Book Review: Surprised by Hope, by N. T. Wright
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N. T. Wright is one of the most talented writers among New Testament scholars today. In this book he presents his understanding of what the Scriptures teach about heaven, the resurrection, and the church’s mission.
What is heaven after all? Wright contends that too many Christians have a Platonic idea of heaven. They conceive of it in ethereal terms, as if we float in a bodiless state in some transcendent realm. Indeed, most Christians think of heaven as “up there,” and as separated from the earth. What the Scriptures teach, however, is that heaven will come to earth. The Scriptures do not say, according to Wright, that we will “go to heaven when we die,” but that heaven will come to earth, that the earth upon which we live will be transformed, and that we will enjoy the new creation.
Wright’s understanding of the Christian hope is predicated upon the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Surprised by Hope therefore summarizes Wright’s older, massive, and outstanding book The Resurrection of the Son of God. What is important to see here is that the resurrection is irreducibly physical. People in the ancient world believed in spirits, ghosts, and the like, but they did not confuse things like these with the idea of a resurrection. Also, Wright does not simply accept the resurrection by faith, since the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is incredibly strong. No, we cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Christ was raised. Still, his physical resurrection fits most suitably with the evidence of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus Christ.
The resurrection of Jesus is fundamental to Wright’s thesis, for Christ’s resurrection is tied to the future resurrection of believers. Hence, the future that awaits believers cannot be described as a spiritual existence in heaven. Rather, heaven will be on a new earth where believers will continue the bodily existence they enjoy in this world, but with bodies that are transformed by the Holy Spirit.
And what is the payoff for the church’s mission in the present? Wright emphasizes over and over that our life in this world makes a difference. We do not simply wait to go to heaven when we die. We are called upon to engage this world, to work for justice in the political realm, to exercise our artistic gifts as creatures made in God’s image, and to evangelize the lost.
How should we assess Surprised by Hope? Wright’s fundamental thesis here is correct. Heaven will be on a new earth, and therefore it must not be regarded as floating in some kind of spiritual never-land. We look forward to our future resurrection, and to the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells. Wright’s defense of the resurrection of Christ, defended more fully in his major book on the topic, is the finest treatment I have read on the subject. Wright does affirm the intermediate state, but he rightly stresses that the future hope of believers is the resurrection. Furthermore, Wright is on target in saying that we are to strive for justice, truth, and beauty in this world. Some believers have said that this world is destined for destruction, and hence only focus on the salvation of the lost.
Yet there are some significant problems with the book. Surely some believers have mistakenly thought that heaven was only spiritual, but many (most of those I know) do not conceive of heaven in this way. We could say that Wright exaggerates his thesis to make his point. Well and good. Still, he is excessively critical of the phrase “go to heaven.” After all, we have a number of statements in Scripture about entering (going to!) the kingdom in the future (e.g., Matt. 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; Mark 9:47; 10:15; John 3:5; Acts 14:22). Scripture also speaks of heaven as a realm above and separate from us (Matt. 6:1, 9, 10, 20; 18:10; Luke 24:51; John 1:51; Acts 1:10; 2 Cor. 12:2; Col. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:4). That does not, to be sure, communicate that our future destiny is non-physical, but it does stress that it is a realm separate from our present existence. Yes, Wright is correct in saying that heaven will be a transformed earth, and that heaven will come, so to speak, to this world. But since the Scriptures also speak of us “entering” the kingdom; since they speak of heaven as a world above and beyond us; and since the new creation is not yet here in its fullness, I don’t believe it’s wrong to say that we will “go there,” as long as we recognize that this is just one of the ways to express the reality that awaits us. In fact, Wright’s protests against using the phrase “go to heaven” betray an overly literal understanding on his part. Hence, against Wright, the hymn Away in the Manger does not contradict Scripture when it asks God to “fit us for heaven, to live with thee there” (p. 22).
