For All the Saints? (2003)

May the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory (76).

“Where is he now?” The question of a young widow provides the opening anecdote for N.T. Wright’s terribly important, terribly disorienting For All the Saints? He begins with the observation that “what we do and say in church . . . is increasingly at odds with anything that can be justified from the Bible or the earliest Christian traditions” (xii–xiii).

Wright’s first chapter offers an examination of the medieval view of the church—i.e., the church triumphant, the church expectant, and the church militant. The latter is the church of living persons on earth and falls outside the scope of Wright’s book, but the first two are very important to his overall argument. The church triumphant is the saints in heaven, so the medieval view says. They are the persons who have either died in extreme holiness or have gone through the rigors of purgatory. The church expectant represents those persons who are still in purgatory, awaiting future reward. Wright deconstructs two versions of the doctrine of purgatory: first, the so-called traditional view which states that unholy but baptized souls go through a needed state of purgation in order to ready themselves for heaven, and second, the newer view which states that persons (especially nonbelievers) will have time to reform after death in a purgative locale. The first is characterized by a sense of work still needing to be done after death; the latter is based on God’s goodness and love. Both, Wright says, are without grounds, biblically speaking.

A third aspect of the doctrine of purgatory that Wright takes on is the liturgical celebration of All Souls’ Day, as an addendum to All Saints’ Day. His discussion of it occurs later in the book.

The second chapter, then, offers an alternative to the tradition of purgatory, noting that the future hope, biblically speaking, is resurrection not a disembodied heaven. Thus, “if we want to speak of ‘going to heaven when we die,’ we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. That is why it is also appropriate to use the ancient word ‘paradise’ to describe [that often referred to as heaven]” (21).

For Wright, emphatically, there are not different postmortem categories—e.g., saints in heaven or persons in purgatory. That resurrection is the “ultimate destiny” for Christians means:

that all [deceased] persons are currently in an intermediate state, somewhere between death and resurrection. . . . [T]here is no reason in the foundation documents of Christianity to suppose that there are any category distinctions between Christians in this intermediate state. All are in the same condition; and all are “saints” (21).

He cites much scripture to support his position, most notably Paul who in Philippians 3:20–21, which affirms that dying results in being “with Christ” (23). Moreover, the gospel’s repeated repetition of “the least will be greatest and the greatest will be least” should give us hope that even if we are not the holiest of holy ones, we can still rest peacefully with our Lord, who will give us resurrection. Wright says,

I appreciate that it may be hard for some to come to terms with this, but in the light of the most basic and central Christian gospel, the message and achievement of Jesus and the preaching of Paul and the others, there is no reason whatever to say, for instance, that Peter or Paul, James or John, or even, dare I say, the mother of Jesus herself, is more advanced, closer to God, or has achieved more spiritual “growth,” than the Christians who were killed for their faith last week or last year. . . .

If we are to be true to our foundation charter, then, we must say that all Christians, living and departed, are to be thought of as “saints”; and that all Christians who have died are to be thought of, and treated, as such (27).

The “human tradition” (cf. Mark 7:6–13) of purgatory falls even flatter at a crucial point, which Wright points out: “the idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a postmortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross” (30).

Thus, Wright “arrive[s] at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness” (36). Therefore, Wright argues, the invocation of saints help is unnecessary, because Jesus himself is “our man at court.” Therefore, Wright adds, “to deny [Jesus’s intercession and availability], even by implication, is to call in question one of the central blessings and privileges of the gospel” (40).

And so Wright wants to only have a two-fold church: “the church in heaven/paradise is both triumphant and expectant [because it awaits the resurrection]” and the church here on earth made up of living stones (41).

Chapters 3 and 4 of the book deal with All Souls’ Day and Christ the King Sunday, and offer a compelling reason to rid ourselves of them liturgically. First, All Souls’ Day allows the sharp division between saints and those in purgatory to continue. To those who find All Souls’ Day helpful, Wright suggests that they “have forgotten just what a wonderful thing the gospel is: that ‘our own departed’ are themselves ‘heroes of the faith’ just as much as Peter, Paul, Mary, James, John and the rest.” By having added All Souls’ Day to the calendar (in the tenth century), “the wonderful, biblical and glorious All Saints’ Day [is changed] into a distant admiration of people who are not like us, not like the friend who died of cancer last week, not like those who were martyred yesterday in the Sudan” (49).

That Christ the King Sunday should be removed might strike us as surprising, but Wright points out that it was not officially recognized in Rome until 1970 and in the Church of England until the late 1990s; so it is a recent addition to the liturgical calendar and should not be viewed as overly sacred. The main reason for getting rid of it, argues Wright, is that is distorts the lived story of the Church. Instead of the reign of Christ happening in the Easter-Ascension cycle of the season, placing Christ the King at the end of the year implies that Christ becomes king in the end. His reign is not yet upon us. Scripture, of course, emphatically claims that Christ is King and Lord now. Additionally, not only does it distort the story, but it the Ascension of its power. For by celebrating the victorious crowning of Ascension twice, the first is robbed of its power, as Wright points out.

Wright’s book’s conclusion therefore is simple and straightforward: “that all God’s people in Christ are assured of being with Christ himself, in a glorious restful existence, until the day when everything is renewed, when heaven and earth at last become one, and we are given new bodies to live and love and celebrate and rule in God’s new creation. [Wright has] argued that some of our present practices lead the eye in a very different direction, and that they should be dropped as quickly as possible” (71).

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One response to “For All the Saints? (2003)

  1. Pingback: 2016 Year-in-Review | Three New, One Old·

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