Ask N.T. Wright #001 – Paul and his view of end-times


“Did Paul’s eschatological expectations change over time? In other words, why does Paul seem to stress resurrection in his earlier writings, and then favor a sort of afterlife with Christ in his later writings?”

The answer from N. T. Wright:

“On the question of Paul’s eschatological expectations:

Paul’s letters cover a great many topics, and it’s easy to become confused when we put together information from different letters. None of the letters is a ‘systematic theology’ dealing with all the topics that Paul might have discussed, left to himself. Again and again they are addressing particular issues that have arisen in his churches, and he comes at these from different angles. When we forget this, it’s easy to imagine that, for instance, he shifts his emphasis from a strong stress on resurrection in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians to a different view of ultimate reality in his later latters, but this is not the case. We don’t, of course, know exactly which letters were written when. But most people would see Romans in particular as either the latest or at least the fullest and most mature statement of Paul’s views; and there, in Romans 8.10-11, we have one of the clearest statements anywhere in his writings of the hope of bodily resurrection. (This is located, of course, in relation to the hope for the renewal of all creation, as in Romans 8.18-30). Likewise, though Paul does indeed say in Philippians 1 that his desire, facing the possibility of death, is to ‘depart and be with the Messiah, which is far better’, he goes on in the same letter (3.21) to speak of the coming day when Jesus ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him to subject all things to himself’. This is exactly the same as in Romans: Jesus, at his coming, will transform and renew the whole creation, and all his people will then receive their new bodies to share in his new world.

There is a particular problem about 2 Corinthians 5.1-10, where many people have suggested that it looks as if Paul has backed off from the ‘resurrection’ teaching in 1 Corinthians and has substituted some form of Platonic non-bodily immortality instead. Not so. I have discussed all this in considerable detail in the relevant part of The Resurrection of the Son of God. Paul is just as emphatic here on bodily resurrection as anywhere else; only he is using a different set of imagery, namely that of the temple or tabernacle (the ‘tent’). We don’t want, he says, to be unclothed, to have the present ‘tent’, i.e. the present body, taken away, leaving us as a naked ‘soul’ or near equivalent. Our desire is to be ‘more fully clothed’, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. In other words: if you are in the Messiah, indwelt by the Spirit, you are at the moment just a shadow of your future self: there is a more glorious, more physical, more REAL ‘you’ than anything you presently experience, and God intends to create you as this new person in the resurrection.

There is much more discussion of this and related topics both in the book I just mentioned and in Surprised by Hope.”

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