Christians should think theologically about how the imagination works.
“As soon as philosophy separates itself from the life of people it begins to lose its vitality and is heading in the wrong direction” [Paul Johnson p193]
Logic insists that a finite point is absurd if it has no infinite reference point. If there is no universal, absolute moral standard then one can not say in a final sense that anything is “right” or “wrong”, so there is no point in debating with people who do not respect a universal moral absolute because they will always be “right” or “wrong” under their own terms of reference.“Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are.” [CS Lewis]
Maturity is being an individual with certain intellectual qualities, someone of independent judgement who respects the individualities of others and therefore is tolerant of opinions in conflict with their own; they must prefer methods of discussion and persuasion to methods of force. It is not enough for them to “love the truth” they must learn how to find it. It is easy to teach students to reason correctly in the physical sciences: it is much more difficult to reason correctly in the social sciences where your own prejudices and passions are involved. They must be taught the habits of clear thinking in order that they may acquire the power of recognizing their own prejudices, and of discussing with calm, and with the same desire the other person’s position, with the same precision and absence of emotion, that they would bring to the discussion of a problem in mathematics.
When C S Lewis says, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” he is saying something much more than, and profoundly deeper than, “my belief in Christianity is as certain and true as the sunrise”. He is saying “Should the Christian faith ever become one of many co-equal pensioners of a government, it will be proof that subjective religion has again lost its God-given hold on objective reality … travelling back again from the region to which the Gospel brought us, towards that in which it found us” [W E Gladstone] – a pagan society. Lewis is saying we should be asking ourselves – “How can we move from the place where we explain the Gospel in the terms of our post-modern society world-view to the place where we explain our post-modern society world-view from the point of the Gospel’s world-view.?” [Lesslie Newbigin] “Explanation” puts a strange thing into a place where it fits and is no longer strange, and as C S Lewis says, “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what kind of person you are” [C S Lewis]
So, Lewis is saying – “Beliefs must come to terms with facts, not facts with beliefs.” [Dallas Willard] and whether you accept the explanation or not depends on the way in which you understand Reality, and if you are not standing “in Christ/in the Kingdom of God” your limited world-view (one without the dimension of Holy Spiritual Reality) restricts you to being unable to, have not been empowered to, can not hear/understand, see/perceive, or receive the Reality of the Son Of Righteousness being God. We are not able to do do this in our ‘self’. Only the exceedingly great power which raised Jesus Christ Himself from the dead, the Holy Spirit, is able to raise anyone from the dead and set them above all principalities, powers and dominions, and only the Holy Spirit gives us a clear perspective of these power systems (politics is activity in relation to power) and their spiritual, mental and physical capacity.
“It may be that a clear sense of the self can only crystallize around something transcendental in which case, our prospects look poor, for we are rightly committed to the rational” [Robert Bolt] … sums up in one sentence what Nietsche said when he limited the definition of “TRUTH” to reason and rationality and in so doing assumed that Christianity, by elevating “TRUTH” to the highest virtue, created, in the search for “TRUTH”, the undermining of the axioms of Christianity itself. The fact that he saw the “truth” of the Bible as being limted to “wisdom helpful only for the afterlife, and not for life and living today” limited his view of the scriptures to “eternal insurance”, as opposed to being a Kingdom that is “at hand” [Matthew 4:17]
Jordan Peterson, Pastor Paul VanderKlay and Bolt are all saying – You can think that a clear sense of the individual “self” can only crystalize around something non-transcendental but humanities prospects can then only end in Nihilism, simply because if there is no supra-natural objective view of individuality then the most popular view of subjective conformity must prevail. TRUTH=GOD=reason and rationality because –
I am also unsatisfied when JP uses biology or evolutionary psychology to float fuzzily on the infinite translations and meanings of the numinous to avoid his ignorance or to avoid his personal conclusions . But don’t we all ?, including pastors and theologians who at least have sufficient maturity to admit it. Mythology is often born of a mixture between naturalism and spirituality, unless you don’t believe in miracles and you have to believe in miracles to accept a virgin birth, see C S Lewis explaining that he was led to Christ by realizing that the virgin birth was a myth that had really happened in time and space.
