N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (Review written by Scott McKnight)
For more than a decade or so Bishop Tom Wright has been making comments, dropping suggestions, and prompting the curiosity of his many readers about what he thinks about “heaven.” Now he comes forth with a book that I think may well be one of Tom’s most significant books ever. (read more…)
Tom, as many of you know, has written the best book we now have on the resurrection (Resurrection of the Son of God
) and one its highlights is its exploration of a theology of resurrection
instead of just focusing on proving the resurrection. Now, out of that spade work of history and
exegesis Tom turns toward the Church’s theology of resurrection and its
significance for life and mission. This is the proper order, and it gives the
book in this series an integrity not all books have.
The overemphasis of evangelical Christians and both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox on “heaven” as well as the evangelical obsession with things like the rapture have led now to a vacuum of solid thinking on what the Bible says about the future, about life after death, about resurrection and about how a biblical hopes shapes how we live now. How often are you hearing a biblical message of hope, a biblical study of resurrection, etc, in your community of faith? How often is it nearly always tied to “going to heaven”? Is a hope for our immediate future wishful thinking or is it profoundly biblical?
The book has three parts: setting the scene, God’s future plans, and Hope in practice. The first part sketches what folks think today and three chapters on what resurrection and the afterlife is all about in the Christian tradition. Part two deals with the cosmic scope of biblical hope before it turns to personal hope. Part three deals with how hope shapes Christian mission.
Two questions shape this book: First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? And, second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? Wright knows that many think it is all about going to heaven that, therefore, the second question doesn’t really matter. This is profoundly unbiblical and this book is dedicated to exposing why. “But if the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for ‘new heavens and new earth,’ and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together” (5).
There is confusion everywhere. To begin with, the world’s religions aren’t remotely similar when it comes to future hope. Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists and Christians. Three views shape much of what goes in the world today:
2. Reincarnation in all kinds of forms and shapes.
A key word for Tom Wright in his book Surprised by Hope:
is “muddle.” That word best describes how so many Christians think about
life after death and resurrection and the like.
Wright aims to end the muddle.
Somehow Christians have oscillated between death as a vile enemy and a welcome friend. He knows “heaven” is not understood properly by most Christians and then he enters into more of the muddle.
lHymns - he picks on John Keble’s “Till in the ocean of love we lose ourselves in heaven above.” And John Henry Newman’s reference to a previous life with angels and the blatant Platonism of “Abide with Me” in “Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.”
lThe Christian Year - he picks on some Christmas hymns (”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Away in a Manger”) and then suggests Christmas has become too central with no energy left for the most important event of Easter.
lFunerals- he enters here into issues with cremation and how many conceive it. I like this:“if someone came to these funeral services with no idea of the classic Jewish and Christian teaching on the subject, the funeral services would do little to enlighten them and plenty to mislead them or confirm them in their existing muddle” (25). “Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t, as the old liturgies used to say, ‘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” (25).
The robust Christian doctrine ties together work in this world with the Life to Come.Now this teaser to what is to come: “Scripture, in fact, teaches things about the future life that most Christians, and almost all non-Christians, have never heard of” (27).
Wright The book begins with a wonderful tale about Wittgenstein, Popper, and all those in the room that night when the poker was pulled out and everything fell apart. This is, Tom says, an analogy to the resurrection accounts. We might not know all that happened, but by golly something happened.What was it? "Resurrection" is what Christians called it. And it is precisely here that Wright brings his whole book into a clean and crisp summary.
lFor the pagan world, there was no such thing as resurrection. There were those who wanted a body but couldn’t get it and those who didn’t want a body after death (Homer and Plato). Resurrection meant, not life after death, but a bodily life after a life after death. Resurrection meant bodies. So, when Christians said Jesus was raised “they were not talking about Jesus’ soul going into heavenly bliss” (37).
lIn the Jewish world, there was some variety. Sadducees — no resurrection; Pharisees — yes. But, what united those who believed in it was that it would all happen at once, to everyone, and it was bodily.
When Jesus began talking about his own resurrection his disciples were muddled — they didn’t know what he meant by just his rising. Resurrection was general, for all, not just for one. So, when Jesus was crucified it all fell apart: “they had backed the wrong horse” (40).
Now one of Tom’s innovations: heaven refers not to eternal life but to the place of postmortem existence — Paradise is the same. Heaven is the temporary stage after death before resurrection. There is a two-step process: death and heaven, and then second a new bodily existence in a remade world.
