Surprised by Hope – pt.1

Posted on April 6, 2008


N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, 2008. (332 pages).

Surprised by Hope - N.T. Wright

PART I: Setting the Scene. In this section, Wright tackles the issues of present depraved reality, and the question of death, Heaven, and Salvation. He suggests that if Heaven is some far off distant place, then the two have nothing in common. If, on the other hand, true Christian hope, Salvation, and Heaven are about God’s re-creation of the world in the here and now, then there is much to say, to think, and to act in response to the unfortunate realities of life.

Given that there is a lot of popular content out there regarding Heaven, “most people simply don’t know what orthodox Christian belief is” (12) “It comes as something of a shock…that there is very little in the bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’ and not a lot about a postmortem hell either.” (18) “…the pictures of heaven in the book of Revelation…[are] a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. 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.” (18-19)

Why is this work so important? “What we say about death and resurrection gives shape and color to everything else.” (25) Moving, in ch. 3, to an illustration from “Wittgenstein’s poker,” Wright sums up RSG [1] and argues for the physical resurrection of Jesus (a Jewish belief) but with seven distinct Christian “modifications.”

1. Within early Christianity there is no spectrum of belief about life beyond death. (41) It wasn’t until “a good 150 years after the time of Jesus, do we find people using the word resurrection to mean something quite different. (42)

2. In second-Temple Judaism, resurrection is important but not that important. But in early Christianity resurrection moved from the circumference to the center. (42)

3. From the start within early Christianity it was built in as part of the belief in resurrection that the new body, though it will certainly be a body in the sense of a physical object occupying space and time, will be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties. (43)

4. The resurrection, as an event, has split into two. (44) We never find outside Christianity what becomes a central feature within it: the belief that the mode of this inauguration consisted in the resurrection itself happening to one person in the middle of history in advance of its great, final occurrence, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of history. (45)

5. Precisely because of the resurrection, God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. (46)

6. The meaning of resurrection being exile disappeared. In its place, resurrection referred, metaphorically, to baptism (a dying and rising with Christ), and a new life of strenuous ethical obedience. (46-7)

7. Resurrection associated with messiahship. From very early on, the Christians affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.

Ch. 4 continues with a more thorough summation of RSG, and posits an “epistemology of love,” “the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality.” (73)

He concludes with these words: “And this is the point where believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century. Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.” (75)

[1] NT Wright,The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Fortress, 2003).


My responses to writings like these are always two-fold. One, I am so thankful that there is good work being published like this that allows the reader to strive to understand deeper the writings “on their own terms” rather than some imaginative interpretations that do more justice to our narcissism than to the text itself. But second, I am continually wrestling with the a double-sided question: How did our current misunderstandings get to where they are, so far down the road that perhaps the original writers would find our beliefs (based on their teachings) to be so incompatible and strange, and why do we care so little about discovering this kind of truth? Why are we so satisfied with our contemporary and narrow interpretations that riddle our settled and convinced minds with certitude? Is this some kind of religious delusion? Or perhaps I am too critical of a very compatible nuance of orthodoxy? After all, we shant put God in a box, right?

Regardless, I am thrilled to take part in these renewed definitions of Heaven and Salvation. I welcome the work that now needs to be done in response to this greater understanding. And I do believe, and hope, and have faith that what God originally designed for humanity, for His world, will be realized through those of us who remain faithful and true, honest enough to deal with the complexities of personal subjectivism, but real enough to resist over-philosophizing so as to become “so heavenly minded…”

[Go to part two]

Posted in: Reviews, Theology