N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope

Part I

Ok, I have two big problems that I don’t know how to handle.  The first is just embarrassing and the second is a genuine dilemma.

The first problem I have is that N.T. Wright almost made me cry a little while ago.  I teared up around p.70 with his quotation of Thomas’ words from the Easter Oratorio and I all but lost it with his quotation from Oscar Wilde’s Salome on p.75-76.

But it wasn’t these quotations that did it, it was the ruthlessly devastating and beautiful defense of the resurrection that Wright weaves throughout Part I (chs. 1-4) of his new book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  I realize, of course, that this is a poor-man’s version of his behemoth The Resurrection of the Son of God, but so help me I found Part I of the book to be almost overwhelming.

Now, I don’t normally cry over books…unless it’s the charge of Theoden King and the Rohirrim in The Return of the King…or Jess’ grief in The Bridge to Terabithia…or the biography of Bill Wallace of China…or Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua… but I digress.  I normally don’t cry at all at what Anglicans write (accept, of course, for the first time I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe), and never at the writings of a Baptist (accept, of course, for the first time I read Calvin Miller’s The Singer).  Anyway, despite these exceptions, and maybe 3 or 10 more, I never cry at books.  But Wright has gone and done it.  Now, maybe I’ll be in Bunyan’s “slough of despond” for the rest of it, who knows, but I doubt it.  (Was it really all that moving, or am I just emotional because I woke up in the middle of the night after having a horrific nightmare brought on by having viewed the exorcism pictures of Anneliese Michel and listened to the audio of the exorcism online yesterday?  One wonders…)  Regardless, let me just say this, for now:  Part I of Surprised by Hope should be read by anybody wanting a level-headed but impassioned defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

My second problem is that I really do like N.T. Wright.  As a Baptist with certain Reformed leanings, this presents a big problem.  (My “catholic” leanings have no problem.)  I’m apparently supposed to really dislike Wright, and maybe even to hate him, judging by what others of a similar ilk say about him.  This is primarily because of his views on the New Perspective, an idea that I’m reading more and more on and still trying to really grasp.  I suppose, in the end, I may have some real misgivings.  At present I have some serious questions.  So I would never recommend Wright uncritically or without qualification, but there are parts of Wright I really, really do like.  He is, despite what his critics say, trying to think biblically.  He is also trying to let the biblical evidence say what it says without recourse to pat answers…and this is always bound to get one in trouble.

So, I’ll just have to handle my two problems in my own way.  Thanks anyway.

Part I of Wright’s book seeks to show that first century Judaism had absolutely no concept of immediate resurrection.  The resurrection was bodily and it was at the end of time.  He then seeks to show that the early Christians operated within this framework but with some surprising “mutations” of it.  He next moves to an apologetic of the resurrection of Jesus, showing in compelling detail that the early believers simply would not have had the raw material to draw from if they were seeking to make up or invent the resurrection as it is presented in scripture.

This leads Wright to what is, I think, a very strong discussion of epistemology and worldview.  Wright questions the idea of a completely detached scientific-historiography.  He questions the assumptions behind such an Enlightenment concept as well as the simultaneously naive and hubristic idea that a unique and unrepeatable historical phenomenon is inherently suspect due to its uniqueness and unrepeatability.  He shows instead that a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus (and, consequently, in the future, bodily resurrection of believers) in no way involves a suspension of critical thought or judgment.

That being say, Wright does not believe that the resurrection can be “proven” by cold deduction or scientific method.  It can be strengthened by it, and it is not thwarted by it, but belief in the resurrection does not stand only on this ground.  He points to Thomas, Peter, and Paul as being the recipients of a new paradigm of, respectively, belief, love, and hope.  I thought this was particularly helpful.

