On N.T. Wright’s Suprised by Hope

Isn’t the future fun to think about? I guess it depends on whether or not one is an optimist or pessimist. I have often wondered about whether or not our world will become like those pictured in the latest summer blockbusters of Terminator: Salvation, Star Trek, and even the latest X-men flick, Wolverine. Even more appealing than these though is the 1989 Back to the Future part 2 movie, which featured Marty McFly cruising around on his oh-so-sweet hover-board. I still wonder when our skaters will turn in their boards for ones without wheels.

What about the movie Left Behind with Kirk Cameron? Eschatological truth? Fiction? Is it close to what is pictured in Revelation and
1 Thessalonians 4:14-17? Or way off of the true teaching of Scripture? (off topic question – Is Kirk Cameron a good actor or bad?) After watching these latest films, my attention is captured only because the future is coming inevitably and that means I need to prepare for it. Suppose these films show the reality of our future, suppose they don’t. But the deeper questions are: what does happen in the future and what does that mean for us today? I am convinced that the future according to Christianity – and not just the future on this current earth, but the entire cosmological future – sheds a very bright light on our present reality and gives hope for us today.

Isn’t it true that our future affects our present life just as much – if not more – than our past does? , Christian or non-Christian, it seems that our future is in fact very influential on our present life. In countless ways my past has made me into the man I am today. Childhood in lower class suburbia, being raised in a small mission-minded church, and spending my teenage years on the sports field all the while trying to cope with a dysfunctional family, have definitely influenced who I am, how I live, and my overall worldview. (Meaning that my past experiences and past cultural influences, shape my thought life while not always overpowering my ability to know objective reality.) But more interestingly (at the moment at least), my future seems to influence who I am, how I live, and my overall worldview as well. This is because what I believe about my future is crucial to the perspective on life today.

For example, if I know that I will die tomorrow of a terminal illness, I will try to take advantage of every last moment I have and go hang gliding, cliff jumping, and take over the world – all in my last day. If however, I know that in 10 years I will become the next Secretary General of the United Nations, I will try to prepare for such a role by getting the higher education required and taking internships specializing in geopolitical socioeconomic governing.

Likewise, if I know the future that awaits me after death, I can better judge which course of action to take with my life before I die. Suppose I am a materialist and annihilation is what awaits us all at death. Well in that case, than not much in this life matters in the long run and I can do as I please because I will not be accountable for my good or bad actions. But suppose I am a Mormon or Jihadist. My life and actions definitely count towards which planet I am a god on or how many virgins I will receive.

So, at the least, there is an often overlooked but intriguingly strong point to make about our future – that what we believe about our future influences our now. So what does Christianity have to say this present world and about the future? Many things. Perhaps in another piece I will engage the many eschatological views (amillennial, premillinnial, postmillennial, pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib), the final judgment, Israel’s place during the end times, etc. But what I would like to focus on is the Christian theology that pertains to the final resurrection of the dead. Because what we believe about the future resurrection affects us in the present more than any thing else.

N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope

For help discussing this topic I turn to the Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, who is one of the world’s top biblical scholars. He has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, and McGill and has authored many important works on the resurrection of Jesus as well as other important New Testament themes (I highly recommend his The Resurrection of the Son of God). In his latest book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright compels believers to reorient themselves in thought and life towards the eschatological final resurrection of believers and renewed creation in light of the historical transphysical bodily resurrection of Jesus. The characteristic style of Wright is definitely evident in this popular layperson level work. Here are some of the attractive and endearing features of Wright’s brilliance: sentences that seem to never end, contrasts that knock out pop-culture clichés replacing them with reluctantly forgotten insights, and consuming generalizations that summarize the state of all reality, Christianity, and Biblical themes.

Wright masterfully begins with an enlightening truth that the pop-culture understanding of heaven and the afterlife is not biblical. Nor is it what the early church believed. But, most of us have inherited a deep dichotomy of heaven and earth – leaving no room for the new heaven and new earth. “What matters” says Wright, “is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil earth and a good heaven).” The hope of the early church at the soon coming end of age, Wright argues, was the final resurrection of all believers.

Along those lines, Wright furthers the point. The early church had no belief in an ethereal heavenly realm where disembodied souls hang out on clouds with God forever and ever as influenced by platonic thought. Instead, for the early church, “paradise is, rather, the blissful garden where God’s people rest prior to the resurrection.” This is the immediate life after death.

But there remains a “life after life after death,” says Wright. Which will be “a new bodily existence in a newly remade world.” In fact, the “spiritual body” of
1 Corinthians 15:44 is a mistranslation. Paul is speaking of transformed bodies, a transphysical body is one “whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties.” It’s not a difference between physical and non-physical bodies, but a difference between corruptible physicality and incorruptible physicality. Our bodies will become more real than our present bodies are (borrowing from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce).

