by N.T. Wright (a summary by Pat Evert)
A hope that joins up, as I have said, with the hope that ought to energize our work for God’s kingdom in the present world. What a Christian should be saying and thinking about rediscovering hope in the public and political world.
Part I Setting the Scene – In autumn 1997 much of the world was plunged into a week of national mourning for Princess Diana, reaching its climax in the extraordinary funeral service in Westminster Abbey. Early in 1999 I awoke one morning to hear on the radio that a public figure had been sacked for heretical statements about the afterlife. Cremation, almost unknown in the Western world a hundred years ago, is now the preference, actual or assumed, of the great majority. The events of September 11 of that year are etched in global memory; the thousands who died and the tens of thousands who were bereaved evoke our love and prayers. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated. Some believe in complete annihilation; that is at least clean and tidy, however unsatisfying it may be as an account of human destiny. Condemned to regular reincarnation unless she manages to grasp at what her underworld guide calls “the hooks and eyes of grace,” through which, it seems, she will be able to escape the continual circle. So far as I can tell, most people simply don’t know what orthodox Christian belief is. It is assumed that Christians believe in life after death, as opposed to denying any survival after death, and that every sort of life after death must therefore be the same kind of (Christian) thing.
A short sleep, then an eternal waking. And death shall be no more. Thus Christian thought has oscillated between seeing death as a vile enemy and a welcome friend. 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. And when we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21–22, we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace. But the underlying implication, of a desire simply to be merged back into the created world, without any affirmation of a future life of new embodiment, flies in the face of classic Christian theology. What we do in the present matters enormously. Paul speaks of the future resurrection as a major motive for treating our bodies properly in the present time (1 Corinthians 6:14), and as the reason not for sitting back and waiting for it all to happen but for working hard in the present, knowing that nothing done in the Lord, in the power of the Spirit, in the present time will be wasted in God’s future. We need investigate the often forgotten riches of the Christian tradition itself, with scripture at its heart. 2 Timothy 1:10 declares that immortality has only come to light, and hence is presumably only available, through the gospel. Third, the starting point for all Christian thinking about this topic must be Jesus’s own resurrection. But to understand Jesus’s resurrection and what it meant to the first disciples and why they drew from it the conclusions they did. What then is the ultimate Christian hope for the whole world and for ourselves? “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” The prayer was powerfully answered at the first Easter and will finally be answered fully when heaven and earth are joined in the new Jerusalem. Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present. The ultimate future hope remains a surprise, partly because we don’t know when it will arrive and partly because at present we have only images and metaphors for it, leaving us to guess that the reality will be far greater, and more surprising, still. Our task in the present—of which this book, God willing, may form part—is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.
Eyewitnesses disagree but that this doesn’t mean nothing happened. It is more remarkable that disagreement happens when the witnesses are all extremely erudite and professionally concerned with knowledge and truth. Jews did not believe that anyone had done so or that anyone would do so all by themselves in advance of the general resurrection. To begin with, then, what did the ancient world believe about life beyond the grave? Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense. But most Jews of the day believed in an eventual resurrection—that is, that God would look after the soul after death until, at the last day, God would give his people new bodies when he judged and remade the whole world. Paradise is, rather, the blissful garden where God’s people rest prior to the resurrection. The early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world. But within this Jewish belief, early Christians made seven modifications. The new body will be incorruptible. The resurrection, as an event, has split into two. Resurrection, we must never cease to remind ourselves, did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble postmortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death. Rather than an event in which God’s whole new world will be born, resurrection itself happening to one person in the middle of history in advance of its great, final occurrence, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of history. Because the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. A new metaphorical meaning of resurrection, which has already taken firm root by the time of Paul: resurrection as referring metaphorically to baptism (a dying and rising with Christ), and resurrection as referring to the new life of strenuous ethical obedience, enabled by the Holy Spirit, to which the believer is committed. Jesus, it appeared, had done none of these things. He had suffered the typical injustice of the world; he had mounted a strange and apparently ineffectual demonstration in the Temple; and he had died at the hands of the pagans rather than defeating them gloriously in battle. Why did the early Christians modify the Jewish resurrection language in these seven ways, and do it with such consistency?