Part II

What to say about Part II of Surprised by Hope?  It is a fascinating, (usually) well-argued, intriguing, and sometimes frustrating bit of writing that will challenge, encourage, and, again, frustrate many evangelical readers.  I will admit to being unable to find the great scandal here, though many of Wright’s thoughts will certainly raise some eyebrows.  No, Wright has not abandoned the idea of Heaven and he has not abandoned the idea of Hell (though his take on both are unique and, in the case of hell, idiosyncratic, but not dismissive.)

Chapters 5-11 are grouped under the heading “God’s Future Plan.”  Here, Bishop Wright dives into what are, apparently, the most controversial aspects of the book.  He covers the ascension, the second coming, heaven, hell, purgatory, and new creation.  This large section of material will be impossible to summarize in any detail, so I’ll just take a shot at describing what I think Wright’s getting at (as I read it) and some general impressions I had.

Wright is trying to call us back to a more biblically robust view of death, life after death, and what he calls “life after life after death.”  As best I can tell, Wright believes that, at death, we are in a place of blissful rest.  We are with Jesus, to be sure, but we still await the final resurrection of the body and the redemption of the created order.  Paradise is the best word for “where” we are immediately after death.  Wright agrees that we can use “Heaven” for this state as well, though he feels that this can be misleading.

The final hope of the believer, Wright argues, is the resurrection and transformation of the body, and the redemption of creation itself.  The “second coming” of Christ, then, is when Jesus the Lord (who currently reigns as Lord over Heaven and Earth) breaks into creation and it is renewed and transformed along with our created bodies.  Wright therefore would strongly reject the idea of our “leaving earth” and “going to Heaven.”  “Heaven” is where God is, and it is more biblical, Wright argues, to view Heaven as a new dimension breaking into this one than as a distant place one goes to.

Let me offer a word of personal reflection here.  I’m still chewing on Wright’s arguments.  I refuse to drink the kool-aid, but I also refuse to drink the kool-aid of his detractors.  I will say that I have long felt a strange disconnect between our traditional language of “going to Heaven” and the witness of Scripture itself, particularly Romans 8.  Furthermore, I have long felt that our traditional Evangelical notions do not do justice to the biblical notion of “new heaven and new earth.”  I’ve often wondered why we speak so little of the “new earth” part.

I grew up envisioning an ethereal Heaven floating somehow above an Edenic earth.  In rare moments of theological adventure, I would ask myself whether or not we might go back and forth.  All of this, of course, assumes Heaven to be a spacially contained “place” opposite, or up from the Earth.  I have long felt the absurdity of such an idea, again, on biblical grounds.  That never seemed to add up to what I read in the New Testament.

Now, I don’t know if what Wright is proposing is gospel truth, but I dare say that much of what he is arguing is closer to the biblical witness in emphasis, tone, and structure than many of our popular notions.  It is God-honoring and Christ-exalting, and, whatever our differences with his proposals, we should not present them as less than this.

Wright adamantly (and suprisingly, to me) rejects Purgatory in very strong terms.  He appeals to the complete work of Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins as the reason why we will need no more cleansing at death.  This was encouraging to me and should be encouraging to Evangelical readers.  He rejects prayer to the saints, but believes that we can, in some sense, pray for them and with them.  I felt that this was weak and lacked strong biblical support.

Wright refuses the liberal rejection of Hell.  How refreshing this was!  Yet he feels that traditional notions of literal torment in literal flames are simply a naive reading of biblical imagery.  He is careful to say that Hell must exist, that it is a necessary aspect of God’s judgment, and that the liberal optimism and universalism (also annihilationism) that says contrary has more to do with emotive factors than biblical truth.  For Wright, though, hell seems to be a process where those who are intent on living as monsters eventually become, in some sense, less than human.  Hell, for Wright, seems to be a process of God letting those who want to mar the imago dei actually get what they want and bear in their own beings the punishment.  Wright is echoing Lewis a bit here (by his own admission), but he is also (by his own admission) proposing a theory that has no clear biblical support.

