Editor’s note: this was originally published on our old website on October 16, 2014. In light of our recent funeral, I thought it timely to re-post.
Wright, N. T., Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008. 332pp.
One of the most well-known modern New Testament scholars, Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright’s works appeal to both academic and popular audiences. The former Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, Wright is currently the Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Born in 1948 in Morpeth, Northumberland, Wright has earned two Bachelor of Arts degrees, a Master of Arts degree, a Doctor of Philosophy degree, and a Doctor of Divinity degree in addition to numerous honorary doctorates. His works have found both praise and criticism from across the theological landscape, and does not easily fit into the either the theologically “liberal” or theologically “conservative” dichotomy. Among his most well-known works are Simply Christian, Simply Jesus, How God Became King, The Case for the Psalms, and the highly popular “For Everyone” commentary series on the New Testament. Wright is well-known as an advocate of the “New Perspective on Paul,” traditional marriage, and Resurrection-focused view of the New Testament story
SUMMARY OF CONTENTS
It is the Resurrection that is the focus of Surprised by Hope, in which Wright argues that the popular notion of “going to heaven when you die” owes less to the Scriptural perspectives on the Afterlife than it does to pagan assumptions rooted in the philosophy and cosmology of Plato. The Platonic worldview sees a stark contrast and dichotomy between the physical and spiritual in which the human soul and spirit are imprisoned in an evil body, with the ultimate goal of shedding physicality for a disembodied spiritual bliss. The Scriptures, however, teach a worldview that is incarnational, in which God took on Flesh in order to redeem physical humans, and indeed the entire physical world. Rather than a disembodied spiritual state, the ultimate goal in the biblical cosmology is the physical Resurrection of the Dead, who will live in a New Earth purged of the effects of the Fall and of sin.
Wright begins his argument of this premise by discussing the historic and current basis for Christian confusion about the Afterlife. Part of the confusion is due to a misunderstanding of the terms “heaven” and “kingdom of heaven.” According to Wright, heaven is typically a code word for God’s dominion and world, which is meant to exist with and alongside the physical world rather than separate from it. While acknowledging that the New Testament does teach a spiritual dwelling in heaven when a Christian dies, Wright points out that this is a mere stopping point or “intermediate state” prior to the general Resurrection of the Dead when Christ returns.
In laying out his argument, Wright discusses First Century views on the Afterlife and on the Resurrection in both Jewish and Pagan worldviews. He discusses Christ’s role as the Coming Judge, the concept of the Resurrection of our Bodies, and the misunderstandings that lead to erroneous doctrines such as Purgatory and Soul Sleep.
Wright concludes the work with several chapters about the practical results of having a Resurrection-focused worldview on the Church, with respect to evangelism, good works, political involvement, and mission. He notes that a denial of the Resurrection has led liberal Christians to ignore God’s supernatural power in changing society through the Church, but has resulted in the Church striving for (often misguided) social change by mere human effort. By contrast, by confusing heaven and the Resurrection, conservative Christians have often approached the world in an escapist manner, caring only for “spiritual” matters and ignoring the Church’s mandate to be Christ’s ambassadors in the World. A proper view of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Redemption of the World will instead lead to robust evangelism, advocacy for biblically-based social causes, and a robust theology of vocation.
While Wright is one of my favorite speakers and theologians, I by no means agree with everything he writes or says. I have come to the conclusion, for example, that Wright does not really understand Holy Orders, the Reformation, or Systematic Theology as well as other writers I respect. That said, when it comes to the Resurrection and First Century history, I generally find Wright to be very convincing. In that respect, Surprised by Hope is Wright at his best. He convincingly identifies common points of confusion about the Afterlife and lays out proper biblical correctives. At the time of this book, Wright was the bishop of Durham, and his pastor’s heart shows through in this book.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about Surprised by Hope is Wright’s identification of Christian hymnody and other worship music as a prime perpetrator of the confusion. For example, the final verse of “How Great Thou Art” discusses Christ coming to “take me home” to heaven. As Wright points out, however, heaven is a mere stopping point; our ultimate “home” is the New Earth in the Resurrection. The difficulty with Wright identifying our worship music as often having problematic language with regards to heaven and the Resurrection is that it can often ruin some of our favorite Christian songs for us! This is not so much of an objectively bad thing as one that can result in an unpleasant stripping away of naiveté.
Much of Wright’s premise was not new to me, however. Due to other speeches and books by Wright, as well as other theologians and preachers I respect, I have been thinking about the need to shift focus from heaven to the Resurrection for quite a while. In fact, this is something that I have been talking about for several years, including in some of my sermons and lectio divina sessions at All Saints. As such, I often found Surprised by Hope to be “preaching to the choir,” as it were. This feature of the book was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Wright often makes comments to the effect that he discusses a given point in more detail elsewhere, which could be frustrating with respect to points I thought merited further exploration. On the other hand, there were many times I found myself bored with points on which I did not need further convincing. However, for someone who has not been exposed to these ideas, Surprised by Hope is probably a good resource.
I found Wright’s final section to be the most helpful. In chapter 14, “Reshaping the Church for Mission (1): Biblical Roots,” Wright lays out the various New Testament passages on the Resurrection and its implications for how the Church is to live out its mission. In the next chapter, “Reshaping the Church for Mission (2): Living the Future,” Wright discusses the practical implications of a Resurrection-focused worldview, including a focus on Easter, a hope for redemption of space, time and matter, as well as implications for missions, evangelism, and social causes. Tying this into the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, Wright shows how incarnational Christian theology really is. I found this section to be most helpful, in that it gave me examples for how to incorporate the Resurrection and our ultimate hope into my ministry.
The least helpful section was Wright’s discussion of hell. Frankly, it is speculative and confusing, as Wright wished to divorce his ideas of hell from medieval superstition and from liberal universalism. That is, Wright finds the idea of a “dungeon” in the New Creation to be distasteful, but he also acknowledges that evil is real and needs to be judged. Wright’s speculation on the matter is an interesting reconciliation, but ultimately based more on his own assumptions than Scriptural truth. Fortunately, he freely admits this to be the case, and also notes that he does not expect his ideas on the matter to be widely accepted.
Overall, Surprised by Hope can be a very helpful book, though it is by no means an easy read. While it is conversational and emotive in style, and geared more toward a popular audience than an academic one, the topics discussed are very abstract ones that can be confusing. Topically, this is indeed Wright at his best, and serves as a well-needed corrective to some problematic assumptions in popular Christianity. The final chapters, in particular, would be useful to clergy and lay ministers. As with everything, one should weigh anything in this book against Scripture. As one of my old teachers used to say, when evaluating new ideas we should chew the meat and spit out the bones. Surprised by Hope consists of much more meat than bones.