Into this world Christians make seven innovations:
1. There is no spectrum of belief among Christians; they believed the same.
2. Resurrection moves from the circumference of Jewish belief to the center.
3. The body will be a transformed body.
4. Resurrection has split into two: first Jesus and then the saints.
5. Collaboration: God has called us into working with him to implement the achievement of Jesus.
6. Metaphorically, resurrection got connected to baptism (death, burial, resurrection) and ethics (raised to new ethical life).
7. Connected to Messiahship, to which it had not previously been connected.
Chapter 4 - “the strange story of Easter.”
The lack of consensus in the Gospel accounts … what do these differences indicate? “Indeed, they are a reasonable indication that something remarkable happened, so remarkable that the first witnesses were bewildered into telling different stories about it” (53).In other words, the confusion indicates a lack of collusion.How do you deal with the variations in the Gospel accounts: one young man, two young men, one angel or two angels?
Four strange elements:
1. The strange silence of the Bible in the resurrection accounts. No reflection like this: “See here, this fulfills Isaiah; and see there, that’s Hosea.” None of this.
2. The strange presence of women as the principal witnesses.
3. The strange portrait of Jesus himself. Thus, “… the one thing you would expect to find is the risen Jesus shining like a star” (55).
4. The strange absence of the future Christian hope. Nothing about “So, then, we too will be raised” or “See now, you needn’t fear.”
Here is where Tom’s prose got me: “But this is like what you get when different artists paint portraits of the same person. This painting is certainly a Rembrandt; that is indubitably a Holbein. The touch of the individual artist is unmistakable. And the yet the sitter is fully recognizable” (57).
Before Tom Wright discusses the future for the individual he goes where the Bible goes: first the corporate and then the individual. In chapter 5 of Surprised by Hope
he examines two ideas that shape how even many Christians think of the
future. He’s not afraid to say that
these are not in fact Christian hopes; they
Too many Christians have packaged Enlightenment individualism and theories of progress with Platonic dualism and soulishness to form a theory of heaven that is far from what the NT teaches.
lThe first myth is “evolutionary optimism.” The myth of progress. He digresses into political rhetoric and affirms me in my crankiness about the eschatology of politics: “… the politicians are still trying to whip up enthusiasm for their versions of this myth — it’s the only discourse they know, poor things — while the rest of us have moved on” (81). This utopian dream is parody of the Christian hope. This myth of progress is instead a “goal that will emerge from within rather than being a new gift from elsewhere” (82).
What’s the problem: Wright says “The real problem with the myth of progress is … that it cannot deal with evil” (85). “The world is in fact still a sad and wicked place, not a happy upward progress toward the light” (86). This myth doesn’t work; it can’t solve evil’s problems retrospectively; it underestimates the nature and power of evil and thus “fails to see the vital importance of the cross” (87). Let the reader hear me out: without an atonement there is no Jesus kingdom and no Christian hope.
The solution to evil in this world — and here I’m summarizing Wright — is not to try harder or to work at education more; the solution is otherwise. (Only then does education make sense.)
lThe second myth is “souls in transit”. Here Wright connects the spiritual soulishness with Hinduism, Platonism, Gnostics, etc. The goal is to get rid of this body.For these “creation itself is the fall” (89). “Basically, if you move away from materialistic optimism but without embracing Judaism or Christianity, you are quite likely to end up with some kind of Gnosticism” (89).Complete nonmateriality is not a Christian hope.
In chapter 6 Wright sketches a view of the future that avoids the disastrous inability of evolution to deal with sin and the mistaken notion that we need to get out of this world to be what we were designed to be. What then does that future look like?“The early Christians did not believe in progress.” “But neither did they believe that the world was getting worse and worse” (93). So, these two options, one found in the optimists among liberals and the other among the pessimists among evangelicals (and firing so much of how many understand eschatology).
Three themes converge in Christian hope:
1. The goodness of creation (dualist mistake).
2. The nature of evil (evolution’s mistake).
3. The plan of redemption - the Christian alternative to the above.
These three stories converge in the Story of Jesus Christ who is Incarnate (theme 1), goes down into death all the way down (theme 2) and is raised from the dead (theme 1-3!).
Six themes in the NT are neither evolutionary/myth of progress nor dualist:
1. Seedtime and harvest
2. Victorious battle
3. Citizens of heaven
4. God will be all in all
5. New birth
6. Marriage of heaven and earth
The ascension. So what? That’s really behind chp 6 of Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope
Some see the ascension in flat-footed literalness while others see the ascension as little more than a clever metaphor for the ongoing presence of Jesus. Wright sees it as entrance into heaven, and place and state more real than our reality.
Wright here says what he thinks heaven is and this will be the most talked about feature of this book: heaven is, he says, not a different location than earth in the same space-time continuum, but instead a different dimension (right now) of God’s good creation. The One in Heaven is simultaneously present everywhere and elsewhere. Heaven is, he suggests, the “CEO’s office” or the “control room for earth” (111). It is not so much a place to which we go but a place from which Jesus will return for the New Heavens and New Earth.
