Q&A: Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright on Resurrection

It should come as no surprise that N. T. Wright believes that the resurrection really happened. As the Anglican bishop of Durham, a commitment to the idea of a risen Jesus would seem to be part of the job description. Among many Western Christians, however, the word "resurrection" means something else: a supernatural event, a spiritual ascent, a poetic metaphor. In his new book "Surprised by Hope," Wright explains why he believes in a material resurrection—as well as how that belief should inform a Christian life. He spoke with Jon Meacham and Lisa Miller.

NEWSWEEK: When you talk about the resurrection, are you telling people something they haven't heard before?
N. T. Wright:
Usually, yes. People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor, and means Jesus died and was glorified—in other words, he went to heaven, whatever that means. And they've never realized that the word resurrection simply didn't mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that.

Are people receptive to this message?
Yes and no. I think people are fascinated, but then the imaginative leap required is so huge that for many people it's like describing life on Mars: "Well, that may be fine, I may believe you in theory, but I don't think I'm ever going there myself."

What does the resurrected body look like?
Obviously, we don't know. But it will be probably much, much more like our present bodies than we dare to imagine. The analogy that I use is this: if you are with somebody who is very sick, you say, "Poor old so-and-so, he's just a shadow of his former self." He's still recognizable as the same person. Who we are at the moment is just a shadow of our future selves. There's a real you, a real me, which will one day be there and we'll say, "My goodness, you're looking well." There's a sense of "like but more than."

How do you reconcile your orthodox theology with your progressive politics?
The task of government in the present is to anticipate the eventual sorting out of all things, and the task of the church in the present is to remind governments that that is their job. The resurrection gives you a sense of what God wants to do for the whole world, and it gives the church the courage to say, "God's new world has actually begun already." The church can then say to the powers that be, whether it's George W. Bush or Gordon Brown or the United Nations, "We are urging you to do justice, and we're going to hold your feet to the fire and go on reminding you when you're getting it wrong and congratulating you when you're getting it right."

Why is the church so prone to intramural silliness?
Quite a bit of that is displacement activity. Faced with an insoluble problem, you go cut your nails, because you can do that. You can actually achieve something there. But there's a much more profound thing going on there as well, which is to do with Romans 8. [The apostle Paul says] the world is in turmoil, creation is groaning in travail—it's this wonderful metaphor of creation like a woman about to give birth, being in labor pains—and the church finds itself groaning within the groaning of creation. You might think the church is a place to say, "We're going to sit on the side and watch the world in its mess, and stew in its juice because we've got it sussed and they haven't," but no, the church actually is caught up in the groaning of the world. And the spirit is groaning within the groaning church. If that is so, we shouldn't be surprised when a huge cultural shift that's going on in wider society is reflected in the church. Obviously, over the last 40 years, questions of gender roles, gender identity, have been huge in the Western world. Everything's been tossed up in the air. And the church can't expect to escape that.

Many people believe that if the Qur'an could be subjected to the historical-critical method, many of our problems would go away.
I've never thought about it like that, because the Qur'an is the Qur'an is the Qur'an. I think the attempt to modernize by this historical-critical thing is not the way to go. We've done historical-critical stuff on our own scriptures, Jewish and Christian, and it's actually just dug us into a hole, it's a way of saying, "Let's turn Christianity and Judaism into something which is safe in the postenlightenment world." We all now know that religion is more complicated and interesting than that—not that it's inherently unsafe, but that it's an irreducible component of human life. I would rather take Islam full on and say let's just talk about what is really going on here, and let's see how we can find things that we can say and do in common.

At the Lambeth meeting this summer, the subject of gay unions and gay clergy will top the agenda. What do you think will happen?
I think it's going to be messy. It's already messy. It's not clear quite what the Lambeth Conference could say, let alone is likely to say, that will make things more sharply focused, more wholesome. My hope is—and I know this is [the Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams's hope—that the Lambeth Conference, by starting as a retreat, will set the tone of prayer, of humility, of listening to one another. Whether that will be allowed to happen, I don't know. This is the task we have been set at the moment, and we have to address it. At the same time, I wish we could prioritize so that we were actually talking about issues of global justice and debt remission and global warming and so on. I mean, there's something very bizarre about the rich arguing about sex while the poor are clamoring for justice.

Join the Discussion