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Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church Hardcover – February 5, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Wright, one of the greatest, and certainly most prolific, Bible scholars in the world, will touch a nerve with this book. What happens when we die? How should we think about heaven, hell, purgatory and eternal life? Wright critiques the views of heaven that have become regnant in Western culture, especially the assumption of the continuance of the soul after death in a sort of blissful non-bodily existence. This is simply not Christian teaching, Wright insists. The New Testament's clear witness is to the resurrection of the body, not the migration of the soul. And not right away, but only when Jesus returns in judgment and glory. The "paradise," the experience of being "with Christ" spoken of occasionally in the scriptures, is a period of waiting for this return. But Christian teaching of life after death should really be an emphasis on "life after life after death"-the resurrection of the body, which is also the ground for all faithful political action, as the last part of this book argues. Wright's prose is as accessible as it is learned-an increasingly rare combination. No one can doubt his erudition or the greatness of the churchmanship of the Anglican Bishop of Durham. One wonders, however, at the regular citation of his own previous work. And no other scholar can get away so cleanly with continuing to propagate the "hellenization thesis," by which the early church is eventually polluted by contaminating Greek philosophical influence.
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*Starred Review* Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, shares the strong current interest in Christian beginnings evidenced by the historical Jesus quest but points to faith, more than practice, more than dogma, as what most differentiates early from later Christians. Early Christians had faith in the Resurrection, that is, not only that Jesus rose from the dead in a new body but that they (indeed, everyone) would also rise from death in new bodies and into a new creation, not different but fulfilled, in which all would live fully and never die. That is what Christian hope consists in, and not in an afterlife in a distant heaven or hell, both of which domains are largely medieval fabrications popularized by a Florentine satirist, Dante. After explaining why we ought to believe objectively in Jesus’ literal resurrection, Wright argues that in his ministry resurrection is called the first fruits of the new creation because it demonstrated that the conditions of the new creation could be realized, however imperfectly, in the old, and by human agency. In the long run, Christian hope empowers and enjoins Christians to heal humanity and nature now, not to participate in general degradation through war, greed, and pollution. --Ray Olson
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The subject of this book focuses on the misunderstanding that centers around many western churches when discussing the eternal destination of the Christian. According to Wright, the common misconception is that we will dwell in heaven forever. Instead, Wright argues, Heaven is only a temporary resting spot, and one day in the future, all Christians past and present will again live on the earth under Jesus’ reign.
The main drawback for this book is that Wright seems to want to overly convince his readers of this fact. He states scripture after scripture, hymn after hymn, story after story, to prove his point. It’s a bit much. I think the reason that such confusion exists is because, for most people, the debate of “where” we will be is not that significant. Instead, most people when discussing eschatology are more concerned with “how”. As long as we’re in a place “like” heaven, we don’t seem to mind exactly where we’ll unpack our suitcase for eternity.
As Wright makes his arguments, he seems more driven towards left-brain thinking than right-brained thinking. He doesn’t spend too much time talking about what this new world will be like and what everyone will experience. He assures us that even though we will all be working and have some sort of job in God’s kingdom, all souls will, in fact, relish the experience. When it comes to such matters that are somewhat mysterious, the author doesn’t claim to offer heavy handed explanations based on what he might feel. If he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, and has no trouble at all stating this in the book.
The big challenge that he gives Christians is that if we are to one day live in this world with Jesus as our king, we must take care of the world as it is now. We must “get it ready” for the glory of God. I think this is where his real struggle is with a lot of Western thinking. Too often, many Christians today have “End Times” syndrome. They’re so convinced that Jesus will rapture the saints at any moment, that they don’t seem to care about things such as acid rain or global warming. After all, this is only our temporary home, right? This is what the author is trying so hard to dispel. Being a Christian, he says, involves a lot of ‘doing’ in addition to ‘witnessing’.
It’s quite interesting (although many would find it insulting) when the author finds faults in many practices that Western (particularly U.S.) churches engage in every Sunday. He’s not a fan of “check off the box” salvation, and he clearly doesn’t believe in such widely held beliefs as the rapture of the church. I’m not one with a degree in theology, so I can’t challenge him on such sentiments, but he seems think that as a body, Christians definitely need to be doing more both within their church and community, and within the world itself.
He doesn’t spend very much time talking about “who gets to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven”. He states that he’s clearly not a Universalist (although he confesses that such a concept might not be completely foreign to God), and the main reason behind this thinking is the wickedness that some people possess. I confess I would have liked to have him expound on this a bit more. He makes references to such obvious atrocities such as Nazism and sexual slavery, but where exactly does he draw the line? Aren’t all evil without the blood of Jesus? Then, some of his “evils” that he describes didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. He quickly mentions “Hiroshima” for example. Hiroshima? What exactly is “evil” about this? I’m assuming he’s referring to the atom bomb, and yes, this was truly a very evil event, but who was ultimately responsible? Some would argue Harry Truman, but others would say it was the mayhems of Japan and their treatment of American POWs that actually caused the unfortunate event. So his failure to go into more depth left me a bit disappointed.
I still felt this was an excellent book. If anything, it causes one to rethink and reevaluate such predispositions that many Christians have had, say, forever. Such debate is healthy, I believe. Although he doesn’t argue that one must “work” towards salvation (at least that wasn’t the impression that I got), he does plainly say that once one is saved, the converted heart should want to work for God’s glory – both in this life and the next.
Forget an afterlife on a cloud or a heavenly realm where we sit around bored or have nothing to do except worship God (although that will definitely go on). N.T. Wright makes an ironclad case for a much different afterlife than most people have been led to expect. All of those confusing and seemingly conflicting Biblical references about heaven, rapture, judgement, and the New Jerusalem are pulled together in a thorough manner that leaves the reader with a much better understanding of what Paul and the apostles understood in their day.
The absolutely crucial importance of the resurrection is explained. The completely surprising notion that redemption is not a focus on bringing individual people to eternal life, but a work of God to redeem all creation is presented in a convincing fashion. It really is not about us, but about a wonderful, seemingly impossibly fabulous work of our God.
I am an avid reader of all sorts of books and have been so for decades. But this is the first book I have ever been so excited about as I read it that I had to get up out of my very comfortable chair several times and pace while reading. I was so moved and excited I could not sit still. If you are at all curious about how exciting the after life can be, this is a must-read for you.