I think you may have hastily interpreted JP incorrectly though, he is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I think he is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
In C S Lewis the Holy Spirit’s work of “renewing our mind and the very way we use it to think”(see Romans 12:2) is prioritised. Our entire manner of thinking, contemplation, reasoning, imagining and ideation (how our ideas are constructed into suggestions and thoughts) and reflection that Christian sanctification requires is pointing us at Christ’s Way, Truth and Life, in other words at Reality. This imbues the reader with spiritual confidence of – “in thinking right we live right, and if we live right we think right”. This novel notion, so old that it is embarrassing to think about its history, is still surprising to all of us. We are so used to thinking in other categories that we think we can have the Truth without being happy and that we can be happy without having the Truth. To be “inwardly renewed day by day even as outwardly we decay” (see 2Corinthians 4:16) we must “not conform to the pattern of the world” (see Romans 12:2) but focus our minds and our “thinking” – ” on what is unseen, not on what is seen, on the eternal, not on the temporary” (see 2Corinthians 4:18) on the substance of our faith (Jesus Christ), not on the form that the substance takes (religion).(p115 Paul L Holmer)”
Edited transcript of Grace Communion International ministries interview with N T Wright
N.T. Wright is Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He received a PhD from Oxford in 1980.
N.T. Wright talks about themes in his book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.
Gary Deddo: Professor Wright, thank you for taking some time out here at Saint Andrews [Scotland] this morning and joining us for the You’re Included interview series of Grace Communion International.
NTW: Good to be with you.
GD: I like to spend some time considering themes that you address in your recent publication, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospel. At the outset of your book, you tell the reader that you think there’s a serious problem at the heart of the Christian faith and practice as you’ve experienced it. You say your increasing impression is that most of the Western Christian tradition has forgotten what the four Gospels are really all about. That’s provocative. Could you elaborate on that statement and tell us what we have forgotten?
NTW: I’ve often wondered since writing that whether I was overstating it, but looking around and listening and attending church and talking with friends, I want to stick to it. At the heart of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is this enormous claim that something actually happened there at the beginning of the first century through the work and death and resurrection of Jesus, something happened which has transformed the world.
We have tended to slide that downhill into being Jesus simply providing a system of salvation which enables us later to leave the world or to escape the world in some way, either by our spirituality in the present or by a salvation which will take us entirely away from the world in the future. Whereas the four Gospel writers, living as they did within the world of second-temple Judaism, believed that through Jesus, the one God of Israel, the creator of the world, had acted to reclaim the world, to redeem the world, to rescue the world, not to enable people to leave it behind.
This idea is scary for most people in the Western world, because for the last 200 years, Western thought in general and Christianity along with that has tended to think in terms of splitting apart things that are “worldly” (whether we call them political or social or whatever) and then “religious” (or spiritual things) over there. So we have read the Gospels through a grid of interpretation which is systematically and at every point denying one of the main things that the Gospels are trying to affirm. I don’t know how to say that except by doing it rather sharply: I think we’ve all been getting it wrong.
GD: Could you recall for us some passages in the New Testament that point out the emphasis or the importance of Jesus and the kingdom and his kingship?
NTW: A passage which many Western Christians know well (because they may hear it read in church at Christmas time and so on) is the beginning of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
What John is doing in that passage — hooking up with what he does in his story of Jesus’ resurrection – is to tell the story of Jesus as the story of a new Genesis, a new beginning. Genesis is all about the creation and about God’s beautiful world, and the story John tells in his Gospel from beginning to end is not about Jesus telling people to leave the world behind and go somewhere else, but a story about how in and through Jesus, the one God of creation is rescuing creation and enabling his people to live as new-creation people. That’s a way of telling the story which I never heard when I was growing up in church and when I was being taught as a student. We need to recapture it.
This comes to a climax in John’s Gospel in that extraordinary scene in chapters 18 and 19 – when Jesus confronts Pontius Pilate — here we have the kingdom of God squaring off against the kingdom of Caesar. But it isn’t Jesus saying, “Well, all this kingdom stuff is a waste of time.” It’s Jesus and Pilate arguing about different visions of kingdom, truth and power.
We see that also in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 2, where Luke spends some time setting up the chronology in terms of the Roman emperor of that time, Augustus Caesar, who was emperor when Jesus was born. Luke describes that in detail, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Augustus Caesar wanted to have a census so he could get more tax and do all that stuff which was standard practice at that time.
Anyone living at that time and a Jew living at that time would know this story – of somebody being born in the royal house of David in Bethlehem precisely the moment when the Roman empire is flexing its muscles – is bound to lead to a sense of, “Which kingdom are we going to go with, then?” The story ends for Luke, not at the end of Luke’s Gospel but the end of Acts, with Paul announcing God as King and Jesus as Lord in Rome openly and unhindered, and Luke says to us, “You do the math, you figure out what’s going on here.”
