Prominent theologian N.T. Wright says the New Testament does not say what most people believe it says about Heaven, which is that it's merely a place one goes after death. In truth, he says, it's about creation being restored through God's ever-advancing Kingdom.
In an editorial for TIME magazine, the former Anglican bishop and acclaimed author stressed that, contrary to contemporary believers, early Christians did not conceive of Heaven as merely a place they go when they die.
Those who did believe in the idea of "going to Heaven when you die" when the New Testament was written were "Middle Platonists" those like Plutarch, a pagan priest in Delphi.
"To understand what the first followers of Jesus believed about what happens after death, we need to read the New Testament in its own world — the world of Jewish hope, of Roman imperialism and of Greek thought," he said.
"The followers of the Jesus-movement that grew up in that complex environment saw 'Heaven' and 'Earth' — God’s space and ours, if you like — as the twin halves of God’s good creation."
Instead of saving people from Earth, early Christians believed God was bringing Heaven and Earth together, making creation new, restoring the world from all its pathologies.
"They believed that God would then raise His people from the dead, to share in — and, indeed, to share His stewardship over — this rescued and renewed creation. And they believed all this because of Jesus," Wright stressed.
Christ's resurrection was the starting point of this great work of renewal, He went on to say, and this was understood by the earliest believers.
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"Jesus embodied in Himself the perfect fusion of 'Heaven' and 'Earth.' In Jesus, therefore, the ancient Jewish hope had come true at last. The point was not for us to 'go to Heaven,' but for the life of Heaven to arrive on Earth," Wright said, noting that Jesus taught His followers to pray for God's Kingdom to come on Earth as it is in Heaven.
"From as early as the third century, some Christian teachers tried to blend this with types of the Platonic belief, generating the idea of 'leaving Earth and going to Heaven,' which became mainstream by the Middle Ages. But Jesus’ first followers never went that route."
To understand the Gospel in its fullness, Wright told The Christian Post in a previous interview that believers in Jesus must rediscover their distinctly Jewish spiritual heritage that is a given in the New Testament but has, for a variety of reasons, been lost over the centuries.
In his biography about the Apostle Paul, Wright said Paul "never stopped thinking, speaking and writing as a Jew — a Jew who believed that the One God had sent the true Messiah."
"Generations of Gentile Christianity have often tried to ignore or even erase that Jewish meaning, turning 'Christianity' into an essentially non-Jewish system and making most of Paul's major themes only semi-comprehensible," he told CP at the time.
Non-Jewish groups since the second century have attempted to flatten the message of salvation — into a "new way of being religious" or of "being saved" — from ancient Israel's understanding of it, he explained.
"Israel’s scriptures had long promised that God would come back in person to dwell with His people forever. The early Christians picked this up: 'The Word became flesh,' declares John [1:14], 'and dwelt in our midst.' The word for 'dwelt' means, literally, 'tabernacled,' 'pitched his tent' — alluding to the wilderness 'tabernacle' in the time of Moses and the Temple built by Solomon," Wright wrote Monday in TIME.
"Studying the New Testament historically, in its own world (as opposed to squashing and chopping it to fit with our own expectations), shows that the first Christians believed not that they would 'go to Heaven when they died,' but that, in Jesus, God had come to live with them."
He added, "It’s hard for us moderns to grasp this: so many hymns, prayers and sermons still speak of us 'going to Heaven.'"
According to the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 72 percent of Americans said they believe in Heaven. In the survey Heaven was defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.”
In that same study, 37 percent of those who do not affiliate with any particular religious tradition, known as "nones," said they believed in Heaven.