Ascension theology affirms embodied existence, a new existence, and that Jesus is Lord over All.The quote of the book: “At no point in the Gospels or Acts does anyone say anything remotely like, ‘Jesus has gone into heaven, so let’s be sure we can follow him.’ They say, rather, ‘Jesus is in heaven, ruling the whole world, and he will one day return to make that rule complete’” (117).
Then he discusses the Second Coming. Two problems: American evangelicals are obsessed by the doctrine, and have gotten it muddled, and mainliners have done their dead-level best to avoid the doctrine, and are likewise muddled.
Does Tom Wright believe in the Second Coming? That question has been asked since Tom wrote his exceptional book on Jesus called Jesus and the Victory of God
. Here’s what Tom says. “Let me say it emphatically … the second
coming has not yet occurred.” Tom denies he is a preterist. “Jesus,” he says about our future, “will be
personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be
So, Tom does believe in the Second Coming, but it doesn’t mean what many think it means:
1. The Son of Man “coming” refers to Jesus’ vindication before the Ancient of Days along with the saints.
2. The King returning refers, not to Jesus’ return, but to God returning to Zion.
These two views created confusion about Tom’s views. He is speaking here of what Jesus taught.
3. The rest of the NT teaches the presence and appearing of Jesus, but this does not mean he will descend on clouds from the heavens and light atop the Temple in Jerusalem.
4. Parousia means not “coming” but “presence,” in both a divine, saving presence and a royal presence.
5. The “rapture” text in 1 Thess 4 is a metaphor for the Presence/Appearing of Christ and the greeting of Christ by his followers — the Church — who, as a colony’s citizens did, will leave the city to greet the Emperor. They are the same as 1 Cor 15:23-27, 51-54 and Phil 3:20-21.
Here’s a conclusion: “The promise is not that Jesus will simply reappear within the present world order, but that when heaven and earth are joined together in the new way God has promised, then he will appear to us — and we will appear to him, and to one another, in our own true identity” (135).
Thus, “in the great renewal of the world that Easter itself foreshadowed, Jesus himself will be personally present and will be the agent and model of the transformation that will happen both to the whole world and also to believers” (136).
What does Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope
, think the NT teaches about Jesus as the Coming Judge?
How central — and this is my question — is the final judgment to the gospel itself?
1. To begin with, the coming Judge “is the central feature of another … belief: that there will indeed be a judgment in which the creator God will set the world right once and for all” (137). In a world of systemic injustice … this is the “best news there can be.”
2. Wright thinks — something he doesn’t develop — Jesus’ messiahship preceded belief in Jesus’ being the coming judge. Why? Judging is inherent to Messiah in Judaism.
3. Here Wright delves into judgment by works and justification by faith — and the former is at the end while the latter in the now as a preemptory act on God to bring forward the final judgment into the now. There is, then, no clash between judgment by works and justification by faith — and I think Wright could have explained himself more in this section.
The final judgment is brought into the present by Christians in justification by faith, in the Eucharist, in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
4. A subtle theme here is that the final judgment is good news — it is the act of God to put the wicked in place and the oppressed in a better place and, overall, to put the world to rights.
5. What are the practical benefits of the coming judge?
a. The world will be transformed, proving both the literal fundamentalist and cosmic Christ inadequate.
b. A proper shape and balance is brought into the Christian worldview.
c. Releases us from the idea of building the kingdom and from despair that nothing can be done.
Big question: “What would happen if we were to take seriously our stated belief that Jesus Christ is already the Lord of the world and that at his name, one day, every knee would bow?” (144)
What is the future hope for the individual? What does Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope
, mean by the “redemption of our bodies”? and “a new type of bodily
existence” (147). This is the burden of
In essence, he believes in a two-stage postmortem journey- into heaven (presence of God) and then resurrection for the new heavens and new earth. Resurrection, in one of Tom’s most innovative expressions, is “life after life after death.” He could add “embodied life after life after death.” Here it is, from Phil 3:20-21: “he Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” That’s the hope many are surprised by.
The “many mansions” of John 14 refer to Paradise, the intermediate state. “A temporary halt on the journey” (150).
Heaven is where “God’s purposes for the future are stored up” (151). So, in commenting on 1 Peter 1 about things being stored in heaven for us, Wright says they are not stored so we can go there and get them, but they are being kept there and God will bring them to reality on earth: If, he says to a friend, “I’ve kept some beer in the fridge for you,” he does not mean that the friend has to climb into the fridge to get the beer … he’ll fetch them and give them to the friend.
