‘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’
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
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.)
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.
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’.
- Good Friday – the death and triumph of love
- Rob Bell – Love Wins
- Jürgen Moltmann and universalism
- Justice, mercy and the love of God
- Christian responses to the killing of Osama bin Laden
- Rapture and ridiculousness
- ‘Jerusalem’, patriotism and the Kingdom of God