One third example: In Mark 10, when James and John say they want to sit one at Jesus’ right and one at his left, Jesus explains, not only do they not have a clue what they’re talking about, but that there are two different ways of doing power. The rulers of the nations, he says, boss people about and bully them and so on. He says, “We’re not going to do it like that – we’re going to do it the other way – by the power of servanthood. The Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In other words, the gospel isn’t about an other-worldly dream, it’s about a different way of doing stuff in and for this world – because it’s God’s world and God loves it and has come to rescue it. One of the most famous verses in Scripture, John 3:16, doesn’t say: God so hated the world that he sent his Son. God so loved the world, and that’s the whole purpose – God is re-claiming his rights as Creator over the whole world.
GD: What about Jesus’ parables of the kingdom? Do some of those point in the same direction?
NTW: The parables of the kingdom are fascinating because at one level, they are illustrations, just like you or I might toss into a sermon or a talk, an illustration happens to occur to us while we’re on the way to church or whatever. But they’re much more than that.
Those parables of seed and growth play back in the minds of Jesus’ hearers (and we have to remember that most of them, the main texts they had in their minds were the Old Testament Scriptures). They play back particularly through the prophetic images about God sowing his people, about God sowing Israel, making it a fruitful place, etc. But they play all the way back to Genesis 1 again, where you get the lavish account of God creating plants with seed in them bearing fruit and so on.
The idea of plants coming up and bearing fruit is a new-creation idea, a new-Israel idea. If you track it through Isaiah and Jeremiah, it’s a return from exile idea – these all nest together and fit together, so that though what Jesus is saying is a direct challenge to these people who are listening to him now, that challenge resonates with a sense that this kingdom vision is about God doing the new thing which is going with the grain of the original creation but now making it much more fruitful.
You see this in the miracle stories when Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes. It isn’t that he says, “Forget eating loaves and fishes entirely, I got something totally different.” These are signs that the God of creation is doing new things, he’s on the move in a new way.
GD: I think what you are bringing out here is that we can’t fully appreciate what the New Testament means until we read about its connections to the Old Testament. Could you say a little more about that need to be familiar with Old Testament and its background?
NTW: If one doesn’t know the Old Testament, one doesn’t have a chance of understanding the New, because again and again, and you see this in the Gospels, the way they told a story is not just with the odd glance over their shoulder – that something interesting happened back there and this is an odd reference. Like I might drop a reference to a Shakespeare play into a speech or a book I was writing or something that is just for decoration. Some people think the Old Testament is just a back decoration. It’s much, much more than that.
The Old Testament – whether we read it in the English translations from Genesis to Malachi or as you do in the Hebrew from Genesis to Chronicles (they ordered the books differently) – whichever way you do it, it’s telling a story, and the story is going somewhere, and it stops short. The end of Chronicles, the end of Malachi, it’s pointing ahead, it’s as though we’ve got a 12-chapter novel and we’ve got nine or ten of those chapters, or maybe nine and a half. Or as I’ve sometimes said, take a Shakespeare play, it’s as though we’ve got three acts of the play, and we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen in the 4th act, when it all really works out.
The Gospels are written very cleverly – quite different, all four, each one in its own way is taking that Old Testament narrative and saying, the story that I am telling you, the story about Jesus, is where that story was going. It doesn’t look like what you were expecting, but this is where it all had to go.
It is, in modern terms, this-worldly – the Jewish story is about God promising Abraham a family and a land, and then all the bad things that happen when they get it wrong, messed it up and all the rest. In the New Testament the family gets expanded so that it includes people of all ethnic backgrounds, not just the Jewish people. The land gets expanded, as you see in the Acts of the Apostles, so it’s now the whole world.
That sense of a narrative which suddenly does this new thing is powerful in the Gospels. I suspect that 90 percent of Christians in today’s world haven’t thought that, let alone tried to read the text in that way.
GD: So Jesus is fulfilling the expectations and hopes of Israel in many ways. Sometimes it seems we’ve too narrowly construed the kind of fulfillment that Jesus is bringing about. It has kingdom dimensions and time and space, and “on earth” dimensions.
NTW: Yes, and of all the Scriptures that the people of Israel in Jesus’ day would know, what would they know most? Possibly the Psalms. Think for instance of the Psalms in the 90s – “The Lord is King and has put on his glorious apparel and he is taking his power and reigning” and “the Lord is King let the earth be glad thereof.” You get those wonderful psalms like 96 and 98, which say that the mountains and hills and the sheep in the field are all going to sing for joy because Yahweh is coming to be king.
