Most of my posts express an opinion. This post is a little different, sticking more closely to the text of N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. About much I disagree with Wright, but his is such a fine example of a scholarly work accessible to educated laymen and women that it deserves a special place. I’ll save most of my criticism for the conclusion.
“I have done my best,” says Wright, “to explore the meaning of the phrase Jesus used as the great slogan for his project, the kingdom of God.” (loc 108) His answer is that the kingdom of God is now, not just in the future. God’s kingdom is not where we go after we die; it’s where we live now.
When Jesus healed people, when he ate and drank with ordinary people, offering forgiveness freely to those who stood outside society, it wasn’t just an example of a future reality. This was reality itself. This is what it looked like when God was in charge. This is what it means when Christ teaches us to pray “on earth as it is in heaven.” (p 106)
There’s a tension
A great deal of what Jesus was doing and saying only makes sense on the assumption that he really did believe that God was already becoming king in the new way he had promised. It was happening, and this is what it would look like. (p 105)
At the same time, there is constant reference, throughout Christ’s ministry, to the terrible events that would accompany the coming of God’s kingdom. He speaks of the sun and the moon being darkened, and the stars falling from heaven (Matthew 24:29). Wright seems comfortable with this tension between God’s kingdom now and apocalypse in the future. I don’t know what to make of it, except that Jesus in the Gospels sometimes sounds like the Book of Revelation.
Jesus rejected the idea that heaven is somewhere up there, and when people die they go to heaven. If Jesus was taking charge now, here on earth, then heaven and earth are in the process of becoming one (p 144). The resurrection, then, is not only proof of Christ’s divinity, but a sign that one day heaven and earth will be transparent to each other. This is the true meaning of that passage from 1 Corinthians, translated so beautifully in the King James Version,
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (13:12)
Jesus was fighting against satan
Whatever we think of this theme today, it’s clear that for all the gospel writers Jesus saw satan as the enemy. If one thinks about the public career of Jesus, his first encounter was with John the Baptist. His second was with satan. On a mission of self-discovery, Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days where he was taunted and tested* by satan, who offered him the world if only he would bow down to him (Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Jesus passed this test, which I see as the test that every mythic hero must pass in order to set off on his or her journey. (I am not claiming Jesus was mythic, just that it’s a useful way to read the Bible.) It is a direct line from his first test to his last, the crucifixion. Christ’s life traced an arc from one supreme trial to another. His was ultimately a test between the forces of life and death. Satan represents death and destruction. Christ represents the defeat of death, through self-sacrifice and resurrection. I would add that Christ represents the defeat of death through his moral teachings. The Beatitudes are the teachings of life.
Wright calls satan a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force that leads them to do things they would never normally do (p 122). There are advantages to seeing satan in this way, for it prevents us from demonizing our opponents. Not they, but satan did it. Nevertheless, it is more honest to recognize that the dark force is always there, inside, just waiting to appear. We are the dark force.
Thucydides thought that it was civilization that kept this force in check. For Freud, civilization itself depends upon whether the forces of Eros, of life, are stronger than the forces of death and destruction.
And now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species. And it is this battle of the giants that our nurse-maids try to appease with their lullaby about Heaven. (Freud, 1929, 121-122)
Wright would agree that the way heaven is ordinarily represented is indeed a lullaby, a story about a beautiful place we will go when we die. In fact, Wright comes closer to Freud than one might expect, regarding satan as the anti-creation power, the power of obliteration and annihilation. At the time this power was best represented by Rome, but it is with us always. Great powers are always at risk of allying themselves with the forces of death and destruction, even, or especially, when they claim that God is on their side.
God rules through humans
When God wants to change the world, says Wright, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on (p 218). One should heed the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) not in order to get into heaven, but because doing so exemplifies heaven’s way. We are God’s hands that will one day join heaven and earth. Today we bring heaven and earth just a tiny bit closer.
As examples Wright mentions William Wilberforce, who campaigned to abolish slavery; Desmond Tutu, who worked not just to end apartheid, but to bring a measure of reconciliation; and Cicely Saunders, who founded the hospice movement (p 219). Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King belong on this list, as do the millions of people who, with no recognition, work to bring peace, justice, and the necessities of life to others. The Beatitudes aren’t just about being nice; they are about taking the side of life against death.
The task of the church is to bear witness to the sins of the world. This means that it will generally be at odds with the world, including comfortable Christianity. Otherwise, says Wright, religion dwindles into a personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain (p 226). The church should be prophetic, calling out those who are on the side of death, opposing them without invoking more death.
Wright insists that heaven and earth are already becoming one. I see no evidence of this. One hundred million dead in the wars of the twentieth-century. Ecological devastation, global warming, the Holocaust, Hiroshima. Currently there are more refugees and displaced persons than at any time in world history.** If Jesus is running the show right now, he’s doing a pretty bad job.
Wright’s thesis makes sense: the kingdom of God is not somewhere we go when we die; it is anticipated in how Christians (and good people generally) conduct themselves in life. Above all this means caring for others and speaking God’s truth to power. If the church is not involved in politics, it’s a hobby.
Rather than claim that heaven and earth are in the process of becoming one, Wright should hold this up as an ideal, while lamenting the vast distance between them. Individuals and groups still have the opportunity to live up to the Beatitudes. We should just not imagine that the forces of darkness and death are on the run.
* Often translated as tempted, the Greek peirasthēnai (πειρασθῆναι) can also be translated as tested (Strong’s 3985).
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, translated by James Strachey. W. W. Norton, 1929.
N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. HarperCollins, 2011.