Writer Steve Schramm explores important questions about the afterlife 

The Christian notion of “the afterlife” has been a never-ending point of discussion for thinkers inside and outside Christianity for millennia.

Christians place their hope in biblical notions of heaven, while those who reject Christianity scorn its concept of hell.

Heaven is the future hope that Christians will see their loved ones again, yet is simultaneously labeled a unique brand of wishful thinking that eases our psychological angst but offers little in terms of tangible experience.

New Testament scholar, historian and pastor NT Wright has long-championed a different view of heaven. One that, he claims, is informed far more by Jewish and early Christian ideas in contradistinction to those resembling ancient paganism. To hear more from NT Wright, check out the Ask NT Wright Anything podcast here.

We’ve traded true biblical teaching on the subject for a cheap alternative that is more tangible, yet tragically incorrect.


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It all started in Genesis

That our story begins in Genesis and ends in a Genesis-like restoration of creation is hardly a new or controversial thought. Still, many of the details have long been missing from Christian teaching and preaching. This has led to widespread misunderstanding about the nature of the creation account as well as the nature of the new creation account.

In Genesis, God’s world is described in terms of a singular reality. Heaven and Earth are one. God intends to dwell together with his human creatures and work alongside them to create and sustain his good creation.

That has always been God’s goal. But there’s a problem with the way we normally understand this story. We tend to think that Eden was plan A, and since it didn’t work, we are now in plan B. Plan A was “work alongside God to tend his creation” and plan B is “restore our relationship with God, so we can worship him forever”. The thing is, there’s no plan B.

Resurrection over rapture

According to Wright, this is where we’ve gone wrong: the Bible is not about “graduating” from Earth to heaven. It’s about God joining heaven and Earth together so that he can live with his human creatures. That’s the story God is telling. And when viewed from that lens, pieces of the biblical story begin to fall into place like never before.

In the Old Testament, the temple and the torah “came together as one” to form the culture and dwelling place where God met with his people. In John 1:18, we learn that the Word became flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us. After Jesus’ ascension to the father, the spirit of Christ came to live inside of believers, joining the heavenly and the earthly in an intimate relationship. And in the final resurrection, the new heavens and the new Earth will join together again as one (Revelation 21:1-2).

Christ is the centerpiece. In him, all things come together and form the ultimate joining of heaven and Earth (Ephesians 1:10). The physically resurrected body of Jesus is the prototype of new creation. We will have a body like his in the final resurrection, allowing us to fully live into the present reality of our justification (1 Corinthians 15).

Where is heaven now?

According to Wright, heaven is “God’s dimension of present reality” — heaven and Earth are NOT millions of miles apart and separated by a large chasm — that, he remarks, is Epicureanism. In fact, many Christians seem to have taken what the medieval folk culture believed about heaven and hell and mingled that together with the biblical teaching on the subject, creating imagery that is inconsistent with the biblical picture.

Heaven is not cast in terms of “the ultimate place where God’s people go when they die” in the Bible; this might surprise some Christians. The Greek word monai (often translated “mansions or “rooms”) used in John 14:2 means something like “wayside inn” — a temporary dwelling place.

This understanding is consistent with Jewish beliefs of the afterlife. The thief on the cross who confessed Jesus as Lord, for example, was to be with Jesus “in Paradise” upon his death. In Jewish thought, this was a “temporary holding place” where the dead resided until the final resurrection, at which point one’s physical body would be resurrected. Resurrection happens only after a period of death, leading Wright to refer to resurrection in this sense as “life after life after death”.

Where is hell?

Similarly, many Christians wonder about the notion of hell, which often sparks vivid imagery reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Wright is, once again, critical of these ideas. They do not form an accurate biblical picture.

On this point, Wright is admittedly less clear. While he does not seem to endorse conditionalism (whereby humans simply cease to exist because God destroys them), neither does he believe in something like a below-ground torture chamber filled with literal fire and flames.

There appears to be a temporary holding “compartment” in the underworld for those who die without Christ just as there is for those who die with Christ (see the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16), and in the final resurrection, Wright can only describe what becomes of unbelievers as becoming “ex-human”.


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New creation and eschatology

It is especially difficult for Westernized Christians to think about these subjects apart from a discussion of eschatology (studies of the end times). Interestingly, though, Wright does not seem interested in going there. I suspect that Wright’s reasoning might be the arbitrary and forced boundaries such views tend to require are of no interest to his thesis.

What is clear is that the spirit of God has now joined heaven and Earth together. It’s hard to put this into a different language, very much like the mysteries of marriage or the Trinity. Wright advises “taking it on trust then learning to live within it” as a strategy for dealing with mysterious, counterintuitive ideas that don’t comport to comfortable enlightenment categories.

For Wright, the world is being transformed by the gospel, but the forces of darkness still strike back. Our job is to faithfully take hold of what God has begun in us, and through the power of his spirit, work to redeem all creation for him.

Reading the Bible well

An undertone of Wright’s work (although a pronounced one) is learning how to read the Bible well. For example, he encourages thinking in terms of “concrete versus abstract” rather than “literal versus metaphorical”.

Wright uses the example of Daniel to show that we know how to make sense of this already. We take Daniel seriously that there will be four kingdoms at the end of days, but nobody thinks they are the literal images mentioned in the book (a bear, lion,etc).

Since the book of Revelation is written in a Jewish apocalyptic style, he reasons, it would be unwise to press certain statements to their literal (concrete) meanings. This does not take away from the metaphor—after all, a metaphor is there to point to the nature of a reality, and often, such reality is worse than the metaphor itself. (For example, eternal separation from God in whatever form is worse than literal fire and flames, a reality that will be apparent to those who willfully experience it.)

What does this mean for today?

We are being transformed. The Holy Spirit makes it so new creation happens not only “to” us, but “through” us. Indeed, we are justified “in order to be part of God’s justice gloriously flooding the entire creation,” per Wright.

The biblical discussion of “inheritance” has nothing to do with “going to heaven,” but the rescued creation. The whole world is God’s holy land, and we will dwell together with him, in it, for eternity.

The work we do now contributes to the work we will continue to do. We are creators made in the image of the creator. Heaven will not be a boring scene of angels, harps and endless floating around. There will be work to do—stewarding and ruling over God’s perfect creation together with him.

“Death is the denial of God’s good creation order,” says Wright. “Resurrection is the reaffirming of the goodness of God’s created order.” God is resurrecting creation (Romans 8), his people (1 Corinthians 15), and will bring everything together in the great marriage of heaven and Earth (Revelation 21). Eden will be finally—and forever—restored.


Steve Schramm is an autodidactic writer, Bible teacher and host of the Bible Nerd Podcast. He’s authored four books, including Truth Be Told: A Believer’s Guide to Sharing Christianity, Overcoming Objections, and Winning More Souls for Christ