fact that I have written books about Jesus without mentioning it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in it.)”
“So if the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching do not refer to the second coming [in the classical sense of his future parousia], where does the idea come from? Quite frankly, from the rest of the New Testament.” This is a bit brain-breaking. Let me give you some even more confusing background from Wright: “‘Christ has died,’ we say in the Anglican Eucharist, ‘Christ is risen; Christ will come again’...And if we are ordinary mainstream Christians in Britain today...we may well add under our breath, ‘even though I haven’t a clue what it means.’ The so-called second coming of Jesus is not a hot topic in the preaching of the mainstream churches, even in Advent.” The following quotation from Wright paints, I think, a surprising but accurate picture of the state of belief in England: “What’s more, the revival of a lively Eucharistic life in the Church of England in the postwar years carried with it, in some circles at least, a theology that seemed to leave no room for a final coming. ‘Why do we say, “Christ will come again”?’ asked one puzzled worshiper in the 1970s when the threefold phrase was first used in Anglican liturgy. ‘Surely we have been taught that he comes — that he is here with us — in the Eucharist itself?’” Yes, I can vouch for the fact that the above is pretty standard in the Church of England and is accompanied by a kind of sniggering attitude towards those like the Americans Wright referred to who so annoy him.
Wright: “The second coming has not yet occurred.” In saying this, he is agreeing with a literal physical second coming as Paul described it. But he believes that when Jesus speaks of his coming again he refers to a 70 AD judgment. This view is known as “partial preterism.” The same label (parousia) Wright applies to two completely different chronological events. In essence Wright says, “He will come again; and he will come again as judge.” To me this would be two “second” comings! (Since there can’t be two second comings, this would really be a second and a third coming!)
Wright makes an attempt to comfort his readers by saying, “And yet it is Christian orthodoxy, properly understood, that can help us find the way through this morass and muddle and out the other side.” I am not at all comforted as the first half of the book displays an attitude by Christian orthodoxy of aversion to the truth of resurrection, of distortion, sidestepping, and reframing of Scripture. Wright’s scenario: “We must remind ourselves yet once more that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist.” Mist is like fog; it obscures, and while it is true that we “see through a glass darkly” it is also true that Jesus said “See, I have told you ahead of time” in answer to the disciples’ question as to what would be the sign of his coming. All is not foggy. Our hope in the resurrection is to be a solid, grounded hope, not a dreamy, vague, misty hope. After all, it is the blessed hope.
On a more positive note, Professor Wright finds that there is confusion about what Christians are supposed to believe with reference to the redemption of our bodies. He sums this up: “This is all the more curious in that the New Testament itself, which most churches officially regard as their primary doctrinal source, is crystal clear on the matter. In a classic passage, Paul speaks of ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom. 8:23). There is no room for doubt as to what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life. The rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this...This expression of hope — hope for the resurrection of the body — was, however, so out of tune with several of the prevailing moods of Christian thought down the years that it became muzzled and distorted and then not even known” (emphasis mine).
Another surprise awaits (I think!). “What does Jesus mean when he declares that there are ‘many dwelling places’ in his father’s house? This has regularly been taken, not least when used in the context of bereavement, to mean that the dead (or at least dead Christians) will simply go to heaven permanently rather than being raised again subsequently to new bodily life. But the word for ‘dwelling places’ here, monai, is regularly used in ancient Greek not for a final resting place but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.” Professor Wright has here invented a new phrase and a new belief system — life after life after death. Wright is unsure as to the nature of existence in this intermediate state.