Perhaps most decisive of all, in Isaiah 52, “How lovely in the mountains are the ones who say to Zion, your God reigns” – that is, your God is becoming King. How does that come about? We go from the end of Isaiah 52 into Isaiah 53, which is an extraordinary picture of the suffering servant, who is the obedient representative of Israel taking the weight of sin and sorrow upon himself. Then in Isaiah 54, there is new covenant; in Isaiah 55 there is new creation. It’s an extraordinary sequence, and I think that Jesus and the Gospel writers have that prophetic sequence in mind: The kingdom of God through the work of the servant, resulting in the total renewal of covenant in creation.
GD: How would their understanding of Jesus as Son of David or Messiah fill out and inform what we hear Jesus saying in the Gospels?
NTW: The word Messiah (or Christ, which is just a re-translation) is often misunderstood, not least by Christians who have short-circuited the argument over the last two or three hundred years, particularly the question that Western cultures ask is, Is Jesus divine? People have taken the word “Christ” and assumed that it meant divine. Then it comes as a shock to people when they’re told, “It means Messiah, and as far as we know, first-century Jews didn’t imagine that the Messiah would be in any sense divine.”
We see in the New Testament a swirling mass of different Jewish ideas. There was no one identikit picture of what the Messiah would look like. Jesus takes the variegated expectations of the time and remolds them around himself. We can see other figures doing the same thing in the same period. Jesus draws those Messianic expectations (which are fuzzy and ill-formed) onto himself, and through his own work, he does this stuff in a new way, so he doesn’t appear like the “warrior messiah” that some were imagining. He doesn’t appear to be wanting to rebuild the temple, as some people thought the Messiah ought to do. (That’s why the Herod family were trying to legitimate themselves as kings of the Jews, by doing stuff with the temple.) Jesus, on the contrary, seems to be attacking the temple and warning that it is under threat of immanent destruction and so on.
But his followers see that he is obedient to a deeper Messianic vision rooted in Israel’s Scriptures, one which is producing an extraordinarily different sort of messianic victory. Instead of beating the pagans in an old-fashioned military battle, he is beating the darkest enemy of all, death, which is caused by human rebellion and sin. Jesus is redefining the messianic agenda around a deeper vision, his understanding of what the real problem is – which has to be dealt with by the King when he comes.
Many Jews looked at Jesus (in his lifetime and when Paul was preaching about him) and said, “That’s not the sort of messiah we were expecting, thank you very much.” But the early Christians nevertheless said, “The resurrection of Jesus is the declaration by the living God that he really is the Messiah, and hence this is the redemption you were expecting, even if it doesn’t look like you thought it would at that time.”
GD: Another important element needed to follow the Gospel writers’ story regards the nature of this kingdom and Jesus’ redefinition of it. Jesus’ kingship relates to the idea of righteousness – the righteous kingdom (and God’s righteousness is a theme in both the Old Testament and the New Testament). How would you define biblical righteousness (because we can think of that in purely spiritual or moralistic ways)? How does that notion of righteousness relate to Jesus being King in the kingdom of God?
NTW: Part of our difficulty with the word righteousness and its cognates – righteous and justify, etc., which is the same root in the Greek or Hebrew – is that we don’t have one English word or set of words which map directly onto the Hebrew words or the Greek words that we find in the Old or the New Testament. This is a common problem with many words, but this is one of the big ones.
The Hebrew word tsedaḳah, the word we normally translate as righteousness, is like a large ocean-going freight vessel which carries a lot of freight from different bits of Israel’s Scriptures and Israel’s history. In contemporary English, we don’t have any vessel big enough to carry all that freight. So when we say “righteousness,” we have to educate ourselves to think back into what that word would carry.
It’s complicated, because many of the Jews of Jesus’ day would read the Septuagint, the Greek translation, but the Greek word dikiosyne carries some of the content that tsedaḳah would, but for a Greek speaker, it would also carry quite a lot of Plato, who had written about dikiosyne as justice. It is hugely complicated in the New Testament, and the word moves this way and that, from writer to writer. The center of it is something to do with God’s righteousness, something to do with God’s faithfulness to his people, to the relationship he’s established with his people, which we call the covenant relationship. But because God’s intention for his people is that they would be the genuine humans, the real deal, then the word has (inescapably) what we call an ethical content as well. They wouldn’t have dissociated covenant from ethics – those two go together. God says, “if you are my people, then this is what it’s going to look like.”
So we separate these things out and ask, is this a status, is it behavior, is it spirituality? The answer: it’s all of those but more. When you learn to think in the way that the Psalms do, talking about Yahweh’s righteousness, or again, Isaiah 40-55, the passage is full of talk about the fact that Yahweh is righteous, so you may be in exile now, but you can trust him, because he is righteous, he will restore you, he will rescue you, he will bring you back. But then you have to be a people who not only embody but reflect that righteous quality.
