Surprised by Hope (Book Review)

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.

 

*Please take the time to vote on this review at Amazon.

Advertisements

About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

17 responses to “Surprised by Hope (Book Review)

  • David Mahfood

    I don’t see how: “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.” There are certainly reasons to believe that at least some of the earliest disciples were *quite* liturgical in their church practice, Frank Viola’s claims notwithstanding. It’s *at least* an issue for debate, not outright dismissal.

    It’s also noteworthy that Wright’s eschatology is very much connected to his views on political engagement. Since the Kingdom is coming here, and in some senses has already come, we are called to join in the work of redeeming fallen Creation, which includes broken human institutions. I don’t see how you can buy his “already/not yet” Kingdom of God eschatology while espousing a more Anabaptist ethics. I think they are logically contradictory.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey David,
      I believe we have already discussed this before, but I do appreciate you bringing it up. I chose not to include it in my review. I agree with almost all that Wright has presented to us in SH. The parts I disagree with, I don’t believe, he thoroughly elaborated on enough to dispute them and go into a lengthy rebuttal.

      I will briefly address this, if you like. How much have you studied Anabaptist theology? I don’t see they are totally contradictory. The issue is “how far” do we go with redeeming all that is of the earth? If we can’t clearly see that there are many things we have not been called to sprinkle our salt upon by the mere example of Christ… then it will indeed be difficult to discuss this issue. I am confident that we would agree that there are at least some things that a Christian would not be able to take part in and still remain faithful to Christ. For example, there is no way in God’s world that I can love my enemies and kill them too.

      Again, the issue is “how far” is this redemption able to move forward in this world through worldly institutions that reflect a very anti-Christ model and a parody of the Kingdom of God. As far as I can tell, Wright would be the one to say, “Yes, we may participate in government to the point we do not violate a teaching of Jesus.” Of course, I would say Jesus rejects this method of advancing the Kingdom altogether. It is impossible to maintain a strictly other-worldly perspective and mix ourselves with the kingdoms of the world this way. This doesn’t put a kink in my ability to respect and accept Wright in much that he has written. For we agree on the majority of the Gospel’s call to redeem the world.

      Yet, there is a distinct difference in redeeming necessary worldly institutions and redeeming men. This is where we part ways. It should be no surprise that Wright would defend institutions and the believer’s so-called responsibility to work within them as best we can. David, his whole ecclesiology is dependent on church as institution. Of course he will see these systems as redeemable. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to sort of a renewal within the institutional church.

      What I propose is another look at how Christ engaged the world, what he sprinkled his salt upon, and how redemption looks to Jesus. I see the “new creation” redeeming men and calling them out of the world to be fit for the consummation of the one to come! When we still cling to this idea that EVERYTHING is redeemable and we should therefore utilize them… we blur the lines between this age and the age to come. Will these same institutions be around in the next world? Of course not. It is possible to bring redemption to others through Christ by keeping his commands, following his example, and trusting in the foolishness of the Gospel.

      We must take the example of Christ more seriously. Our theology should follow the example of Christ. We are not putting together a theology and then trying to shove Jesus into it. We mustn’t put the cart before the horse. We may only understand the “already/not yet” aspect of the Kingdom by the example of Christ. This is how we may know where we may be salt and light. Christ is the one that determines what we may hold to and what must be cast in to the fire.

      Furthermore, I very much appreciate Wright’s challenge to Evangelicals on placing their faith in politics. He seems to draw a line that we shouldn’t cross, but still that line seems fuzzy. Again, I hold to the strong points of truth that he has spoken on the issue. They are very refreshing!

      I do not find our disagreement on ecclesiology enough reason to say “we don’t agree” or that we can’t find a common ground. There is much that we do agree on. N.T. Wright feels the same way. He is involved in an ongoing dialogue between those in the “house church movement.” Maybe one day I can sit down with him and get him to help me understand how he believes we can participate in things that seem to contradict the Gospel and clearly go against the example of Christ. And I’m sure he, if given this opportunity, will point out things in my walk that communicate the same.

  • David

    We’ve discussed this before but only in general. Here, I am highlighting a specific inconsistency. For NT Wright, his already/not-yet eschatology is *specifically* how he gets his political theology off the ground. For Wright, it isn’t just that we *can* participate in human institutions, it’s that we need to do so in order to participate in the work God is doing. I think you could respect a lot of things Wright has written, but buying his eschatology while rejecting his ethical vision is at least problematic.

    If you hash it out as merely a difference in “how much” do we engage (since obviously everybody agrees that there are lines to be drawn somewhere) then I think it’s difficult to use the typical Anabaptist rhetoric of being separate. To make it a difference of degree suggests that we should be engaged somehow, and *not* be totally separate.

    Again, please don’t think I’m saying you can’t agree with anything Wright says if you don’t agree with all of it. I’m just saying there’s a difficulty where you grant such an important premise for him while so roundly rejecting the conclusion.

    Nonetheless you make a fair distinction… I still think it’s a difficulty, but I see how you’re looking at it.

    As far as Anabaptist theology, I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I think I have a fairly accurate impression of what it is.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Wright is in discussions with “house church” folks as well as a lot of other kinds of folks, because I think he’s pluralistic ecclesiologically. And so am I. I’m quite happy for people to do church in the way you describe without insisting that everyone should.

    • David D. Flowers

      David,
      I do understand how many view an embrace of this eschatological vision means that all is game. As I have already said, I see that we can both begin in the same place but end in different places. I don’t agree that Anabaptist rhetoric demands we see a complete separation in our message. Wright speaks strongly against the myth of redemptive violence and has no qualms with giving Christ his place over Caesar. His language is very strong against the worldly kingdoms. And I do believe his words are more than a nod in that direction. From what I can tell… Wright may not be completely opposed to what I am proposing. His position on this seems to be as “free” as his ecclesiology. This is why I did not address it in my review.

