What is the ultimate Christian hope? What hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities, within the present? These are the two questions that frame N. T. Wright’s most recent book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
As long was we see Christian hope inn terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated. Indeed, some insist angrily that to ask the second one at all is to ignore the first one, which is the really important one. This in turn makes some others angry when people talk of resurrection, as if it might draw attention away from the really important and pressing matters of contemporary social concern. But if the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other. I find that to many – not least, many Christians – all this comes as a surprise: both that the Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed ant his this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world. (5)
Wright’s basic position is this: Redemption, not annihilation, is the future of creation. At Christ’s return there will be a new creation that is both continuous and discontinuous with our present realities. In some sense, that which does not glorify God in creation will purged and that which does will remain and become incorporated into the new creation. That which remains will also in some way be transformed and made whole.
Jesus was in bodily form after his resurrection and is the firstborn of the new creation. His corporeal reality was continuous with his pre-resurrection self (i.e., he could be touched and was bodily recognizable) and discontinuous (i.e., folks did not seem to immediately recognize him and he could literally walk “through” the door.) When we die, we enter heaven, which is not a final destination but rather a resting place until the new creation. Wright uses an analogy (which he acknowledges some find objectionable) of retaining the computer software in anticipation of new hardware. I know Miroslav Volf suggests that God somehow holds us in his memory in anticipation of the new creation. I’ve heard others us the analogy of being held in Star Trek transporter beam mode before being rematerialized. :) The basic point is that we don’t know the mechanics of how this works, only that God promises it will happen. Those that are living at Christ’s return will be transformed and the dead will re-enter the newly transformed material world with new physical bodies. When we talk about resurrection we are talking about “life after life after death. (151)
Wright addresses one the most abused passages in scripture, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (131-133). He points out that Paul is likely drawing on (and mixing) at least three metaphors: imagery from Daniel 7, Moses coming down from the mountain, and the arrival of a dignitary to a village. Concerning the last image, when a dignitary would approach a Middle Eastern village the people of the town would run out of the town to great the dignitary and usher him in amidst great fanfare. The greater the dignitary, the more impressive the reception. The image we have in this passage is of Jesus coming from heaven to the clouds above the earth (read “outside the village of earth.”) The dead (figuratively) rise up to meet him in the clouds and living follow. What is not made explicit is where things go from here. Remember we are neither in heaven nor on earth. There is no need to make it explicit because according the imagery the readers would understand that Jesus is then ushered by the great throng into the village (the earth) where, “…in this way we shall always be with the Lord.” Wright points to other passages that point to this new creation vision reminding us, for instance, that a the end of Revelation we are not “taken up” into the New Jerusalem but rather the New Jerusalem “descends” upon the earth.
The book is not a comprehensive compendium of all relevant passages pertaining eschatology but it does draw from all of scripture as well as the teachings of the early church leaders. The importance of this understanding of new creation is that it means that what we do today has significance for eternity. And by “what we do,” I’m referring to our daily actions with the material world and the human structures we live in. The call to mission includes the proclamation of salvation but it is far more.
I found this book to a very helpful theological analysis. What this book did for me was connect some missing dots and flesh out more of what I’ve been learning about eschatology. I think he does an excellent job of exposing how misunderstanding has crippled both conservative and liberal Christianity. However, when it comes to application, I do have a bone to pick with the good bishop.
What activity occupies most of our waking hours most of adult lives? Work. I was astonished that nowhere in this book did Wright connect the dots showing the positive contribution of our economic labors and its continuity with the new creation. (The only exception I recall reading was the mention of the machine in the following passage.) He suggests in Chapter 13 that his understanding of new creation will propel is into actions of creating justice, beauty, and evangelism. He begins by declaring:
What you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in the garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are – strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself – accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for the matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. (208)
Then there are passages like this one:
We return to the themes of two chapters ago (justice, beauty, evangelism) with hope renewed precisely because of the promise of space, time, and matter renewed. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are taken, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the “now, already” of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the “not yet.” The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic or social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where therefore the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator’s design. (265)
Schools, hospitals, police, prisons, parliaments, city councils, and neighborhood watch groups. What about businesses? What about the majority of people who spend the days of their lives converting matter, energy, and information from less useful states to more useful states, thus creating goods, services, and wealth that enable all these other institutions to exist? The book is utterly silent on this issue. Every mention of economic activity in the book (as with the second quote) is in the context of something to be controlled, constrained, or vilified. Apparently with economic labor our highest ambition is to merely not sin while we’re doing it. Is he suggesting activities related to the arts, humanities, and helping professions are what make it through the refining fire, while economic labor is consumed?
Anyway, you can tell I’m a bit miffed about Wright’s application of his teaching. I think he missed a very important opportunity to help his readers understand the connection of their daily lives to the larger things of God. That said, I do recommend the book. I think Wright does a great job of making is argument. There are places where I wanted more details and wished he had visited certain passages of scripture but the book provides a wonderful foundation from which launch into other areas inquiry.