“God’s Future Plan”

I have been reading N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope during this Eastertide, (partly because it was assigned during my first year of seminary and I didn’t have time to read it until now that I’ve graduated, but) mostly because I have a very thin understanding of heaven, resurrection, and what Easter actually means for the church, and it is precisely to such readers that Wright wrote this book.

Wright’s second section, titled “God’s Future Plan,” is where Wright addresses all (well, most) of the questions I would guess readers are expecting to find answers to. What/where is heaven? What/when is resurrection? Is all of this for real? His reading of the New Testament is insightful, and I find his answers particularly compelling. Much of this section interacts with 1 Corinthians, which is one of the key New Testament letters for our understanding of the resurrection. I have been working through it over Easter, and this week we read perhaps the best known verses of chapter 15:

For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:53-57; see also Philippians 3:20-21)

These verses are read often in church, and of course they are! They are words of assurance after confession, of comfort by hospital beds, of power at funerals and grave sites. The last verse, especially, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” is a powerful message of hope and celebration, like an oasis or refuge in particularly arid and oppressive circumstances.  For a creative exploration of this “victory,” I offer another of John Donne’s so-called “Holy Sonnets”:

Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God; For You,” by John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Donne and Paul remind us that the victory is not ours, but our Lord Jesus Christ’s. In all of our readings of 1 Corinthians 15:53-57, I fear we tend to focus on the good news of victory for the individual, who is either grieving or suffering, or who has passed through suffering in death. Pastorally, it is fitting to speak words of victory in such moments, but N. T. Wright wowed me with this insight in his conclusion to his part 2, “God’s Future Plan”:

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question — to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world — may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in out own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (Surprised by Hope, 185)

This is an outstanding call to expand our conversations of death, life after death, resurrection, heaven, hell, final judgment, and even election and predestination, beyond the narrow “who’s in?” and “who’s out?” to consider what God is up to in the grand scheme of reconciling all things. I doubt this is a satisfying answer to someone deep in the heart of death’s seeming victories, but then, such people are rarely in the mood for a theological treatise. When we are shocked to find Death still at work, seeming to have an upper hand in spite of Easter’s glorious triumph, we must turn to another of John Donne’s sonnets and say, “Death, be not Proud.”

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

…Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

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