1 Cor 15 is about a present kind of body vs. a future kind of body, a corruptible physicality vs. an incorruptible physicality.
Who? All people.
Where? On the new earth.
What? A more solid, more real body.
Why? To reign.
When? After the intermediate state, when Christ “appears.”
How? A new creation, by the Spirit.
Traditionally, the Church has believed in the church triumphant (saints in glory), church militant (present, on earth), and the church expectant (purgatory). This leads Wright to a study of purgatory. Dante, Aquinas, and Newman represent tradition; Rahner and Pope Benedict XVI have each modified that view, with the Pope virtually severing purgatory from the intermediate state; and the liberal views waver between worrying about arrogance and universalism.
Wright doesn’t believe in purgatory:
1. Resurrection is still future.
2. No category difference in NT between saints.
3. Bodily death is the punishment for sin; once one dies, all punishment is over. The present life is purgatory.
Leads to Paradise: communion of saints etc.. We can pray for them, but no evidence we should pray to them, that they pray for us, and this:“Explicit invocation of saints may be, in fact — I do not say it always is, but it may be — a step toward that semipaganism of which the Reformers were rightly afraid” (173).So, he believes in the Church triumphant and militant.
What about hell? Gehenna is the image of the burning pit and then the threat of what Rome would do to those who resisted his message. That event, of course, anticipates some final judgment.
And here Wright squares up with an orthodox view with his own slight twist:
1. Judgment is necessary.
2. Some choose dehumanization.
3. For those who do, the dehumanization will lead to loss of the image of God.
The major framing issues for all of this teaching is God’s new creation of the cosmos.
Chp 12 in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope
is a major change: we move from “what it said” to “what it says,” from
text to mission. Is this only about
tidying up our understanding of what happens after we die? Or does it matter?
Wright says it matters. Deeply.
Easter focuses on the resurrection of Jesus being hope for us after death; Easter should, Wright is saying, transform mission in the present world (without denying a proper perception of life after death). A better perception of our hope transforms how we live in this world.
1 Cor 15:58, Paul’s statement of the consequences of resurrection, says this: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” The consequence of resurrection is the realization that our labor lasts.
What we do now, Wright argues, lasts into the future — from embodiment now to embodiment then.
Salvation is discussed at length: again, he makes his points with language that evokes: “We are not saved as souls but as wholes” (199). Salvation is whole salvation, bodies included. Why? Because God’s ultimate design is new earthly. Life before death is threatened if we don’t have a better view of life after death. We are charged to participate with God in this salvation work on earth.
Kingdom of God is understood along similar lines — earthly and bodily.
I’ve got some questions beginning to percolate as I get into the end of this book:
1. What is the difference between Wright’s new heaven and new earth and a millennial hope?
2. What are the differences between life now on earth and life then on the new earth? Is that difference just about the same as the old distinction between life now on earth and life then in heaven?
3. Has Wright overdrawn the Platonic view of salvation? As salvation so we can go to heaven?
4. Do those who believe in that older view really discount earthly existence now that much? Sure, some of the stereotyped Dispensationalists do, but how many theologians think like this? Isn’t the real pocket of this older view the uninformed lay person?
5. How does Tom understand 2 Peter 3:7? “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”
Chp 13 in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope
explores building the kingdom and does so by showing that his view of
resurrection reshapes justice, beauty, and evangelism.Overall, a vigorous
embodied resurrection leads to a life now dedicated to building the kingdom since
it is in continuity with the final state.
1. Justice: his target here, consistent with a decade long set of talks, is economic disparity that must be put to rights. He explores how his views give new shape to this with four points:
a. The debates about global economic injustice echo the debates about slavery.
b. Liberals marginalize the Bible and therefore the only source they have for the fight.
c. Conservatives have reinforced dominance by capitalism.
d. Resurrection is not simply God’s supernatural otherworldliness but thisworldliness.
2. Beauty: this draws on parts of his book Simply Christian
3. Evangelism. Here he brings out issues that many have asked about:
a. The gospel is that God is God, Jesus is lord, and the powers have been defeated.
b. If a church … a tell expression … lives up to the gospel the message is demonstrated as true.
c. Individuals respond through conversion, regeneration, “entering into Christ” … and such a person is a “living, breathing little bit of ‘new creation’” (228).
d. This means a Christian does not say no to the world, cannot be isolated from the church, and behavior is integral to being a Christian.
The last chapter addresses Easter and creation redeemed and mission and spirituality. There are many interesting and suggestive thoughts here, including thoughts about time and space. There are also thoughts about new birth and baptism, eucharist, prayer, Scripture, holiness, and love.