How many of us celebrate Easter Sunday as Christ’s triumph over sin and death and then live the other 364 days of the year as if that miraculous event never happened? When that’s the case, we’ve lost sight of a still greater truth: The story isn’t finished yet. We are eyewitnesses to the grand saga of the gospel, and knowing that should change the way we view and interact with the world. In Touch spoke with N. T. Wright about the importance of living out the full story of the Bible.
Q. You’ve said that we tend to view Christianity as a lifestyle guide, a set of rules, or practical advice. Yet the good news—the gospel—is an event, a moment by which the world was forever altered. Why is thinking of our faith in these terms so essential?
It’s essential because the whole point of Christian faith always was that something has happened, and as a result, the world is a different place. Collapsing the message into a lifestyle guide or whatever just leaves the world the way it is and merely tries to adjust ourselves, our attitudes, our behaviors, but within the same framework. The point of the “good news” is that God has taken charge of the world in a whole new way.
Q. How has settling for “good advice” rather than “good news” shaped the Western church?
The Western church over the last two centuries or so has tended to go along with the dominant philosophy, which is that “religion” (including the Christian faith) is about private life—private faith, private salvation, private behavior. It is then “good advice” of that sort, but it leaves the larger public issues untouched. That’s why so many in the West assume that “religion” and “public life” have nothing to do with one another, so that the kingdom of God itself—the central message of Jesus!—is reduced to either “heaven” or “private spirituality” rather than, as Jesus said, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, emphasis added).
When humans, remade through the gospel and Spirit, are functioning as the royal priesthood, they are free for all the purposes God has for them.
Q. In Simply Good News, you write that for the first believers, “Something had happened. Something would happen. And in between, something powerful and mysterious was happening in the lives of all those who found themselves caught up in it.” How does understanding and embracing this “triple vision” help us recapture the dynamic power of the early church?
Actually, to recapture that power, the Holy Spirit and prayer are essential. When people pray—especially when they pray for the Spirit to be at work—all sorts of things we hadn’t expected happen. But part of the answer to our prayer will be the realization (in both senses, i.e., the mental realization, as in “realizing something is the case,” and the practical realization, as in “realizing the concept, turning it into reality”) that God has taken charge of the world in a new way through the death and resurrection of Jesus. All sorts of things are possible if we pray and trust and go to our work, confident that the new creation has already begun and we are part of it.
Q. You describe Jesus’ resurrection as a way in which “God has made … genuine humans of us.” The phrase “genuine humans” is compelling. Could you elaborate on what it means?
The Bible tells us humans are made in the image of God—that is, to be angled mirrors through which the loving stewardship of God is reflected into His creation and the praise and adoration of creation is reflected back to Him. The biblical shorthand for this is that we are created to be the “royal priesthood.” Royal as in kings, but with kingship redefined by Jesus and His cross; priests, as in the temple, but with Jesus Himself as the new temple, and the church as the temple insofar as it’s indwelt by the Spirit.
When humans, remade through the gospel and Spirit, are functioning as the royal priesthood, they are free—free from all that pulls them down and detracts from this vocation, free for all the purposes God has for them. (See Eph. 2:10.) That’s the thing about sin. It is, of course, a breaking of God’s will, but the point is not, “You’ve been very bad and must be punished,” but rather, “You’ve just missed out on something God was wanting you to do.” Mission and worship, worship and mission, in their broadest senses—that’s what we were made for, and that’s how we become genuine humans.
Q. Many people believe heaven is the ultimate goal of existence, but that’s not God’s end game. His plan is to restore and transform all of creation. There’s a vast difference between these concepts. Why do so many of us get this wrong? And how are we missing the true meaning of the gospel as a result?
The mediaeval church succumbed to a variety of influences, especially certain kinds of Platonic belief in which the material world is itself evil and the task of humans is to escape it. This is why, for many “liberal” Christians, the resurrection is literally unbelievable. And for many “conservative” Christians, it is simply an amazing miracle showing Jesus is divine or that there really is life after death. Few in the Western church have stopped to think what the resurrection actually means—that God has launched His new creation, right here in our midst, and by His Spirit, He has called us to be part of it. For that reason, things like art and music—which, within a Platonic view, are often left to one side as mere decoration—are actually central to the work of reimagining and co-creating, here and now, signs and foretastes of God’s final creation.
Q. You describe modern Christians as living in a “split-level world,” in which heaven and earth are distinctly separate realms. How can we begin to correct this schism in our thinking? And what will we gain by doing so?
We must take seriously what happens when we worship and pray—particularly in sacramental worship but also in music and liturgy generally. The idea of a split-level world is the philosophy called Deism (or even, more extreme, Epicureanism), and so many people today just take this idea for granted. But the biblical worldview is of heaven and earth as the interlocking and overlapping spheres of God’s good creation. Jesus brought them together—at the cost of His own life—since earth was so far out of joint with heaven.
In His resurrection, Jesus embodies the new heaven/earth joint reality. In His ascension, there is already part of “earth” (Jesus’ human body) in heaven, and then at Pentecost, the fresh wind of heaven comes to the earth to bring about new creation. All this is basically Jewish-style “temple” theology: The temple was the place where heaven and earth met and was therefore the advance sign of a new world. When Paul speaks of the Christian, or of the church, as the temple—for example, in 1 Corinthians 3 and 6—this is what he has in mind.
The resurrection actually means that God has launched His new creation, right here in our midst, and by His Spirit, He has called us to be part of it.
Q. You write, “The good news about the future is utterly dependent on the good news about the past. Christian life is shaped by both.” How can the good news about the future help influence our faith?
When you know where you’re going, you’re much more likely to steer a straight course toward it. So many Christians think vaguely about “going to heaven” yet have little idea of what that future hope means here and now. But if you see the new creation as the ultimate future, with ourselves as renewed humans and the royal priesthood, we can start practicing, in the present, the character traits we will have completely in the future. This is where a Christian “virtue” ethic comes in—to start learning now the language that will be spoken in God’s new creation, to practice its tricky vocabulary and irregular verbs so we can more and more speak it fluently. One obvious example is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” (KJV). He’s talking about love. For the moment, we glimpse the new creation, but we are to practice here and now the love that will be the central characteristic of that new creation so we will be fluent in and ready for the new when it comes.
Q. We all know and agree on the essential value and meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, but what else must we recognize if we’re ever to grasp “the full meaning of the good news”? And when we do, how will our lives be different?
We need to understand how the good news worked in the first century, in terms of the backstory of the world and of Israel. The New Testament was written in very conscious fulfillment of the much larger story of Israel, which in turn was the focal point (according to the Bible) of the story of the world. It is quite difficult for people today—especially if they’ve grown up thinking of the Old Testament simply as a book of long-range prophecies with some great (and some very puzzling) moral stories—to see how the whole narrative comes together in the four Gospels.
I have heard it said that the Gospels are like the head and the Old Testament is the torso. We need to understand the torso if we are to see the meaning of the head—and vice versa. This gives to our lives, our praying, our worship, and our mission a depth, a rootedness, and a power that we otherwise lack. The danger so often is that we collapse into mere pragmatism, doing the next thing that seems more or less right. We need to take a step back and see the much larger picture.
Think of it this way. If I see my local football team scoring a goal, that’s good. But it’s not that exciting. If I had known that this was the final of some great tournament and that this goal would win the championship and change my town forever, I would be dancing in the streets. Likewise, if we say, “Jesus died for your sins,” that is great news. But if we say, “The Creator of the world has longed to set His whole creation right once and for all; He has planned and prepared how to do this by the sheer power of His own self-giving love, and this love has come and given its all in order to deal with evil at every level and launch His new creation”—well, that’s a bit different. Fortunately, this is what the Bible teaches, and some of the best hymns and prayers tell this story. The “good news” is much better, and more powerful, than many people believe!
Photography by Kieran Dodds
N. T. Wright is the author of more than 30 books, including his most recent, Simply Good News. He’s also Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.