The New Testament is drawing cheerfully on all of that as part of this overall picture that if God is becoming King, then that is both a revelation of his faithfulness to creation and covenant, and a summons to all those whom he is calling to live as part of that, to be God’s righteous people — both as the status they are given by God’s grace and then, as Paul says in Romans 6, in the way they behave.
Part of our problem in the last two, three centuries in the Western world is that we have separated status and behavior in a way that the New Testament writers wouldn’t have, so that we want to emphasize the one or the other, but it’s difficult to do both at the same time. The New Testament doesn’t seem to suffer from our inhibitions at that point.
GD: Sometimes the notion of righteousness is related to the notion of justice (in our Western parlance anyway). Righteousness is often understood as rewarding the good and punishing the evil. God’s righteousness would be fulfilled, even if that’s all God accomplished, that he rewarded the good and punished the evil. It seems to me you’re talking about something more than that.
NTW: Yes. When I think about the way the Bible treats the righteousness of God, I think of a passage like Daniel 9 – the great prayer of Daniel in exile, where he says, “We’ve been here a long time, and we know why this happened, it’s because you [God] are righteous.” How does that work? It’s because we were in covenant, we broke the covenant, so because you are righteous, you were obliged to punish us. Go to Deuteronomy 27, 28 — God was obliged to punish his rebellious people by sending them into exile.
Then Daniel says, “However, because you are righteous, now is the time for you to rescue us and bring us back.” In other words, the covenant was not simply a quid pro quo: “you behave like this, this happens; you behave like that, that happens.” The covenant was God setting up the family of Abraham as the family through whom he was going to rescue the whole world. (That’s how Paul expounds the Abrahamic story in Romans 4 or Galatians 3, for instance.) God knew from the beginning when he chose Abraham, that this family was going to mess up. These people were themselves part of the problem as well as part of the solution.
So the story gets complicated, morally, theologically – but when it all comes into land in the New Testament, we find that the notion of God being like a just judge who punishes the evil and rewards the good is not totally removed, but we go beyond that into the extraordinary idea that God’s righteousness is about his grace and mercy — and his over-flowing faithfulness to a purpose, which is to say, “The whole world has messed up, but I love you so much that I’m going to take that on to myself, and deal with it, so that there can be new creation, forgiveness, and new life for anyone who is hearing this message and is able to respond.”
GD: So the idea of new creation and restoration is intrinsically related to righteousness. [NTW: Absolutely.] If God merely stopped short of that and didn’t provide us renewal, then that would be a different notion. But because he’s righteous, he renews, he restores, recreates…
NTW: One of the fascinating things which the New Testament holds together (which we often manage not to) is the dealing with evil on the cross, making the way therefore for new life to happen. Because it’s evil which is stopping the new life happening (as we all know in ourselves, that when we mess up, when we sin, when we rebel, that stuff which ought to be flourishing in our lives then doesn’t). That happens cosmically, and God takes the weight of that evil upon himself in the person of Jesus, and that’s what the cross is all about.
But if it just stops there…. (Some Western piety has done that — think of the great work of Johann Sebastian Bach, The Matthew Passion, The John Passion — we almost have a theory of salvation stopping with the cross. Bach didn’t have a very big theology of the resurrection — interesting, in his Lutheran world.) Sometimes, we’ve allowed ourselves to think you can tell the story with the resurrection as kind of a nice happy ending, as an afterthought. But the point is, now that sin has been dealt with, new creation can begin. That’s where the kingdom of God comes in.
GD: In another of your books, you talked about God’s commitment to “putting things to rights.”
NTW: Yes. I think is a British-ism, that we talk about putting things to rights. If my bicycle has been messed up because of an accident, I take it to the shop and they will put it to rights — they will fix it. Or if my radio is on the blink, then somebody will fiddle inside, and we say, he’ll put it to rights. I think in America you often say, will put it right, we’ll make it right.
I like the phrase “put it to rights” because that has a little echo of “rights” as in the sense of justice, and the way I’ve often put it is (this relates to the doctrine of justification in Paul) that God’s eventual aim is to put the whole world to rights. It’s to sort the whole world out. That’s in the Psalms, Isaiah, Genesis, Deuteronomy, etc.
Part of the means whereby God does that in and through Jesus Christ is to put people right. Justification serves the larger cause of justice. It is not just about me needing to be right with God. (I do, and that’s important, and that’s central – when I look in the mirror, I need to know that that’s there. But God doesn’t stop there.) He says, “I’m putting you right so that you can be part of the team which is working on the putting-the-world-right stuff,” because that’s what, by the Holy Spirit, God is intending to be doing in and through us.
