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Surprised by Hope

N.T. Wright (HarperOne: Feb 5, 2008), 352 pages.

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. ~ Publishers Weekly

For years Christians have been asking, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” It turns out that many believers have been giving the wrong answer. It is not heaven. Award-winning author N. T. Wright outlines the present confusion about a Christian’s future hope and shows how it is deeply intertwined with how we live today. Wright, who is one of today’s premier Bible scholars, asserts that Christianity’s most distinctive idea is bodily resurrection. He provides a magisterial defense for a literal resurrection of Jesus and shows how this became the cornerstone for the Christian community’s hope in the bodily resurrection of all people at the end of the age. Wright then explores our expectation of “new heavens and a new earth,” revealing what happens to the dead until then and what will happen with the “second coming” of Jesus. For many, including many Christians, all this will come as a great surprise. Wright convincingly argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death. For if God intends to renew the whole creation—and if this has already begun in Jesus’s resurrection—the church cannot stop at “saving souls” but must anticipate the eventual renewal by working for God’s kingdom in the wider world, bringing healing and hope in the present life. Lively and accessible, this book will surprise and excite all who are interested in the meaning of life, not only after death but before it. ~ Synopsis

Wright’s subtitle aptly describes his purpose with this work, which is to rethink what is essential to Christianity. His conclusions are both simple and world-shaking. The “good news of the Gospels” is not, as many Christians and non-Christians seem to believe, that if you behave well and believe in Jesus then you will go to heaven when you die. Wright doesn’t deny the existence of some paradisical resting place, the “many rooms in my Father’s mansion” of Scripture, but he offers that the real promise is of another life in God’s new creation. Jesus’s resurrection in this light is simply the first instance of this new life foretold for all. Wright believes this new creation will be a redeeming of God’s first creation; for him, far from rushing to leave this world behind, a Christian’s true calling is to work toward this new creation right now. Readers will need a Bible handy to appreciate this work fully, as Wright prefers to cite rather than print Scripture. His prose, deep but not murky, is lightened by glints of humor. For any library serving patrons who are willing to think a bit about religion. ~ Eric Norton for Library Journal


Table of Contents

    • Preface
  • Part I Setting the Scene
    • 1 All Dressed Up and No Place to Go?
      • Introduction 3
      • Confusion about Hope: The Wider World 7
      • Varieties of Belief 9
    • 2 Puzzled About Paradise?
      • Christian Confusion About Hope 13
      • Exploring the Options 16
      • The Effects of Confusion 20
      • Wider Implications of Confusion 25
      • The Key Questions 27
    • 3 Early Christian Hope in Its Historical Setting
      • Introduction 31
      • Resurrection and Life after Death in Ancient Paganism and Judaism 35
      • The Surprising Character of Early Christian Hope 40
    • 4 The Strange Story of Easter
      • Stories Without Precedent 53
      • Easter and History 58
      • Conclusion 74
  • Part II God’s Future Plan
    • 5 Cosmic Future: Progress or Despair?
      • Introduction 79
      • Option 1 Evolutionary Optimism 81
      • Option 2 Souls in Transit 88
    • 6 What the Whole World’s Waiting For
      • Introduction 93
      • Fundamental Structures of Hope 93
      • Seedtime and Harvest 98
      • The Victorious Battle 99
      • Citizens of Heaven, Colonizing the Earth 100
      • God Will Be All in All 101
      • New Birth 103
      • The Marriage of Heaven and Earth 104
      • Conclusion 106
    • 7 Jesus, Heaven, and New Creation
      • The Ascension 109
      • What About the Second Coming? 117
    • 8 When He Appears
      • Introduction 123
      • Coming, Appearing, Revealing, Royal Presence 124
    • 9 Jesus, the Coming Judge
      • Introduction 137
      • Second Coming and Judgment 142
    • 10 The Redemption of Our Bodies
      • Introduction 147
      • Resurrection: Life After Life After Death 148
      • Resurrection in Corinth 152
      • Resurrection: Later Debates 156
      • Rethinking Resurrection Today: Who, Where, What Why, When, and How 159
    • 11 Purgatory, Paradise, Hell
      • Introduction 165
      • Purgatory 166
      • Paradise 171
      • Beyond Hope, Beyond Pity 175
      • Conclusion: Human Goals and New Creation 183
  • Part III Hope in Practice: Resurrection and the Mission of the Church
    • 12 Rethinking Salvation: Heaven, Earth, and the Kingdom of God
      • Introduction 189
      • The Meaning of Salvation 194
      • The Kingdom of God 201
    • 13 Building for the Kingdom
      • Introduction 207
      • Justice 213
      • Beauty 222
      • Evangelism 225
      • Conclusion 230
    • 14 Reshaping the Church for Mission (1): Biblical Roots
      • Introduction 233
      • The Gospels and Acts 234
      • Paul 246
    • 15 Reshaping the Church for Mission (2): Living the Future
      • Introduction: Celebrating Easter 255
      • Space, Time, and Matter: Creation Redeemed 257
      • Resurrection and Mission 264
      • Resurrection and Spirituality 271
    • Appendix Two Easter Sermons 291
    • Notes 297
    • Index 315
    • Biblical Passages 331


Table of Contents

All Dressed Up and No Place to Go?