One thing I did notice, however, is how Wright never spoke of hell in terms of one’s standing with Christ.  Hell, for Wright, is for those who choose to live monstrous lives.  Appropriately so, but I do wonder how Wright views one’s standing before the cross in his concept of hell?

Again, this summary cannot adequately cover all of the material in Part II.  The section contains the core of the book and Wright is here clearly trying to silence his detractors who, he says, have accused him of abandoning eschatology.  He has silenced them in a very effective manner.

Wright’s arguments will simply have to be dealt with and his reading of the New Testament will need to be considered.  He correctly notes that if he is right, we will have to read the New Testament through an entire new grid.  I suspect that’s true, if he’s right.  Whether or not such a grid is warranted will be for careful and discerning readers to decide.  Regardless, you will be challenged and, I sincerely believe, encouraged if you wrestle with what Wright is doing here.

Part III

After reading Part III of Surprised by Hope I am prepared to say that, personally, I think this book is one of the most profound, thought-provoking, and fascinating Christian books to come off of the presses in a long, long time.  Furthermore, I think it is an extremely important book that ought to be read by ministers and laity alike.

This final part of the book is entitled, “Hope in Practice: Resurrection and the Mission of the Church.”  In it, Wright works out the logical implications of his creation-centered understanding of resurrection, an understanding that he has shown to be thoroughly biblical in the first two parts of the book.

In essence, Wright is arguing in Part III, and throughout this whole book, that a creation-centered view of resurrection (and when you put it that way, how can resurrection not be creation-centered) will keep the church from lapsing into anti-creation Gnosticism and creation/spirit dualism.  As far as the church goes, a move away from envisioning Heaven as the realm of disembodied souls will stir the church here and now to be more concerned with the world itself.  He’s not speaking here primarily of ecology, though he mentions this, but rather of life itself.  Specifically, Wright believes that a more robust understanding of resurrection, creation, and eschatology will embolden the church to act insofar as our actions in the world anticipate the renewal and transformation of creation itself.

Unlike the liberal naivete that undergirded the social gospel movement, Wright’s understanding does not see this as actualizing in completion the Kingdom that will only come in totality at the end of all things.  (He rejects a friend’s insinuation that he, Wright, has “rejected eschatology.”)  It does, however, propose that what we do now matters and, in some very real sense, that all that we do to anticipate the new Heaven/new earth will truly last.  As such, we may take hope that our work in the world is not an exercise in futility:

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.” (p.208)

Thus, our outlook, our mission, our worship, our evangelism, and our approach to life itself must be holistic.  “We are saved not as souls,” Wright argues, “but as wholes.”  We are not seeking the salvation of souls that will one day shirk off this old nasty creation and remain as pure spirit.  Rather, we are seeking to see human beings saved through Christ here and now in a created order that is fallen, that is in need of redemption, but that will in fact one day be renewed and transformed in the new Heaven/new Earth.  We are seeking to see people saved, then, in mind, body, and soul, for all of this is good in the eyes of the God who calls creation “good.”

Wright’s proposals on the main seem faithful to the biblical witness, though he does veer at times into speculation that is not explicitly in the text.  As such, this book needs to be read carefully.  It’s proposals are certainly biblical in their focus and emphasis and Wright’s understanding of the renewal of creation could go a far way in rectifying our occasionally faulty approaches to worship and evangelism.

Wright’s (predictable) critique of America will irritate some, and parts of it irritates me, but what is not to be missed in all of this is that Wright is at least trying to think here and now from a paradigm that is itself healthier than the old dualism that much Protestant fundamentalism is enmeshed in.  So if you reject the specific applications, that’s fine, but don’t reject the paradigm, which I believe really could have tremendous implications for how we think and act.

More than anything else, Wright’s contention that what we do here and now “matters” could absolutely revolutionize Christian mission in the world while simultaneously clearing up a great deal of confusion about why we do what we do and why we should do what we do.

This book should not be read uncritically (and I certainly intend to read it again)…but it should be read and pondered.

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