GD: It’s clear in your book that you think an emphasis on going to heaven doesn’t do complete justice to the message of the gospel in the New Testament. What’s the problem with setting out the gospel in that way — going to heaven — and is there a way to correct for that?
NTW: This is a big and deep one, and I struggled with this when I was in my late teens and early twenties, because I’ve grown up going to church where the emphasis, the assumption was, if you are a Christian, you get to heaven, and if you’re not a Christian, then watch out, because you probably won’t get to heaven. Much of Western Christianity has been stuck on that. This is a medieval thing.
An anecdote may help. I was once in a worship service in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, with that great picture by Michelangelo at the far end. I was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox archimandrite. (It was an ecumenical row we were on.) He pointed at that painting and said, “That’s not how we do it in the Greek East. We don’t tell the story like that, with some going to heaven and some going to hell.” Because for them it’s all about resurrection and new creation. They’re not necessarily universalists, but the emphasis is not on “some this way, some that way.” It’s on the newness and the new creation and the life, rather than the either/or.
What we then find is a problem: If you grow up with going to heaven as the ideal, people envisage heaven as outside space and time and matter. But, excuse me, we have Jesus being raised from the dead, and we are promised that we will be raised bodily from the dead. Most devout Christians believe that without ever stopping and thinking, how does that work together?
The answer is, as any first-century Jew would know, that resurrection means a two-stage, post-mortem reality, that you don’t go straight from death to resurrection. Jesus himself didn’t go straight from death to resurrection. Jesus was in the tomb, and then was raised on the third day. He talks to the brigand beside him on the cross when he says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Because in that world, paradise is not the ultimate place you go to be. Paradise is the temporary resting place.
Just under two years ago, my father died. I had the privilege of taking his funeral, and it was a wonderful sense — he was a devout Christian man — of giving him over to God, to be rested and refreshed and restored, a big sigh of relief, against the day when one day, he will be raised from the dead, when we all will be, when God makes the new heavens and new earth.
When we talk about going to heaven, okay, but the New Testament doesn’t usually do that. Hardly any passages in the New Testament use that language. In Revelation it talks about the souls being under the altar and saying to God “how long?” They’re on a holding pattern, in a waiting mode, and the eventual thing is the new heavens and the new earth, which will be like this world, only more so.
God made space, time and matter – and he loves that stuff. He said in Genesis it was very good. He wants to do it even more, so the new world which God will make will be like the present one, only more so. Where the dead are now… If they belong to Christ, Paul says, they are with Christ, which is far better. But that is not the end of the story. There’s resurrection still to come. Getting that two-stage story into people’s heads when they have a whole lifetime of thinking of “one step straight into heaven and that’s it,” that’s difficult. Fortunately, if you read the New Testament, it becomes clearer and clearer.
GD: Thank you so much. We’re out of time, but I know our viewers will be prompted with this interview to look at your book How God Became King.
GD: I’d like to follow up with a few more questions that are derived mostly from your book How God Became King. I’m particularly interested in the connection and relationship between heaven and earth. Often we think of them as separate, and we’re going to heaven and leaving earth, but you want to bring out the relationship and the connection. Can you say something more about that?
NTW: A few years ago, in 2005, I was working on another book called Simply Christian. I found myself having to explain certain things in a way I hadn’t before, and I did it in terms of the temple in Jerusalem. When they built the temple in Jerusalem (and when they had the wilderness tabernacle before that), the idea of the temple was this was the place where heaven and earth would overlap and interlock.
That seems counterintuitive to most people in the modern West. The reason for that is: ever since the Renaissance, Western culture has become more and more Epicurean, in terms of ancient philosophy. Epicurus and his follower Lucretius split apart heaven and earth and said that the gods are somewhere far away, are not bothered about us, are not interested in us, and we just do our own thing, and the world rambles along under eternity. That’s Epicureanism. Much of the modern Western world has been Epicurean. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am an Epicurean.”
The Enlightenment of the 18th century is built on the principle that God and the world don’t basically mix. The Bible is built on the principle that they’re designed to, but, because the world is in rebellion, that’s a complex and contested idea. Nevertheless, the point of the temple in Jerusalem, and the reason why the main thing you do there is sacrifice, is because God wants to get together with his people.
