Posted by: gmscan | May 11, 2012

N.T. Wright – Surprised by Hope

This is going to take a couple of posts. Here is the first one.

I just finished N.T. Wright’s, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.” Wright is, of course, a Bishop in the Church of England, a prolific author, and one of our generation’s best Biblical scholars.  He is also a gifted writer for the layman and seems grounded in Reformation theology.

I was thrilled with about 90% of the book – the theological part – but disappointed in the 10% (or less) devoted to social policy. Let’s start with the good stuff.

In this book, Wright wants to summarize for us laymen the more scholarly work he has done in several other works. He begins with the widespread fascination and confusion over life after death, even among devoted Christians. He says the most popular views of death and afterlife today fall into several categories;

  • Total annihilation – you die and rot. End of the story.
  • Some form of reincarnation, a kind of Hinduism.
  • A spiritual unity with nature, a kind of Buddhism.
  • Even nominally Christian cultures, he says, envision some kind of ethereal Heaven to which souls go to be reunited with loved ones.

All of these views except the first feed a culture of mysticism, including communicating with dead relatives and the appearance of ghosts. Wright argues that this is all influenced by Plato and the Greeks who maintained that the material world is corrupt, while the spiritual world is pure — we should be glad to depart the one and enter the other.

Wright says none of this is Christian.  He says the New Testament is not about our going to heaven when we die, but of heaven coming to us:

“Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever. … in Revelation 21-22, we find … the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in  lasting embrace.”

Next, Wright moves to the Resurrection of Christ. He has written far more extensively in his “The Resurrection of the Son of God” (2003), which I am eager to read. But in a nutshell, this moment was unique in history. No one at the time thought such a thing was possible. Even the Jews who believed in bodily resurrection believed that the entire people would be resurrected at the same time — on the last day.  The Greeks and the Pagans thought bodily resurrection was not only impossible, but a really bad idea. They wanted to get out of the material world, not bring it with them.

That is why the disciples were so perplexed when Jesus told them what was about to happen. Rising from the dead? Huh? So, when it happened, they were stunned and amazed. It was the defining moment of Christianity. This is what they needed to tell the world about. This is why they were willing to be imprisoned, tortured, and killed – because this event was so important and so unprecedented. Wright says:

“The first Christians… virtually never spoke simply of going to heaven when they died. When they did speak of heaven as a postmortem destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body.”

This is why, Wright says, the Christian emphasis should be on Easter. He goes pretty deeply into the Easter story in the gospels, especially how unexpected they are. For instance, one would expect the resurrected Messiah to be depicted as glorious – shining like a star – but that is not how he is described. Quite the opposite.  He seems so normal he can be mistaken for a gardener or a fellow traveler on the road. He is solid and can eat, but he also appears suddenly in a locked room, and disappears as quickly. Wright says, “This kind of account is without precedent. No biblical texts predict this kind of body.”

Wright proceeds to pretty well demolish the arguments of the skeptics about the resurrection. I won’t summarize it all here, but we are left with the conviction that it happened just as the bible says it did. This allows him to launch into the next subject: the new creation. He writes:

“To put it at its most basic: the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be.”

And this is the whole point of the book – that God’s new creation, the new heaven and the new earth, has broken into our space and time in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s merger of heaven and earth has already begun. And, as Christians and as a church, we need to respond, now, in our own time. But, first, Wright wants to clarify the context of our response.

He examines what currently drives much of human activity. The first, is “the myth of progress.” This is something that has been sold to us by political and commercial interests for the past three centuries. It is actually devoid of hope in favor of entertainment. It offers a false “utopian dream (that) is in fact a parody of the Christian vision.” As he describes it:

“Humans can be made perfect and are indeed evolving inexorably toward that point…. Instead of dependence on God’s grace, we will become what we have the potential to be by education and hard work.”

This might seem plausible, provided we put on blinders and ignore the Twentieth Century experiments of Soviet Communism, Nazism, Maoism, and all the other efforts at secular utopianism. Wright says, “The real problem with the myth of progress is… that it cannot deal with evil.”