Nothing happened. Indeed, they are a reasonable indication that something remarkable happened, so remarkable that the first witnesses were bewildered into telling different stories about it. four strange features shared by the accounts in the four canonical gospels. First, we note the strange silence of the Bible in the stories. The stories, even if they were written down a lot later, go back to very, very early oral tradition, The second strange feature of the stories is more often remarked upon: the presence of the women as the principal witnesses. The third strange feature is the portrait of Jesus himself. It is clearly physical: it uses up (so to speak) the matter of the crucified body; hence the empty tomb. But, equally, it comes and goes through locked doors; it is not always recognized; and in the end it disappears into God’s space, that is, “heaven,” through the thin curtain that in much Jewish thought separates God’s space from human space. No speculative theology had laid this trail for the evangelists to follow. The fourth strange feature of the resurrection accounts is the fact that they never mention the future Christian hope. Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world. something that they at once interpreted as meaning that he was after all the Messiah, that God’s new age had after all broken into the present time, and that the tomb was empty, except for some graveclothes, and that they really did see and talk with someone who gave every appearance of being a solidly physical Jesus, though a Jesus who was strangely changed. Science studies the repeatable; history studies the unrepeatable. Resurrection in the first century meant someone physically, thoroughly dead becoming physically, thoroughly alive again. It was a foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new world. The world cannot cope with a Jesus who comes out of the tomb, who inaugurates God’s new creation right in the middle of the old one. And stewards need to pay close, minute attention to that of which they are stewards, in order the better to serve it and to enable it to attain its intended fruitfulness. In 1 Corinthians 15 he sketches his argument that there will be a future resurrection as part of God’s new creation, the redemption of the entire cosmos as in Romans 8. Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism. It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen. But now, with Easter, Peter is called to live in a new and different world. Where Thomas is called to a new kind of faith and Paul to a radically renewed hope, Peter is called to a new kind of love. If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing, a knowing that involves us in new ways, an epistemology that draws out from us not just the cool appraisal of detached quasi-scientific research but also that whole-person engagement and involvement for which the best shorthand is “love.” Love is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality. Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.
Part II God’s Future Plan – the totally unexpected event of Jesus’s resurrection, they also looked forward eagerly to an event yet to come in which what began at Easter would be completed. What God did for Jesus on the first Easter Day, he has promised to do for each one who is in Christ, each one indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. That is the biblical and historic Christian expectation in terms of ourselves as human beings. we begin with the biblical vision of the future world—a vision of the present cosmos renewed from top to bottom by the God who is both creator and redeemer. That is the context within which we will then be able to speak of the second coming of Jesus and then of the bodily resurrection. Indeed the cosmic project, could and would continue to grow and develop, producing unlimited human improvement and marching toward a utopia, goes back to the Renaissance. Instead of dependence on God’s grace, we will become what we have the potential to be by education and hard work. Liberal modernism supposes that the world can become everything we want it to be by working a bit harder and helping forward the great march into the glorious future. I mean in practice, it can’t develop a strategy that actually addresses the severe problems of evil in the world. We can’t explain them, given the myth of progress, and neither can we eradicate them. The myth, then, cannot deal with evil, for three reasons. First, it can’t stop it: Second, even if “progress” brought us to utopia after all, that wouldn’t address the moral problem of all the evil that’s happened to date in the world. The myth of progress fails because it doesn’t in fact work; because it would never solve evil retrospectively; and because it underestimates the nature and power of evil itself and thus fails to see the vital importance of the cross, God’s no to evil, which then opens the door to his yes to creation. The central Christian affirmation is that what the creator God has done in Jesus Christ, and supremely in his resurrection, is what he intends to do for the whole world—meaning, by world, the entire cosmos with all its history.
