Pleasantly Surprised by Wright

9 11 2008

It has often been said that Christianity stands or falls on its doctrine of Justification by faith. In fact it as Martin Luther who said that (surprise surprise). I would offer a hearty Amen to that statement. But a better statement woud be, I would say, is that Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Recently I got a copy of N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” and it blew me away. I’ve always been skeptical of Wright but there was very little occasion for it this time. Taking on the subject of death, heaven, resurrection and everything associated with that is not easy task but Wright does it so well. His experience with death mirrors my own. The only funeral I’ve attended was my Grandmothers when I was 20. Apart from that one time I have had very little contact with death. I suspect this may be the case for many. In the west we are seldom confronted with the sheer ugliness of death compared with someone in Africa or other parts of the third world where life carries a lot less currency.

I’d just like to highlight a few key points from this book that impacted me. First off, the Christian hope is not to go to heaven when we die. If we die before Jesus returns then we do go to heaven or paradise whatever you’d like to call it, but it is not our final resting place. Its an intermediate state. Our hope is for a new heaven and new earth. A renewed and very physical existence. Our life will be as continious and discontinous with our present life as Jesus was before and after the resurrection.  While this may not strike anyone as odd the outworking of this truth certainly does. When we think of heaven as our final destination what happens on earth seems to matter very little. Indeed there is a sharp wedge driven between life now and life then. We become heavenly minded to the extent that we are no longer any earthly good. This kind of theology runs aground on two major Biblical grounds from where I can see, and there are possibly a lot more.

Firstly, if we are just supposed to go to heaven when we die to be disembodied spirits, then why on earth did Jesus perform any miracles? Why did he not simply announce that we needed to answer a few questions, pray a simple prayer and be sure of going to heaven? Miracles become pointless if there is no resurrection. But they do have a point and some meaning for those who receive them. They are signposts that point toward a future time when our bodies will be perfected, they will no longer be subject to disease, decay and death. They are signs of eternity breaking into the present. Signs that the worlds creator God has become Lord of all Creation as Wright says. Secondly this theology runs aground (and this is biggest one in my opinion) when it comes to what Christ accomplished on the cross. We speak of death as a defeated enemy, the one that Jesus defeated with his work on the cross. But if there is no resurrection then death has actually won the battle. In effect we are colluding with death and settling for a disembodied existence instead of a fully resurrected and glorified new body. I can’t make sense of Jesus’ victory over death any other way.

The second major area I was impacted was Easter. As Wright argues we seem to have got our celebrations around the wrong way. Personally I’ve felt this too. By the time it comes to Easter we seem to celebrate very little. But take Easter away from the Bible and we lose the entire New Testament. The Gospels become pointless stories of a good man who taught a nice way to behave, the Epistles cease to exist. The communities formed around the dying and rising of Christ, not because they liked each other (often inspite of that). Take out the resurrection and Paul had no communities to write to. Wright believes we need a greater emphasis on Easter in the Church. Indeed we should celebrate it a lot more than Christmas. We should treat it as the crowning moment in all of Christendom. Without it there is no Christianity.

Lastly this book helped me to get a handle on the big picture. We are not saved as souls but as wholes. Salvation is a bigger answer to the cosmic problem of sin. It helped me to make sense of creation in light of eternity and to see it as something very good made by an incredibly good God, but deeply flawed by sin. Funny enough this also helped me make sense of Lloyd Jones’ book “Preaching and Preachers”. Lloyd Jones insists that the Church is the only organisation that can tell man about his deepest need, to be reconciled to God. The pulpit is not the place preach social justice as a means to an end, but to preach the Gospel. I realise that this kind of thinking offends some people who see this as justification for being passive bystanders while the world goes to pot. Some say that for evil to prosper good men must do nothing and that is quite true. But I don’t think that Lloyd Jones and Wright are diametricaly opposed. Both would argue that social justice is a neccessary part of the Gospel, but both would stress that there needs to be a reason for that action. Without the Gospel we lose our hope and thus our reason for that action. When we gather together at Church to hear the Gospel proclaimed it fills us afresh to get out into the world and proclaim “Jesus is Lord”!

