N.T. Wright, WALL•E, & Rethinking Heaven

Note: This is adapted from a blog entitled “Home: Rethinking Heaven, Earth, and the Afterlife” that I published February 24, 2009. I got to thinking about it yesterday after watching WALL-E with Jim for the first time.

During a Faith and Ethics class one of my favorite professors, Dr. John Shelley, told a story about how years before his young son did not want to go to heaven. In Sunday School the boy had heard a generic description of heaven: pearly gates, streets of gold, mansions, living in clouds, etc. For a boy that played outside in creeks and dug through the dirt, this antiseptic afterlife lacking the vibrance of the good old outdoors did not sound like a place that he wanted to go. Dr. Shelley could not blame his young son, telling him that he would not want to be in a place like that either before assuring him that he believed heaven would be just as full of God’s wonderful creation as earth.

That is the story as best as I remember it. I think that he was trying to tell us a few things; mainly that God’s creation is a very good thing and also that our common conceptions of the afterlife are quite incomplete. 

A few years ago, I read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, which concerns a rethinking of the afterlife. I would encourage you to read the book because my explanation will likely do a great disservice to his ideas. But simply put, Wright states that the Christian faith has been wrongheaded for many years in affirming that heaven is the ultimate goal and destination of those that follow The Way of Jesus Christ. 

Wright states that many of our beliefs about the afterlife are not biblically grounded, but rather Platonic (and Gnostic) philosophies declaring that the soul is the immortal part of a human which will leave this corrupt planet, a place which will be vaporized anyway. Thus what happens here on earth is not incredibly important. Thus people think that dealing with environmental crises and systemic poverty is like reshuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Also related is that faith is, intentionally or not, primarily seen as a ticket to heaven.

Wright affirms that we do go to a place of rest, paradise, or heaven after dying, but that is an intermediate plane (not to be confused with the concept of purgatory). It is not simply that you go to heaven when you die and that’s the end. Rather the ultimate destination, citing the Apostle Paul’s writings on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, is the resurrection of our bodies after which we will live with God and each other in the marriage of the new heaven and the new earth.

I think that Dr. Wright’s ideas are more scripturally sound than the present Platonic thinking and thus a good avenue for us to ponder (though Wright warns us that even what is found in scripture is simply signposts pointing into this mist; in other words, the afterlife is an elusive booger as far as information goes). But the depth and complexity of Surprised by Hope presents too tall a task for me to adequately relate why I think this to be true. 

But I have stumbled across a parable of sorts through the movie WALL-E. In this film, I have discovered a clear critique of the Platonic view of heaven and a way forward. It’s likely a massive stretch. I have my doubts this is one of the messages that Andrew Stanton and company had in mind when creating this incredible movie. But who knows? Regardless, here’s an interpretation of the movie that fits into what I’m writing about.

In the distant future, humanity has consumed the resources of earth and the corresponding garbage is so great that planet has become uninhabitable. For whatever reason whether it be the pursuit of comfort, plain laziness, or something else, men and women neglected to take care of the world. Fortunately, for them they are “raptured” to a spaceship known as the Axiom, a word that means a universally accepted principal or rule, and leave this crumbling earth behind. 

The Axiom is an awful lot like popularly accepted views of heaven. You can have whatever you want. Your heart’s desires are a reality. The temperature in the spaceship is a perfect 72 degrees every single day. Yet despite this paradise, people don’t do much (“You mean we’re just going to sit around on clouds and play harps all day?”). The spaceship is even “up” from earth, which is the direction in which many believe heaven to be. 

The parallels are not perfect and I could actually argue that the Axiom is really a self-created hell of our consumerist, individualistic tendencies. But go with me on this. The people on the Axiom are not really bodies. They float everywhere. They do not participate in real activities. They are basically spirits; pale whispers of what humanity is actually meant to be. 

Though they are away from earth and in an disembodied paradise akin to the popular view of heaven, something is still not right. Those that are awakened by WALL-E dream of something more, something real. There is a scene in which the Captain of the Axiom eagerly asks the ships computer about earth, dirt, dancing, and more. The way in which he asks about a planet left behind 700 years prior reminds me of a child awakened to the world’s possibilities. He is eager to play; perhaps like Dr. Shelley’s son desiring a heaven full of creeks and critters. The Captain begins to call earth “home” even though it is a place that he has never known. In a way, earth has become heaven.

When God created the heavens and the earth, He looked on it and declared it to be good. And even though the earth is fallen, it can still receive the embrace of redemption. If God can change us, then surely God can change the world. I look at scripture and see that God is ultimately going to bring heaven and earth together. The union will bring about a new heaven and earth. In light of that, I find an apocalyptic theology that seeks, even delights, in the impending doom of this earth to be ill fitting. There will be judgment but there will also be renewal and transformation.

When the Axiom finally returns to earth, it is a desolate place. Yet the people persevere. They learn what it means to be truly human and they come together to rebuild, to restore. The closing credits show the beauty of the earth slowly seeping back in thanks to the work of men, women, children, and some loyal robots. It starts with a tree, visually reminiscent of a New Eden, that sprouted from the plant found by WALL-E and EVE. I am sure that this New Earth was not perfect, but in these credits we see life spring forth where death and waste reigned.

Wright declares that this concept of a life after life after death in this new world is cause for hope. You see throughout the New Testament, we are told that the Kingdom of God is coming and the Kingdom of God is here. The bodily resurrection of Jesus inaugurated that Kingdom and it will come to fruition when our bodies our raised. In between, the faithful build. Because God’s Kingdom is here, we bring love, peace, grace, and forgiveness to an ugly world. We don’t make a utopia; we can’t and Wright is very adamant that we steer clear of any such thoughts. God will be the one to ultimately transform all things. 

But we breathe hope into the world. Instead of hoping for an Axiom-like heaven that will sweep us away, we must realize that we are like those people that have returned to earth. We have a mission given to us by God to work for a better tomorrow. And thus we preach the gospel with our words and deeds. Not the gospel in which one checks the Jesus box and then gets a first class ticket out of this place. But the gospel that Christ has defeated death and life is coming to this world.

I realize that much of that may not have made sense. Perhaps the WALL-E excursion was too much of a stretch. Maybe you disagree with this idea about the afterlife. You may even be thoroughly confused. But I would love to hear your thoughts. Have a good night.

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