Wednesday, October 15, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Five): What Happens to Funerals if Wright is Right?

I have been asked to contribute the following post for a blog used by a group of three bright Princeton seminarians doing a directed study on the work of N. T. Wright under the supervision of J. Ross Wagner. I thought I'd post it here too as a contribution to my recent series of reflections on N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope.

What happens to funerals if Wright is right?

What happens to funeral practices if Wright is right about resurrection? That is the question I have been assigned and to which this post will attempt an answer. Answering this question requires that we answer two prior questions: (1) What does Wright teach about resurrection? (2) What, if anything, does he get right about it? These prior questions are necessary because only practical implications that flow from constructive engagement are worthy of pastoral consideration. In other words, if Wright is wrong then we ought not "apply" his theory to our practice. And we can't know if Wright is right or wrong unless we know what he really says. So, I'll briefly answer these two questions, then identify some implications for the concrete practice of Christian funerals that flow from this constructive engagement. Just to get my cards on the table now, my central claim is that Wright is right inasmuch as his understanding of resurrection can be incorporated into a vision that accounts for both the continuity and discontinuity between creation and redemption. This broader vision implies specific proposals for the reform of funeral practice, but does not necessarily imply a revolutionary overhaul.

So, what does Wright teach about resurrection? Well, to know what Wright teaches we need to understand how he teaches it. Any Christian understanding of resurrection worthy of the name addresses two distinct but related elements: Christ's resurrection from the dead and the general resurrection of the dead. In terms of the traditional division of theological topics (i.e., loci), resurrection straddles both Christology and eschatology. As Wright argues in chapter three of Surprised by Hope, the temporal distinction between Easter and the End is one of Christianity's fundamental modifications of Jewish resurrection hope (44-45). This distinction underlies the structure of Wright's book: the first part addresses the historical event of Christ's resurrection while the second part asks what Christ's resurrection tells us about our own future hope for resurrection. The third and final part traces the implications for the present mission of the church, including questions of liturgical reform with which we are concerned in this essay. Since it gives priority to Christ, this structure is spot on in my mind.

So, following Wright's movement of thought, what does Christ's resurrection tell us about our future hope? "Life after life after death" is the hook with which Wright grabs the attention of his reader and on which he hangs his central insights. Initially, this hook is simply a short hand definition of "resurrection" as it was used in the ancient world. When Jews and Pagans said "resurrection," they were not referring to some kind of ghostly afterlife. Rather, resurrection entailed a two-stage post-mortem narrative: first you have whatever sort of existence one has after dying, then second you have a renewed bodily life. On the whole, pagans only brought the term up to deny its possibility, while some Jews made it the centerpiece of their hope. So when the first Christians (most of whom were Jews) came along and said, "Jesus is risen," it meant that this man had experienced not only life after death but life after life after death: a renewed bodily life. So, broadly speaking, Christians fell on the Jewish side of the spectrum of views regarding the afterlife, yet with the major modification that they believed the first-fruits of resurrection had already been reaped in Jesus Christ, the first-born from among the dead. This means that for Christians, not only has the reality of our future hope been secured in the one who has stepped forward from beyond, but also the character of our future hope has been revealed in him.

There are at least five such characteristics germane to our discussion. Although each one is worthy of detailed discussion, I will merely enumerate them in order to identify a common theme. Although the form of these statements reflects my idiosyncrasies, these characteristics emerge clearly and repeatedly throughout Wright's book. (1) Just as Jesus was raised to never die again, so the dead will be raised into eternal life and thus will never die again. In other words, death will be defeated. (2) Just as the risen Jesus was and is embodied, so the dead who rise will be embodied. In other words, we won't just be ghosts or souls, but bodies in time and space. (3) Just as the embodied risen Jesus speaks and acts, so the dead who rise will speak and act. In other words, we will live. (4) Just as the living Jesus speaks and acts in created space and time, so the dead who rise will inhabit space and time. In other words, we will not ultimately leave earth to go to heaven but rather heaven will come to earth as all things are made new. (5) Just as Jesus has a two-stage post-mortem narrative (Easter Sunday is preceded by Holy Saturday), so the dead will pass through two stages of their own (resurrection preceded by an intermediate state of some sort). In other words, the dead who will rise are "with the Lord" in the meantime. But the meantime is not the point, but rather a time of waiting for the resurrection of the dead. Eternal, embodied, active life is what awaits us in God's new creation. That's the character of Christian hope as revealed in Jesus Christ.

