Books: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright

‘What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?’

These are the central questions which Tom Wright (aka N.T. Wright, erstwhile Bishop of Durham) sets out to tackle in this typically intelligent, inspiring and challenging book (SPCK, 2007).

Essentially this is a book about the importance of Easter, and how we’ve too often missed or misunderstood its message.

N.T. Wright is one of our best Biblical scholars and theologians, so if he thinks most of us are getting something central to our faith seriously wrong it’s worth stopping to listen. Wright believes that the modern church has mostly lost the true meaning of Easter and misunderstood the nature of Christian hope. As a result we’ve often settled for a privatised and watered-down faith that colludes with rather than challenging the earthly and spiritual powers-that-be.

Life after ‘life after death’

Our eternal destiny is not disembodied ‘life after death’ in heaven

Wright argues convincingly that the point of Jesus’ resurrection was not so that when we die we could all go and be with him in heaven forever, and in the meantime live slightly less sinful private lives. Instead, because Jesus rose from the dead we too will one day be raised to a new kind of bodily life in a new, restored earth filled with God’s glory. Our final, eternal destiny is not disembodied ‘life after death’ in heaven; it is new creation, life after ‘life after death’; it is for heaven to come down to us, God’s Kingdom to be brought to Earth (as we pray in the Lord’s prayer – ‘on earth as it is in heaven’).

Jesus’ resurrection from the death was the inaugural or launch event of this new Kingdom, which will be finally fulfilled when he comes again to reign on Earth – and us with him. And because our bodies and this world will both one day be made anew, what we do here and now with our bodies and in this world is of immense importance. Because God’s kingdom has already begun on earth and will one day come in full and forever, we are to live lives that express and fulfil that, bringing God’s kingdom here on earth.

Justice, beauty and evangelism

Our work is the redemption of all creation

Wright sees our work, or Christ’s work in and through us, as no less than the redemption of all creation: of space, time and matter. And this work comes in three major, overlapping areas – justice, beauty and evangelism. By ‘justice’ Wright means confronting the world’s evils and injustices, be they political, institutional or personal, with the lordship and love of Christ to bring justice, healing and freedom to the oppressed. In particular for our day he believes that economic justice for the Third World is of primary importance; and also environmental work: ‘the whole world is now God’s holy land, [so] we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced’. By ‘beauty’ he means authentic artistic celebration of God’s creation and new creation. And ‘evangelism’ means proclaiming ‘the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming king, and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world’s true Lord’.

These are themes which unsurprisingly recur in Wright’s other works, notably Simply Christian in which he lists justice and beauty along with spirituality and relationships (or love) as echoes of the voice of God in the world, as key themes of Scripture and as central aspects of Christ’s messianic mission. (Simply Christian is another great book and for my money better than C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity or John Stott’s Basic Christianity.)

Christ’s return

There will not be a ‘rapture’ where believers are whisked away to escape this world

Those caught up (sorry, pun intended) in the recent Rapture fiasco would have done well to read Surprised by Hope. The chapter on Christ’s return deals fairly dismissively with ‘Rapture’ theology, which derives largely from a misunderstanding of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. Wright points out that these ‘Rapture’ verses have been read without any understanding of their Old Testament allusions – Moses coming down from the Mount of Law-giving to the sound of the trumpet blast; the Daniel 7 passage about the ‘Son of Man’ appearing on the clouds (which Wright argues is primarily to do with Jesus’ Ascension, not his return). To these references, Paul has also added in an imperial Roman metaphor about an emperor visiting his provinces and being greeted outside the city (‘in the air’) by its citizens in order to welcome and escort him into the city. So the passage can really be understood as believers escorting Jesus to earth, rather than the ‘Rapture’ interpretation where they are taken by Jesus to heaven.

