Surprised By Hope by N. T. Wright, published 2008 by HarperCollins.
What is being a Christian really about? What do we look forward to? Is it simply that we “go to heaven when we die”?
N. T. Wright’s book is meant to help Christians recover and realize the hope that we have in Christ: mainly, that Jesus’s resurrection was the beginning of God’s redemption of Earth, which we participate in now, and which will be completed when Jesus comes again in the marriage of Heaven and Earth.
Wright begins by outlining and showing how confused Christians have become about their own future. Worship songs often talk about leaving the world behind and going “home” to heaven. At funerals we say that a person is now in heaven and will be there forever. Yet that is not at all what the Bible teaches. We say “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but we don’t live it and we don’t believe it. Wright wants to return us to the early Christians’ understanding of life after death and the impact this should have on our life now.
The first step is understanding that the resurrection of Jesus was a foretaste of what is to come. Jesus came back to life. That is how he defeated death. “Resurrection…did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble postmortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death.” That is what happened to Jesus, and that is what will happen to the saints. Jesus was the beginning of God’s redemption of the whole earth.
Christians have unknowingly slipped into a Gnostic attitude, which says, “the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we’re allowed to.” With that kind of attitude, what is the point of doing anything good? What is the point of helping others? What is the point of rescuing animals or saving forests, if we think God is just going to ultimately destroy this world and start over? There is no point.
The second part of the book is the most “exciting” – it answers questions like, What will happen to us when we die? What will our resurrected body be like? What is Heaven? What is Hell? What will we do in the new heaven and earth?
My favorite image that he discusses is the marriage of heaven and earth. Heaven is God’s reality, which we only get glimpses of. We see dimly now as in a mirror, but then we shall see clearly. Heaven and Earth will become one just as a man and his wife become one. And Jesus will return to Earth to rule His kingdom. And what will our role be? We will not sit around on clouds. No, we will live in the very same world we currently live in, and yet it will be entirely different because it will have been transformed by becoming one with Heaven. “The redeemed people of God in the new world will be the agents of his love going out in new ways, to accomplish new creative tasks, to celebrate and extend the glory of his love.”
What difference does this make to us now? Jesus was the beginning of it, and He imparted the Spirit to us so that we will continue working at it until the day when it will be completed. We are “accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.” What we do here matters because it will last. That is why we must work to uphold justice and holiness and beauty in this world – because justice and holiness and beauty are the things that will still be in God’s kingdom.
All of this knowledge causes us to seriously reconsider the way we celebrate Easter and the sacraments, and how we carry out our lives as members of the Church. I love the way he describes baptism and the Eucharist (communion): as moments when Heaven and Earth collide. They are neither totally completely symbolic nor completely spiritual. They are physical and spiritual, parts of Heaven and parts of Earth. They are a foretaste of what is to come.
For Christians, this is a life-changing book. N. T. Wright is open, forthright, and anticipates every possible argument I could come up with to his suggestions. It is absolutely essential that we return to the wonderful hope of Christ and allow it to shape our every action. N. T. Wright does a great job of making us consider what it means to be living in the Kingdom in anticipation of the future resurrection.