Feb. 26, 2008 -- 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."
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."