N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008) 332+xiii pp. hardcover.
Most people in the wider culture think that Christian hope is about “going to heaven when you die.” Apparently many Christians think so, too. Wright shows that if this is all that we say in our hymns and homilies, then we have seriously truncated the Christian hope as it is expressed throughout the New Testament. We should rather profess boldly the hope of the resurrection of the body, and not just when we recite the creed. The point of Easter, says Wright, is not that there is something called “life after death” but the beginning — in the resurrection of Jesus — of a “new creation.” “Scripture, in fact, teaches things about the future life that most Christians, and almost all non-Christians, have never heard of” (27). But you will, if you take and read this book.
Wright, an eminent New Testament scholar and until very recently the Anglican bishop of Durham (U.K.), wants to restore the richer, more robust, portrait of Christians’ ultimate hope that he finds in the scriptures. Future resurrection, which in our time is marginalized, was front and center for Christians until the middle of the second century. In the New Testament, the resurrection of the dead to judgment and the future reign of believers on the “new earth” (joined to the “new heavens”) is based on the one resurrection that has happened. Wright argues that Resurrection was something which happened to the crucified Jesus, not an inner experience of the disciples. The crucifixion had meant the end of their hopes that he was the Messiah. They were not looking for him to rise from the dead, and neither Thomas nor Paul was a believer when they saw the risen Jesus.
Considering the New Testament witness to the resurrection, the endings of the gospels seem to Wright to be early, in part because they do not contain scriptural citations. And the potentially embarrassing detail of the women as the first witnesses adds to the stories’ credibility (53-57). Wright upholds both the empty tomb and the stories of “meetings” with the risen Jesus. If the meetings were simply visions of one recently dead, his followers would not have used the language of resurrection. If the tomb weren’t empty someone would have had to collect Jesus’ bones and store them. And while there was veneration of martyrs’ tombs, “there is no sign whatever of that having happened with Jesus’s grave” (62). The resurrection was not an absurd occurrence in the world as it is, it is the “utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be” (67).
Wright faults us for focusing on the individual’s relation to God when we should understand the whole creation as groaning in travail until it gives birth to the new creation. And what we do in the meantime matters. He is appalled that some North American Christians argue that God is going to destroy the space-time universe anyway, so emitting greenhouse gases and destroying the rain forests doesn’t really matter. He sees this as incipient Gnosticism in which this world is irrelevant, if not evil (90). He says we may be tired of the space-time universe, a field that will be re-sown for a new crop … God is not. In another metaphor, he says that what God intends is “not the destruction of the present space-time universe, but its radical healing” (122). This is not an environmental theology, yet Wright underscores the goodness of creation as creation, so that it is neither divine nor an independent “nature” (94). The risen body, modeled on Christ’s, will have some new properties. It will be incorruptible. And the ground of this hope for the redemption of our bodies and the new creation is the Lordship of the risen Christ. “Every force, every authority in the whole cosmos will be subjected to the Messiah, and finally death itself will give up its power. In other words, that which we are tempted to regard as the permanent state of the cosmos — entropy, threatening chaos, and dissolution — will be transformed by the Messiah acting as agent of the creator God” (99).
Even more at the heart of Wright’s project are matters of social justice — Third World debt is to him the equivalent of the slavery issue to our forbears. Concerned to show that a vibrant Christian hope for the future energizes mission in the present, he uses the language of “implementing” the resurrection, our being “enabled” to “transform the world,” and (very careful of his wording) our “building for the kingdom.” These indicate his likely controversial conviction that human beings are the agents through which God’s transformation of the world will take place. Also likely to arouse Lutheran suspicions is his claim that justification by faith anticipates a positive outcome of a future judgment that will be based on works.
Surprised by Hope will challenge the way readers think, preach, and pray. Wright is often intentionally provocative and certainly kept this reader’s interest. The whole book, he says, could be seen as a meditation on “Thy kingdom come . . . on earth as in heaven.” To that we can all say “Amen.”
Care to comment?
We invite your thoughtful response. Let’s Talk. »