Wright argues that at this time Jesus’ current ‘secret’ or hidden presence in the world will change to a palpable presence which will be obvious to everyone. It will not be a ‘rapture’ where believers are whisked away to heaven to escape the troubles of this world; rather, they will participate with Jesus’ new, visible reign in setting this world to rights, bringing an end to oppression, enslavement and injustice. One of the problems with Rapture theology (apart from that it is plain wrong and a bit daft) is that it encourages its followers to take no active part in the redemption of this present world, from which they believe they are soon going to be ‘rescued’. Instead it encourages passivity, vindictive judgementalism and lack of compassion.

Seeing in a new light

Surprised by Hope concludes with a look at some central areas of Christian spirituality that ‘appear in a new light when we see them as part of God’s surprising hope, the Easter call to us to wake up and come alive within his new world’. One of these is the Eucharist (communion), which he sees as ‘the anticipation of the banquet when heaven and earth are made new… the breaking in of God’s future, the Advent future, into our present time. Every eucharist is a little Christmas as well as a little Easter’. Ultimately this is a book not just for Easter but for every season while we wait – and work – for the Kingdom which has come and is coming.

N.T. Wrong?

It’s only fair to say that as far as the more conservative/reformed theologians are concerned, N.T. Wright is N.T. Wrong (or at least wrong about the N.T. – the New Testament). John Piper and Wayne Grudem et al are not big fans of Wright’s theology, particularly his interpretation of Paul and of justification. I have to say though that for me, their disapproval rather acts as an endorsement of Wright’s views.

Postscript: exercises in missing the point

As Jenny has commented below, it’s surprising that the message of Surprised by Hope comes as a surprise to Christians. I agree. The modern western church, and the evangelical church in particular, has become overly focused on a narrow definition of Christian mission as ‘getting people into heaven’ – for many, ‘saving souls’ (whatever that means exactly) has become the sole point of Christianity. We’ve forgotten the far richer, deeper and broader life that Christ is calling us to; the fuller message of the hope of Easter and of the Kingdom. As a result we’ve often sidelined things like creativity, creation care and even care for the poor, except where these things can be made to serve the supposed ‘true’ goal of saving souls. But, as Rob Bell says in the excellent Love Wins, ‘the good news is better than that’.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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13 Responses to Books: Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright

  1. Jenny Rayner says:

    Well, Harvey. Has it really taken this long for an eminent theologian to come up with this? It’s something I have believed for years – in fact, since a debate with some “Jehovah’s Witnesses” who persuaded me to read their “You can live for ever in Paradise on earth”. It got me thinking and searching the Scriptures and yes, I came up with virtually what you have described above (not what they intended, obviously, but I do think they have got some things right.)

    Revelation 21
    The New Heaven and the New Earth

    1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
    5And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

    What a glorious hope!

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    • Perhaps Wright’s book should be called The Forgotten Hope (or, if Steve Chalke hadn’t already used it, The Lost Message) – it’s certainly not a new idea, but it’s one that a lot of the church has lost sight of. The evangelical church in particular has become so focused on ‘getting souls into heaven’ as the core (even sole) mission of Christianity that we’ve forgotten the far richer, deeper and broader life that Christ calls us to. And so we’ve sidelined things like creativity, creation care and often even care for the poor, except where they serve the supposed ‘true’ mission of saving souls.

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      • Terry says:

        Harvey’s right, Jenny. The evangelicalism I grew up in was all about getting souls into heaven – and then when I did my philosophy ‘A’ Level, I got so into Descartes and Plato with their emphasis on the superiority of the immaterial that it seemed to confirm the ‘biblical’ picture of the afterlife.

        Every so often, you need a Tom Wright to state the blindingly obvious.

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  2. JimPruitt says:

    Thanks for this book review. I admire NT Wright very much. My thoughts:

    To explain the possibility of life after death, the New Testament relies on the concept of Jesus’ resurrection. For all of the New Testament diversity that exists NT Wright finds a great deal of consensus among the early Christians both of the resurrection of Jesus and the afterlife of Christians. See: NT Wright The Resurrection of the Son of God Christian Origins and the Question of God Volume Three (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) 9-10, 209.

