N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, 2008. (332 pages).
PART II: God’s Future Plan. Ch.5 addresses the “myth of progress,” the plight of evil, and how the resurrection addresses both in ways that are more sufficient than other explanations.
“Only in the Christian story itself-certainly not in the secular stories of modernity-do we find any sense that the problems of the world are solved not by a straightforward upward movement into the light but by the creator God going down into the dark to rescue humankind and the world from its plight.” (87)
Ch. 6 outlines the “fundamental structures of hope” as an answer to what the world has been waiting for. The images of “citizens of heaven,” a “new birth,” and even “a marriage” are all metaphorical ways of speaking truthfully about this new reality that emerges because of the Incarnation, and the resurrection. “What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal…This is what the whole world’s waiting for.” (107)
Ch.7 tackles the popular beliefs and frames of meaning regarding the ascension and the second coming, and ch.8 explains further what the Bible speaks to with Jesus’ return (parousia).
Ch.9 explains beautifully the “judgment” as “good news,” and ch.10 discusses our “new bodies” at the resurrection as “a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death.” (151)
Ch.11 dives right into purgatory, paradise, and hell saying, “we cannot therefore look to Jesus’s teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God and, as it were, have that rejection ratified.” (177) I must include a portion from the conclusion of the matter: “To insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question-to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world-may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed…What the gospel of Jesus revealed was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different [kind of] question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all.” (185)
As I read this section, I felt more like the Gospel became, once again, good news.
I admit that I still have trouble with Wright’s proposition that the “myth of progress” is really a detriment to the explanations of the plight we find ourselves in. For perhaps the way God has “come down” has been through various aspects of Modernity, the advancement of technology, and the increase of wealth in the world. I am not at all ignoring the growing despair of those that are left behind by wars, and the negative consequences of technological advancement, but it seems to me that great good has also arisen out of those things, a good that could very well be interpreted as beneficent and godly. On my shelf is Dinesh D’Souza’s book, The Virtue of Prosperity, and I have yet to read through his arguments. But having listened a bit to John Schneider in debate with Ron Sider at the Veritas Forum, and reading some of Craig Blomberg’s theology, I have come to realize that the answer is much more complex and intricate than a simple disregard for either wealth, poverty, or the entire issue of progress. I want to completely affirm that the Christian story is the most beautiful and compelling of them all, that God would “condescend” himself into the darkness to bring light and salvation. I am simply suggesting that that theology may not be as diametrically opposed to the “myth of progress” than Wright (and others) are suggesting. It could be argued, that much of the growing prosperity and the modern advancements of humanity really has rescued “humankind and the world from its plight”; not completely, but in more ways than the Middle Ages.
I don’t think the importance of Wright’s clarification of the term “parousia” could be overstated. His re-contextualizing it in the culture to mean “presence” is very important to help realign the escapist theologies that have pervaded Christian thought, and of course, popular Christian literature. And, as with an Emperor’s return, we do not rush out to meet Jesus “in the air” so that he takes us away from the city of our residence, but rather to go and meet him so that we can properly usher him back to the city of which we were entrusted so he can, in fulfillment of great anticipation, witness our care and ultimate stewardship of it. The pervading and popular “rapture” alternative, if we’re really honest, is a) much more works oriented, depending greatly upon our “work” of “witnessing” (evangelism) to “save people,” and b) completely absent of the compassionate care of God to “save the world” [σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος] (John 3:17) through Jesus.
And though redundant, I end with a quotable that has been very helpful for me in understanding the beautiful and life giving way God has called us to “work out our salvation.” (Philippians 2:12)
Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (185)