Surprised By Hope

In Book Reviews by Antwuan Malone12 Comments

Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church

Author: N. T. Wright
Published by: Harper Collins Publisher

 

   — A Book About Redemption —

Quick Take

N.T. Wright is one of my favorite authors. I loved what he had to say in Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and in Evil and the Justice of God. I’d recommend both those books. I picked this book up simply because I liked Wright. I had no idea what it was going to be about. In Surprised by Hope, Wright challenges our ideas about what, or more accurately, where Heaven is. His case is that the traditional Christian thought that Heaven is “up there” or that is in some way, somewhere else is misplaced. Using Jesus and his resurrection as the model and starting point, Wright tries to lay out the case that Heaven is, can be, or will be here on Earth. That God will redeem this world in the same way he redeemed Christ. Further, he sets out to reveal how misplacing our hope in somewhere else has hampered and crippled our view of taking care of the world.

The Skinny

I love Wright. I do. But this book never convinced me. In fact, I think I was done reading it about two-thirds of the way through. Surprised By Hope could have been several chapters shorter than it is. Throughout, he simple repeats his point over and over again, in hopes of answering the several questions that will come from his somewhat audacious premise.

As much as it pains me to say, I really didn’t like the book. I didn’t like how it was written, I didn’t like what it said, and I didn’t like the thought processes. Hey, I’m just as surprised as you probably are. I expected to thoroughly enjoy the book.

One of the biggest problems I have is the idea that, because Christians have place their hope in an eternal heaven, they are less interested in taking care of the world here and now. While I see the could be a line of thinking for some people, it’s certainly not the main thought. Wright paints  with painful repetition) Christians as people ready to allow the current world to fall to pieces. The two problems I have with this thinking is: If a Christian is truly born again, he/she will appreciate creation to the same degree Jesus does. Thus, the discord of the world, nature, and humanity will not sit well with Christians, and they will never be able to stand pat completely. They will relish the moments of beauty (the hints of heavenly harmony) and be frustrated with (and work to change) the contamination of the world. Besides, whether one believes God will redeem this world, or whether he will take us to a different place, doesn’t seem that it would change the mentality that suggests this current world is not worth caring for. It’s either going to be re-made or removed.

Given that, it almost seems as though Wright is suggesting that Heaven on Earth will be brought about by the hands of Christians and their obedience. If that is what he is saying, I could not disagree more. Heaven can no more be brought into fruition here on Earth by humans than Jesus’ physical body could have been raised by the humans. God is the ultimate redeemer of sin. And as the traditional teaching goes, the sinful, carnal nature must die… otherwise, Jesus’ death and resurrection should mean we never die (after all, the debt of death was paid.) The elimination of our carnal bodies seem to be symbolic of a similar purging of the Earth… and thus our hope of resurrection can too be symbolic of a “New Earth.”  Besides, what about the ways God has said he will destroy the Earth “with fire” and the many Revelation references.

While I normally enjoy books that make me ask “well, what about…”, the best of those books are able to give me a solid view for an answer. With this book, I didn’t experience that.

There are many interesting viewpoints and thought patterns represented in this book. It’s written in a scholarly style. But he stated his point very early, and kept banging on that point throughout the book in, what was for me, a non-convincing sort of way. I’m sure there are many who will eat it up, but I found myself struggling to get across the finish line.

A shame too, I really do like Mr. Wright and his writings… usually.

Notable Quotes:

“First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated..”

“Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated forever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth. Nor are they simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism. No, they are different, radically different, but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is:”

“But then, by derivation from this primary meaning, heaven is the place where God’s purposes for the future are stored up. It isn’t where they are meant to stay so that one would need to go to heaven to enjoy them; it is where they are kept safe against the day when they will become a reality on earth. If I say to a friend, “I’ve kept some beer in the fridge for you,” that doesn’t mean that he has to climb into the fridge in order to drink the beer. God’s future inheritance, the incorruptible new world and the new bodies that are to inhabit that world, are already kept safe, waiting for us, not so that we can go to heaven and put them on there but so that they can be brought to birth in this world or rather in the new heavens and new earth, the renewed world of which I spoke earlier.”

“So the objection about us trying to build God’s kingdom by our own efforts, though it seems humble and pious, can actually be a way of hiding from responsibility, of keeping one’s head well down when the boss is looking for volunteers.

Quotes from Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright do not reflect my personal views.

** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Buy The Book

In Surprised by Hope, Wright challenges our ideas about what, or more accurately, where Heaven is. His case is that the traditional Christian thought that Heaven is “up there” or that is in some way, somewhere else is misplaced. Using Jesus and his resurrection as the model and starting point, Wright tries to lay out the case that Heaven is, can be, or will be here on Earth. That God will redeem this world in the same way he redeemed Christ. Further, he sets out to reveal how misplacing our hope in somewhere else has hampered and crippled our view of taking care of the world.

 

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry (elevateministry.net) where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.
12 comments
Ex Animus
Ex Animus

I may say more later, but for now let me just say that you seem to have misread Wright's book in thinking he's saying we by our power can create Heaven on earth. He explicitly lays out a view like that and rejects it. What Wright argues, based on text in Corinthians and Hebrews especially, is that when God restores creation, He will make use of the Good and Beautiful things Christians have done in the word. As Wright puts it, it's like we're making bricks that God will use when He builds the new city.

@spackmanjackman
@spackmanjackman

I don't have much to add to this enlightening conversation but to say that I agree with James' assumptions about the message of the book, and I also agree with Antwuan that it has been a surprising chore to complete. I will say that I don't believe Wright is saying that Christians are to create Heaven on Earth - he makes it clear that we are to build FOR God's kingdom, in the knowledge that Jesus' resurrection has ushered in a new creation.

James
James

P.S. I think you're right about your blog having been in a maintenance cycle or something when I tried to post my comment before (it was pretty early in the morning). Working fine now.

James
James

I haven't read this book or anything Wright has written, but the themes are familiar. First of all, if you read the end of the book of Revelation, you really do see that "Heaven" comes down to earth. Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. -Revelation 21:1-2 At no point do people "go up". Heaven comes down to us. Think of Genesis and Revelation as being two ends of a loop. "In the beginning", God interacted with people in the Garden of Eden. At the end of it all, He'll do so again. The world will be repaired and so will mankind's relationship with God. Revelation 22:1-5 is a picture of the Garden restored, complete with "the tree of life" (v2). So much for destroying the earth by fire. The idea that people can help "fix" the world and bring about the return of the Messiah is very Jewish. It's called Tikkun Olam or "Repairing the World". The idea is that people are sort of God's "junior partners" on earth. We're not here just to sit on our thumbs while waiting for Jesus. We have a job to do to "prepare the way for the King", so to speak. No, we literally can't bring about the return of Jesus, but we do have a part in getting things ready. When you say that "Wright paints (with painful repetition) Christians as people ready to allow the current world to fall to pieces", he may just be reporting what he's seeing in the church. While you support the ideal that if "a Christian is truly born again, he/she will appreciate creation to the same degree Jesus does. Thus, the discord of the world, nature, and humanity will not sit well with Christians", is that the reality of how Christians think and behave? How many believers just "trust in Jesus" to fix it all, figure as people that they're helpless to do anything to help repair a fallen world, and are just hanging around waiting for the second coming? I think Wright is saying (based on your description of his book) that humans aren't simply passive observers of the events of the world, helpless before the winds of good and evil. We can make a difference. That's one of the reasons we are here. We *are* supposed to obey God and by living a holy lifestyle and preaching the Good News of Jesus, we do, in our own way, bring the Messiah one step closer to returning. We don't understand the "mechanics" of how God will accomplish everything, but what I read in the Bible is that we have a responsibility to God and to other people. We are supposed to do good here, however great or small, and what we do makes a difference. It makes a difference to people here on earth and it makes a difference to God. If it didn't, then our lives are completely meaningless. It's interesting. First Rob Bell draws significant ire with his "Love Wins" book, which presents a very Jewish interpretation of Hell, including time-limited suffering for all but the most wicked of souls, and now Wright is presenting a very Jewish picture of the role of the Messiah and the return of Eden to our world. I wonder if God is trying to tell us something?

James
James

Your comment section only accepted part of my missive. I've been trying to post the rest in pieces, but the submit comment button is non-responsive. Got email?

James
James

I haven't read this book or anything Wright has written, but the themes are familiar. First of all, if you read the end of the book of Revelation, you really do see that "Heaven" comes down to earth. Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. -Revelation 21:1-2 At no point do people "go up". Heaven comes down to us. Think of Genesis and Revelation as being two ends of a loop. "In the beginning", God interacted with people in the Garden of Eden. At the end of it all, He'll do so again. The world will be repaired and so will mankind's relationship with God. Revelation 22:1-5 is a picture of the Garden restored, complete with "the tree of life" (v2). So much for destroying the earth by fire.