A common theme running through all these elements is the continuity between creation and redemption. For Wright, the resurrection of the dead will be God's final confirmation of the goodness of his creation (cf. esp. pp. 93-97). God will not give up on his creation. That's what makes Easter hope such good news. Resurrection is only good news for us if it is really us who are raised. The concept of continuity supplies not only thematic unity to Wright's doctrine of resurrection but also the hinge for Wright's transition from the character of Christian hope to its present tense practical implications. The creation in which we find ourselves now will be the creation God will renew then. So what we do in and with creation is given eternal significance. We will not just be held arbitrarily accountable for our deeds in this life which have no real bearing on the next life. Rather, we are called to participate in God's renewal of creation both now and then, so we might as well get started now.

With the basic contours of Wright's view of resurrection before us, we may now briefly assess its adequacy. In terms of its basis, Wright is certainly right to ground the character of Christian hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By following the logic of first-fruits, he helps us fill out the picture of Christian hope without engaging in futuristic speculation. In terms of theme, Wright is right to emphasize the continuity of creation in God's redemptive plan. So much Christian discourse describes future redemption in terms so discontinuous with creation as we know it that we are left with the impression that God saves us from his creation. This implies that God gives up on his creation, which calls into question whether our identity is contingent on anything but sheer divine fiat. But God did not raise a horse and call it "Jesus," but raised the Jesus who had died -- nail marks and all. So the element of continuity is crucial to Christian hope.

But continuity is not the only crucial element in Christian hope. There is also an essential note of discontinuity that must be sounded. Wright sounds this note periodically, but it is certainly not the dominant one. So I will sound it here loud and clear. Dead people don't live again. Creation as we know it is not so ordered to produce eternal life. The resurrection of Jesus Christ does not imply otherwise. It's not that eternal life was always hiding there as an inherent potential in the created order and Jesus just pointed it out to us. Eternal life is a gift bestowed by God. And since it is a gift bestowed to the dead, it is a gift bestowed without any participation of the recipient. Dead people don't contribute to their resurrection. The gift of eternal life includes within itself time and space, so it is not strictly timeless or spaceless. But the gift of eternal life transcends time and space, so it is not simply the infinite extension of time and space. There is a distinct and essential note of discontinuity between creation and redemption in the fundamental structure of Christian hope.

Given the situation in which Wright writes, he is right to emphasize continuity. We have lost this element. But this should never be anything more than a matter of strategic emphasis. A coherent and comprehensive Christian eschatology must sound both the note of continuity and of discontinuity in proper symmetry and proportion. In Christ we hasten and await new creation in both its newness and its createdness. And so we must restore this balance before we too quickly initiate reforms that merely overcompensate. Overcompensating inevitably leads to head on collisions with those who came before us and equal and opposite over-compensations by those who will come after us. So we are better off just getting our focus right than constantly consuming ourselves with corrective maneuvers.

Thankfully this is a matter of emphasis, so it is easily dealt with. We can affirm nearly everything Wright says about resurrection hope, while at the same time casting more light on elements he does not mention much and adding elements he does not mention at all. By so taking into account both the discontinuity and continuity in God's redemption of his creation, we can finally turn to the pastoral implications of Christian hope. If Wright is right, which for the most part he is, what happens to funerals? I'll enumerate five guidelines and proposals for reform, briefly commenting on each.

(1) Tread Lightly.