In the first chapter of part 3, he digs into the concept of salvation by seeing salvation in light of the future recreation/redemption of all creation instead of the Gnostic Western church’s view that salvation is just rescuing individual people from death and the bad physical world. This currently pervasive view is not at all what the Bible teaches. His perspective is that Christianity is not to lead people to heaven but to bring God’s kingdom to the earth through the rescuing and stewarding efforts of the Church and Israel. God will then complete his presently partial reigning not just over his creation but in it, by still using his awkward and rebellious chosen people.

In regards to the new creation, Wright sums it up this way: “What I am proposing is that the new Testament image of the future hope of the whole cosmos, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus, gives as coherent a picture as we need…of the future that is promised to the whole world, a future in which …decay and death will be done away with and a new creation born, to which the present one will stand as mother to child.” Then heaven and earth will be joined as in marriage. So it’s not about how we just follow Jesus into heaven but it’s about Jesus coming back to complete His rule on earth. For Wright, the rapture in
1 Thessalonians 4:15 is a mistranslation of the word parousia. The rapture is not the living saved souls coming to meet Jesus, rather it is the coming parousia – the royal presence of a King – in this case Jesus. This passage needs to be examined in light of other New Testament passages.

Wright continues to say that the purpose of Jesus’ kingdom inaugeration is so “they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose.” Furthermore, Jesus’ Resurrection was actually the birthing of a new world. The creating Logos of
John 1:3 has begun his new creation at the Resurrection. Now we are co-redeemers, participating with God in renewing earth and all of heaven throughout eternity. To this end we can begin to invest now and begin to bring hope to our world because our works will last to the new creation. “the surprising future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly…to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission.”

Some items to think about found in Wright

After reading Wright, I can say that most of the time I agree with him – especially in terms of the renewed body and the renewed heaven and earth for our new bodies to create/redeem with God in. But honestly the following few points were items to, perhaps, just brush over:

  • The no-rapture theology

  • Major generalizations and perspective on salvation

  • Some rather lacking kingdom living examples

Regarding the no-rapture, the mistranslation argument he gave on pages 127-136 is stretching. For 10 pages Wright discusses different ways in which the word parousia is used in the New Testament as it is in 1 Thessalonians 4:15: “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” This is the word for Christ’s “coming.” But he says very little about the next 2 verses: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Wright mentions a passage written by Moses and another by Daniel which infer that the meeting of Jesus in the clouds is to usher Jesus back to earth, rather than “stay up in the air somewhere.” This is the fit arrival for the King of the Universe who is coming to reclaim, redeem, and judge His kingdom. But this view doesn’t align with any of the traditional amillennialist, postmillennialist, or premillennialist views. These all confirm the rapture at the end or just before the end of the millennium.

Is Wright right? Did the early church not have the rapture theology that we have? Should we stick with the majority of evangelical Christians and keep our Kirk Cameron movies? Based on the argument Wright presented, the jury is still out for me on the rapture versus no-rapture.

Another controversial point in Surprised by Hope, has to do with major generalizations and salvation. I find that Wright’s understanding of 2nd Temple Judaism, which existed during the time of Christ, is such a heavy and influential notion for him that it can yield inappropriate hermeneutical misjudgments. He seems to use 2nd Temple Judaism coupled with the theology of the new heaven and new earth as an overarching guide to his study that other basic readings of Scripture are overlooked. This may be a false perception or too strong of an anti-embellishing critique, but it really is hard to dismiss when reading Wright. I am afraid that some core doctrines that the church has worked hard to develop and maintain could be at risk of being minimized.

This is exemplified in such embellishing generalizations about the entire purpose of something or the entire meaning of the New Testament. At these points, I must slow down and ask, “Really? Are you sure you want to say that?” In terms of salvation, he makes such statements like:

  • “One of the greatest problems of the Western Church, ever since the Reformation at least, is that it hasn’t really known what the gospels were there for.”

  • “Salvation, then, is not going to heaven but being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth.”

  • “As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heaven and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new…reality…then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought…”

He suggests that the Churches’ – not just evangelicals but the entire Western Churches’ – traditional view is wrong. What about the regeneration of the soul, being born again, forgiveness of sins, imputation of Christ’s righteousness, divine election, direct access to God, relationship with a personal Creator, the beginning of the sanctification towards Christ-likeness, remission of sins, being more than a conqueror and alive with Christ, indwelling of the Spirit of Christ, etc? Where are these other key aspects of salvation which have been taught in our systematic theology courses since the Reformation?

There is one other weakness in the book. There is a lack of the power of the Holy Spirit, manifested in signs, wonders, and miracles, when Wright discusses kingdom living in light of knowing that the kingdom is here in a “now and not yet” form. The examples Wright uses are somewhat lacking in equivalent thrust of the powerful points he is making.