      Maybe we should not use the “Anabaptists” in our discussion so that we can more easily get down to what is actually being said. Although I seriously can’t imagine what anyone could find against the example of the Anabaptist, I get a feeling you’re not too excited about them. 🙂

      “you make a fair distinction… I see how you’re looking at it.”
      I am thankful that we are making some progress in our discussion. I am always thrilled to know I (we) have made a connection and understand what the other person is saying. It’s always good to be able to agree or disagree after we have fully received and understood each other. I value this much more than agreeing, as I’m sure you do as well. I value your friendship!

  • wonker

    Interesting blog, I’ll try and spread the word.

  • Rod

    David, this was a fair and excellent assessment of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. HOPEfully I can find some time to read it. My supervisor at TCU’s Baptist Student Ministries has also recommended this work to me.

  • Kester Smith

    Great review of a great book. Thanks!

  • cindyinsd

    David,

    Interesting review. That a book like this needs to be written puzzles me, as does the idea that it disagrees with the proposition of dispensationalism. Maybe with some versions, but it seems compatible to me, by and large. Maybe my definitions are too simplistic. I was surprised to learn fairly recently that the idea of spending eternity on a new earth was foreign to many Christians?? But that’s what the bible says–quite clearly. Why is this revolutionary? I thought all the cartoons of goofy-looking people with wings and harps sitting on the clouds were just funny, but apparently there are knowledgeable people out there who really believe this. I don’t get it.

    God bless, Cindy

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Cindy,
      Where do you live? 🙂 The majority of evangelical Christianity has preached these things for years. Of course, I never met anyone who actually believed in naked babies playing harps on clouds, but the “rapture” and this escape from the physical world for an eternity in some bodiless existence singing Amazing Grace with grandma idea has been around for a very long time. It is “revolutionary” to folks that are able to recognize their cultural conditioning and see the Scriptures in context as opposed to proof-texts and the Left Behind series. “Knowledgeable” people out there believe this? Well, that is debatable. 🙂

  • cindyinsd

    Hi, David

    Well, I dunno . . . central Florida and now SD. I guess now that you mention it, there’s not a lot of teaching on Heaven by any description. I read the book “Heaven” by somebody–can’t remember–and he kept harping on how people believe we’ll spend eternity in Heaven, as in up in the sky.

    I was surprised because I did a long study on Revelation when I was a teenager (every teenager studies Revelation, I suppose) and it’s pretty clear about us spending eternity on the new earth in actual bodies. I guess I always figured we’d be doing cool stuff.

    The AOG church I attended as a young adult had an associate pastor who taught quite a lot on Heaven, but his version of Heaven was the New Earth with God living there, so I can probably credit him with at least some of my nonconformity. But honestly, I don’t quite understand how the other story got started. The catching up, yes, but the bit about spending eternity in the present Heaven.

    I’ve read about Wright not believing in the catching up (the rapture). Not sure I believe in the sense of “Left Behind”, but on the other hand I’m not convinced it’s not literal. Not that we won’t suffer–I firmly believe we will have that honor–but I can’t figure out any way to read Thessalonians any other way. Wright’s certainly a highly educated man, whereas I’m not that much, but I’m still not ready to accept that bit, and if I do get his book it will be to read what he has to say on that subject.

    I always enjoy reading your blog, David, and pray God will bless you always. 🙂

    Cindy

    • David D. Flowers

      Thanks, Cindy. You’re blessed to have come up being taught properly on the new creation.

      I would agree with Wright that there is no such thing as a “rapture” according to dispensationalist eschatology. The word itself is made up (taken from the Latin word rapio) from one passage in 1 Thess. The idea that we will escape the world and miss suffering is completely foreign to Scripture. This popular view didn’t even originate until the 19th century. We will indeed be “caught up” with Him. Yet, the New Testament teaches that we will then be with the Lord forever after the resurrection of the dead. To put it plainly, when Christ comes a second time… that’s it, it’s over. 🙂

      Thank you for following. I really appreciate your thoughts and the portion of Christ that you share. Peace.

  • Irving

    FOR PRETRIB RAPTURE REPEATERS

    Congratulations! You are now fulfilling the Bible which says “Come now, and let us repeat together.”
    Be sure to repeat what Walvoord, Lindsey, LaHaye, Ice etc. repeat what their own teachers repeat what their own teachers repeat etc. etc. etc.!
    Repeat that Christ’s return is imminent because we’re told to “watch” (Matt. 24, 25) for it. So is the “day of God” (II Pet. 3:12) – which you admit is at least 1000 years ahead – also imminent because we’re told to be “looking for” it?
    Also repeat the pretrib myths about the “Jewish wedding stages” and “Jewish feasts” (where’s your “church/Israel dichotomy” now?) even though Christ and Paul knew nothing about a “pretrib stage” and neither did any official theological creed or organized church before 1830!
    You should read “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty” on the “Powered by Christ Ministries” site to find out why you shouldn’t repeat everything your pretrib teachers repeat.
    Do I have to repeat this?

    (just spied the above on the web – Irving

  • Kurt Willems

    This is a great review… and excellent assessment of Tom Wright’s book! I will tweet a link to it right now!

  • Sean Durity

    Got my copy for Christmas and looking forward to digesting as the year progresses. Thanks for the tip; it was because of your review that I put this on my Amazon wish list.

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: