Have we gotten heaven wrong?

The oft-cliched Christian notion of heaven - a blissful realm of harp-strumming angels - has remained a fixture of the faith for centuries. Surveys show that a vast majority of Americans believe that after death their souls will ascend to some kind of celestial resting place.

But scholars increasingly say that comforting belief in an afterlife has no basis in the Bible and would have sounded bizarre to Jesus and His early followers. Like modern curators patiently restoring an ancient fresco, theologians have plumbed the New Testament's Jewish roots to challenge the pervasive cultural belief in an otherworldly paradise.

The most recent expert to add his voice to this chorus is the prolific Christian apologist N.T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop who now teaches about early Christianity and New Testament at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. Wright has explored Christian misconceptions about heaven in previous books, but now devotes an entire volume, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, to the subject.

Wright is not just another academic iconoclast bent on debunking Christian myths. He takes his creeds very seriously and has even written an 800-plus-page study setting out to prove the historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus.

"This is a very current issue - that what the church, or what the majority conventional view of heaven is, is very different from what we find in these Biblical testimonies," said Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary in New York. "The end times are not the end of the world - they are the beginning of the real world - in Biblical understanding."

The appearance of a recent Time magazine cover story suggests that putting-the-heaven-myth-to-rest movement is gaining currency beyond the academy. Wright and Morse say they have both made presentations on heaven research at local churches and have been surprised by the public interest and acceptance.

Wright and Morse work independently of each other and in very different ideological settings, but their work shows a remarkable convergence on key points. In classic Judaism and first-century Christianity, believers expected this world would be transformed into God's Kingdom - a restored Eden where redeemed human beings would be liberated from death, illness, sin and other corruptions.

First-century Jews who believed Jesus was Messiah also believed he inaugurated the Kingdom of God and were convinced the world would be transformed in their own lifetimes, Wright said. This inauguration, however, was far from complete and required the active participation of God's people practicing social justice, nonviolence and forgiveness to become fulfilled. Once the Kingdom is complete, he said, the bodily resurrection will follow with a fully restored creation here on earth.

"It's the recovery of the Jewish basis of the Gospels that enables us to say this," Wright said. "We are so fortunate in this generation that we understand more about first-century Judaism than Christian scholarship has for a very long time. And when you do that, you realize just how much was forgotten quite soon in the early church, certainly in the first three or four centuries."

Christianity gradually lost contact with its Jewish roots as it spread into the gentile world. On the idea of heaven, things really veered off course in the Middle Ages, Wright said.

"Our picture, which we get from Dante and Michelangelo, particularly of a heaven and a hell, and perhaps of a purgatory as well, simply isn't consonant with what we find in the New Testament," Wright said. "A lot of these images of hellfire and damnation are actually pagan images which the Middle Ages picks up again and kind of wallows in."

Wright notes that many clues to an early Christian understanding of the Kingdom of heaven are preserved in the New Testament, most notably the phrase "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," from the Lord's Prayer. Two key elements are forgiveness of debts and loving one's neighbor. While heaven is indisputably God's realm, it's not some distantly remote galaxy hopelessly removed from human reality. In the ancient Judaic worldview, Wright notes, the two dimensions intersect and overlap so that the divine bleeds over into this world.

Other clues have been obscured by sloppy translations, such as the popular John 3:16, which says God so loved the world he gave his only son so that people could have "eternal life." Wright offers a translation that radically recasts the message and shows how the passage would have been heard in the first century. To hear it today is to experience the shock of the new: God gave his son "so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God's new age."

What Do You Think?

  • How do you envision heaven? What is that vision based upon?
  • Do you agree with the view offered by Wright and Morse?
  • How might their vision of heaven on earth change how Christians live out their faith?


Comments (10)

Leave a Comment

Of course we have heaven wrong.  It’s impossible for any human to think that they can understand heaven.  The presence of God is way beyond anything we can conceive.

No one who has actually read what the Bible says about heaven thinks in terms of harps and angel’s wings. Are there Christians who don’t know their Bible well and might not understand much about heaven? Sure, but don’t blame such sloppy thinking on all Christians. This seems more a cultural issue than one permeating the church.

And speaking of reading the Bible to see what it actually says, you really dropped a bomb on us with this sentence: “Other clues have been obscured by sloppy translations, such as the popular John 3:16, which says God so loved the world he gave his only son so that people could have ‘eternal life.’” How is that translation sloppy? Can you give us the translation tools to get what you mean? Don’t just leave us hanging with a bald assertion that centuries of biblical scholarship is wrong and only now has Tom Wright set us straight. (He may very well have, but I’d like to see something to back that up.)


It’s really good to see this coming up.  I recently read Surprised By Hope and am very refreshed by much of what N.T. Wright has to say.  Often times, what Christians believe is generally what their pastors tell them, and what their pastors tell them is what they read in books or learn from other pastors, and those books or other pastors may or may not be in line with what is true.

Somewhere along the line, someone needs to step in and question things and say “Wait a second.  Let’s take a step back and really reconsider some of this and determine if it’s actually Biblical and true.”  This takes a great deal of actual work and often times research and investigation (along with prayer).

In general people would just rather believe what someone tells them.  Not only does it require less work, but it does put you in a position of having to go against the flow.

I’m certainly not saying that N.T. Wright has it all figured out and we should start looking to him for all the answers, but I do appreciate the work that he has done in researching topics like this and making information about them available to the general public.

