Book of the Month: Surprised by Hope

Alyssa first bought this book, and later Steve Telian brought us a copy of the same. Several of us have waded through its dense chapters in the last few months, and found it pretty foundational and informative.

N.T. Wright is an extremely accomplished New Testament scholar who (I think) until recently was also an Anglican bishop. He is a well-respected authority on the ongoing debate on the historical Jesus, but in this book, he takes his biblical and historical expertise to a slightly different topic.

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church is quite a title. The book is pretty heady, but if I can try to distill his main thesis, I would say this: The notion that Christian resurrection resides in a future disembodied existence in Heaven is both false and misleading. Whoa. Instead, he shows (quite well, in my opinion) that both the biblical and historical Christian hope in resurrection is that we will be given new, resurrected bodies to ultimately live in a new, redeemed earth (which has come together with the new heaven). He argues that the reason none of us know this is largely because we've never been told, rather than that we have found this proposition false or wanting. If this piques your curiosity at all, I would refer you first to the end of Revelation as well as the end of 1 Corinthians, where these topics are explained in the most detail.

The resurrected body that we await is seen prototypically in Jesus, the first fruit of resurrection. His body is his own, complete his scars from his pre-resurrection suffering, but it has been transformed, made whole and now with new glorified characteristics, such as the ability to walk through locked doors. Paul says, at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, after a long discussion on this type of resurrection, "Therefore... always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." Wright points out that the reason resurrection can lead to work being "not in vain" is that our present lives will also be transformed in the way of the resurrection body, i.e. that our work for the Lord's kingdom now will be somehow redeemed and persist into the new heavens and the new earth.

Why does all this matter? Why do a bunch of doctors find this foundational? I don't think I'm alone in growing up with a gospel that could be summarized as Jesus' death providing forgiveness of sins, and that forgiveness providing life in Heaven with God after death. I also found the biblical emphasis on doing justice in this present world inescapable, but I couldn't put the two together, since my worldview has this world disappearing, to be replaced with a world in which work has no role. However, if at the Resurrection, after our rest in Heaven, we are given new bodies to live in a new earth with all the pre-fall things for which we were made (space, matter, time, etc...), and if our work for the Kingdom of God now will be transformed by grace to leave some mark in that resurrected world, then my motivations and understanding undergo a paradigmatic shift.

In writing about the ramifications on "the Mission of the Church" (the last part of the long title), Wright not only points out how this affects Justice, but also selects Beauty and Evangelism as two other areas that he believes the Church will view differently in light of a true understanding of Resurrection. I leave the book itself to the curious who want to discover what he says, but suffice to say that this book's value lies in the truth it brings to our understanding of the gospel in both Word and Deed.

1 comment:

afreakforjc said...

I was a big fan of this book. Need to reread it.