Saved in Hope: Reflections on an Encyclical

Originally published in The Tablet, 8 December 2007. Reproduced by permission of the author.
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

The Advent theme of hope is central to the Bible and crucial for Christian faith and life, and it is exciting to have a fresh statement on the subject from one of Rome’s finest recent theologians, now sitting in the Petrine chair. The encyclical is elegant and often moving, rooted in careful biblical exegesis and patristic learning, illustrated with warm narratives of the triumph of hope in the lives of recent saints from around the world, and positioning itself sharply over against the Marxist and atheist alternatives to Christian hope embraced by so many in the twentieth century. Those who know Benedict’s earlier workEschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, ET 1988) will be grateful for the restatement of many themes. In particular, church and world alike need reminding that the Christian message is ‘not only “informative” but “performative”.’ ‘The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently.’

Yes indeed. One could fill an entire article with such agreements, but the excitement of a new encyclical, particularly for a neighbour hoping for friendly conversation across the garden wall, is to find points at which to begin the conversation that it invites. I choose three, which interlock.

First, anyone familiar with the origins of the European Reformation will be fascinated by Benedict’s rejection (as in his book already referred to) of the late mediaeval idea of purgatory as a chronologically extended period. Instead, drawing on 1 Corinthians 3, we find that it is the encounter with Christ himself that is ‘the decisive act of judgment’, and that indeed ‘our defilement . . . has already been burned away through Christ’s passion’. The power and pain of Christ’s love meets us in ‘a transforming moment’ of judgment and salvation. Several questions remain in the way Benedict works this out; but if a Pope had said this loud and clear in Germany in, say, 1517, the entire course of European history would have been different.

But, second, the encyclical is surprisingly vague on the question of the final destination of the Christian and indeed of the world. Benedict faces the now common question that ‘heaven’, or ‘eternal life’, as traditionally conceived, appears to many boring or trivial. Yet, despite the encyclical’s starting point in Romans 8, he never mentions the early Christian hope for the renewal of all creation, for the new heavens and new earth, for God to sum up all things in Christ (Ephesians 1.10). He says, frequently and properly, that our only true hope must be God himself, but he never draws from this the natural corollary, that since God is the creator and redeemer, to hope in this God (as opposed to the false gods Benedict naturally and rightly rejects) involves hoping for the creation itself to be set free from its bondage to decay, to share the freedom of God’s children. That is the context (Romans 8.21) for the hope of resurrection, which Benedict mentions but nowhere explains; for many, ‘resurrection’ has just become a fancy way of saying ‘life after death’, but in its biblical context it is always ‘life after “life after death”, a new bodily existence following the immediate post mortem period of ‘being with Christ’ (Philippians 1.23). Thus Benedict’s many fine passages about the true encounter with God, and about being in communion with Jesus Christ, seem to me in this document to lack their grounding in the creational and new-creational hope offered precisely by this God and this Jesus, and thus to be always in danger, despite his warnings, of collapsing back, despite what Benedict intends, into a Christian individualism or even existentialism.

One of the results of this, third, is that though of course I welcome Benedict’s trenchant rebuttal of the atheism which has inflicted its destructive ‘hope’ on the twentieth century, I looked in vain for the positive exposition of God’s kingdom which could offer, over against Marx, a genuine vision for the renewal of life within this world as well as beyond it. If God is the creator, and if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead as the launching-point of his redeemed new creation, then Marxism must be seen not so much as a denial of Christian hope, but as a parody of it. Hoping in God and in Jesus – and in the Holy Spirit, who (again despite the encyclical’s starting point in Romans 8) doesn’t feature much in this document – must entail hoping for, and then working for, genuine transformation within the present world, anticipating the time when God will renew and restore all things. This doesn’t mean a return to a ‘social gospel’ which denies the ultimate future in order to concentrate on the immediate and this-worldly; as Benedict insists, we cannot build God’s kingdom ourselves. But, as Paul indicates, we can work together for God’s kingdom (Colossians 4.11), and the framework provided by Jesus’ resurrection on the one hand and the ultimate hope of new creation on the other gives both theological grounding and motivation for such work at all levels. I looked in vain, in the final paean of Marian devotion, for any explicit mention of the Magnificat’s vision of turning the world the right way up.

All this links up once more to the way we speak of life beyond the grave. The massive western mediaeval concentration on life after death, as in Dante or the Sistine Chapel, forced all parties in the sixteenth century to answer questions subtly different from the ones the New Testament was addressing. Now that Benedict has removed one of the linch-pins of that mediaeval construct, can we hope that he and his followers will work with the rest of us to think through, and work afresh at, what it might mean for God to answer the prayer which we all pray day by day, that his kingdom might come on earth as in heaven?