Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is no esoteric subject. The first thing Wright sets out to do is expose the false notion of death as merely a menacing foe that the Christian surrenders to rather than conquering. He does this by examining popular literature and hymnody and noting the underlying view of the afterlife. (An example is the hymn, “How Great thou Art.” In the final stanza it affirms: “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, / And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Wright argues that it would be better if it read, “And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart.”) No doubt death brings all sorts of grief, but it is a triumphant grief. Wright explains, “Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t … ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’ but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.” Wright convincingly argues for a more thoroughly biblical view which translates not into a “piety that sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last,’ … [which] has no quarrel with power-mongers who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends” but as a “robust determination to oppose [injustice].”
As the book progresses, Wright shows the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. For example, the presence of the women as the principal witnesses in the gospel narratives would only remove credibility, not add it the patriarchal world of the first century. Moreover, the resurrection is “not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new world.” This new world-birthing event is neither antihistorical nor antiscientific; it is rather undergired by the reality of in-breaking of God into human history. That said, objective historical epistemology cannot be the final verdict on the resurrection; true knowledge must go, at times, beyond it. Wright proposes an epistemological triad: faith (Thomas), hope (Paul), and love (Peter); the greatest of these is love. “Love is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality.” Therefore belief in the resurrection, though corroborated by historical epistemology, must go beyond and acknowledge that knowing is a gift from God.
As the argument of the book begins to unfold, Wright presents the two most popular conceptualizations of the cosmic future. On the one hand, there are those who believe in “evolutionary optimism.” This worldview, birthed by the Renaissance, fueled by the Enlightenment, and cresting with Darwin, has long maintained the idea that the universe is gradually becoming a better place and Utopia is around the corner.
And then on the other hand, there are those who have quite the pessimistic view of the world and see souls as merely “in transit,” awaiting heaven. Wright sees this as a dreadful dualism; neither belongs within Christian thinking. A biblical understanding admits the goodness of creation (the original intent of God’s creation) and the nature of evil (not in creation itself but when creatures idolatrously hold up anything other than God as supreme). These two realities then lead into a third one: the plan of redemption (the good creation will be restored and evil will be vanquished). After exploring various New Testament metaphors delineating the Christian hope, Wright summarizes the real Christian hope: “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.”
Wright notes the disinterest and even condemnatory attitude many people (including a large number of professing Christians) have towards all things material and earthly. He clearly shows how Platonic influences have so commandeered popular Christian thought regarding heaven and the resurrection—many conceptualize a heaven where all souls (with no bodies) are simply floating around for all eternity. Wright contends that the biblical picture is of heaven coming to earth. The rumor is that Wright does not believe in heaven; this isn’t so. Wright admits the existence of a heaven, but he, like Scripture, does not see it as the ultimate destination of believers. On the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus Christ ushers in the glorious hope that Christians will ultimately dwell upon the “new heavens and the new earth,” enjoying resurrection bodies in correspondence to that of Christ’s. Hence Wright presents the real hope as not life after death but life after life after death.
The idea of “souls in transit”-awaiting-heaven is so embedded in the church that many Christians, Wright argues, abandon concern for things of this life (e.g., social justice, third world debt, etc.). Wright’s expounds more in the last third of the book.
At this point in the discussion, Wright addresses perhaps the most debated theological discussion among current New Testament scholarship: the nature of justification. The importance of such a doctrine for Wright’s point is that justification by faith “is what happens in the present time, anticipating the verdict of the future day when God judges the world. It is God’s advance declaration.” This anticipated hope, with its cosmic implications, dispels the dualistic views mentioned above. Moreover, this view generates a desire to build for the kingdom without falling into either side of the proverbial ditch on the road.
Moving onward, Wright has constructed a robust, biblical framework of the resurrection; it is at this juncture where he is then able to go into the specifics of such grand a mystery: who, where, what, why, when, and how.
Who? Every individual, but in a greater way those who are found in Christ and possess the Holy Spirit.
Where? As mentioned earlier, the ultimate destination is the new heaven and the new earth, when heaven will come to earth.
What? Though difficult to imagine, the resurrected body of Christ serves as a prototype. Our bodies will have passed beyond death and will no longer be susceptible to any disease, decay, or death.
Why? The purpose is not to sit around, bored through all eternity playing useless harps. The real reason will be to rule wisely God’s creation—“[t]here will be work to do and we shall relish doing it.”
When? It is impossible to know when the resurrection will happen, but let it be clear, it will take place and God’s Word shall come pass. And how? Simply put, by the Spirit.
Wright observes a disconnect between orthodoxy and the outward engagement in orthopraxy. He proposes a theological framework of the resurrection which undergirds and compels the church’s mission in the present: “resurrection doesn’t mean escaping from the world; it means mission to the world based on Jesus’s lordship over the world.” As such, the kingdom of Christ has already been established, having been inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection; and thus it summons Christians to engage the world in politics, social justice, and the arts.
The application in the very last chapter is helpful and enlightening. While not all might agree, it at least serves as food for thought. The Easter event strikes at six various categories. 1) The new birth and baptism, as part of Wright’s sacramental theology, serves a meeting place where heaven and earth are joined together—baptism is not just a “signpost” to the new birth but serves as a “gateway” into family membership. 2) The Eucharist brings the past and the future into the present. In partaking of the elements, Christians are reminded of the great deliverance and the future hope of the new creation. 3) Prayer thus is neither nature mysticism (reveling in the transporting delight of creation) or pagan petition (cold, distant deities), but rather a vibrant and dynamic relationship. “Transcendence, intimacy, celebration, covenant: those are the roots of biblical prayer.” 4) The fundamental story of Scripture is creation and new creation. Believers are therefore enjoined to become part of ushering in the new creation and, in the process, be transformed. 5) Believers are galvanized in their pursuit of holiness as they come to grips with the future reality of the new creation. How can a Christian not be enamored by the thought of the future hope and not seek to live in light of such joyous thought? And, 6) love stand the climax of the Christian hope and therefore it is the ultimate destiny of each believer, not merely a present duty.
This work is a defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But he does not stop there; he shows the urgency of how the resurrection shapes and informs Christian hope. Wright is all but echoing the apostle Paul who made clear that the resurrection of Christ is the defining and crucial element of Christianity; without the resurrection there is no Christian hope and belief in Christ would be nonsensical and worthy of pity.
Wright takes on the modern challenges and offers an eye-opening biblical portrait of the real hope believers have. That said, the phrase “go to heaven” is not necessarily a wrong or an biblically-shallow concept. I think Wright, in providing a helpful corrective against the Platonic dualism, might overextend himself and minimize a clear biblical teaching of entering God’s kingdom, of “going to heaven” (e.g., Matt 5:20; Mark 9:47; John 3:5; Acts 14:22). Furthermore, Scripture presents heaven as a place different and separate from earth (e.g., John 1:51; Acts 1:10; Col. 1:5). Obviously, as noted already, Wright agrees with this, yet it seems he exaggerates his thesis and questions hymnody and popular thinking that is not necessarily myopic in its scope or invalid in its biblical emphasis.
The last point of reflection is the articulation of the gospel and justification by Wright. He views future judgment according to works as the actual basis of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. I find this troubling for many reasons.
While much book is gained from this book, there are certain elements that cause concern. In short, this book should be read with discernment.