First, the goodness of creation. The creation of humans, it was designed to reflect God, both to reflect God back to God in worship and to reflect God into the rest of creation in stewardship. Second, the nature of evil. Transience acts as a God-given signpost pointing from the world as it is to the world as it is meant one day to be—pointing, in other words, from the present to the future that God has in store. Evil then consists not in being created but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them. But when you do commit that idolatry, evil is unleashed into the world, setting off chain reactions with incalculable consequences. Third, the plan of redemption. Redemption doesn’t mean scrapping what’s there and starting again from a clean slate but rather liberating what has come to be enslaved. It is the remaking of creation, having dealt with the evil that is defacing and distorting it. And it is accomplished by the same God, now known in Jesus Christ, through whom it was made in the first place. We are citizens of heaven, titles—will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. The key word here is transform: That same love then allows creation to be itself, sustaining it in providence and wisdom but not overpowering it. God intends in the end to fill all creation with his own presence and love. “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” They are the sea. It looks as though God intends to flood the universe with himself, as though the universe, the entire cosmos, was designed as a receptacle for his love. One day, when all forces of rebellion have been defeated and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator, God will fill it with himself so that it will both remain an independent being, other than God, and also be flooded with God’s own life. This is part of the paradox of love, in which love freely given creates a context for love to be freely returned, and so on in a cycle where complete freedom and complete union do not cancel each other out but rather celebrate each other and make one another whole. Promise that one day the true human being, the image of God himself, God’s incarnate son, would come to lead the human race into their true identity. This is traumatic, involving convulsions and contractions and the radical discontinuity in which mother and child are parted and become not one being but two. This time the image is that of marriage. The New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. As in Philippians 3, it is not we who go to heaven, it is heaven that comes to earth; indeed, it is the church itself, the heavenly Jerusalem, that comes down to earth. They are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forward; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation. The Temple in Jerusalem was always designed, it seems, as a pointer to, and an advance symbol for, the presence of God himself. When the reality is there, the signpost is no longer necessary. As in Romans and 1 Corinthians, the living God will dwell with and among his people, filling the city with his life and love and pouring out grace and healing in the river of life that flows from the city out to the nations. The redeemed people of God in the new world will be the agents of his love going out in new ways, to accomplish new creative tasks, to celebrate and extend the glory of his love. What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal; and this is both promised and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is what the whole world’s waiting for. The whole world is waiting, on tiptoe with expectation, for the moment when that resurrection life and power sweeps through it, filling it with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human and hence in an important sense absent from us while in another equally important sense present to us in a new way. At this point the Holy Spirit and the sacraments become enormously important since they are precisely the means by which Jesus is present. Ours—heaven and earth, in other words—are, though very different, not far away from one another. One day, as we saw in the last chapter, they will be joined in a quite new way, open and visible to one another, married together forever. “Jesus is in heaven, ruling the whole world, and he will one day return to make that rule complete.” One reason is that the second coming of Jesus Christ has become the favorite topic of a large swath of North American Christianity, particularly but not exclusively in the fundamentalist and dispensationalist segment. The second coming is part of a scenario in which the present world is doomed to destruction while the chosen few are snatched up to heaven. In addition, the idea of judgment makes many people think of a vengeful, wrathful deity, determined to throw as many people as possible into hell. At one end, some have made the second coming so central that they can see little else. At the other, some have so marginalized or weakened it that it ceases to mean anything at all. Eschatology, which literally means “the study of the last things,” that history was going somewhere under the guidance of God and that where it was going was toward God’s new world of justice, healing, and hope. Rather, the entire sense of God’s future for the world and the belief that that future has already begun to come forward to meet us in the present.
