Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N. T. Wright (New York: HarperOne, 2008. 352 pp)
N.T. Wright studied at Sedbergh School and Exeter College before being ordained as a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College. Wright taught at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford University before becoming the Bishop of Durham. Recently, he took a position as a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.
Heaven, Are You Really Waiting Outside the Door?
When I was young, heaven scared me silly. If pressed, I’d certainly contend that I wanted to be there instead of the standard Christian alternatives. To put it bluntly, the thought of spending eternity in the presence of God seemed exceedingly boring. I wasn’t entirely sure I just wanted to sing on a cloud forever.
This conception of heaven, per N. T. Wright, is actually a distortion of the early Christian understanding of eternal life, owing much more to Greek philosophy than the Early Church Fathers.
With Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright paints a picture of heaven, tracing the beliefs of early Christianity to provide a new look at what eternity means for Christians and how it influences life today.
Let’s Get Physical
Generally, Wright’s lucubrations make the claim for the importance of physicality. For early Christians, Jesus’ resurrection means victory of death. If our current views about heaven mean leaving this world, then is death conquered?
“At the last, death will be not simply redefined but defeated. God’s intention is not to let death have its way with us. If the promised final future is simply that immortal souls leave behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules—since that is a description not of the defeat of death but simply of death itself, seen from one angle” (15).
The power in Wright’s statement resides in the physical. The resurrection means the redemption of the body; it suggests that creations matters.
Here and Now
What does the defeat of death mean, then, for Christians in our current age? Wright offers,
“Our task in the present…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second”(30).
Our work—our calling, more precisely—becomes a big deal if we understand heaven in these terms. We aren’t merely biding time until we depart for greener pastures. Part of our job is to make greener pastures here on earth as we await new creation.
Wright gives a decent summary:
“The work of salvation, in its full sense is, (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us” (200).
At this point, hope emerges with new meaning. While most Christians think of hope as an abstract future concept, Wright suggests it’s a present way of life for all people.
“Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism. It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen” (72).
Surprised by Hope is an eye-opening read. Even though I’ve heard bits and parts of this idea, Wright unearths the concept with simplistic aplomb. The ideas provide deep purpose for a life of calling—in its widest form. Everything we do has importance insofar as it deals with the whole of a human being, it cares for the present state of affairs, and it addresses the dynamic responsibility of action.
Are you in finance? Surprised by Hope gives meaning for your work. Are you in marketing? Surprised by Hope has meaning for your work. Are you a pastor? Surprised by Hope has meaning for your work.
Simply put, if you have any interest in a theological approach to life, this book is a must read.
Verdict: 5 out of 5