Here is a good reason for taking seriously the thesis of The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church: it offers a neat, cogent and historically meaningful way of reconciling the conflicting views of Markus Bockmuehl and NT Wright, though admittedly in a manner that neither are likely to be impressed by.
In a lecture entitled ‘Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?” presented at the recent Wheaton ‘Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright’ Bockmuehl takes issue with Wright’s view that the final hope of believers is not heaven but resurrection as part of a renewed creation here on earth. Bockmuehl argues essentially that neither the New Testament nor Patristic tradition found anything fundamentally odd or intolerable about the idea that resurrected bodies should go to heaven.
My argument in The Coming of the Son of Man is that Paul looked to heaven, where Christ is, because he had the expectation that his life would follow the specific trajectory of Christ’s suffering and vindication. He does not look beyond the horizon of being with Christ, except perhaps incidentally in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15: it constitutes the fulfilment of his personal vocation, mission.
Inasmuch as New Testament expectations concerning the future are roughly shaped by an apocalyptic narrative drawn from Daniel 7 and, no doubt, dependent Jewish and Christian tradition, ‘going to heaven’ is to be understood as the specific hope of the church that suffered as a consequence of its opposition to a blasphemous Greek-Roman paganism. It is this short-term hope of vindication that produces the anomaly (as Wright sees it) of resurrected bodies being taken to live and reign with Christ in heaven at the right hand of the Father. The apocalyptic archetype suggests, moreover, that this is not an abstract hope: it evokes the historical moment when the pagan oppressor of the people is defeated and the oppressed community vindicated.
It’s a little difficult to do justice to Bockmuehl’s analysis from the audio version of his lecture, but a good place to start would be his comments on 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. He makes the point that there is nothing in Daniel 7 to suggest that the people of God are snatched up above the clouds. I wonder if he is not overlooking the fact that Daniel’s figure in human form (in contrast to the beast-like pagan kingdoms) is a symbol for the suffering ‘saints’ of Israel: he sees, in effect, a group coming on the clouds of heaven. But in any case, what I think Paul has in mind is a two-part apocalyptic storyline: first, Jesus as the Son of man has suffered on account of his loyalty to YHWH, has been raised, vindicated before the throne of God, and given kingdom and rule over the nations; secondly, the glorified Jesus eventually ‘comes’ (in a metaphorical, prophetic sense) to deliver the suffering or martyr church from their enemies and bring them ‘on the clouds of heaven’ to share in the symbolic ‘justification’ or vindication of the Son of man, so that they too come to be seated at the right hand of the Father and reign with Christ throughout the coming ages.
So it seems to me that Bockmuehl is correct to argue that there is no incompatibility between the idea of resurrection and the expectation of living with Christ in heaven:
For the early church fathers it seems not to be the case that belief in a heavenly after-life ever implies neglect of the resurrection of the body. One might say that these readers of Paul were less interested than Tom Wright suggests they should be in sharply disaggregating the exegetical evidence for life after death and for what Tom likes to call ‘life after life after death’.
There is no reason to posit, as Wright appears to do, or at least as Bockmuehl thinks Wright does, an intermediate state for believers of disembodied, pre-resurrection ‘restful happiness’ in the presence of Christ. The mistake, as far as New Testament eschatology is concerned, is then to extrapolate from this short-term prospect to the hope of the ‘post-eschatological’ people of God – the community that exists after the collective vindication represented through the language of Daniel 7.
We can put it this way: the thought of a collective resurrection that dominates New Testament teaching should be associated with the anomalous and premature resurrection of Jesus, which is the resurrection of a martyr, rather than with the thought of a general resurrection of the dead when this corrupt world is finally judged.
Significantly, the examples cited from the Fathers draw attention to the relevance of the resurrection hope for the martyrs. Bockmuehl claims that Justin Martyr was uncompromising on the subject of resurrection but found no contradiction with ‘the idea that after death the martyrs, for example, immediately enter their true home in the permanent heavenly company of the Lord’. Polycarp expresses the ‘same twin conviction that the martyrs will rise from the dead but also that they enjoy already their due place in the presence of the Lord’. Yes, resurrection and heavenly dwelling go together, but the connection with martyrdom is not incidental: it provides the necessary context for the conjunction. In the language of Revelation, this is a ‘first resurrection’ of the martyrs, those ‘beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God’, which immediately follows judgment on Rome (Rev. 20:4-6).
In the ages following the vindication of the suffering church, following the parousia by which the ‘saints’ are included in the vindication and glory of Christ before the throne of God, the expectation must be that when they die, Christians do not go to heaven but await (the metaphor of sleep is appropriate here, though really they are just dead) the final resurrection of all the dead, a final judgment, and the final renewal of creation. In connection with this part of the eschatological narrative Wright’s talk of believers not going to heaven when they die is correct.
So I would suggest that Bockmuehl’s view is (roughly speaking) right before the parousia (or, to put it more controversially, before Constantine): Paul did expect to go to heaven and be with Christ, indeed it was his express desire to ‘share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead’ (Phil. 3:10-11). Paul expected to be part of that community of martyrs, the community of the Son of man, who would be vindicated and rewarded for the faithful witness. But equally, Wright’s account of things is (roughly speaking) right with respect to matters after the parousia – after the decisive victory over paganism by means of faithfulness even unto death was attained.
And they both lived happily ever after.
Finally, those who share in the ‘first resurrection’, the martyrs of the early church, the victims of Rome’s antipathy, do not stay in heaven. This is where Wright’s insistence on the impermanence of the heavenly hope becomes relevant: like Christ himself the martyrs have been resurrected prematurely, in advance of a new creation, and so are bound to live for the time being in heaven, as reward for their extreme faithfulness. But with the final renewal of all things and the final defeat of death, they (presumably) descend from heaven as inhabitants of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, to be part of this new world, where finally the dwelling of God is with men (Rev. 21).