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

According to a noted British bishop, it's the one thing we tend to put off thinking about, but it's also one of life's certainties.

"The question of heaven, the question of what happens after death, is one which a lot of people in our culture try to put off as long as they can, but sooner or later it suddenly swings round and looks them in the eye," said Bishop Tom Wright.

Believers and unbelievers have strong views about what happens when you die. For centuries, Christians have believed that their destiny after death is heaven: a spiritual place where they -- along with a myriad of angels, -- sing praises to God for eternity. But is it possible that Christians may have gotten that part of their faith badly wrong?

Wright, who is based in the North of England, is one of the world's foremost theologians, teaching at a range of universities from Oxford to Harvard. The author of the new book "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church," Wright says that many of us started thinking seriously about heaven only after we got a glimpse of hell.

Wright says "9/11 was a factor in making me realize that some people were ready to ask the question."

And the question of what happens when we die is one that he says Christians have been confused about for centuries.

"Time was when in the old funeral services people used to talk about the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead," said Wright. "If you took a straw poll across many, certainly mainline churches now, that would be replaced by a vague and fuzzy imagination that there may be a long and winding road going somewhere we're not quite sure."

'A New Reality'

Wright points to films like the romantic comedy "Four Weddings and a Funeral" where, in the absence of a clear grasp of what happens when you die, people invent ideas about the afterlife that are not in scripture.

"I think we have allowed ourselves to drift in what we say about the dead," Wright said."There are a lot of funeral services sadly which go that route these days, [where] death is nothing at all, I've just slipped away into the next room and so on. Anyone who's grieved and anyone who's worked with anyone who's grieved knows that it's a lie. Death is a monster, death is horrible."

In a radical departure from traditional belief, Wright says that Christians are not ultimately destined for a spiritual place called heaven. He says that at the end of time as we know it, God will literally remake our physical bodies and return us to a newly restored planet.

"Heaven is important but it's not our final destination," he explained. "If you want to say that when someone dies they go to heaven, fine. But that's only a temporary holding pattern that is life after death. And what I'm much more interested in, or the New Testament is much more interested in, is what I've called life after life after death."

"I've often put it like this, if somebody you know has been very ill, you say, 'Poor old so and so, he's just a shadow of his former self.' And the extraordinary truth in the New Testament is that if you are in Christ and dwell by the spirit you are just a shadow of your future self," Wright said. "There is a real you to which the present you corresponds as a photocopy corresponds to the glorious original. You know, there is a real you, which God is going to make and it will be more physical -- more real, not less."

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