The other form of activity rejects all this, and in fact all materialism, in favor of a disembodied spiritualism. This is the root of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Gnosticism, and goes back to Plato. Even many Christians are inclined in this direction. Some figure if God is going to destroy the earth in the final days, why bother with the here and now?

Wright offers an alternative view, one that goes back to the early Christians. They did not think the world is getting better all the time (progress to utopia), nor did they think it is getting worse all the time (destruction to the end times). Rather, they believed “that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.” They believed God’s creation was good until the Fall, and that goodness would be restored.

“Evil then consists not in being created but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them.”

Importantly, the Creator is not and cannot be part of his creation. He is outside of our creation, outside of our time and space. But, Wright says, the whole world is yearning for the time when the two realms will be united:

“Heaven and earth… are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated forever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth. Nor are they simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism. No, they are different, radically different, but they are made for each other in the same way… as male and female.”

The first indication of this coming together is the ascension of Christ. He did not rise up and go into the clouds or somewhere into outer space. He went into heaven, which most likely is right beside us.

This is where I will pick up next time.



  1. I like N.T Wright. Excellent review.

    I specially like your summary of the central point of the book “God’s new creation, the new heaven and the new earth, has broken into our space and time in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s merger of heaven and earth has already begun. And, as Christians and as a church, we need to respond, now, in our own time.”

    Perhaps the two most important confluences in the N.T. are the driving forces behind this breaking in. John 3:16 begins “For God so loved the world…”, and Paul, in 1 Cor 13, unwraps the meaning of love.

    Getting wrapped up in this love is where it >all<< begins.

    Looking forward to part II of your review.

    • Thanks as always Jodie. I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to promote your last comments on the abortion issue to a post of its own. You raised a lot of interesting topics.


      • I don’t mind. I’m not going to wish I did, am I?


  2. This is a very interesting view, not widely spread in the Baptist circles I swim in nowadays. Thank you!
    I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce (I think) that went something like this: for those who choose heaven, it’s been heaven all along, and for those who choose hell, it’s been hell all along.
    For the saved, our Earthly walk will be seen in retrospect as a part of our Heavenly life.
    But trying to teach “The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now” while avoiding getting across “Try to make this Earth a Heaven because it’s the only Heaven you’ll ever see” is tricky.
    I guess that’s why you don’t hear many sermons about this topic.

  3. Hmmm I’m not sure I really get the point of what Phillip was saying CS Lewis said. Thank you for your review of the book. I guess what I like about Wright is mostly his view on the resurrection, because this is the basis of our hope. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” You said you were thrilled with 90% of the book, and disappointed in 10%. What were you disappointed in?

    • Hi Ruth,
      Did you read this in the review above. I guess the full answer is in the second part.
      Quote” I was thrilled with about 90% of the book – the theological part – but disappointed in the 10% (or less) devoted to social policy. Let’s start with the good stuff.” So it is social policy that seems weak.

      I’m thinking this book is written just for eschatologiist’s. Others would want a clear exposition of Christ’s person and work and the meaning and implications of the incarnation and the cross as well as the resurrection and Jesus and the apostles veiw on the end times. Not having read the book makes it hard for me to comment further.

      • Yeah I wanted more detail of exactly where he thought it was weak in social policy because this seems to be a sticking point in the churches mission to the world. How far does Jesus’ message about the kingdom and his resurrection and ascension and the coming of the kingdom down to earth propel our social policy in mission to the world. After all if he’s only 10% happy then there are serious mising components in Wrights book.

  4. Ray and Ruth,

    Thank you for your interest. My examination of Wright actually extends to several posts. See — and — Finally I get into combining Wright and Dorothy Sayers here —

    I would be very interested in your thoughts on these posts. Essentially I am saying that both writers are very good on theology, but not very good on economics, business, or politics.

    Oh, btw, I said I was happy with 90% of Wright, unhappy with only 10%.


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