Five snapshots set the scene for the two questions this book addresses.

In autumn 1997 much of the world was plunged into a week of national
mourning for Princess Diana, reaching its climax in the extraordinary
funeral service in Westminster Abbey. People brought flowers, teddy
bears, and other objects to churches, cathedrals, and town halls and
stood in line for hours to write touching if sometimes tacky messages
in books of condolence. Similar if somewhat smaller occasions of public
grief took place following such incidents as the Oklahoma City bombing
in 1995. They showed a rich confusion of belief, half belief,
sentiment, and superstition about the fate of the dead. The reaction of
the churches showed how far we had come from what might once have been
traditional Christian teaching on the subject.

The second
scene was farce, with a serious undertone. Early in 1999 I awoke one
morning to hear on the radio that a public figure had been sacked for
heretical statements about the afterlife. I listened eagerly. Was this
perhaps a radical bishop or theologian, exposed at last? Back came the
answer, incredible but true: no, it was a soccer coach. Glen Hoddle,
the manager of the England team, declared his belief in a particular
version of reincarnation, according to which sins committed in one life
are punished by disabilities in the next. Groups representing disabled
people objected strongly, and Hoddle was dismissed. It was commented at
the time, however, that reincarnation hadbecome remarkably popular in
our society and that it would be very odd if Hindus (many of whom hold
similar beliefs) were automatically banned from coaching a national
sports team.

The third scene is not a single moment, but the
snapshot will be familiar. Twenty or thirty people arrive in
slow-moving cars at a shabby building on the edge of town. A tinny
electronic organ plays supermarket music. A few words, the press of a
button, a solemn look from the undertaker, and they file out again, go
home for a cup of tea, and wonder what it was all about. Cremation,
almost unknown in the Western world a hundred years ago, is now the
preference, actual or assumed, of the great majority. It both reflects
and causes subtle but far-reaching shifts in attitudes to death and to
whatever hope lies beyond.

I initially wrote those opening
descriptions in early 2001. By the end of that year, of course, we had
witnessed a fourth moment, too well known but also too horrible to
describe or discuss in much detail. The events of September 11 of that
year are etched in global memory; the thousands who died and the tens
of thousands who were bereaved evoke our love and prayers. I shall not
say much more about that day, but for many people it raised once more,
very sharply, the questions this book seeks to discuss—as did, in their
different ways, the three massive so-called natural disasters of 2004
and 2005: the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004; the hurricanes on the
Gulf Coast of North America of August 2005, bringing long-lasting
devastation to New Orleans in particular; and the horrifying earthquake
in Pakistan and Kashmir in October of that same year.

fifth scene is a graveyard of a different sort. If you go to the
historic village of Easington in County Durham, England, and walk down
the hill toward the sea, you come to the town called Easington
Colliery. The town still bears that name, but there is no colliery
there anymore. Where the pit head once stood, with thousands of people
working to produce more coal faster and more efficiently than at most
other pits, there is smooth and level grass. Empty to the eye, but
pregnant with bereavement. All around, despite the heroic efforts of
local leaders, there are the signs of postindustrial blight, with all
the human fallout of other people’s power games. And that sight stands
in my mind as a symbol, or rather a symbolic question, every bit as
relevant to similar communities in America and elsewhere in the world
as they are to my home territory. What hope is there for communities
that have lost their way, their way of life, their coherence, their hope?

This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with
entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly
together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope
is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within
the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As
long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a
salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two
questions are bound to appear as unrelated. Indeed, some insist angrily
that to ask the second one at all is to ignore the first one, which is
the really important one. This in turn makes some others get angry when
people talk of resurrection, as if this might draw attention away from
the really important and pressing matters of contemporary social
concern. But if the Christian hope is for God’s new creation,
for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to
life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two
questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one
is also answering the other. I find that to many—not least, many
Christians —all this comes as a surprise: both that the Christian hope
is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same
hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world.

In this first chapter I want to set the scene and open up the questions
by looking at the contemporary confusion in our world—the wider world,
beyond the churches—about life after death. Then, in the second
chapter, I shall look at the churches themselves, where there seems to
me a worryingly similar uncertainty. This will highlight the key
questions that have to be asked and suggest a framework for how we go
about answering them.