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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.
He wrote in the Preface to this 2008 book, “At the first level, the book is obviously about death and about what can be said from a Christian perspective about what lies beyond it… I approach the question as a biblical theologian, drawing on other disciplines but hoping to supply what they usually lack with what I believe the church needs to recapture: the classic Christian answer to the question of death and beyond, which these days is not so much disbelieved … as simply now known… At the second level, then, the book is about the groundwork of practical and even political theology---of, that is, Christian reflection on the nature of the task we face as we seek to bring God’s kingdom to bear on the real and painful world in which we live.” (Pg. xi-xiii)
In the first chapter, he outlines, “This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven,’ of a salvation that is essentially AWAY from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated… 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. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other.” (Pg. 5)
He observes, “the robust Jewish and Christian doctrine of the resurrection… gives more value, not less, to the present world and to our present bodies… The classic Christian doctrine, therefore, is actually far more powerful and revolutionary than the Platonic one… A piety that sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last’ … has no quarrel with power-mongers who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends. Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise not to a meek acquiescence to injustice in the world but to a robust determination to oppose it.” (Pg. 26-27)
He points out, “much Christian and sub-Christian tradition has assumed that we all do indeed have souls that need saving and that the soul, if saved, will be the part of us that goes to heaven when we die. All this, however, finds minimal support in the New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus, where the word ‘soul’ … reflects not to a disembodied entity… but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality… the idea that every human possesses and immortal soul, which is the ‘real’ part of them, finds little support in the Bible.” (Pg. 28)
He strongly rejects “the revisionist position on Jesus’s resurrection… that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus after his death had been exalted to heaven or that they had a strange sense that his mission… we now going ahead in a new way and that this kind of belief let them to say he’d been raised from the dead…We all can have visions. Plenty of people dream about recently dead friends… That doesn’t mean they’ve been raised from the dead… this [revisionist] solution isn’t just incredible, it’s impossible… A little bit of disciplined historical imagination is all it takes to blow away enormous piles of so-called historical criticism.” (Pg. 48-50)
He observes, “the resurrection narratives in the gospels never, ever say anything like, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die.’ … No. Insofar as the event is interpreted, Easter has a very this-worldly, present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, and therefore he is the world’s true Lord… so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven!” (Pg. 56) He concludes, “Jesus’s tomb really was empty… the disciples really did encounter him in ways that convinced them that he was not simply a ghost or hallucination.” (Pg. 58)
He suggests that in 1 Corinthians 15, “Paul is clearly articulating a theology of a NEW CREATION. Every force, every authority in the whole cosmos, will be subjected to the Messiah, and finally death itself will give up its power… Death as we now know it is the last enemy, not a good part of the good creation; and therefore death must be defeated if the life-giving God is to be honored as the true lord of the world. When this has happened… Jesus the Messiah… will hand over the rule of the kingdom to his father, and God will be all in all.” (Pg. 99-100)
He states, “The word ‘eschatology’ … doesn’t just refer to death, judgment, heaven and hell, as used to be thought… It also refers to the strongly held belief of … virtually all early Christians, that history was going somewhere under the guidance of God and that where it was going was toward God’s new world of justice, healing, and hope. The transition from the present world to the new one would be a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe but of its radical healing.” (Pg. 122)
He argues, “People often assume that the early church used ‘parousia’ simply to mean ‘the second coming of Jesus’ and that by this even they all envisaged, in a quite literal fashion, the scenario of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (Jesus coming down on a cloud and people flying upward to meet him). Neither of these assumptions is in fact correct… Now suppose that Paul…wanted to say two things… first, that the Jesus they worshipped was near in spirit but absent in body but that one day he would be present in body and that the whole world, themselves included, would know the sudden transforming power of that presence. A natural word to use for this would be ‘parousia.’ At the same time, supposed they wanted to say that the Jesus who had been raised from the dead … was the rightful Lord of the world… so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world… Again, the natural word to use for this would be ‘parousia.’” (Pg. 128-129)
He asserts, “People who believe that Jesus is already Lord and that he will appear again as judge of the world are called equipped… to think and act quite differently in the world from those who don’t.” (Pg. 144)
He notes, “My proposition is that the traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell in a one-stage postmortem journey… represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story we tell about god’s ultimate purposes.” (Pg. 148) He adds, “Resurrection … was a way of talking about a new bodily life AFTER whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life AFTER life after death.” (Pg. 151) Later, he reiterates, “The ultimate destination is (once more) NOT ‘going to heaven when you die’ but being bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ.” (Pg. 168)
He contends, “The word ‘immortality’ is often used to mean ‘DISEMBODIED immortality,’ and it is sometimes used in a sharp contrast with resurrection. As a result, we easily forget Paul’s point about the resurrection body. It will be a body, but it will not be subject to mortality… There is a world of difference between this belief and a belief in an ‘immortal soul.’ … In the New Testament, however, immortality is something that only God possesses by nature and that he then shares, as a gift of grace rather than an innate possession, with his people.” (Pg. 160-161)
He explains, “I do not believe in a purgatory as a place, a time, or a state… In fact, Paul makes it clear… that it’s the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some postmortem state, are the valley through which we have to pass in order to reach the glorious future… The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection from the present onto the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination.” (Pg. 170-171) However, “Since both the departed saints and we ourselves are in Christ, we share with them in the ‘communion of saints.’ They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ… Why then should we not pray for and with them?” (Pg. 172)
Of the final judgement, he says, “I find it quite impossible… to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will eventually say, ‘THY will be done.’ I wish it were otherwise…” (Pg. 180) He continues, “My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way… that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that ONCE WERE HUMAN BUT NOW ARE NOT, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body… they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but beyond pity. There is no concentration camp … not torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.” (Pg. 182-183)
He argues, “As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation… in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality… then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.” (Pg. 196-197)
The last part of the book goes into political implications. (E.g., “the major task that faces us in our generation… is that of the massive economic imbalance of the world”; pg. 216)
Wright’s ruminations will be of keen interest to anyone studying such ‘eschatological’ matters.
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