Surprised By Hope
Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
Hard Cover, 352 pages
To be honest, I have shied away from N.T. Wright for some time, having heard talk of tension and controversy. But browsing in my local library, I decided to take the plunge. Once again, I am happy I did! N.T. Wright does exactly what he intends: stand the hope of bodily resurrection and the new creation before his readers and ask where that hope leads us. Though Wright seems to think he will be met with controversy for this statement of hope, I found myself in general agreement, almost amazed that his view needed defending within the church!
Surprised By Hope is written as a corrective against “popular” Christian thought on heaven, the “afterlife”, our mission and our place in the world. Wright shows with great clarity that our hope for the future is not in a distant heaven, but in a new creation. He declares again and again the goodness of God’s creation, which though marred, he intends to restore and remake. He calls us to a life of action, that sees every Christlike deed as an act of building for the kingdom, something that will last, and not be wasted. Thus, rather than being highly cerebral, Wright tries at every turn to remind the reader that what he is saying has implications for the here and now.
Heaven and paradise, hell, purgatory – all are covered in his attempt to elucidate eschatology for the reader. Purgatory is rejected powerfully. Hell is handled with some kid gloves. And heaven and paradise are described in depth as the temporary residence on the road to resurrection for those who are part of the new creation. Some within his own tradition may find his handling of these three startling. I did not. However, I know there are many in my own local body who would be much more taken aback. In the end, the new creation, the merger of heaven and earth once sin and death are once and for all dealt with in full (Christ’s resurrection a precursor to this) provide the backdrop for this and the rest of the book.
This is not about just reshaping Christian teaching so that it can match up better, so that our eulogies and funerary practices are more in line with scripture. It is about responding to the new creation initiated within us by the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself. While we will not remake the world into some idyllic Garden by our own action, we will bring God no glory, and will have quite missed God’s point, if we get caught up in a “ticket to heaven” mentality and fail to live and grow as his new creation. Thus he will likely alienate those on both sides of the theological and political spectrum. The book is a call to be about more than just what is “spiritual”, while not drifting away into a social gospel that is detached from the power of a risen savior:
…the task of the church between ascension and parousia is therefore set free both from self-driven energy that imagines it has to build God’s kingdom all by itself and from the despair that supposes it can’t do anything until Jesus comes again. We do not “build the kingdom” all by ourselves, but we do build for the kingdom. All that we do in faith, hope, and love in the present, in obedience to our ascended Lord and in the power of his Spirit, will be enhanced and transformed at his appearing (p. 143)…
Wright makes many attempts at lightening the mood through humor (e.g. p. 207),and though not always accomplishing his objective, the intent is appreciated. In general, I found the tone of the entire book to be patient, allowing for questions as they might arise, yet unyielding and definitive when it came to the gospel. While coming from an entirely different tradition than my own, I felt like I was hearing a message from a long-time friend, one who felt comfortable pointing out misdirection knowing it would be received in love. Wright comes across as an authority, grasping the biblical data and able to handle it with great dexterity, and not just a scholar with an axe to grind. There is some disjointedness and repetition, due to the fact that this book is the collection and reworking of a number of lectures given by the author. But I did not find this a major distraction.
While there is much I agree with Wright in this book, there were a number of things that left me in a mood for quibbling. On page 216 (and then scattered, deliberately placed references throughout) he describes his intent to record his “conviction that [Third World debt remission] is the number one moral issue of our day.” While it is his book, and he can freely record his conviction in whatever he sees fit, I know not nearly enough about the subject to either support or argue with him on the matter. I expect he intends it as an example of where our understanding of the new creation already begun should have real actionable results in the now, but without more discussion of why this example is fitting, I would have to say it is a failure to get his point across. It instead invites argument and debate.
Where he discusses the sacraments, especially the Eucharist in pages 273-276, I was unimpressed by the vague wording used. Though I see him aiming at redirecting us from understanding Communion as symbol-only, towards an actual, though “new creation”, partaking of Christ, I don’t think this was necessary or beneficial to the overall flow of the text. Once again, though it is related to the topic, his own particular view on the matter may cause more friction in getting the major theme of the book across since it is clearly much harder to swallow and not foundational to the topic (my opinion, of course).
I find myself in disagreement with Wright that, “during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return.” (p. 125). While he does raise some interesting points, I am simply not convinced by his argument. His point is not to question the truth of the Christian claim of Jesus’ return (as he makes very clear), but the idea that Jesus himself taught that he would. To be fair, his argument (p. 128) attempts to put Jesus’ own statement regarding the “Son of Man” in the “proper” context of Daniel 7 and messianic expectation, and should be given some careful consideration before moving on. As well, his comments on parousia and royal presence are helpful to the overall flow of the book even if one does disagree with his original contention about Jesus’ own teaching.
In discussing the destiny of those who are not a part of the “new creation” (pp. 182-183), discussing hell, he is by his own admission rather speculative. I’d have to say his speculations didn’t help clarify anything for me. But such is the way with speculations, and his approach was certainly not combative in this instance.
A final point of interest, which at first I found a tedious stretch, was his noting that Jesus is mistaken for a gardener at the tomb. To Wright, this takes on nuance and meaning as Christ is the new Adam, the tender of God’s creation (p. 210). And while I slightly rolled my eyes when I first read this comment (which was not the only mention of the idea), and am still rather guarded about putting much faith or credence in it, it is interesting. Wouldn’t it be just like God – one more time to try to get his message across.
I give this book ★★★★☆. It was very enjoyable to read, and its subject matter is essential for a proper view of our mission and God’s purposes. It was handled by Wright in a slightly defensive way, but the defense is artfully as well as passionately given.