WARNING: I am providing a lengthy review for Surprised By Hope. This is intentional. I want to devote some time to giving you guys a thorough evaluation and discussion of a book that is much needed in all Christian circles today. Surprised By Hope is that important. But…if you want to see an extremely condensed review of this book by New Testament writer and scholar, N. T. Wright, visit the 2014 Book and Reviews page.
What is the value of exploring heaven and eschatology? For many Christians, there is little value in one’s theology of this subject. Surprised By Hope urges Christians to re-think heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. The book’s author, N. T. Wright, believes that one’s view of heaven and life after death directly affects how he or she views life before death.
Surprised By Hope is a paradigm-shifting book that explores the relationship between heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church. As the book unfolds, N. T. Wright attempts to answer two questions, primarily: What is Christian hope? And, What hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, and new possibilities within the world in the present? Wright sees these two questions as inextricably connected. How one answers the first question directly influences the answer to the second.
In the first section of the book, Wright attempts to clear up some of the muddled confusion about a Platonic view of heaven where everyone floats away into the clouds. According to Wright, this view of heaven is inconsistent with Scripture and creates a separationist mentality where God’s people are unconcerned with the issues and problems in the world. Instead of God transporting people to some ethereal place, He is going to bring heaven to earth. Wright continually emphasizes the “kingdom” as God’s reign and rule in this world, and followers of Jesus are called to bring forth the kingdom of God through their actions in the present. As Christians work, speak, evangelize, etc., in the world today for the glory of God, we are contributing to the work of the kingdom of God. Eventually, God will fully reign in the kingdom when he brings heaven to earth.
The resurrection of Jesus and the Christian hope are mutually inclusive. Wright argues for the bodily resurrection of Jesus as the basis for life after death. Jesus defeats death by physically coming out of the tomb with a physically resurrected body. He is not a ghost or spiritual being. Wright declares this is precisely the definition of resurrection, and he calls the reader to view the resurrection of Jesus through a first century lens. Likewise, those who are to dwell in the new earth will possess a body similar to the body of the resurrected Jesus. It will be very “earthly” in the sense that it will be physical. Defeating death necessarily infers a physical resurrection.
This understanding of hope through the resurrection is integral to Wright’s theology of Christian mission in the present. Because followers of Jesus are going to dwell physically in a new earth, everything done in the present is significant. Three areas – justice, beauty, and evangelism – compromise the present mission and form the foundation for hope in the everyday work of the church. The resurrection of Jesus does not save us out of the world, but saves us to engage the restoration of the world as we anticipate full restoration.
N. T. Wright does a superb job of expounding on the central premise he presents in Surprised By Hope. He believes strongly that the resurrection of Jesus involves a physical body dying and a physical body coming out of the grave, and the physical nature of the resurrection provides a tangible glimpse of life after death. God does not intend to carry us away into the clouds, but seeks to establish heaven on earth. Wright makes his point when he says this:
Wright also does a good job of painting a picture for the intermediate state, and he presents a strong case against common misunderstandings of what happens when a person passes from this life.
One of Wright’s strongest arguments deals with the connection between hope and mission. Viewing Christian mission primarily as evangelism is near-sided at best. Mission is much more broad and complex than evangelism, and Wright does a superb job of expounding upon the full breadth of what it means to live as followers of Jesus. To hope for a better future in this world (intermediate hope) is not creating sideways energy or detracting from the mission. Caring for the needs of the poor, sick, lonely, and depressed is, in fact, central to the gospel, central to Jesus, and, therefore, central to the mission of Christians today. Wright even goes so far as to say almost everything we do in this life, whether working, painting, preaching, praying, sewing, teaching, or building, has value in the present because these things will last into God’s future.
Although Wright accurately depicts the future heaven as a physical place and not an abstract “area” where Christians float for eternity, his understanding of hell is much less convincing. For Wright, hell is not as much a place of eternal torment as it is a place of dehumanization. He is right in claiming hell exists, but his description of hell seems to pull more from contemporary sources, such as C. S. Lewis, than the Bible.
In addition, Wright will undoubtedly leave many theologians scratching their head when he explicitly condemns praying for the salvation of dead saints but believes in praying for their rest.
Surprised By Hope is a game-changer. I would recommend this book to any person, whether conservative or liberal, Christian or non-Christian. The contents of this book are both academic and applicable, which is remarkable for a man of Wright’s intellectual level. He gives his readers a fresh (and strongly Biblical) approach to life after death, hope, and how these two influence Christian mission. He presents a convicting explanation of the relationship between evangelism and mission, and he encourages Christians to look at all types of work in this life as valuable (which is refreshing). Church leaders would benefit greatly from the final two chapters, as Wright poignantly develops the nature of Christian spirituality and mission. Although some of Wright’s convictions about hell, Pauline theology, and communication with the dead are puzzling, this book is an extremely important resource in a world looking for hope.