The Gospel message is the power of God unto salvation as Paul writes in Romans, and that is the only true and lasting power for any social action or reform. If we don’t preach the Gospel we end up with the “Social Gospel”. Without preaching it the Church becomes like any other political agency and this is what I think Lloyd Jones was carefully arguing against. He wasn’t against social justice. Some might think that Wright is a social reformer, but he is doing so very biblically in a way that I’m sure Lloyd Jones would have approved. Wherever the Gospel message goes it brings life, hope, reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. It does so with a power that we struggle to comprehend. A power that is made manifest in weakness, brokeness and foolishness. But that power that appears foolish to some is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Lately I can see a change in myself. When someone preaches about Jesus my heart sings. When someone talks about the Holy Spirit I feel His presence. When someone talks about the Love of Father for the world I am moved with reverence and awe. As I type this I am more aware of the presence of God. I feel that each day the Lord is remaking me in His image. Slowly and surely I am becoming more like Jesus. Wright was right. The Resurrection brings about a new way of knowing, a new epistemology, that uses our five senses but at times transcends them. I wish I could explain it with better words, but I lose myself in the language of Love.

You don’t have to agree with everything in this book. Sometimes Wrights “New Perspective” comes up especially with justification “on the whole life lived”. I don’t agree but thats a debate for another time. As one review put it, the wheat in this book far outweighs the chaff. You just have to read this book, its a must for any Christian.




2 responses

17 11 2008
m slater

Glad you enjoyed ‘Surprised by Hope’. I really liked that one as well, great read.
I think recapturing the Biblical truth that God’s plan for His creation is to remake and restore it, not scrap it and pull us away to ‘heaven’ forever is one of the most important things that the Church can focus on right now.

I say this for a couple reasons. First, theologically, the clear Biblically grounded argument Wright makes here (and which is being made by more and more thinking Christians from a wide variety of traditions) serves as a needed counter to the unbiblical idea of the afterlife and the end times that has become so prevalent in Western and especially American circles. The way that the church has given in to Platonic and even Gnostic thought in our eschatology is appalling.
The depth to which we have bought in to these ideas is shown in the fact that a book like this even needs to be written to make people think that maybe the idea that God smites the earth and sucks all the believers up to a disembodied eternity in heaven might not fit with the Story of the rest of the Bible.
More specific than the issues caused by sloppy Platonism, I think that Wright’s work here and in other places serve well to show how Dispensational / Left Behind style eschatology radically misreads the larger story and the individual texts.

The other reason I think this is such an important issue is because of the practical effects. The way Christians look at creation is one area this comes through. In spite of the clear value God places on His creation, Christians in recent years have used a flawed understanding of the world’s future to justify misusing it in the present.
In ethics more generally I think that thinking of new creation gives us a great grid to work with. We should live now in light of the future, in the Christian individual and the Church as a whole the life of the age to come ought to break into the present.
Finally, our hope for the future is actually something to look forward to. My wife and I have discussed before how the standard picture of heaven and the afterlife was not appealing to either of us, and we in fact secretly dreaded in from an early age, it just sounded better than the alternative. A disembodied life of singing and bowing sounds well, boring and unfulfilling. Living for and with our Lord on a restored creation, as we were meant to, that sounds like something to look forward to.

FYI if you are interested in other books on this topic look up “Heaven is a Place on Earth” by Whittmer.

17 11 2008

Yeah I really liked this book. Funny I don’t know where this whole going off to heaven as a final destination got into my thinking. Like you I vastly prefer that to the alternative of a lake of fire LOL. But the idea of a permanent church service really doesn’t tickle my fancy either. When I see the vivid imagery of new creation described in the Bible I see a hope that is much bigger than anything I could have ever imagined. Its better than the Garden of Eden. Truly more was gained in Christ than was lost in Adam. Thanks for the kind comments.

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