Although all reforms of church practice can be tricky, tinkering with funerals is perhaps the most tricky. This is not only because the wishes of the deceased are regarded as sacrosanct. It is also because those giving pastoral care to the bereaved have no desire to be theological cops. But there is something even more fundamental than these pragmatic hurdles. Ministers must seriously consider that the faith of the people of God has come to expression in the funeral practices we encounter today. There is an old rule of thumb in the church: lex orandi, lex credendi, or the law of prayer is the law of faith. Piety for the most part precedes doctrine. This does not mean that doctrine can never guide piety, but it does mean that doctrinaire proposals for reforms must seriously consider the faith of the people before running rough-shod over their preferences. And given the complexity of Christian hope with all its entailed continuities and discontinuities, there is every reason to think that there is at least something to affirm in any Christian funeral. So, when instituting reforms, be sure to tread lightly, both out of love for people and out of a desire for truth.

(2) Welcome both Grief and Hope.

If God's redemption of all things stands in both a deep continuity and a radical discontinuity with God's good creation, then the human encounter with death may be greeted with both grief and hope. Grief is appropriate, for death continues to condition human existence. Death is encountered as the great canceler of all human hopes, and so it is entirely appropriate and healthy to grieve. No Christian should rebuke another Christian for grieving. Grief is both an affirmation of the goodness of a fellow creature who was lost and a serious expression of the radical end that death really does bring even within the context of Christian hope.

But grief is not the only expression we should welcome from one another. There is also a place for genuine hope, even and especially in the face of death. Hope is appropriate, for although death still conditions human existence, in the light of Easter death no longer determines human existence. Rather, human existence is determined for life, and life eternal. So it is fitting that Christians would express their hope and even joy in the context of funeral ceremonies. No Christian should rebuke another Christian for hoping. Hope is both an affirmation of God's promised gift of restoration and an expression of the desire for God to transcend the sinfulness and weakness of our current condition.

So both the continuity and discontinuity of Christian eschatology support the place of both grief and hope in the Christian encounter with death. Thus we should welcome expressions of both in funeral practices, in pastoral care of the bereaved, and in the general life of the church in its regular encounter with death.

(3) Add Resurrection Language to Already Existing Forms.

If Christian hope is for life after life after death, then talk of mere life after death is not so much wrong as inadequate. Therefore, most of the necessary reforms do not need to replace so much as add important language and perspectives. We can still talk about grandpa going to heaven and being with Jesus. We just need to also talk about grandpa coming back with Jesus to reign with us in the new heavens and the new earth. This reform-by-addition approach can help guide the selection of hymns, biblical passages, and other liturgical forms that bring to the fore the general resurrection of the dead as our final and ultimate hope. Wright's book identifies a number of these, and the many on-line hymnody and liturgy resources can help search for appropriate selections. But this reform-by-addition approach also calls for the production of new songs, texts, and activities that bring to expression Christian hope for life after life after death. The five characteristics of Christian hope identified above can perhaps supply patterns of thought to guide such creative endeavors.

(4) Prioritize Resurrection by Transforming Completion Language into Interim Language.

But addition alone is not enough, for the intermediate state and the general resurrection are not two equal pieces of the pie. Rather, the former is fundamentally ordered to the latter. This is why there is so very little in the New Testament about the former, whereas the New Testament is consumed with the latter. Furthermore, the best theological speculation concerning the intermediate state has always been controlled by and in service to the more fundamental belief in resurrection. "Speculation" is the key word here, because we do not have a lot to go on about the intermediate state (i.e., what kind of life does a disembodied identity lead?). We are left to speculate precisely because Christian hope does not have a lot to say about the matter, but rather is concerned primarily with the final hope of resurrection.