Then the extraordinary thing happens in the New Testament: Jesus behaves and talks as if he is somehow almost the temple in person, a living, breathing temple. Paul says (even more extraordinarily) to the Christians in Corinth, of all places, that because God’s Spirit now dwells in you, you are the temple of the living God [1 Corinthians 3:16] and therefore, you have to figure out how to handle that, what comes as a result. That is hugely challenging intellectually, personally and ethically, but that’s how it’s meant to be, that God and the world are meant for each other. Heaven and earth are meant for each other, not meant to be pulled apart. In Jesus and the Spirit, that’s what we’re supposed to see happening.
GD: They touched, came together.
NTW: They touched, they merged. In 1 Corinthians 15:28, Paul says, God will eventually be all in all.
GD: The problem for some people is when we read that Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. That’s often interpreted in a certain way and you’re trying to bring out a different, a particular way of viewing that. Could you say something about it: what did he mean when he said, “my kingdom is not of this world”?
NTW: Part of the difficulty here is in the translation. The phrase “not of this world” has been used to mean it’s an otherworld sort of thing, in the sense of nothing to do with space, time and matter. Nothing to do with politics and mess of this world.
The phrase in Greek is “my kingdom is not ek tou kosmou toutou. Ek means “out of” or “from.” Jesus is saying, “my kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world of itself.” It’s not the sort of kingdom that grows in this world, like the ancient Roman kingdom, like many modern empires.
This is the next line that Jesus goes on to: by violence. He says, “If my kingdom was the sort that grows in this world, then my followers will be fighting to stop me from being handed over. My kingdom is not from here.” The point is his kingdom is from God, from heaven, but it is for this world. It isn’t from this world, but it’s for this world.
That’s why, when Pilate sends Jesus to the cross with ironically the words “King of the Jews” above his head… (Any first-century Jew would know that that has to do with this kingdom vision from Psalm 2 and so on, which is “the king of the Jews” whose dominion will be from one sea to the other and from the river to the ends of the earth. This is not about another worldly kingdom.) Pilate (like the centurion at the foot of the cross in Mark’s Gospel) is saying more than he knew: Jesus is the true king of the world, and that’s what begins properly with the resurrection.
GD: So “not of this world” means “it’s not of that sort or of that kind.” It doesn’t mean it’s of another world and place.
NTW: Exactly. It comes from God’s world, but God’s world, heaven, was always meant to intersect with our world. If a kingdom merely grows in this world, it will do its business by violence and death, and it will die. God’s kingdom is a new thing coming in, but it is for this world, to make it a world that God wants it to be.
GD: How would you see that working out in the life of the church and the people of God? How do we go about living in Christ’s reign here and now on this earth?
NTW: The most important thing is worship. Most Christians worship, because they go to church on Sunday, or they say their prayers or whatever, but very few reflect on what actually happens when you worship. When you worship, you’re saying to God with your innermost being, “You are in charge. You are the King. You are the Lord, and we are available for your use, as it were.”
This is a scary, risky and dangerous thing to do, but that’s basically what one is doing. When you’re worshiping, you are adoring the God in whose image you are made. In the New Testament, Paul and others say things to do with that. It means you get remade in the image of God, so you become somebody who can reflect God into the world, perhaps in ways that one is not aware of oneself. That’s what worship ought to result in.
Therefore, as Christians are worshipers, they ought to be kingdom bearers. They ought to be stewards in God’s world. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world”; that’s how we are supposed to be. Without worship, that won’t happen. With worship, it begins to happen, but it takes more than that — it takes teaching and thinking through how the practice is going to work out.
GD: Could you give us some examples of where you think the church (or a branch of the church or individual Christians, or organizations) has done a good job of making this apparent?
NTW: There are positives and negatives. As with Jesus in his work and then his confrontation with Pontius Pilate, some of the kingdom work is positive, planting new things, planting seeds which are going to grow. Some of it is negative, confronting the powers of this world with the fact that they’re getting it wrong.
My successor Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby [now Archbishop of Canterbury], was recently in the news because he was in the business world before he became a priest and then a bishop. He is now one of the church’s representatives to speak into the world of banking and commerce. He made a speech recently (which got the headlines) pointing out that the way the banking industry has run was purely for the benefit of the banking industry. It was called the service industry, but it wasn’t actually serving anyone. That is a classic example of a wise Christian who understands what he’s talking about, not just shooting his mouth off to somebody he doesn’t like (which is always a danger), but actually naming an issue in our society which has been a major sore point, putting his finger on it in the name of God—not in order to say you silly people, whatever, but in order to produce the serious prophetic critique which we need, the positives as well.