At the moment, by the Spirit, the word, the sacraments and prayer, and in those in need whom we are called to serve for his sake, the absent Jesus is present to us; but one day he will be there with us, face-to-face. The main truth is that he will come back to us. And the language, significantly, is precisely the language that the early church used as the least inadequate way of talking about the strange thing that happened after Jesus’s resurrection: his “ascension,” his glorification, his “coming,” not to earth, but to heaven, to the Father. The stories are, in that sense, not about the second coming of Jesus but about the first one. So if the gospel accounts of Jesus’s teaching do not refer to the second coming, where does the idea come from? Quite simply, from the rest of the New Testament. Parousia, this is usually translated “coming,” but literally it means “presence”—that is, presence as opposed to absence. Through this they came to see that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, was already the world’s true Lord and that his secret presence by his Spirit in the present time was only a hint of what was still to come, when he would finally be revealed as the one whose power would trump all other powers both earthly and heavenly. The Jesus story thus created a radical intensification and transformation from within the Jewish story, and the language that results in describing the Jesus event that is yet to come is the language that says, in relation to the future: Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. Paul speaks of the parousia of the Messiah as the time of the resurrection of the dead, the time when his present though secret rule will become manifest. The promise is not that Jesus will simply reappear within the present world order, but that when heaven and earth are joined together in the new way God has promised, then he will appear to us—and we will appear to him, and to one another, in our own true identity. He will in fact be “appearing” right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven. This world is different from ours (earth) but intersects with it in countless ways, not least in the inner lives of Christians themselves. One day the two worlds will be integrated completely and be fully visible to one another, producing that transformation of which both Paul and John speak. Itself foreshadowed, Jesus himself will be personally present and will be the agent and model of the transformation that will happen both to the whole world and also to believers.
In Isaiah 11 the Messiah’s judgment creates a world where the wolf and the lamb lie down side by side. In Psalm 2 the Gentiles tremble when the Messiah is enthroned. Again and again the Messiah is stated to be God’s agent to bring the whole world, not just Israel, back into the state of justice and truth for which God longs as much as we do. God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world by a man whom he has appointed, giving assurance of the fact by raising him from the dead. God will judge the secrets of all hearts through Jesus the Messiah. No: justification by faith is what happens in the present time, anticipating the verdict of the future day when God judges the world. There was no clash between present justification by faith and future judgment according to works. The two actually need, and depend upon, one another. God’s justice will finally sweep the world is not a hard-hearted, arrogant, or vengeful tyrant but rather the Man of Sorrows, who was acquainted with grief; the Jesus who loved sinners and died for them. Death and decay will be overcome, and God will be all in all. Because we live between ascension and appearing, joined to Jesus Christ by the Spirit but still awaiting his final coming and presence, we can be both properly humble and properly confident. “We proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants through Jesus.” We do not “build the kingdom” all by ourselves, but we do build for the kingdom. All that we do in faith, hope, and love in the present, in obedience to our ascended Lord and in the power of his Spirit, will be enhanced and transformed at his appearing. People who believe that Jesus is already Lord and that he will appear again as judge of the world are called and equipped (to put it mildly) to think and act quite differently in the world from those who don’t.