    Now, there is a great deal of pressure within some groups of modern Christians to accept the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse. This brand holds that if the resurrection of the physical body of Jesus Christ is not a literal fact, we are left in despair and futility in an awful world. This view derives from the heart of Pauline Christianity. Paul wrote that if Christ had not been raised from the dead, the Christians’ faith is useless and the Christians are to be pitied more than everyone. See: I Corinthians 15: 14-19. However, Paul’s concept of the resurrection may NOT have included a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse. Moreover, certain of the other accounts may be intended as metaphorical. That is my view.
    But it must be noted that proponents of a resurrection of Jesus’ body have accomplished much good in the world and also have powerful intellectual advocates. Here are two: CS Lewis and Wright. CS Lewis discounts the purely visionary concept of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a full chapter in Miracles, published in 1947. In that chapter he writes: “We have thought (whether we acknowledge it or not) that the body was not objective: that it was an appearance sent by God to assure the disciples of truths otherwise incommunicable. But what truths? If the truth is that after death there comes a negatively spiritual life, an eternity of mystical experience, what more misleading way of communicating it could possibly be found than the appearance of a human form which eats broiled fish?” See: CS Lewis, Miracles Copyright 1947 in The Complete CS Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers First Paperback Edition, 2007) 433. Wright, near the end of a seven hundred page book published in 2003, describes first a visionary view of the resurrection and second an actual bodily resurrection (albeit with a new body) and then states: “I find this second option enormously more probable at the level of sheer history.” See Wright 608-611.

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    • Thanks Jim. I admire both Lewis and Wright, but Wright is a better theologian and is probably closer to the truth on this. My own position basically follows Wright’s, that there was an actual physical resurrection but not (necessarily) involving a resuscitation of a corpse.

      If we accept the gospel accounts (and Paul’s interpretations of them) roughly at face value, Jesus apparently appeared in a new resurrection body which had some continuity with his former temporal/corporeal body (he could eat, and was partially recognisable as himself), yet with some vital differences (he was not immediately recognisable, and he could appear and disappear at will). Perhaps the best way to describe it would be a more-than-physical body; something which C.S. Lewis hints at in The Great Divorce, where the bodies of the redeemed in heaven are more solid and strong and real than earthly bodies, compared to the spirits in ‘hell’ (Grey Town) which are less solid and real.

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  3. RAY RAY says:

    … we too will one day be raised to a new kind of bodily life in a new, restored earth filled with God’s glory. Our final, eternal destiny is not disembodied ‘life after death’ in heaven; it is new creation, life after ‘life after death’; it is for heaven to come down to us, God’s Kingdom to be brought to Earth (as we pray in the Lord’s prayer – ‘on earth as it is in heaven’)…
    Ah, my friend, this has sparked a new concept for me. Do I understand correctly that when the time comes after death, all accepted believers do not actually go to heaven but heaven comes to them here on Earth? Is there going to be enough room, or will Earth be enlarged? (this is not a serious question). I guess I understood ‘on Earth as it is in heaven’ to mead we were to act as though we were in heaven. Thanks, this gives me something new to research.

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    • Hi Ray, I know you’re partly joking but these are good questions! 🙂

      My understanding is that when the time comes, all the redeemed – which is potentially everyone, and perhaps even every creature! – will be given a new kind of body and will live in a new kind of realm, the new heavens and earth (or the Kingdom of God). But the new bodies and the new realm will be a fulfilment or completion of the old rather than something completely different. (Just how much similarity and difference is anyone’s guess – the new version could be as different from the old as a butterfly from a caterpillar, or as similar as an adult human to a child.)

      The Bible hints at this in a number of places (Revelation 21, 2 Peter 3:13, 1 Corinthians 15:35-54 for example). All of them of course are using metaphor so we can only guess what the reality they point to will be like.

      I think the main point of these passages though is to say that the current creation and our current bodies are good and important, and what we do with them here and now matters, because parts of it will last into eternity – perhaps all of it in some form. And secondly that the new heavens and earth will not be some ethereal spiritual place where we all play harps, but will be richer, more real and more satisfying than our current world.

