Wright, N. T., Surprised
by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
New York: HarperOne, 2008. 332pp.
One of the most well-known modern New Testament scholars,
Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright’s works appeal to both academic and popular
audiences. The former Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, Wright is currently
the Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s
College in the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Born in 1948 in Morpeth,
Northumberland, Wright has earned two Bachelor of Arts degrees, a Master of
Arts degree, a Doctor of Philosophy degree, and a Doctor of Divinity degree in
addition to numerous honorary doctorates. His works have found both praise and
criticism from across the theological landscape, and does not easily fit into the
either the theologically “liberal” or theologically “conservative” dichotomy.
Among his most well-known works are Simply
Christian, Simply Jesus, How God Became King, The Case for the Psalms, and the
highly popular “For Everyone” commentary series on the New Testament. Wright is
well-known as an advocate of the “New Perspective on Paul,” traditional
marriage, and Resurrection-focused view of the New Testament story
Summary of Contents
It is the Resurrection that is the focus of Surprised by Hope, in which Wright
argues that the popular notion of “going to heaven when you die” owes less to
the Scriptural perspectives on the Afterlife than it does to pagan assumptions
rooted in the philosophy and cosmology of Plato. The Platonic worldview sees a
stark contrast and dichotomy between the physical and spiritual in which the human
soul and spirit are imprisoned in an evil body, with the ultimate goal of
shedding physicality for a disembodied spiritual bliss. The Scriptures,
however, teach a worldview that is incarnational, in which God took on Flesh in
order to redeem physical humans, and indeed the entire physical world. Rather
than a disembodied spiritual state, the ultimate goal in the biblical cosmology
is the physical Resurrection of the Dead, who will live in a New Earth purged
of the effects of the Fall and of sin.
Wright begins his argument of this premise by discussing the
historic and current basis for Christian confusion about the Afterlife. Part of
the confusion is due to a misunderstanding of the terms “heaven” and “kingdom
of heaven.” According to Wright, heaven is typically a code word for God’s
dominion and world, which is meant to exist with and alongside the physical
world rather than separate from it. While acknowledging that the New Testament
does teach a spiritual dwelling in heaven when a Christian dies, Wright points
out that this is a mere stopping point or “intermediate state” prior to the
general Resurrection of the Dead when Christ returns.
In laying out his argument, Wright discusses First Century
views on the Afterlife and on the Resurrection in both Jewish and Pagan
worldviews. He discusses Christ’s role as the Coming Judge, the concept of the
Resurrection of our Bodies, and the misunderstandings that lead to erroneous
doctrines such as Purgatory and Soul Sleep.
Wright concludes the work with several chapters about the
practical results of having a Resurrection-focused worldview on the Church,
with respect to evangelism, good works, political involvement, and mission. He
notes that a denial of the Resurrection has led liberal Christians to ignore
God’s supernatural power in changing society through the Church, but has resulted
in the Church striving for (often misguided) social change by mere human effort.
By contrast, by confusing heaven and the Resurrection, conservative Christians
have often approached the world in an escapist manner, caring only for “spiritual”
matters and ignoring the Church’s mandate to be Christ’s ambassadors in the
World. A proper view of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Redemption of the
World will instead lead to robust evangelism, advocacy for biblically-based
social causes, and a robust theology of vocation.
While Wright is one of my favorite speakers and theologians,
I by no means agree with everything he writes or says. I have come to the
conclusion, for example, that Wright does not really understand Holy Orders,
the Reformation, or Systematic Theology as well as other writers I respect. That
said, when it comes to the Resurrection and First Century history, I generally
find Wright to be very convincing. In that respect, Surprised by Hope is Wright at his best. He convincingly identifies
common points of confusion about the Afterlife and lays out proper biblical
correctives. At the time of this book, Wright was the bishop of Durham, and his
pastor’s heart shows through in this book.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about Surprised by Hope is Wright’s identification of Christian hymnody
and other worship music as a prime perpetrator of the confusion. For example, the final verse of “How Great
Thou Art” discusses Christ coming to “take me home” to heaven. As Wright points
out, however, heaven is a mere stopping point; our ultimate “home” is the New
Earth in the Resurrection. The difficulty with Wright identifying our worship
music as often having problematic language with regards to heaven and the
Resurrection is that it can often ruin some of our favorite Christian songs for
us! This is not so much of an objectively bad thing as one that can result in
an unpleasant stripping away of naiveté.
Much of Wright’s premise was not new to me, however. Due to
other speeches and books by Wright, as well as other theologians and preachers
I respect, I have been thinking about the need to shift focus from heaven to
the Resurrection for quite a while. In fact, this is something that I have been
talking about for several years, including in some of my sermons and lectio divina sessions at All Saints. As
such, I often found Surprised by Hope
to be “preaching to the choir,” as it were. This feature of the book was a
double-edged sword. On the one hand, Wright often makes comments to the effect
that he discusses a given point in more detail elsewhere, which could be
frustrating with respect to points I thought merited further exploration. On
the other hand, there were many times I found myself bored with points on which
I did not need further convincing. However, for someone who has not been
exposed to these ideas, Surprised by Hope
is probably a good resource.
I found Wright’s final section to be the most helpful. In
chapter 14, “Reshaping the Church for Mission (1): Biblical Roots,” Wright lays
out the various New Testament passages on the Resurrection and its implications
for how the Church is to live out its mission. In the next chapter, “Reshaping
the Church for Mission (2): Living the Future,” Wright discusses the practical
implications of a Resurrection-focused worldview, including a focus on Easter,
a hope for redemption of space, time and matter, as well as implications for
missions, evangelism, and social causes. Tying this into the Sacraments of
Baptism and the Eucharist, Wright shows how incarnational Christian theology
really is. I found this section to be most helpful, in that it gave me examples
for how to incorporate the Resurrection and our ultimate hope into my ministry.
The least helpful section was Wright’s discussion of hell.
Frankly, it is speculative and confusing, as Wright wished to divorce his ideas
of hell from medieval superstition and from liberal universalism. That is,
Wright finds the idea of a “dungeon” in the New Creation to be distasteful, but
he also acknowledges that evil is real and needs to be judged. Wright’s
speculation on the matter is an interesting reconciliation, but ultimately
based more on his own assumptions than Scriptural truth. Fortunately, he freely
admits this to be the case, and also notes that he does not expect his ideas on
the matter to be widely accepted.
Overall, Surprised by
Hope can be a very helpful book, though it is by no means an easy read.
While it is conversational and emotive in style, and geared more toward a
popular audience than an academic one, the topics discussed are very abstract
ones that can be confusing. Topically, this is indeed Wright at his best, and
serves as a well-needed corrective to some problematic assumptions in popular
Christianity. The final chapters, in particular, would be useful to clergy and
lay ministers. As with everything, one should weigh anything in this book
against Scripture. As one of my old teachers used to say, when evaluating new
ideas we should chew the meat and spit out the bones. Surprised by Hope consists of much more meat than bones.