First Things readers may remember the late Richard John Neuhaus’s critique of N.T. Wright, entitled The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop:
Most of [Wright's Surprised by Hope] is devoted to making the case for a greater accent in Christian piety and liturgy on the final resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Or, as Wright likes to put it, we need to recover the biblical focus on “life after life after death.” I believe Wright is right about that. As he is also on target when he insists that the resurrection “is not the story of a happy ending but of a new beginning.” But his argument is grievously marred by his heaping of scorn on centuries of Christian piety revolving around the hope of “going to heaven,” and his repeated and unseemly suggestion that he is the first to have understood the New Testament correctly, or at least the first since a few thinkers in the patristic era got part of the gospel right… Wright debunks traditional ideas of heaven by noting that Jesus could not have been referring to heaven when he said that the good thief would be with him today in paradise because Jesus still had to descend to hell and be resurrected and therefore was not himself in heaven on that day. Gotcha. Now why didn’t Thomas Aquinas and all those other smart theologians think of that? Here and elsewhere, N.T. Wright is as literalistic as the staunchest of fundamentalists.
It was all a bit over the top, as was Wright’s response. But now that the dust from this clashing of theological egos has settled, it’s worth noting that a criticism similar to Neuhaus’s emerged from Christianity Today editor Mark Galli last month in his excellent assessment of Near Death Experiences:
As N. T. Wright has said, he’s not so much interested in the afterlife, but in the life after the afterlife—meaning bodily life in the new earth (Rev. 21). Those enthusiastic about these theological themes have little patience with spiritual and soul talk. They wax eloquent about what might be called a kind of Christian materialism, about the new heaven on earth, when justice will reign globally and we’ll enjoy bodily life in a redeemed state. All this is true as true can be. The resurrection of the body is indeed the best and final way to talk about our ultimate state in the eschaton. And we can be grateful that a generation of evangelical scholars has made this clearer than ever.
But here’s the pastoral rub. In general, when life-after-the-afterlife folks talk about this future state, the language gets global and the vision abstract… There are sweeping statements about “the culmination of history” and “the coming reign of God” and “the renewal of the whole earth.” This is heady stuff, and, as stated above, true as true can be. But it doesn’t always connect with the widow whose husband was struck by a fatal heart attack. …Some of us (usually the highly educated among us) may be most interested in life after the afterlife, but most people in the pews are deeply concerned simply with the afterlife—the one that comes right after this one… The kingdom of God will be a just world order that will bring history to a glorious conclusion. But day to day, that hope is too distant and vague for many Christians to grasp emotionally as good news. For many, it’s just interesting news. What they want to hear more than anything, especially when they or a loved one is on the threshold of death, is this: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Galli’s gentle course correction to an important movement in American evangelicalism causes me to think that maybe Neuhaus had a point.