Those of you unfamiliar with N.T. Wright may have not have caught my tongue-in-cheek titling of this post. Wright is a influential theologian and Bible scholar who is also Bishop of Durham, a prominent position in the Anglican church. His words in certain circles carry much more weight than those of 20-year old men in white shirts and black name tags.
It was therefore surprising to read this article from Time: Christians Wrong About Heaven and Hell, Says Bishop. This makes two conservative, mainstream, educated Christians in two weeks siding with Mormons (though not explicitly) on important theological issues. This of course does not, by itself, vindicate Mormonism, but it does chip away at the old adage that Latter-day Saints are not “Biblical” Christians.
In the article, which gives a brief introductory bio of Wright and his influence, Wright mentions some interesting things, including an intermediate state after death, in which we, disembodied, await a literal resurrection. It is this literal resurrection, says Wright, which should be the Christian hope, and afterwards the faithful are to be put to work, administering to world which has been reorganized by Christ.
Contrast this with traditional views, of which there seem to be two schools. The first believe that all matter is corrupt and evil and therefore our disembodied spirits should expect no literal physical resurrection after physical death, but are immediately assigned to either Heaven or Hell. Incidentally, the matter=corruption theory is what also prevents belief in an anthropomorphic, material God. Wright says this view is more in line with Greek philosophy than biblical teaching. Greek thought gave rise to opinions such as those in Dante’s Inferno which presents a final judgement immediately after death and consignment to either heaven or hell as an eternal destination.
Some other Christians believe in a physical resurrection but that the soul dies with the body—that there is no life after death before the resurrection, despite the imagery in the parable of dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Wright explicitly expresses his opinion that the state of the soul between death and resurrection is one of consciousness. Ecclesiastes is most often used to illustrate this concept (Ecc. 3:20; 9:5–6, 10).
These views are important because Christians for centuries have been scouring the Bible to find verses to prove/justify points of view which are, according to Wright, incorrect. These continue to ignore or explain away Bible passages which point to the very things Wright asserts (here are some admirable attempts), such as the literal resurrection (Ezek. 37:12; Matt: 27:52; Rom. 8:11; Alma 11:45; Moroni 10: 34; D&C 88:97), the immortality of the soul (Eccl. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:6; 2 Cor. 12:1-4; Alma 40; D&C 76:73), and a busy heaven (Rev. 20:4; D&C 75:21–22). Even if Wright is wrong about all of these things, his dissent is significant for two reasons:
If Wright is correct, then even though this does not establish Joseph Smith as a prophet, it damages the argument that Mormons are not Biblical Christians. The LDS view of the afterlife, while not in the top three or four Mormon “heresies,” has been a major point of contention among groups out to prove that Mormons are cultists.
If Wright is incorrect, then his dissent puts a big dent in the Protestant idea of Biblical sovereignty. No one would comfortably say that the Bishop of Durham is a heretic, and yet he interprets the Bible very differently from his co-religionists. Who is correct? If the Bible is supposed to be the final revelation from God, why are there disagreements about its interpretation? Given Wright’s opinion, mainstream Christians would be hard-pressed to counter that the Bible is clear on only important things—after all, the afterlife is pretty important. The difference in interpretation illustrates the conclusion to which Joseph Smith ultimately came:
I reflected on [the passage in James] again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. (JS-H 1:12).
Latter-day Saints are clear on the source of our doctrine, which is incidentally, the same source from which the Bible got its truth: God himself. We do not acquire any of our peculiar doctrines simply by interpreting the Bible correctly. Eternal truth comes by direct revelation, and the Bible, which happens to be true as well, corroborates it.
Update: Woops! At first I provided a link above to Alma 7, which is a great chapter, but does not speak of the intermediary state of the soul at all. I apologize and have now update the link to Alma 40, where is should have been in the first place. Thanks for your patience.