From my time in Durham I saw a lot of this. It was one of the poorest areas of the U.K., and there were churches that didn’t have a great deal in terms of big theological education telling them how to do it. They were worshipping people who looked around at their local communities. In one case a church in one of the poorest parts of the northeastern England saw that there were a lot broken homes. There were single mothers with young kids, but the mothers were out at work; the kids were running wild on the street. The church with minimal resources started an amazing child daycare center which became a flagship project that other people from around the country looked at. They said, We never thought of doing it like that, but how did this work, and how did you solve that problem, et cetera.
That’s how it often works: two or three people (maybe even one person) out of the life of worship, prayer and Scripture study see that there is something which needs to be done. They say, “This seems impossible, we will pray about it, we will work it, we’ll go and talk to the local council.” When they do it, it cascades. Other people see, “we could do that” as well.
My favorite example (not recent, because I was involved in it) is the Hospice Movement. Fifty or 60 years ago there wasn’t a hospice movement as we now know it. It was because Cicely Saunders, a Christian with a bit of a steely eye who wasn’t going to take no for an answer, knew that the care that people were getting in hospital when they were dying was not good, that the doctors would just give them up. So she started St. Christopher’s Hospice in London. The government didn’t want to help, the medical profession weren’t interested. She raised the money herself. There are now hospices all over the Western world which really flowed from that and have given hope and comfort and solace to millions of people. That’s within my lifetime that’s happened, and that’s a sign of God being king even here even now—paradoxically, even in the midst of death bringing signs of life.
GD: They’re not necessarily grandiose. You might think the kingdom of God is going to be heroic and grandiose and these aren’t.
GD: It can take simple forms.
NTW: It’s precisely not grandiose. That’s why the parables are often about a tiny seed which then will grow into something. The book of Zechariah says, Don’t despise that they’re small things. Again and again I have seen kingdom projects, you might call them, which started amazingly small—with one poor person in a poor rundown church who gets this idea that when she or he is praying, God seems to be saying, “I want you to go and do this.” “That’s crazy, how could I make a difference?” It is extraordinary: one or two or three people saying prayers, worshipping, attentive to the needs around them. It’s extraordinary what God can do.
GD: Another theme that you bring up in your book is the theme of suffering as a part of demonstrating the kingdom and participating in Christ’s reign. Can you say something about that?
NTW: We’re not good at suffering in the Western world. The whole Enlightenment project was about, “We have grown up now, we have modrn meds and we have modern technology, therefore we shouldn’t have to suffer, so we’ll banish suffering.” The trouble is that there’s lots of suffering in the rest of the world, and some of it, sadly, we have inflicted on the rest of the world; there’s all sorts of issues around that.
There is the danger as well, which is there in the second century already, of Christians embracing martyrdom a bit too eagerly, and wanting to throw themselves on to the pyre, or have themselves taken off to be fed to the lions. The church has navigated that, but it goes back to the sense of the way the world is at the moment. If the world is run by kingdoms precisely from this world, which do what they do by bullying and by violence, and the church is called to make its way in a totally different way, there is bound to be again and again a point of conflict.
We saw this in the churches in Eastern Europe under communism, but we see it in plenty parts of the world today, where the people who are bearing faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ are stamped upon, denied access to jobs, or whatever it may be, and that sadly goes on. There is a question as to whether in the Western world the church ought actually to be suffering a bit more than it is, because the church ought actually to be bearing witness to the kingdom of God against the way the Western powers work. People in the Middle East look at the Western powers and think, “They’re Christian nations.” We who live in the West know that that’s not the case. Our nations are not run on gospel principles, and so it’s a challenge to the church.
However, anyone in the Western world who seeks to follow Jesus and be loyal and works for his kingdom and his gospel is going to face suffering sooner or later. It’s going to happen through sickness, family problems, financial difficulties, or whatever. Suffering comes in all shapes and sorts and sizes, and it’s usually messy, and usually it doesn’t mean that we can say, “I am suffering this because I am a Christian, so I can feel good about this.” Sadly, it’s not like that.
Second 2 Corinthians 4 is the passage I go back to again and again where Paul basically says we are cast down but not destroyed [verse 9]. We are at a loss, and yet not completely lost. At the time, it probably did feel that we were completely lost, that we were killed, that we were overthrown. It’s only with hindsight that we look back and say, “That’s strange—we went through a dark patch there, and somehow we’ve lived to tell the tale.” Again and again, it’s in those dark patches that often God is most powerfully at work. It doesn’t feel like it at that time, but having lived 63 years now and trying to follow this out, I can say again and again in my life, and that of many people who might have the privilege of ministering, that’s how it’s been.
GD: Thank you again for joining us, and I encourage our listeners to get your book How God Became King, because we haven’t touched on everything but …