‘What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?” These two questions are central to our Christian faith.
Yet, as N. T. Wright points out in his new book, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,” our answers may not have been scriptural in the past.
Wright, a popular New Testament scholar, examines in a very biblical way just what is the Christian hope — not just for beyond death, but also for right now.
He begins his description by focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. In two chapters, Wright summarizes what has been for him a major teaching point for the past decades — the biblical evidence of the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and the radical belief shift of the disciples, all of which point undoubtedly to a bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Building on this foundation, he begins to describe how this event of Jesus’ resurrection is paradigmatic for our future hope.
Criticizing notions of heaven being a Platonic, spiritual place of bliss for souls, Wright says heaven is about resurrection and transformation.
The Christian hope is of a bodily resurrection for all saints and a transformed creation. Surprisingly, Wright says the idea of those who are faithful “going to heaven” is incorrect, as the more biblical description of Revelation 21-22 is of heaven coming to earth.
Currently, heaven exists as a separate dimension that interlocks with earth from time to time, but the day will come when the two will become one.
Consequently, the expectation should not be for Jesus to “come” from heaven to earth, but simply to “appear” (1 John 2:28), for he is already here, just in the other, heavenly dimension. Heaven has just not completely broken in to the earth yet. So the true hope is of a new heaven and new earth redeemed by God where his church can dwell with him.
Wright suggests this view of the Christian’s hope has radical implications for life in the present. First, the spiritual/physical dichotomy is removed. No longer are we to think that our physical self or creation is evil and something from which to escape. Instead, they are precisely what will be redeemed in God’s new heaven and earth.
Second, salvation becomes less about simply “going to heaven” and more about radical transformation of the whole person, preparing for the “life after life after death,” or the new existence after the final resurrection. (“Life after death” is the waiting place of happiness preferably referred to as “paradise,” not “heaven.”)
Third, the kingdom becomes less a realm and more a reign of God breaking into the world, first through Jesus and his church, and eventually becoming complete at the final resurrection.
Needless to say, Wright challenges some long-held traditional notions about heaven, yet he does it in a refreshing manner. From the beginning, he laments the fact that our visions of the future have not coincided with Scripture, which he so desperately wants — a desire that rings true with Restorationists. Consequently, he seeks to be very biblical in many of his explanations.
Because of his Anglican background, some practical points that he makes would not apply to many of our contexts (for example, Easter liturgies). Yet, he challenges us in our desire to be missional as he says, “If we want to be a mission-shaped church, what we need is a hope-shaped mission.”
In other words, not only do we need to be concerned about evangelism, but also justice and beauty. That is “building for the kingdom,” according to Wright.
One of the weaknesses of the book is its briefness. Certain explanations could use further space and detail (hardly a mention is made of 2 Peter 3:10).
Also, Wright does not connect hell with one’s standing before Christ but vaguely, one’s bearing of God’s image. He opposes purgatory and praying to dead saints, but sees value in praying for them, which is peculiar considering he gives no biblical support.
Still, no minister or teacher should miss this book that will challenge one’s thinking and, in the meanwhile, drive one back to Scripture.
STEVE CLOER is preaching minister for the Southside church in Fort Worth, Texas.