Two former Bishops of Durham and the Resurrection.
Posted on 10 November 2014, 11:34
Some Anglican leaders welcome experience based investigation of an afterlife, others do not. That is a problem.
When my wife and I visited York Minster, the seat of the Archbishop of York, in 1986, repairs were under way to the roof of the south transept where there had been a disastrous fire caused by lightning strike. It happened on the 6th July 1984, three days after David Jenkins had been consecrated Bishop of Durham. He had been so bold as to say that the resurrection body of Jesus had been a spiritual body, not a physical body, that there had been no “conjuring trick with bones.” The lightning strike had been a sign of God’s wrath, Conservative Christians proclaimed. [Read up about David Jenkins here and here]
Talking to TIME in 2008 Jenkins’ successor to the Durham Bishopric , Tom Wright said, “St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.”
Both Jenkins and Wright are very good scholars, and prolific writers. And of course they do not agree. And if you look up “Afterlife” in Wikipedia you will be amazed and bewildered at the number of conflicting teachings about the afterlife. And many of these theories derive from the belief that the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are one mutually consistent teaching, and that the teaching is spoken by God and is infallible. But the Bible consists of many books written over a period of 1700 years, some depicting God as like a man walking in a garden, others as a Judge in the sky, others as in all, through all, and above all. Distancing himself from the past, Jesus more than once is recorded as saying, “It was said by them of old time… but I say unto you…” And much of St Paul’s writings are devoted to exploring life in the Spirit, and the primacy of love, and fighting off the Old Testament legalistic understanding of all relationships. Salvation for the Jew was observing 613 precepts of the law. Not love.
So what about Tom Wright’s assertions about St Paul and the afterlife? (TIME had said that Wright was the fifth most influential person in the Anglican Communion.)
I think the best thing is to reproduce here the text of St Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth, and insert my comments (for what they are worth.) I personally find it hard to see where “the fifth most influential person” got his ideas from.
1 Corinthians 15. The Resurrection of Christ (New International Version.)
1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter} and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. [Read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, describing how he met Peter and James for the first time, and heard their witness to the resurrection appearances.]
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
The Resurrection of the Dead
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [He seems to equate our rising from the dead with that of Jesus. If there is an afterlife for Jesus, then there is for us.]
[At this point Paul embarks on a poetic meditation on his frequent theme of the Flesh and the Spirit. Our physical self is wayward and does many things that are wrong. Our spiritual self in union with Christ saves us. If I am correct in suggesting that this is a poetic meditation, then we should not parse, analyse, and attempt to make legalistic statements. In one sense his poetry contains profound truth. Read literally we would have a strange theology.]
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
[And now Paul comes away from what I call “poetry” back to the afterlife.]
29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.
The Resurrection Body
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendour of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendour, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendour.
42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.
[I do not see anything there that would conflict with what we believe to be fact, from personal experiences, from Spiritualism, psychic research and so on. I would say that Paul is describing a modern consensus reality.]
[In what follows we do have to remember that Paul was a Jew, and that for hundreds of years the Jews had expected an earthly or a heavenly Messiah who would institute the reign of God. Jewish Paul believed that Jesus was that Messiah, and that therefore he would reappear during Paul’s life time. In his later epistles Paul seems less sure.]
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”
Leave out verses 51-52, and readers will recognise a world described by NDE-ers. And if we want a battle of “proof texts” we can quote Luke 23:42, the words of the thief on the cross beside Jesus: Luke 23:42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
But St Paul did write verses 51 and 2. He did write of the “rapture” great events in the future. At the same time he did equate Christ’s death and resurrection with our own.
What then are we to make of Tom Wright’s “St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet.” Not the thief? Nobody? Wright’s words seem strange. And what about Wright’s materialistic idea that we do not go to heaven, but Christ’s kingdom will be on earth? Where does he get that from? “My Kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. [John 18.35]
No doubt other bishops will have other ideas. The babble of voices does us all harm. Is there any way to get closer to the truth than with the disciplined study of human experience?
In view of the immense diversity of opinion, not to mention dogma, it seems to me, that apart from some poetic theological excursions, Paul would see eye to eye with many modern afterlife experiences.
[1. If we accept Paul’s view of things, then it is hard to know what to make of the story of the Empty Tomb. The tomb may well have been empty, but we would not know why. Perhaps it is this story that leads some people to go into contortions with the words of Paul.
2. To be fair to Tom Wright, he talks eloquently about what Christ can do in this physical world. With this we may not want to quarrel. But I would maintain that in his zeal he misrepresents Paul, and devalues the world of the Eternal.
Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
His forthcoming book, Into the Wider Dream will be published Winter/Spring 2015 by White Crow Books.