Bishop's Heaven: Is There Life After the Afterlife?

Wright hopes that his new book will revive belief in the prospect of a new, physical heaven and earth, which he says will somehow materialize when God decides to rebuild and restore the universe -- "Heaven and earth joined together in a new reality."

But this interpretation is the exact opposite of what many American Christians believe. The hugely successful Left Behind series of movies and books is an acopalyptic vision of the end of the world -- a view shared by many evangelicals. According to those who believe it, the end of the world will start with the so-called "rapture," when all christians will be taken up to heaven in one momentous swoop. The earth then enters a period of cataclysmic wars until it eventually disintegrates, in a final chapter of fire. Wright says that is more mythical than Biblical.

"It's a myth," Wright said. "It is an attempt to make sense of some bits of the New Testament. It was always the literature of the dispossessed ... it's now become the literature of the rich masses in parts of America."

The 'Kingdom of God' in the Present

The recent flurry of books by renowned atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have attempted to cast doubt on the evidence for Christianity. Wright says that his theory is "speculation which is absolutely rooted and grounded somewhere. It's the sort of speculation that you might have about an unfinished symphony. I mean, Schubert wrote a symphony of which he only wrote two movements. Now we've got eight other symphonies by Schubert. We know the sort of way that his mind developed and we know that it would have ended with some splendid cheerful crashing chords which corresponded more or less to where he'd started, because we know that about Schubert. "

"You will notice that for Dawkins and Hitchens … Jesus doesn't really figure. 'Oh, we can't know very much about him'. Well, excuse me, we can know a lot about Jesus and what we know is explosive and tells us so much about God and so much about the world that even though we don't know what the third and fourth movements of the symphony are actually going to sound like, we know that they will have this sort of pattern and they will reach this sort of conclusion, and I don't think that's speculation in the negative sense."

At the age of almost 60, Wright says his position as Bishop of Durham is likely to be his last within the Anglican Church. But he says he hasn't written this book so that he and others can contemplate the afterlife, instead he wants Christians to focus on how their final destination should affect their lives, in the here and now.

"If you really believe that what happens at death is that you leave behind the world of space, time and matter, you are never going to be bothered with it again, you're never going to have a physical body again and that ultimately God is going to throw this whole world on the rubbish heap somewhere, then what's the fuss to work for justice in the present?" he said. "What's the fuss about AIDS, what's the problem about global debt, you know these are trivial and irrelevant. What matters is whether you're going to heaven tomorrow or next week."

Wright said the notion of new heavens and a new earth motivates him "enormously."

"I work in a very tough area of Britain. There is not much hope sociologically where I live and work, they're all sorts of conditions of poverty and deprivation and so on, I really do believe that the message of the kingdom of God is for places like this. …It's because I believe in God's kingdom of justice and peace already existing because of Jesus, and yet to come in the future, this gives me the energy and the focus to work for the kingdom of God in the present."

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