Strengths

Besides the minor weaknesses, some whopping generalizations that create dissonance against the sound teachings of the Reformation, and all of the eschatological issues I am unsure on, as I mentioned above, Wright does the Christian community a great service in writing this book. He reminds us that the inaugurated kingdom of the newly proclaimed Jesus in Acts, was brought to a climax when Paul travels to meet the current king and god of the world, Caesar. Although Acts does not go as far to say this, it clearly indicates that the spread of the message of the Resurrected Jesus meant that Caesar’s throne was being challenged and the grass roots movement of those in defiance of the king of this world has begun. Right down the street from Caesar’s palace, Paul was preaching the “kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ” (
Acts 28:31). Wright puts it this way, “the kingdoms of the world are now claimed as the kingdoms of Israel’s God.” It may have taken 300 years or so, but at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the kingdom of King Jesus had taken shape and was moving.

Moreover, Wright reminds us that we all need to remember that the church is victorious in the end. We are on the winning side!! The work of the Holy Spirit to usher in the full sovereign rule of God is in the process of becoming complete. How often has this been put aside in our church sermons, Easter and Christmas services, worship songs, and daily devotions! Jesus is the King now as Paul preached and as John gave us the future – Jesus will assert himself as King of the earth. John seems to be screaming this out from the Island of Patmos when he writes my favorite passage
Revelation 19:11-16, “And I saw the heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and he that sat thereon called Faithful and True; and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. And his eyes are a flame of fire, and upon his head are many diadems; and he hath a name written which no one knoweth but he himself. And he is arrayed in a garment sprinkled with blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and pure. And out of his mouth proceedeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness of the wrath of God, the Almighty. And he hath on his garment and on his thigh a name written, KINGS OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”

Wow. Let Hope Rise!

Not only does the church come out as the vindicated group at the end of this age, but the Lord will avenge her adversaries! Then also, the hope of Israel is also met in the return of the King. Then the whole world is consumed by his glory as “the waters cover the sea.” Then true presence and being is revealed to the potential beings. This is Wright’s most forceful thrust – that the inaugurated already but not yet kingdom, to which we live and move and have our being, will become complete and actualized.

Behold the coming King. “Behold, I make all things new.” (
Rev 21:5)

This teaching can’t be taken lightly because it changes everything on how we live today. For instance, I am a huge Lakers fan and love to watch the Lakers all season, especially the playoffs. If I have recorded a major Lakers playoff game and someone that doesn’t know I am anticipating watching it tells me that the Lakers won, I watch the game with exciting anticipation and a victorious spirit due to the soon coming victory – even in the midst of a back in forth contest. The spells in the game when we were losing, I can get over quicker, because I already know what the future holds – we win. The injustices that were caused by the referees when a foul wasn’t called, I can be get over quicker, because I already know what the future holds – we win.

(There is a common notion in sports, that was definitely true when I played, “The battle wounds hurts less if we win and hurts more if we lose.” In the case of the Lakers, we win very often, so my frustration in watching and the teams battle wounds during many games is often relieved!)

But more importantly, I watch the game knowing that the dumb mistakes, fouls, and injuries my own team commits during the game, will all be made right in the end. That all of the internal issues of the team, the competitive nature of the players to maybe overact at their teammates mistakes, to overdo it to impress the coach, all of these will be made smooth in the end. Even a players challenges to individual self-confidence and ability to play within himself, will all be affirmed and confirmed in the end.

Knowing that we win in the end changes the whole dynamic of watching the game go by. My frustrating reactions are turned into “that’s o.k., because I already know what the future holds – we win.”

Application

Overall, for the most part, I agree with Wright’s finding hope in the resurrection and reinvigorating the doctrines of the Christian Hope. In fact this book has strengthened and renewed my hope in this present life. My pessimism is weakened. Optimism grows as I read Wright, as he so eloquently put it, “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.”

Wright so eloquently summed it all up saying, “Life after death, it seems, can be a serious distraction not only from the ultimate life after life after death, but also from life before death.” Basically, I do not just need to prepare for a life after death, but I need to prepare for life after life after death, the new heaven and earth conjoined together. This gives such a new perspective on my actions in the here and now. My present work for the kingdom, however insignificant, however much like a drop in the ocean it seems, matters in the winning and eternal kingdom of the true King. My hope for my own life is that what we do in this life matters into God’s future. It’s all “building for God’s kingdom.” This is also an answer to Solomon’s meanderings in Ecclesiastes, that what I “do for the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not planting roses in a garden that is about to be dug up for a building site. You are accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.”

How refreshing! How enlightening! The candles of all of history are overtaken by the light of the sun of Jesus’ resurrection and our future one. The future resurrection matters incomprehensibly; thus everything in this life matters in preparation for such a bright future.

In closing, there is nothing that gives me more hope for the future than
Rev 21:1-6: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more. And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God: and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more: the first things are passed away. And he that sitteth on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he saith, Write: for these words are faithful and true. And he said unto me, They are come to pass. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”

Even so, come, Lord Jesus! Come.

Unto the King.
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jeremy@apologetics.com

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