Instead of talking vaguely about heaven and then trying to fit the language of resurrection into that, we should talk with biblical precision about the resurrection and reorganize our language about heaven around that, but for lively and creative Christian work within the present world. Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own and that he will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes about. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility. The one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies. When Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the son of God, and those who hear will live. It was a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. The “real you,” is already being saved and will one day receive that salvation in full bodily form. There is a new house, a new dwelling, a new body, waiting within God’s sphere (again, “heaven”), ready for us to put it on over the present one so that what is mortal may be swallowed up with life. It will be as much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit. The present life is a mere shadow of his or her future self, the self that person will be when the body that God has waiting in his heavenly storeroom is brought out, already made to measure, and put on over the present one—or over the self that will still exist after bodily death. But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in-ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. psychē (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we call nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other. Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess. Who will be raised from the dead? All people, Where will the resurrection take place? On the new earth, joined as it will then be to the new heaven. What precisely will the resurrection body be? Envisage bodies that are more solid, more real, more substantial than our present ones. Just as his wounds were still visible, not now as sources of pain and death but as signs of his victory, so the Christian’s risen body will bear such marks of his or her loyalty to God’s particular calling as are appropriate, not least where that has involved suffering. In particular, this new body will be immortal, no longer being subject to sickness, injury, decay, and death itself. Immortality is something that only God possesses by nature and that he then shares, as a gift of grace rather than an innate possession, with his people. The purpose of this new body will be to rule wisely over God’s new world. There will be work to do and we shall relish doing it. All the skills and talents we have put to God’s service in this present life. The “reward” is organically connected to the activity, not some kind of arbitrary pat on the back, otherwise unrelated to the work that was done. And it is always far in abundance beyond any sense of direct or equivalent payment. The reward of being able to read and enjoy Homer for the rest of your life is way beyond any kind of one-for-one payment for the slog of learning Greek. the resurrection means that what you do in the present, in working hard for the gospel, is not wasted. The new is the transformation, not merely the replacement, of the old. Though it may well itself be transformed in ways we cannot at present even begin to imagine. Whenever the question of “how” is raised in the early Christian writings, the answer comes back: by the Spirit. The Spirit who brooded over the waters of chaos, the Spirit who indwelt Jesus so richly that it became known as the Spirit of Jesus.
First there was the church triumphant. At the other end was the church militant. In between was the church expectant, that is, “waiting,” and the place where they were waiting was purgatory. The ultimate destination is (once more) not “going to heaven when you die” but being bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. There is no reason in the New Testament to suppose that there are any category distinctions between different Christians in heaven as they await the resurrection. In fact, there are so many things said in the New Testament about the greatest becoming least and the least becoming greatest that we shouldn’t be surprised at this lack of distinction between the postmortem state of different Christians. If we are to be true to our foundation charter, we must say that all Christians, living and departed, are to be thought of as saints and that all Christians who have died are to be thought of, and treated, as such. Third, therefore, I do not believe in purgatory as a place, a time, or a state. Bodily death itself is the destruction of the sinful person. In fact, Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere that it’s the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some postmortem state, are the valley through which we have to pass in order to reach the glorious future. I therefore arrive, fourth, at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. But it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ while they await that day. That they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace. In the New Testament it is clear: because of Christ and the Spirit, every single Christian is welcome at any time to come before the Father himself. So then: instead of the three divisions of the medieval church—triumphant, expectant, and militant—I believe that there are only two. The church in heaven or paradise is both triumphant and expectant. The important thing is that we grasp the central hope of the ultimate resurrection, set within the new creation itself. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the southwest corner of the old city of Jerusalem. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. He gave (as we have seen) no fresh teaching on the question of the resurrection apart from dark hints that it was going to happen, and happen soon, to one person ahead of everyone else; for the rest, he was content to reinforce the normal Jewish picture. In the same way, he was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on postmortem judgment apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation. Hell, and final judgment, is not a major topic in the letters (though when it comes it is very important, while being extremely important, have always proved among the hardest parts of scripture to interpret with any certainty. Judgment—the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and to be condemned—is the only alternative to chaos. The traditional view is that those who spurn God’s salvation, who refuse to turn from idolatry and wickedness, are held forever in conscious torment. When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. Beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The question ought to be, How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world?
Part III Hope in Practice: Resurrection and the Mission of the Church And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose—and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project. What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. Urging today’s church to regard mission not as an extra, something to fit in if there’s any time left over from other concerns, but as the central and shaping dynamic of its life. Through repentance, baptism and obedience, to recover the magnificent relationship with God that was destroyed in days gone by…. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality—what I have called life after life after death. This is always so that they can be genuine human beings in a fuller sense than they otherwise would have been. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future. In other words—to sum up where we’ve got so far—the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as 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’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice. Engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can in turn be rescuers.
