Last week I completed N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. For those interested in Christian theology and the historical development of the doctrine of the resurrection, the first two-thirds will be of great interest. The final third is dedicated to specific applications for how a re-understanding of the resurrection will impact the ministry of the church.
I recognize that a short summary of Wright’s primary argument glosses important details that are critical to his presentation. Regardless of this fact, the content found within this work is so interesting that I feel compelled to at least provide a taste for you, the reader.
Wright is an eloquent writer, constantly employing helpful illustrations in making his point. He is also quite witty, poking fun at his opponents in ways that are entertaining. Up front, I’m telling you that Surprised by Hope is very accessible to the reader, and anything but boring.
Wright wonders in this book what has happened to the resurrection. Why, he asks, have Christians lost the significance of this central doctrine in their preaching, ecclessiology, and understanding of mission? Wright chronicles how the absence of a solid understanding of the resurrection has affected Christians on both the theological left and right, and urges his audience to revisit and leverage a better understanding of this Christian truth for greater effectiveness in the world.
Wright begins his book by sketching the resurrection as it has been understood historically–a helpful and important treatment. Christians today will find the historical picture much different from the current reality, where heaven is presented as a place you go after death, and an emphasis on the resurrection to come is notably absent. He then moves into Part II, entitled “God’s Future Plan.” He moves from an eschatological description of the new heavens and the new earth, to Jesus and what his message had to do with heaven and the new creation, to the return of Jesus as judge, to the redemption of our bodies, and finally to a discussion of purgatory, paradise, and hell.
I will emphasize four key elements in Wright’s presentation. First, Wright explains the significance of Jesus and his resurrection. Second, Wright explores the significance of the Kingdom and the New Creation as central to the beliefs of the early church. Third, Wright explains how hope in the future “marriage” between heaven and earth as it is found in Revelation 21-22 and the resurrected life to come in that new heaven and new earth rests at the historical center of Christian hope. Lastly, between death and the time or the resurrection, a paradise awaits the faithful who will remain there until the return of Jesus to judge and to bring about the final aspects of the “new creation” which was begun at Jesus’ resurrection.
Part II is the meat of the book. Part III, entitled, “Hope in Practice: Resurrection and the Mission of the Church,” spells out implications for the ministry of the church as announcing the salvation of God and participation with (he uses the term, “building”) the Kingdom of God. He places great stress on the full redemption of God’s good creation and how the church is a key player in bringing that about.
As someone who grew up understanding heaven as mostly a place you go after you die, this book was quite challenging and refreshing as well. This prior formulation of heaven, coupled with belief in a bodily resurrection, left a number of holes in how I understood God’s future. If I would be raised physically, would my body be removed from this earth to another sphere of reality to dwell? And if so, what would become of the earth upon which I once lived? Would it be left behind as a ruin of a former age?
In the past few years I have been challenged to think deeply about what God intends to do with this planet. Wright has supplemented my thinking, pontificating on the meaning of Revelation 21-22 and the marriage of the new heaven and new earth. Wright’s theology gives us reason to express care and concern for our planet and to steward it responsibly. It also provides reason to work for justice in this age as an act of claiming the victory Jesus has won on the cross, recognizing that the good work of the Kingdom accomplished now will endure till the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
I recommend that you pick up this book and then return to this post. I recognize that my account will be lacking. Leave your comments, questions, and points of contention you find in Wright’s presentation. It is my hope that this book will serve as a helpful resource in the preaching ministry of the church, providing a basis from which the church might establish a more effective witness which entails a radical engagement with this world.