SURPRISED BY HOPE: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (N T WRIGHT, 2008).
Bishop Tom Wright is currently the English-speaking world’s most influential evangelical scholar. He is ‘evangelical’ (being quite a literalist in terms of what happened at the resurrection of Jesus for example), but also tantalizes us in terms of his more opaque view of other classic Christian literalisms – for example the ascension of Jesus, and hell (he seems to believe in a version of ‘conditional immortality’) etc. But this book will be deemed a classic, I believe.
Here are some representative quotes I’ve selected to whet your appetite:
This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong rightly 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? … If the Christian hope is for *God’s new creation* (Wright’s emphasis), 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 (p. 5).
The main beliefs that emerge in the present climate seem to me of three types, none of which corresponds to Christian orthodoxy – annihilation, reincarnation, and ghosts/ spiritualistic contact with the dead (9-12). (And) Christian thought has oscillated between seeing death as a vile enemy and a welcome friend (17).
‘God’s kingdom’ in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’… Heaven is… 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). As one great hymn [puts it]: God is working his purpose out so that ‘the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’ (22). The Christian doctrine of the resurrection, as part of God’s new creation, gives more value, not less, to the present world and to our present bodies (26).
The ancient world – with the exception of the Jews – was adamant that dead people did not rise again; and the Jews did not believe that anyone had done so or that anyone would do so all by themselves in advance of the general resurrection (34). When the early Christians said that Jesus had risen from the dead, they knew they were saying that something had happened to him that had happened to nobody else and that nobody had expected to happen (37).
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 (41). No first-century Jew prior to Easter expected the resurrection to be anything other than a large-scale event happening to all God’s people, or perhaps to the entire human race (45). It is impossible to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection (48). …In Paul the resurrection, both of Jesus and then in the future of his people, is the foundation of the Christian stance of allegiance to [Jesus] as a different king, a different lord [to Caesar] (50).
The gospel resurrection narratives… though lightly edited and written down later, are basically very, very early. They are not, as has often been suggested, legends written up much later to give a pseudohistorical basis for what essentially was a private, interior experience (57). Far and away the best historical explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth, having been thoroughly dead and buried, really was raised to life on the third day with a renewed body (not a mere ‘resuscitated corpse’ as people sometimes dismissively say), a new kind of physical body, which left an empty tomb behind it (63)… No other explanations have been offered in two thousand years of sneering skepticism toward the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and worldviews were transformed… What is at stake is the clash between a worldview that allows for a God of creation and justice and worldviews that don’t (68-9). What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science (71). We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like lighting a candle to see whether the sun had risen (74).
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… Think of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful scene in his play Salome, when Herod hears reports that Jesus of Nazareth has been raising the dead. ‘I do not wish him to do that’, says Herod. ‘I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead’ (75).
What God did for Jesus at Easter he will do not only for all those who are ‘in Christ’ but also for the entire cosmos (99). Under the sovereign and wise rule of the creator God, decay and death will be done away with and a new creation born, to which the present one will stand as mother to child… The great teacher and pastor Bishop Lesslie Newbigin was asked, as he looked to the future, [whether] he was optimistic or pessimistic. His reply…: ‘I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!’ (107-8).
The Greek word ‘parousia’ is usually translated ‘coming’ but literally it means ‘presence’ – that is, presence as opposed to absence. [For Paul] Jesus is the reality of which Caesar is the parody (128, 131).
In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. In particular [the] picture of future judgment according to works is actually the basis of Paul’s theology of justification by faith… for Paul there was no clash between present justification by faith and future judgment according to works (139-140).
My proposition is that the traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage postmortem journey (with or without the option of some kind of purgatory or continuing journey as an intermediate stage) represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope (148).
C S Lewis… in his remarkable book The Great Divorce manages to get us to envisage bodies that are more solid, more real, more substantial, than our present ones (159). [Our] ultimate destination is… not ‘going to heaven when you die’ but being bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. Thus if we want to speak of ‘going to heaven when we die’ we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. Resurrection isn’t life after death; it is life after life after death (168-9). Purgatory is not a place, a time, or a state… Death itself gets rid of all that is still sinful (170).
The greatest objection [to the idea of hell comes] from the deep revulsion many feel at the idea of the torture chamber in the middle of the castle of delights, the concentration camp in the middle of the beautiful countryside, the idea that among the delights of the blessed we should include the contemplation of the torments of the wicked (181).
[Humans] become like [the objects they] worship… money… sex… power… My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings … to become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all… [passing] beyond hope but also beyond pity… I am well aware that I have now wandered into territory that no one can claim to have mapped… When Paul says ‘all’ he regularly reaches out beyond what his hearers might have expected to show that God’s powerful love embraces the unexpected as well as the obvious… God is always the God of surprises (183-4).
[Modern liberal scholars object to the idea of the bodily resurrection of Jesus on moral grounds]: If God can pull of a stunt like this, why can’t he intervene and do a lot more useful things like stopping genocide or earthquakes? [There are also historical and scientific objections]. … [But] when historians start to make arguments about what happened on the grounds of what ought (or ought not) to have happened, they put themselves on very thin ice indeed (189-90).
[What was Jesus up to?] … It was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is, so they could enjoy… the renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose (192). Salvation, then, is not ‘going to heaven’ but ‘being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth’ (198).
Creation is to be redeemed, that is, space is to be redeemed, time is to be redeemed, and matter is to be redeemed (211). [And this will include justice, ‘putting the world to rights’ as Wright often quaintly puts it]. That’s what we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (215). Resurrection doesn’t mean escaping from the world; it means mission to the world based on Jesus’s lordship over the world (235).
Easter is about the real Jesus coming out of the real tomb and getting God’s new creation under way (256). [This is not simply ‘saving souls’]: This radical distortion of Christian hope belongs exactly with a quietism that leaves the world as it is and thus allows evil to proceed unchecked (269).
Of course, in our incomplete world God’s gentle offer and demand press upon us as fearful things, almost threatening. But God’s offer and demand are neither fearful nor threatening. God in his gentle love longs to set us free from the prison we have stumbled into – the loveless prison where we refuse both the offer and the demand of forgiveness. We are like a frightened bird before him, shrinking away lest this demand crush us completely. But when we eventually yield – when he corners us and finally takes us in his hand – we find to our astonishment that he is infinitely gentle and that his only aim is to release us from our prison, to set us free to be the people he made us to be. But when we fly out into the sunshine, how can we not then offer the same gentle gift of freedom, of forgiveness, to those around us? That is the truth of the resurrection, turned into prayer, turned into forgiveness and remission of debts, turned into love. It is constantly surprising, constantly full of hope, constantly coming to us from God’s future to shape us into the people through whom God can carry out his work in the world (289).
Rowland Croucher, February 2010.