Getting It Wright!
A Book Review of “Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” by N.T. Wright Reviewed by David D. Flowers
Tom Wright undoubtedly stands at the summit of New Testament scholarship. I sincerely believe he is the most important of Christian thinkers alive today. His writings are a refreshing challenge and a beacon of hope in a world where much of Christianity has lost its way. Wright’s work is unsurpassed as it reminds us all that our faith is not founded on shady history and loose myths about Jesus.
In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright challenges this notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright’s concern is “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”
Is our present language of our future existence reflective of sound New Testament orthodoxy? Do we have a consistent biblical message on “life after death?” Wright doesn’t believe so, and he claims we have instead embraced a Gnostic idea of the future that fouls up our presentation of the Gospel in the present.
Our future home is not “heaven”–for this is where God is presently; another dimension altogether. Our hope is in this spiritual heaven coming down to earth. The climax of all human history is the consummation of God’s spiritual realm (heaven) breaking through to our earthly existence. Therefore, in Wright’s view, it is “life after life after death” that ought to be on our minds.
Only this sort of thinking will lead us to a proper practice of the church. If our beliefs about heaven and the resurrection are wrong, then we are not about the Lord’s business in ushering in the Kingdom of God in ways keeping with the example of Christ.
Wright’s greatest emphasis is on “resurrection” and “new creation” that has already begun in this world. It is time to realize the great significance with that which is at the heart of our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-28). He writes, “it is (resurrection), principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus.”
It is in the resurrection of Christ that happened in this old creation that gives us hope for a new creation taking place right now in the twenty-first century. “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible…” (pg.75).
This “new creation” should not be confused with baptizing the culture into Christianity and attempting to enact a utopian dream, as so many in evangelicalism have embraced. This misplaced trust in the myth of progress does not work because it does not account for evil, Wright says.
This myth may sometimes run parallel to our Christian hope, but it “veers off toward a very different destination” that ignores the need for the cross of Christ upon the natural fallen creation. It doesn’t see the need for change within, only uniform capitulation to a set order of ideas.
Wright declares, “What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”)” (pg. 95). We all have seen how this belief in a Platonic escapism has pervaded our theology and demanded that we adopt a popular dispensationalist view of the future; a future where we “fly away” to “Beulah Land” and spend eternity in a glorified retirement home in the sky.
It is time we abandon this empty belief for one that appreciates the hope given to us in the New Testament; a hope where God restores his good creation and finishes the work he began in the universe. Wright states, “What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal; and this is both promised and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (pg. 107).
Wright draws our attention to Christ’s ascension as well as his resurrection. Because of the ascension of Christ, we not only have a savior who is indwelling us and present with his people, but a Lord who is at the same time “gone on ahead of us” by being the first to enter in to our promised resurrected existence. In other words, the work of Christ is finished and yet to be realized. It is reflective of the “already, but not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God.
We await a savior to complete the work he began in us. This completion shall come by way of the parousia or his “coming.” Wright very simply writes, “he will in fact be “appearing” right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven” (pg. 135).
Wright challenges our traditional picture of our journey being completed upon death. He argues that there is indeed a temporary “paradise” for believers awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the completion of all things.
Likewise, there would appear to be the same for those who have rejected Christ in this life. When Jesus spoke of “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house, he is speaking of a temporary stop on the journey. To ignore the finished work of Christ through the final resurrection of the dead is to miss the entire Christian hope.
God’s judgment is a good thing, something that believers ought to celebrate—for evil will be dealt with once and for all and heaven will make its home on earth. On the other hand, the non-believer has much to worry about. Wright calls into question our modern interpretations of hell that reflects a theology from the church of the Dark Ages. Yet, he doesn’t go as far as some “emerging” leaders who, I have reason to believe, may never emerge.
Wright finds it impossible not to believe in some sort of “ultimate condemnation” and loss to human beings that have rejected God’s good grace. He simply says that these folks cease to bear the divine image and by their own choice become “beings that once were human but now are not.” Whatever “hell” is in reality, none of us would ever desire such a place. The important thing Wright wants to note is that heaven and hell ought not be the focal point of the Christian message.
In the last part of the book, Wright does a wonderful job with making this challenge practical for us all. The resurrection and ascension is not designed to take us away from this earth but instead to make us agents of transformation, anticipating the day when, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”
Wright looks at the themes of justice, beauty, and evangelism. What do these things look like in light of this radical message of hope? What does this look like in retrospect to the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will inherit the same? Wright believes it is “to live consciously between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the making of God’s new world in the future” (pg. 213).
My only point of disagreement with this book is in the last chapter. Although I do believe there are nuggets of truth founded in Wright’s attempt to manifest our hope in church practices, his commitment to not only his Anglican heritage but to high church in general is reason enough to move beyond his conclusions and on to a narrative ecclesiology that mirrors the earliest disciples.
It seems to me that this is his only break from a legitimate concern for a Pauline hermeneutic. His hope in a revival within the church practices that came years after Paul, as evident in church history, is wishful thinking indeed. It is here that we begin to replace hope with doom and despair.
“Surprised by Hope” is an excellent book that breathes out an overdue challenge to believers in every corner of the earth. I do hope and pray that its message will start a move of the church to return to the Gospel that looks like Jesus and offers the world more than an escape from a devil’s hell.
N.T. Wright is presently one voice among many that is being heard and has earned the right to be heard in a post-Christian world of conflicting voices. How will we respond? Shall we cling to those chains presently dubbed as “tradition” or will we allow the resurrection of Christ to give us wisdom and understanding into that beautiful hope known as the age to come?
I am pleasantly surprised by the hope we have in Christ… for whose sake I am able to reimagine a world without evil.
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