Seems to me that N.T. Wrights theology is of the ’ Kingdom Now’ variety, not new at all, and depends on the Church cleaning up the World to make it fit for Jesus Christ to come back to & The Kingdom to come on earth? A gospel of works. I believe this is not the Gospel that the Believers were to witness but rather Faith in the Saving work of Jesus Christ,His Crucifixion, & Resurrection,& regeneration by The Holy Spirit translates us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light.

  I think 1 Thessalonians 4: 15-17. Gives some clues as to a ‘Heavenly’ Heaven or,and, a ‘New Worldly’ Heaven. 15.“Our Lord Jesus told us that when He comes,we won’t go UP to meet Him ahead of His followers who have already died.
16.With a loud command and with shout of the chief angel and a blast of God’s trumpet, the Lord will return from Heaven.Then those who had faith in Christ before they died will be raised to life.
17.Next,all of us who are still alive will be taken up into the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the sky. From that time on we will be with the Lord forever.”  By this & other scriptures I believe that with our New Resurrection bodies we can and will be able to live in Heaven above ( or another dimension) or for ever on the New Kingdom of God Earth.   

Ian, as one who has read much of Wright, I can tell you that he is NOT a “gospel of works” theologian. If you haven’t read him, you should. For a quick and easy preview, go explore http://ntwrightpage.com/. Peace

As far as heaven goes, one of the things that really freaks me out is that heaven - whatever it may be - must require our free choice to be in relationship with God (and others) because choice is a primary element to real love and relationship.  I get really annoyed by so many who envision heaven as a place of ease and luxury - as if we won’t have to “do” anything or work for anything; as if we’ll all be orgasmic-robots or something. But the kind of God I see revealed in Scripture is a God of relationship and love. And these things require freedom and choice. The question, then, is this: Will I be able to choose to be in relationship with God and others? I hope so. I hope that this is what is promised when we read that God has defeated sin.

Also: there is a free eBook available on Amazon.com today (6/4) on this very topic: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0036FUEIY/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=theoblogy-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0036FUEIY

Hi John,

Everyone has questions Heaven and Hell but there is only one place to find the True Answers to our questions, The Holy Bible.
Is Hell real? The Bible says yes; in fact Bible makes reference to Hell more times than Heaven. Hell is a place of eternal pain, suffering, torment and where there is no rest nor peace day or night from the horrors.
Where is Hell? The Bible says that Hell is in the center or heart of the Earth.
Is Heaven real? The Bible says yes and the only way to get there is to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
Where is Heaven? The Bible says that Heaven is an Eternal place where the Most High God dwells and there is no pain, no sorrow, no hunger, no thirst and no death.
Everyone has an opinion but there is only one Truth and that is Jesus Christ, the Word of God. Jesus said “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:31 & 32
I found a video on http://www.nowsthetime.org that will be a great blessing to you and it will help you to find the Truth that you seek. 


A mixed bag, as is often the case with Wright.  He’s absolutely spot-on that the traditional idea of heaven as our final resting place is wrong; Revelation ends with God declaring that He’s making all things new, and with the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.  That said, I think he’s pushing it a bit too far.

Wright’s work always points beyond his own tradition to promote greater Christian unity. As a Calvinist, he is from an a-millennial stable, but this argument points to an appreciation of the premillennialists (and postmillennialists), that the millennium represents an eternal state, and the more earthly focus of both those traditions was a valid reading of the Prophets. The a-millennialists have sat comfortably on their sound exegesis of Revelations 20, but opened a door to pagan conceptions of the afterlife. Among the Fathers, the Millennium functioned as a Noah’s Ark, preserving biblical eschatology inside a limited container, as Church lost a Jewish leadership who would understand the literal message of the Prophets; when Origen and Augustine correctly pointed to the bad exegesis of Revelations 20, they sank this Ark. It is a massive achievement of Wright’s branch of Calvinism to retrieve eschatology from this ancient shipwreck. We can tell the JW’s on our doorsteps they are quite right about the new heavens and the new earth, but also tell them the only route there is through a divine Jesus!

I saw this on FB and was going to share it, but for the ill-informed Christian and the non-believer, it is only going to cause more confusion, so I will not share it.  Yes, the popular notion of heaven as the saved becoming harp-strumming angels for all eternity is definitely wrong and without basis in Scripture.  Life after physical death comes in two stages - and intermediary one, where we are (as Paul says in Philippians 1) with the Lord, and a second, final one, where we enjoy resurrected bodies, fit for eternity,  in a new heavens and new earth, when God has re-created all things and made of earth what it would have become had not the Fall dispossessed humanity of Eden.
Jesus speaks of hell as the abode of Satan and the final destination of those who do not inherit eternal life with him, a place of eternal torment.  If there is not literal fire, it is only because what is there is worse than fire and our minds cannot comprehend the horror of an eternity facing the wrath of God against all who deny his rightful authority and his utter goodness.
Jesus also speaks of being in the bosom of Abraham in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man - a shorthand note referring to a common picture of the afterlife, meaning that one is in eternal felicity and fellowship with other saints and with God.  Otherwise, Jesus speaks in general of eternal life, which is amplified, by the Apostles through the Holy Spirit, in the rest of the New Testament, where we see the two aspects of life after death - the final one being a new earth with God residing among us in love and light, to our eternal joy.

Loading More Comments


Leave a comment, Guest

You are welcome to leave a comment, guest. Please note, all comments are moderated by our staff. Your name and email address are required fields.
You are encouraged to create an account for additional benefits.

Why create an account?
* denotes required field.
Image Type: jpg, gif, or png.
Max file size: 50kb. Max dimensions: 100px by 100px.

See the latest in: