The Sinner, a fictional Christian character in search of answers on the nature of the last things in 20th and 21st century I created, seeks the nature of the rapture and the final state of righteous and unrighteous. This article concisely presented two different answers the Sinner will get from N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and The Mission of the Church (2008) with Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave in Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (1983).
Interpreting 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 and 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-3, Duffield and Van Cleave adopted a face-value literal approach. They would inform the Sinner that on Christ Jesus’ second coming, she will raptured (1983: 527- 30), transported from earth to heaven, to be with Christ Jesus. Wright would strongly disagreed with Duffield and Van Cleave’s reading. Wright argued that there is no rapture because heaven is going to come here on earth. It is not the Sinner who is going to be with Christ, but Christ “com[ing] back to us” (2008: 124). Wright argued,
“When Paul speaks of ‘meeting the Lord in the air,’ the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from” (2008: 133)
According to Wright, Duffield and Van Cleave’s reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 fails to capture the Old Testament allusions that Paul used to describe Christ Jesus’ second coming. Paul, following Wright, resounds Moses’ saga of descending down the mount with Torah, which includes the trumpet sounds and loud voice. The Sinner should not understand meeting Christ in the air as a literal snatching into heaven but a vibrant allusive of the righteous receiving Christ and returning back to the freshly re-created world.
The nature of hell is another point the Sinner would get two overlapping yet different views. According to Duffield and Van Cleave, hell is a place where the “unrighteous will suffer everlasting punishment and separation from the Lord.”(1983:550) Eternal death is, borrowing Wright’s life after life after death idea, death after death after dearth. It is not cessation of existence but everlasting conscious punishment (ibid, 514, 552)
Wright would agree with everlasting punishment. He will add, however, a C. S. Lewis’ twist on it. For Wright, hell is a condition to which the unrighteous would be left out to become what they dearly and freely worshiped. The things that damaged the image-bearing quality (2008: 182), the quality that made them human, will shockingly and terrifyingly be totally lost. The unrighteous, sinners not found in Christ Jesus, would lose what it means to be human. They will become “ex-human” (ibid, 183).
The Sinner would also get an overlapping yet different view of heaven. Duffield and Van Cleave would say to the Sinner that heaven is a place where Christ Jesus reigns. It is prepared for the righteous. It is a place where Christ Jesus is (1983: 552-3). It is the final destination of the righteous.
Wright would disagree that heaven is the Sinner’s and the Church’s final destination. Heaven is a “way-station”. He would explain to the Sinner that early Christians viewed heaven as “a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body”(2008: 41). Re-echoing his case in The Millennium Myth: Hope for a Postmodern World (1999), the re-created new world is the final destination of the righteous. “All the beauty, all the goodness,” Wright would tell the Sinner, “all the pulsating life of the present creation is to be enhanced, lifted to a new level, in the world that is to be.”(1999: 41 cf 2008: 143) He wrote,
“God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of the Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.” (2008: 208-209)
The final destination is heaven uniting with earth. The kingdom of God, God’s sovereign rulership, finally on earth as it is in heaven. The Lord’s prayer, a plea for God’s kingdom to come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, finally and fully answered. Heaven and earth remade and God’s sovereign rulership over all restored.
Wright, N. T. (1999) The Millennium Myth: Hope for a Postmodern World. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press