Forgive me if the following fails in anyway to describe Surprised by Hope. It has been so long since I first read it that I hesitate to comment on it. But this book left a lasting impression on me and continues to influence my thoughts and behaviors. And Easter is the perfect time to bring it to everyone’s attention. It’s a worthy read for anyone who desires to work towards a better understanding of the Christian message of hope and a definite must for those in ministry. I’m curious to hear what you all think of it.
When you think about the word “heaven,” what comes to mind? Most people think of the place where their loved ones reside, or perhaps the destination to which those who are in Christ are headed after death. In fact, according to much of Western Christianity, this is the central concern of the Bible: Come to know Jesus personally and you’ll secure your spot in heaven, right? The church’s mission, then, in light of this belief, tends to focus on saving souls in order to prepare people for eternity.
N.T. Wright finds this radically incongruent with the central truths of Scripture. Now, this is not because Wright denies belief in the afterlife, nor is this to suggest that our fellow brothers and sisters who have passed on are not presently with Christ. For, Jesus turned to the thief on the cross next to him and said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23.22). Or take Paul, who deliberates whether or not it would be more profitable to die and be with Christ or to carry on in his mission (Philippians 1.21-24). Those who have fallen asleep in Christ are with him in paradise (or heaven if you prefer; though, Wright prefers to speak of heaven not as a place of destination but rather, it seems, as synonymous with the Kingdom of God [i.e., God’s rule on earth], as is anticipated in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation [Rev 22]).
Wright explains that the Western church’s belief and mission, as they currently stand (i.e., focus on getting “disembodied souls” to heaven), do not adequately express the Biblical message of hope. Such preoccupation with the afterlife leads to indifference in the present life. And indifference amidst a world full of injustice runs contrary to what the Master taught, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” (Mt 5.6). Wright accordingly challenges his readers to rethink their view of heaven and the mission of the church in light of the greatest event in history: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Wright first explores whether the resurrection could have been actual historical event and, therefore, whether the biblical claims are accurate. He makes a compelling case for his belief in the resurrection and highlights the importance of its veracity. After all, without the resurrection, Christianity would not exist. Think about how lame of a religion Christianity would be without the resurrection: In the first century, there was this guy who did really neat miracles, messed with the status quo, taught people to be nice to each other, and those following him became so excited that they actually thought he was the one who would restore order and establish God’s Kingdom! But he died, and everyone was disappointed.
But that’s not how the story goes; for, “He is risen!” It’s only because of the resurrection that Jesus’ disciples continued to worship him as the Son of God and pronounce him as Lord. On the cross, Jesus paid for the sins of humanity and by the power of the resurrection, he defeated evil. This is why we may pronounce Jesus as Lord—because he was raised and exalted by God.
Scripture tells us that Jesus is the “first born among the dead” (Col 1.18; see also 1 Cor 15.20, 23; Rev 1.5). In other words, Jesus was the first to rise from the dead with many more to follow in his path. His resurrection is the basis for our future hope in the bodily resurrection and the redemption of creation (see key passages such as 1 Cor 15, Rom 8, and the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, among others).
Furthermore, Jesus’ resurrection is most likely the event that the Gospel of Mark refers to when Jesus states, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mk 9.1). Therefore, the resurrection is the foretaste or the inauguration of the Kingdom. This is the event that started it all off. The Kingdom of God is at hand, which means that the new age of redemption and of God’s rule is among us! For N.T. Wright, this is the Gospel, the “good news,” for the world. What does this mean for how we live the daily Christian life?
The work of redemption that God started with Easter serves as the basis for the Church’s mission. We, as God’s people, are to participate in this work of redemption, building for the Kingdom that God is establishing (again, the Kingdom of God can be defined as God’s reign on earth; i.e., where heavenly values are restored—where things are returned to the way they were in the beginning; i.e., “good,” see Gen 1.31). Wright continually points to Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church, “Therefore…Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15.58). This verse, notably, comes immediately after detailing the certainty of the future bodily resurrection of believers. The implication being that life here on earth matters; it is not a waste. The mission of the church, then, should be focused not on escaping this world in order to get to heaven but, instead, on making heaven a reality here on earth. This is what Jesus taught his disciples to pray for, “Our father who art in Heaven… your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6.9-10). And this is what is promised in Revelation 22.
While it’s true that this will not be fully accomplished until Christ’s return, we must, by his Spirit, work toward the redemption that was started in Christ and take part in the great renewal of all things in anticipation of his return. God is in the process of redeeming humanity and renewing creation. The church must join him in his work. The church must fight for justice, restore creation to its original beauty, and tell the world about the awesome hope that is found in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. By doing this, the church serves as a signpost for what God is doing to all of creation and becomes the means by which people may experience God’s redeeming grace (Wright, 200). Jesus is Lord—can the world tell?
May we be God’s agents of change to the world, by the power of the Spirit, engaged in the mission of renewing all things in Christ, while anticipating his great return. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And come Lord Jesus, come.