N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.
Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies. There are six proposed volumes in this series. The fourth volume is anticipated as being Wright’s magnum opus on Paul.
Wright undoubtedly stands at the summit of NT scholarship. I sincerely believe he is the most important of Christian thinkers alive today. His writings offer fresh insight and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise as to why I have chosen one of his books as the first in a list of five books offering up a new vision for evangelicalism.
In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”
Is our evangelical language of our future existence reflective of NT 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 view of the future that fouls up our presentation of the gospel in the present. He believes we have lost sight of the biblical vision for the future.
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 we find our hope, and a hope for the world.
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 21st 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 some evangelicals have embraced. Wright says that his misplaced trust in the myth of progress does not work because it does not fully account for evil.
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). Evangelicals have also been guilty of preaching the apocalyptic demise of the space-time universe! Therefore, we all must get ready to be raptured for another world altogether.
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” and are “raptured” to spend an eternity in a glorified retirement home in the sky.
Wright believes that embracing the biblical vision of the future will lead us to a proper practice of the church. If our beliefs about heaven and the resurrection are wrong, then we are not entirely about the Lord’s business in ushering in the Kingdom of God, more specifically in ways keeping with the example of Christ who has revealed what it means to be human.
It is time we abandon this empty belief for one that appreciates the hope given to us in the NT—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 into 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. But if evangelicals ignore the finished work of Christ through the final resurrection of the dead, then we 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 judgment gives the unbeliever much to worry about.
While Wright calls into question our modern interpretations of hell that are reflective of a theology from the Dark Ages, he finds it impossible not to believe in some sort of “ultimate condemnation” for those who have rejected God’s purposes for the earth. He says that these folks will cease to bear the divine image, and by their own choice become “beings that once were human but now are not.”
Wright believes that whatever “hell” is in reality, beyond the bizarre biblical metaphors, it should suffice for evangelicals to agree that it is a horrible end. And that should be enough. It is time to stop arguing over evangelical views about hell. Belief in a literal hell is not the true test of orthodoxy.
Wright’s main idea is this:
Heaven and hell ought not be the focal point of the Gospel.
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 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? Furthermore, what should the mission of the church be in light of this biblical hope for the future? 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).
Finally, I have chosen Surprised by Hope as the first book in this series because it is a much-needed theological challenge to popular evangelicalism. It gives us a biblical vision of God’s good future for heaven and earth.
I pray that Wright’s message will begin a move among evangelical churches to return to the biblical hope for the future, and offer the world more than an escape from a devil’s hell for a distant realm in a bodiless heaven.
For those interested, you may also purchase the 6-session DVD study with this book. It is an excellent resource for both independent and group study.
D.D. Flowers, 2012.
Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Two
* See the first post Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Intro for information on the free book giveaway at the end of this series.