Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Harper Collins, 2008) by N.T. Wright is a book written for ordinary Christians. He explains the historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, eschatology, and Kingdom work on earth. Wright makes the argument that many Christians have a muddled view of hope—that heaven is somewhere ‘out there’.
Wright advocates a return to a more biblical, more creation-centered, more Jewish understanding of our future hope. Wright reminds us the Kingdom of Heaven began with Christ’s resurrection. ‘Christian hope’ is for God’s new creation; for ‘new heavens and new earth’. It forms the foundation for current social action, evangelism, and spirituality. What is Christian hope? What hope is there for change in today’s world? The answers lie in understanding the true meaning of the resurrection!
This book addresses two questions…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’ which is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear unrelated…But if the ‘Christian hope’ is for God’s new creation, for ‘new heavens and new earth’ - and of 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.
The myth of progress fails because it doesn’t in fact work; because it would never solve evil retrospectively; and because it underestimates the nature and power of evil itself and thus fails to see the vital importance of the cross. God’s no to evil, which then opens the doors to his yes to creation. 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 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.
For three months in the summer of 2004, I labored through N.T. Wright’s massive book, The Resurrection of the Son of God - an important work for anyone interested in the historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection of the Son of God significantly deepened my appreciation for Easter. Wright’s research bolstered my confidence in the historicity of the New Testament accounts, but more than that, it helped me to understand why the Resurrection was necessary and why it is so important to Christian theology.
Needless to say, I was happy to discover that Wright was working on an edited, popular-level supplement to The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fast forward to 2008. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church has been released, a sequel of sorts to Simply Christian. (And yes, the allusions to C.S. Lewis’ works Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy are an intentional advertising gimmick, although readers quickly discover that the comparisons to Lewis do have some merit.)
In Surprised by Hope, Wright attempts to do three things. First, he exposes current Christianity’s muddled views of the afterlife by taking us through the historical evidence for and the theological explanation of Jesus’ resurrection. Second, he answers questions regarding eschatology that necessarily arise from his Resurrection theology - showing how his eschatological framework best fits the New Testament witness. Third, he shows how the Christian’s future hope of resurrection forms the foundation for current social action, evangelism, and spirituality.
For those familiar with Wright’s previous work on the resurrection, Surprised by Hope will not surprise you (no pun intended). For years now, Wright has been advocating a return to a more biblical, more creation-centered, more Jewish understanding of the future hope of new heavens and new earth. Other theologians have been speaking up about this subject too, in hopes that a more robust view of heaven will reenergize our Kingdom efforts on earth. (Michael Wittmer’s Heaven Is a Place on Earth and Randy Alcorn’s textbook-styled Heaven come to mind.)
But Surprised by Hope stands out in the amount of material that Wright is able to incorporate into a single volume and in the moving way in which he makes his case. This book carries an emotional resonance rarely encountered among works of theology. At times, Wright’s description of the Christian hope so moved me that I found myself wiping away tears.
Surprised by Hope contains many paradoxes, which is what we have come to expect from a theologian like Wright. Here are a few examples:
- Wright argues forcefully for Christ’s bodily resurrection (to the “Amens” of his conservative readers), but then shows why that must necessarily inform our view of the Christian’s future hope (and the picture is significantly different [i.e. grander!] than what conservatives have generally taught).
- He devotes significant space to eschatology, firmly disagreeing with the Preterist position, while admitting that Jesus’ prophecies concerned the Fall of Jerusalem.
- Dispensationalists will not countenance his interpretation of Revelation or Daniel, and yet Amillennialists will be surprised by his refusal to spiritualize the Kingdom in ways that detract from an earthy application.
- Reformed readers will have trouble with Wright’s “New Perspective on Paul” that surfaces in a couple of places, and yet they will applaud his Kuyperian stance on the lordship of Christ over all creation.
- Roman Catholics will disagree with Wright’s decisive rejection of purgatory and praying to the saints, but some Protestants may be equally puzzled about Wright leaving room for Christians to pray for the dead (not for their salvation, mind you, but only for their rest!).
- Traditionalists will be glad to see Wright rejecting universalism and affirming the existence of hell, and yet, Wright’s innovative view of hell (in terms of dehumanization) is more akin to C.S. Lewis than to anything clearly taught in Scripture. (Wright’s view serves as middle way between annihilationism and the traditional view of eternal torment.)
Pastors would do well to read the final chapters of Surprised by Hope. Wright gives food for thought on the nature of mission work and evangelism. He also offers practical advice on reinvigorating our anemic Easter celebrations.
Surprised by Hope will be one of Wright’s most widely-read books. Though readers should proceed with caution regarding some of Wright’s proposals, the wheat in this book far outweighs the chaff.