As noted above, Wright often emphasizes that our work in this world is important. Christians ought not to think that their work in politics, economics, business, art, and so forth is insignificant. There has been a kind of pietism that has denigrated such work. Still, it isn’t clear that forgiving third world debt is a moral obligation on the same level as abolishing slavery. Wright too confidently dismisses all who disagree with him on this matter, sweeping away any objections with rhetorical statements. Moral claims in the public sphere must be advanced by careful reasoning, and Wright does not provide arguments to support his conclusions. Perhaps in the future he will tackle the matter with reasoned public discourse instead of dicta from above.
Wright commends evangelism as part of our work as believers, but he clearly emphasizes being engaged in the political sphere. Surely Wright has his emphases backwards here. The Scriptures teach that only those who believe in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins will enjoy the new creation. Isn’t the most important thing for human beings, therefore, to gain acceptance into this new creation? Aren’t there great artists and gifted politicians who have improved our life in this world (for which we are all thankful), and yet who will not be part of the new creation because they have rejected the gospel? Moreover, while Wright correctly affirms that everything done in this world matters, there is also discontinuity between this world and the next. The curse of Genesis 3 will not be lifted until Jesus comes again. Our work in this world is provisional and always touched by the curse. The invention of the car solved a pollution problem in the streets caused by horses, but no one foresaw that it would cause pollution problems of its own.
All this is to say that the call for Christians to evangelize remains more pressing than any call to work in the political sphere, even though all our work in this world is significant. Wright emphasizes that the good news of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord, but, as John Piper has pointed out, this isn’t good news if you’re still a rebel against God; it’s terrifying news. The New Testament is permeated with the message that we must turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ. Wright does not disagree with the need to do so, but he seems to be most excited about our work in the political and social sphere.
I could perhaps understand why Wright would stress social concerns if England’s churches were full and thriving—as if almost everyone was a believer. But what is curious is that England’s churches are empty, and unbelief is common. It seems that a bishop in these circumstances would vigorously call upon the church to evangelize, and would emphasize the need to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ and to turn from one’s sins. I don’t see that urgency in Wright’s writing, and therefore he veers from the message of Jesus and the apostles.
ODDS AND ENDS
I would also mention some bits and pieces of the book that call out for comment, even if I don’t have space here to interact with them here in detail. For instance, Wright contends that Jesus never spoke about his return. He defends this claim in other works, but it’s a controversial point. Here I simply want to register my disagreement with his exegesis.
Also, Wright correctly says that justification by faith and judgment according to works do not conflict (p. 140), but he gives us no help in seeing how these two themes fit together. Readers would be helped in knowing how the two themes cohere. Putting these truths together wrongly can lead to a final curse (Gal. 1:8-9), and hence Wright must be clearer in explaining the gospel in his exposition.
The section on purgatory is nicely done, showing that purgatory is absent from the biblical witness. But Wright falls into inconsistency when he endorses praying for the dead since this practice is not found in the Scriptures (p. 172). He does rightfully rule out invoking the saints for assistance.
Contrary to Wright, Jesus’ statements about gehenna do not refer to the judgment of A.D. 70, though I cannot defend this argument here. Nor do I think Wright is correct in saying that judgment is a minor theme in the letters. The theme is pervasive in them, but, again, that would take too long to defend here.
Too often Wright prosecutes his case by caricaturing a view and then introducing his own view as the solution. Hence, he rightly rejects the notion that hell is a torture chamber, but his own view of hell seems to be shorn of any notion that God punishes those who refuse to believe in Christ. Wright argues that those in hell lose the divine image, and this may well be part of the picture. Nevertheless, many texts speak of God’s active punishment of the wicked. Since Wright summarizes his view and does not engage in detailed exegesis, I assume he would offer a different interpretation of the relevant texts. Still, it’s difficult to see how God’s active punishment of the wicked can be denied (e.g., Rom. 2:8-9, 16; 2 Thess. 1:8-9, etc.).
Wright appeals to many because he is brilliant and fascinating, and some of what he says is helpful. Nevertheless, his failure to emphasize the centrality of the gospel is troubling, and pastors who find his work illuminating need to be careful that they do not veer away from their central task of proclaiming the good news to a lost generation.