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    • Ruth Kallman says:

      I know this is an old post, but I understand it to mean just that. We will have heaven come down onto a new earth. I don’t know half the time where Christians arrive at beliefs that aren’t biblical because they seem to make up a belief by extrapolating from one verse, instead of looking through the whole bible and considering it all important. I have also never understood how people can think what we do on earth does not matter in the light of the fact that justice / righteousness (the words are the same in Hebrew) occur so frequently along with a command by God to act justly. If we were meant to sit quietly in a house doing nothing to give hope to the poor and needy, then God would not have bothered to send the prophets, and the early church in Acts would not have taken charitable acts so seriously. Giving hope has to be for a kingdom impacting lives now as well as in God’s future heavenly and earthly kingdom or it is too easy to lose hope. We are called to always have an answer for the hope we have in Christ Jesus so hope must be for now as well as later.

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      • Hi Ruth, thanks very much for your comment. I’m always really glad to have new comments on old posts!

        I completely agree, what we do here and now matters, justice on earth matters, and our Christian hope is both for now and for the future. The kingdom is here among us and within us already, though it won’t reach its completion and fulfilment till the age to come. Christ didn’t come just to save us from future punishment, but to renew and redeem all of creation and bring it into God’s kingdom (or bring God’s kingdom into it).

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  4. David Holland says:

    The passages in Acts where the new disciples argue Jesus as The Christ using Psalm 16:10 “…you will not let your Holy One see decay” point to physical resurrection (from my perspective anyway).

    Interesting thought stirred by “…what we do with them here and now matters, because parts of it will last into eternity – perhaps all of it in some form.” Reminds me of that old joke, “If I knew I was gonna live this long I’d ‘ave taken better care of myself.” 😉

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    • Yes, my feeling is that in Jesus’ case it was both a resurrection and a resuscitation – or at least that his old body was somehow transformed or incorporated into the new one. After all, the gospel writers make a big point out of the old body not being there any more, and the authorities not being able to find it.

      However, it’s fairly obvious that the same can’t apply to the ultimate resurrection of most of the rest of us. For anyone buried for more than a few weeks, most of their earthly body will have become part of the nitrogen and carbon cycles and will have been taken up into other bodies! And that’s just the buried – anyone eaten by wild animals or sharks won’t have much body left to speak of.

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  5. Jason says:

    I believe that the primary purpose of the church is to reach unbelievers with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That said, I can also agree with the part of your article in which you state that the church has become so overly focused to that end that we have neglected the justice of God. When we look at history, we see that for decades, the church neglected the gospel in favour of attending to people’s physical and social needs. Now, it seems we have overcompensated in trying to right those wrongs; in our zeal for ‘saving souls’ (as you put it), we have now become Christians who are complacent or apathetic to the needy of the world. The Bible writers, and Jesus in particular, represent a more balanced approach. It is not an either/or debate. It is a both/and command. We are to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans; we are to rule over (and take care of) creation (Gen 1:28); and we are to go and make disciples.

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    • Hi Jason, thanks for your comment. ‘The primary purpose of the church is to reach unbelievers with the gospel of Jesus Christ’ is an interesting statement. I don’t necessarily disagree with it, but I’d want to qualify almost all of the terms. For a start, I’m less inclined to divide the world into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, and I’m not sure that ‘belief’ in the usual evangelical sense is the most important spiritual qualifier. And in particular I would want to query the meaning of the term ‘gospel’, because in evangelical circles it’s often just reduced to ‘Jesus died to save you from sin/hell’, which is only a small and slightly distorted part of the picture.

      As you say though, it doesn’t need to be an either/or debate. But all the while we limit the meaning of ‘spreading the gospel’ to a soul-winning exercise (to over-simplify crudely), we lose much of the fullness and depth of what Christ’s gospel really is.

      Thanks
      Harvey

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