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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.
However, before going into part one and part two of the book N. T. Wright begins by setting the scene for these two parts. He begins by posing two questions: What is the ultimate Christian hope? What hope is there in this present world? He does so from an apparent Now Millennial Eschatology in which he lays out the already not yet aspects of the Kingdom of God.
N. T. Wright asserts that the majority of Christians today are either confused are
unknowing about the ultimate Christian hope because of a platonic view that has crept in over the centuries. He says that most have an escapism mentality. That the ultimate hope for the Christian is to escape this world and failing body and to have a disembodied eternal existence in heaven. He says that this was not the Christian hope in the early church, but it did creep in during the middle ages. He says that the historical Christian hope is not a disembodied eternal existence in heaven, but a bodily resurrection from the dead. He says that we do not go to heaven, but heaven comes to earth. He does say that in the interim the soul is with the Lord, but the Bible does not really give a vivid explanation of this.
In the third section of this book he begins to talk about this present world and what the Christian should be doing in light of the ultimate Christian hope. One of the things that he says has been lacking with regard to this pervasive belief of a disembodied existence in heaven is a disregard for this present world. It’s all going to burn up anyway so why should I care? He says that what we do in this present life has eternal effects and gives an example of helping someone with a disability to read. He said that we do not know presently what effect this has in the New Heaven and New Earth but asserts that it does nonetheless. One thing that he repeatedly employs in the book are the words of Paul, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.” (1Cor.13:12)
I applaud the work that Dr. Wright did in bringing attention to the Biblical and historical understand of the ultimate Christian hope; the resurrection of the body and the final coming together of all things in the new heaven and new earth. I also applaud his bringing to attention that it should be the work of the church to love our neighbors in this present day.
However, he is very harsh in the book towards American evangelicalism, pre-millennial dispensationalism and Catholicism with regard to purgatory. In this book he asserts that the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord. I agree, but from a different understanding than that of N. T. Wright. I agree with the things he has against the aforementioned groups but seems a little harsh in certain aspects. N. T. Wrights understanding of the Gospel comes from an apparent Christus Victor understand of the atonement; therefore, everything in the book is put under that umbrella.
At the end of the book he gives an Easter story of two pastors: One he calls Mr. Smoothtongue, because he preaches basically a liberalism message. The other he calls Mr. Gospelman because he preaches a message about penal substitution and fleeing to Christ for salvation. Thus, he puts the Example theory and the penal substitutionary theory as equally incorrect and gives a better way. He uses the going to heaven or hell when you die approach of some to discredit Mr. Gospelman.
Christ overcame evil in His death and bodily resurrection from the dead, and His victory will be fully realized when he returns. While I am in agreement with N. T. Wright on the already not yet aspects of Christ’s Lordship; I am not in agreement with his subjugating Christ death as an example to Protestant liberalism and his subjugating Christ death as penal substation to what he calls “frightening or bullying harangues or tactless and offensive or embarrassing and naïve presentations of the gospel.” The gospel is the good news of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The Christian hope is the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in the new heaven and new earth. Christ can and will give eternal life to all who believe in Him, because He paid the price for our sins on the cross.