This biblical priority seldom comes to expression in Christian funeral practices, which often construct a vision of the intermediate state into which the dead person is now entering in such a way that any additional element like resurrection is rendered superfluous. This must be remedied by more than mere addition of resurrection language, which simply cannot on its own compete with the ingrained one-stage picture of life after the death. One must also transform the language describing the present state of the person to express its interim character. We can still say they have gone to a better place, but we must then immediately modify this by saying that they will one day enter the best place of all, the new creation. We can still say they have entered into rest, but we must then immediately modify this by saying they are resting in the sense of waiting, waiting for the final act in God's story. These are just some of the ways to transform language that implies immediate completion into language that implies an intermediate time between the times, and thereby give priority to the resurrection of the dead.

(5) Bear Witness to the Risen Christ.

Finally, however we talk about the life, death, rest and resurrection of those who have departed, the center of a funeral service should be the risen Christ. He is the one in whom we hope. He is the one who characterizes our hope. He is the one in whom all eschatological continuities and discontinuities find their reconciliation. He is the one who holds together past, present and future. He is the one about whom we need not nor may not speculate concerning his destiny, for he has ascended to the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end. Funeral services should celebrate the life and grieve the death of a loved one. Funeral services are also opportunities to express Christian hope in both its present and future dimensions. But most of all a funeral is a service of worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. A funeral that does not bear witness to the risen Christ is not a Christian funeral. It may be many other wonderful things, but it is not that. As we debate over and experiment with funeral practices, we at least all agree that we could use more of the risen Jesus in them. This alone would be a giant leap in the right direction, and might take one small step toward guiding more specific reforms like the ones suggested above.

In the second chapter of Surprised By Hope, N. T. Wright states, "I hope that those who take seriously the argument of this present book will examine the current practice of the church, from its official liturgies to all the unofficial bits and pieces that surround them, and try to discover fresh ways of expressing, embodying, and teaching what the New Testament actually teaches" (25). In this essay, I have attempted to heed these words, taking seriously the argument of Wright's book -- serious enough even to engage in some constructive criticism -- and have offered some guidelines and proposals for contemporary funeral practice. If you have any further points of criticism (for Wright or for me), or any further suggestions for church practice, please comment on this board and/or contact me through my email: JohnLDrury at

Any thoughts?
  • What other relevant characteristics of our future hope are entailed by Easter faith?
  • What are some of the consequences of emphasizing the continuity between creation and redemption?
  • What alternative lines of critique would you put to Wright?
  • What are some further pastoral implications of Wright's general line of thinking about hope?


David Drury said...

The greatest issue pastorally with this is the complexity of "intermediate state" theology related to the "kinds of things" said at a funeral and by the grieving, and for those talking to the grieving.

As a pastor the funeral sermon is a great opportunity to "fast forward" to the restoration of creation and resurection of the dead... but in conversations wth the bereaved they are most concerned with "where they are now" and that's a harder conversation to have.

Re-uniting language is hard too... most people have a much greater hope that "mom and dad are together again now" or "I'll see him again when I go" than they have a hope for the restoration of all creation and the resurrection of all bodies of devoted souls.

Thanks for this writing--it's so helpful and interesting.

Jeremiah said...

I love Wright and I enjoyed this article. In fact, there's a link to it now posted on Just thought you should know.

vanilla said...

I appreciate the academic complexities of this analysis and I recognize the practical application for pastors. But for me, this excerpt is the crux of the matter:
" But most of all a funeral is a service of worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. A funeral that does not bear witness to the risen Christ is not a Christian funeral."

Just recently in an after-dinner conversation this topic arose and I expressed the opinion that there was no rationale for a funeral other than the presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of my dear friends objected most vehemenently that he wanted his funeral to be about him. Certainly I think that a celebration of life with appropriate testamonials is in order, but still we need the 'preacher' for something higher than that.

Big Daddy said...

A related article worth checking out is Jeff Gibbs' "Five Things You Should Not Say at Funerals" (Concordia Journal 29.4 (2003), pp. 363-366).

This is found (as a pdf) at:

JohnLDrury said...

Click here for an extended follow-up discussion with Keas.