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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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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.
Wright rightly states, “Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins.” (256-257).
The book sets out to answer what is the ultimate Christian hope and what hope is there for real change and transformation within the world in the present.
Wright spends a great deal of the book sharing his view that heaven is not some place where our souls will live for eternity in a disembodied state but that Christians will live in a resurrected physical body reigning with Christ on the new heavens and the new earth. In several passages in the book (148,169) Wright refers to the resurrection as “life after life after death.” He also makes the very provocative claim that, “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.” (168)
The subtitle of the book, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, is not a call for a new way of looking at these concepts but a plea to look at these themes as the first century church viewed them.
Going to heaven when we die needs to be understood as the first stage of a two-stage process. Wright believes that the second stage is far more important – living in a physical resurrected body in a newly remade world.
The resurrection represents far more than a one-time miracle to Wright. He sees this as the sign of an entirely new beginning – the first of many more saints being raised to newness of life.
Finally Wright believes that with this proper understanding of heaven and the resurrection the true mission of the church can be carried out in our present time – to not just save souls but to help to transform our world to reflect the glory of God.
While Wright gives convincing arguments that help us to see that we need to orient all of our theology around the resurrection of Christ he seems to go off on tangents into areas that I have a hard time agreeing with.
For example it seems like Wright advocates praying for the dead. He shares on page (172), “Once we rule out purgatory, I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should-not that they will get out of purgatory but that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace.” I see no warrant for this in Scripture.
On page (177) Wright states that, “Jesus simply didn’t say very much about the future life.” This statement flies in the face of the many times that Jesus talked about hell in the New Testament. I am not sure how Wright can make this claim.
Wright’s theory on hell also seems unscriptural. He says on page (182) that, “beings that once were human but now are not.” To Wright sinners that don’t repent are banished to exist forever in an ex-human state. What this means is totally unclear but it seems to lead one to believe that these lost souls will not have to endure the eternal suffering that the Bible clearly indicates lost sinners will experience in hell.
Finally while Wright makes many thought provoking points surrounding the resurrection and heaven the book is rather redundant at times and is a little too heavy on the social gospel and a little too light on the all-important area of saving souls.