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. Following the disaster of rebellion and corruption, he has built into the gospel message the fact that through the work of Jesus and the power of the Spirit, he equips humans to help in the work of getting the project back on track. The final coming together of heaven and earth is, of course, God’s supreme act of new creation, for which the only real prototype—other than the first creation itself—was the resurrection of Jesus. God alone will sum up all things in Christ. Every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. God really does intend to redeem rather than reject his created world of space, time, and matter, we are faced with the question: what might it look like. The church is called to a mission of implementing Jesus’ resurrection and thereby anticipating the final new creation. God’s new world has already broken in to the present and Christian work for justice in the present. It is, rather, that people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present. Jesus not only as risen from the dead but also as the one who has thereby been installed as Lord of the whole world? The final putting to rights of everything does indeed wait for the last day. We must therefore avoid the arrogance or triumphalism of the first view, imagining that we can build the kingdom by our own efforts without the need for a further great divine act of new creation. But we must agree with the first view that doing justice in the world is part of the Christian task, and we must therefore reject the defeatism of the second view, which says there’s no point in even trying. I simply want to record my conviction that this is the number one moral issue of our day. Sex matters enormously, but global justice matters far, far more. What is now going on amounts to theft by the strong from the weak, by the rich from the poor. Because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus as an event within history, we believe that the living God has already begun the process of new creation, and what may seem impossible in human terms is possible to God. The new creativity to which I believe Christians are called as we find ourselves poised between creation and new creation, such a person is a living, breathing little bit of “new creation”—that new creation that has already begun to happen in Jesus’ resurrection and that will be complete when God finally makes his new heavens and new earth and raises us to share in that new world. Along with conversion there will then go, at least in principle, the call to find out where in the total project one can make one’s own contribution. To confess him as Lord and to believe that God raised him from the dead is to allow one’s entire life to be reshaped by him, knowing that though this will be painful from time to time, it will be the way not to a diminished or cramped human existence but to genuine human life in the present and to complete, glorious, resurrected human life in the future. And the task then continues with the church’s work with the whole local community, to foster programs for better housing, schools, and community facilities, to encourage new job opportunities, to campaign and cajole and work with local government and councils, and, in short, to foster hope at any and every level. The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every town and village where new creativity bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope that, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise. And, of course, evangelism, which will flourish best if the church is giving itself to works of justice (putting things to rights in the community) and works of beauty (highlighting the glory of creation and the glory yet to be revealed): evangelism will always come as a surprise. This is the good news—of justice, beauty, and above all Jesus—that the church is called upon to live and to speak, to bring into reality, in each place and each generation.
Seeking both to implement the achievement of Jesus and his resurrection and thereby to anticipate the final renewal of all things. God has vindicated the Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom and died as Israel’s representative. Resurrection doesn’t mean escaping from the world; it means mission to the world based on Jesus’ lordship over the world. It is the point at which all the old promises come true at last: the promises of David’s unshakable kingdom; the promises of Israel’s return from the greatest exile of them all; and behind that again, quite explicit in Matthew, Luke, and John, the promise that all the nations will now be blessed through the seed of Abraham. He is God’s messenger, God’s promise-bearer, carrying the promises made to Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets—promises not only for Israel but also for the whole world. Jesus’ resurrection is to be seen as the beginning of the new world, the first day of the new week, the unveiling of the prototype of what God is now going to accomplish in the rest of the world. Easter commissions Jesus’ followers for a task; Pentecost gives them the necessary equipment to accomplish it. They are to go and tell the world that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is the world’s true Lord and to summon them to believing obedience. It is the resurrection of Jesus that means he is now enthroned as Lord. This is what the resurrection does: it opens the new world, in which, under the saving and judging lordship of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, everything else is to be seen in a new light. He, like the gospel writers, sees Jesus’ resurrection as the start of a new world, a new creation, in which Jesus is already ruling and reigning as Lord. He must reign until…; in other words, he is already reigning even though we do not yet see the full result of that reign. And if we ask what on earth can possibly justify such an outrageous statement—that Jesus is already king of the world even though Caesar seems to be and death is still rampant—there can be only one answer: the resurrection. The revolutionary new world, which began in the resurrection of Jesus—the world where Jesus reigns as Lord, having won the victory over sin and death—has its frontline outposts in those who in baptism have shared his death and resurrection. The intermediate stage between the resurrection of Jesus and the renewal of the whole world is the renewal of human beings—you and me!—in our own lives of obedience here and now. The basic baptismal confession is “Jesus is Lord,” and the belief that grounds this confession is the gospel message that God raised Jesus from the dead. If you through baptism and faith are a resurrection person, heaven and earth are now joined together with an unbreakable bond and that we too are by rights citizens of both together. The Spirit, the sacraments, and the scriptures are given so that the double life of Jesus, both heavenly and earthly, can become ours as well, already in the present. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.
