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Over the course of this month I’ve been leading a book discussion of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope for an adult education class at a local Presbyterian church. I’ve been surprised by a number of things in the process, such as how intimidating it is to be asked things like “what is the scholarly consensus about the book of Revelation?” And I’ve been reminded how important it is to explore what scripture says about the materiality of the new heaven and new earth. It’s hard for people, myself included, to grasp why and how the resurrection of Jesus is significant for our own physical existence here and now, and what it means for the life that will follow this life. Wright’s book provides some really refreshing perspectives on what it means to hope for heaven. He is adamant that we really don’t need to be asking things like “will I go to heaven when I die?” but that we should instead be exploring the astonishing implications of resurrection for the here and now. The identity and mission of the church and of individual Christians has to do with the new Jerusalem that will one day come down, so we don’t need to be preoccupied with conjecture about who will be taken up.
Considering questions like these, however, goes so deeply against the grain of how Christianity has taken root in our culture. A disembodied understanding of salvation and of heaven tends to pervade talk about the gospel message. So I’ve really been sitting with the questions of what is at stake in how we understand the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus. I’ve been wrestling with what one very distinguished gentleman said to me at the end of our first week’s discussion: “I really just don’t think the material world has anything to do with heaven.” I do think the material world has everything to do with whatever heaven is, because God seems to care a whole lot about the material world: creation is deemed good from the start, the divine Son takes on human flesh, there is a physical and not just spiritual triumph of life over death, there are glimpses of a new creation in which some of this world’s material realities persist, and so on. Moreover, I just can’t seem to figure out how and why it would fundamentally matter that we take care of the bodily needs of others in this life, if disembodied spiritual bliss is all we’re really destined for. Wright’s book has prompted me to give a lot more thought to the exhilarating notion that the physical acts we participate in here and now are not just ways of biding our time until we get to be free of bodies. Rather, by the power of the resurrection, our lives here and now are infused with the capacity to participate in the coming of the new creation. Matter matters. I still don’t have answers for the class participants who have asked me how it could be possible for everyone who has ever lived to be bodily resurrected on our tiny planet Earth, or who have asked what age we will be in our resurrected bodies. I do think I have a response, though, to the comment one woman made: “I just don’t think we’re going to need bodies in heaven.” Need, no, maybe not. But it does seem like God designed us, and all of creation, to experience love and peace and wholeness and right relationship through physical existence. We don’t need to hate our bodily lives, fraught and broken as they may be. I think we can simultaneously hope to be freed from some of the real burdens of material existence and also trust that our redemption is somehow unfolding right in the midst of it.