A good book is worth revisiting. I’m currently re-reading What Saint Paul Really Said where N.T. Wright describes how he used to read Paul. Ask yourself if this sounds familiar:
“I was taught, and assumed for many years, that Saul of Tarsus believed what many of my contemporaries believed: that the point of life was to go to heaven when you die, and that the way to go to heaven after death was to adhere strictly to an overarching moral code. Saul, I used to believe, was a proto-Pelagian, who thought he could pull himself up by his moral bootstrap. What mattered for him was understanding, believing and operating a system of salvation that could be described as ‘moralism’ or ‘legalism’: a timeless system into which one plugged oneself in order to receive the promised benefits, especially ‘salvation’ and ‘eternal life’, understood as the post-mortem bliss of heaven.” (p.32)
He goes on to say that when Paul met Christ on the Damascus road he left his proto-Pelagian works-based Judaism behind, converted to Christianity and formulated the doctrine of Justification by faith alone.
I don’t know about you, but that is exactly what I was taught growing up and what I assumed to be true. This way of viewing Paul is steeped so deep in the evangelical psyche that to suggest another narrative often garners immediate reaction without a moment’s pause and reflection.
But there are two significant problems with that reading of Paul. Wright goes on to explain:
“I now believe that this is both radically anachronistic (this view was not invented in Saul’s day) and culturally out of line (it is not the Jewish way of thinking). To this extent I am convinced, Ed Sanders is right: we have misjudged early Judaism, especially Pharisaism, if we have thought of it as an early version of Pelagianism.”
So what happens if Heaven is no longer to be viewed as the goal of life and if early Judaism is no longer to be seen as a works-based religion?
Interesting avenues open up! How do we evangelize? Fire insurance or the promise of Heaven after death is no longer a central option. But what biblical category is it to be replaced with? Fortunately there is one close at hand. It was after all the central message of the Gospels which, incidentally, should be a central message of our evangelizing of the gospel: the Kingdom of God.
Oh, it’s still eschatological. But it’s not about where you will go when you die. It’s about what God will do when he returns. It’s about God’s ultimate plan for this world. And, consequentially, it’s about how we can be a part of that movement today.
And if early Judaism is no longer to be seen as a works-based religion, then what on earth – one is perfectly entitled to wonder – was Paul talking about with all of that justification stuff?