Easter ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Living between the resurrection of Jesus and the final coming together of all things in heaven and earth means celebrating God’s healing of his world not his abandoning of it. What then will the church look like as it moves from renewed worship into renewed mission? The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection and thus the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made. And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’ resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter and claims it in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’s lordship, of the power of the Spirit. The renewal of creation as both the goal of all things in Christ and the achievement that has already been accomplished in the resurrection; and go to the work of justice, beauty, evangelism. The resurrection of Jesus has brought about a new state of affairs in cosmic history and reality. God’s future has burst into the present. Baptism is not magic, a conjuring trick with water. But neither is it simply a visual aid. It is one of the points, established by Jesus himself, where heaven and earth interlock, where new creation, resurrection life, appears within the midst of the old. The extraordinary, unique, intimate relationship that Jesus himself had enjoyed with the Father is now open to all his followers. In the death and resurrection of Jesus the new creation has begun, and with it the new song, “Worthy is the Lamb,” the song that lies at the heart of Christian adoration. Paul, at one of the most climactic moments in all his writings (Romans 8), pauses to comment that we Christians are caught in between creation and new creation. It will, of course, be costly. You don’t get to share God’s life and escape without wounds. Look what happened to Jesus himself. When we read scripture as Christians, we read it precisely as people of the new covenant and of the new creation. We do not read it, in other words, as a flat, uniform list of regulations or doctrines. The community of the new covenant, the people who were called to take forward the work of new creation. The Bible is thus the story of creation and new creation, and it is itself, through the continuing work of the Spirit who inspired it, an instrument of new creation in human lives and communities. It is the book whose whole narrative is about new creation, that is, about resurrection, so that when each of the gospels ends with the raising of Jesus from the dead, and when Revelation ends with new heavens and new earth populated by God’s people risen from the dead. So the telling of the story of creation and new creation, of covenant and new covenant, doesn’t just inform the hearers about this narrative. It invites them into it. For Paul, holiness is never a matter of simply finding out the way you seem to be made and trusting that that’s the way God intends you to remain. Neither is it a matter of blind obedience to arbitrary and out-of-date rules. It’s a matter of transformation, starting with the mind. The resurrection was the full bursting in to this world of the life of God’s new creation. The way we are now, seen against the way we shall be in God’s design, is only partly what it is meant to be and is emphatically partly not what it is meant to be. But Paul is urging that we should live in the present as people who are to be made complete in the future. And the sign of that completeness, that future wholeness, the bridge from one reality to the other, is love. It means that a new world order has opened up in the midst of the present one. God’s future has arrived in the present in the person of the risen Jesus, summoning everybody to become people of the future, people in Christ, people remade in the present to share the life of God’s future. Our present experience, even our present Christian experience, is incomplete. But in Christ we have heard the complete tune; we know now what it sounds like and that we shall one day sing it in tune with him. Our present experience, with all its incompleteness, is meant to point us to the fact that we will one day wake up and arise from sleep. That, after all, is what resurrection is all about. The point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is not our duty; it is our destiny. But when we fly out into the sunshine, how can we not then offer the same gentle gift of freedom, of forgiveness, to those around us? Jesus is risen, therefore God’s new world has begun. Jesus is risen, therefore Israel and the world have been redeemed. Jesus is risen, therefore his followers have a new job to do. Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s prayer is about.