NT Wright’s latest book, Surprised By Hope, has been getting some great reviews, so I snatched it up right when it was released, and have been enjoying it now for a few weeks. But then this Sunday I got a swift kick from PT, who said that this book is the perfect companion for Easter. And when Phyllis tells me to hunker down with a book, I gets to the hunkerin’, right quick.
Wright, perhaps the world’s premiere Biblical theologian, cuts through a lot of sweetness with a strong dose of black coffee as he compares popular conceptions of ‘heaven’ with the Biblical account of the afterlife. The former, he says, is mostly an import of Platonic philosophy, while the latter is much more challenging and interesting and — ultimately– more hopeful. The result is a book that is a watershed, much like Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. Wright gives Biblical assurance that followers of Jesus are kept safe and comfortable after their death, but argues passionately (and Biblically) that this rest is temporary and preparatory– it is a precursor to what he calls ‘the life after the life after death’.
Beginning with an extended defense of the historical resurrection of Jesus, Wright asserts that the supposedly sure proof of the impossibility of the resurrection is only a modern/Enlightenment stumbling block. In so doing, (and in a refreshing way) Wright questions the intelligence of us moderns, rather than questioning the intelligence of those in the first century. For they obviously knew about life and death, and knew that seeing the former after the latter was quite unexpected. And they well understood the gravity of the revolution that Jesus began, and the gospel that his followers preached– that Jesus, the first to be resurrected, would thereby enable those who would follow him to be likewise resurrected. So the Christian hope is not to be delivered to some ethereal ‘sweet by-and-by’ while the earth is consumed in fire, but to be kept after death until such time as the work of Jesus is completed and the dead can be raised to life again. (See Phil. 3 and Revelation 21-22, where it is not Jesus’ followers who go to heaven, but it is rather heaven that comes to earth in the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer. And note that Jesus never mentioned ‘heaven’ during his earthly ministry. And the thief who dies next to Jesus, who is promised ‘paradise’ the very day of his death, but who still asks Jesus to remember him when ‘he comes into his Kingdom’. And 1 Corinthians 15, where the contrast is not between ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’, but between ‘corruptible’ physicality and ‘incorruptible’ physicality. And John’s heavy hint about the importance of caring for creation when the post-resurrection Jesus is mistaken for a gardener.)
If a resurrection seems even more preposterous than ‘heaven’, I suppose that is a testament to the pervasiveness of Platonic philosophy (which suggests that ‘heaven’ is a spiritual, nonmaterial reality), and a confirmation of the audacity of Jesus’ life and message (and a subtle suggestion as to why we needed to wait for the New Perspective scholars like Wright to bring light to Jesus’ revolutionary ideas). But too, resurrection is thereby put at the center, and lauded for the breathtaking empowerment that it brings (on a practical level, if nothing else: Wright decries our staid celebrations of Easter, ranting that we should have a huge party that morning, and extend it for weeks afterward. His prescription includes champagne for breakfast every day for at least a week.)
Heaven and earth, Wright explains, are not the same (pantheism), nor are they radically different (so many brands of escapist Christian theology), but they are similar– like male and female, which are alike in essence, but different too, and which are designed to function in union. Since eternal life is already possessed by Jesus’ followers, the real contribution of Jesus is resurrection, not eternality. So, in Philippians, folks are told to be ‘citizens of heaven’, not because they would live in heaven forever, but because as Roman citizens far from Rome, they knew what it meant to be an outpost of the Kingdom. Contrary to popular belief (and Christian music), heaven is not our home, this world is.
Wright makes allusions to non-Newtonian physics, too, as he fairly mocks post-enlightenment Westerners as ‘wretched flatlanders’ for our embarrassing habit of envisioning a literal 3-tiered world (heaven, earth, and hell, from top to bottom), or two literal localities in the same space-time continuum, or with perpetuating distinctions between a nonphysical world and a physical one. Instead, Wright explores the notion that there may be two kinds of matter, space, and time. Which, from the little I know of physics, is one of the current topics of concerted exploration. Maybe reality is bigger and different than we have imagined it.
The goal, then (which transforms most conceptions of ‘evangelism’) is inviting people to participate with God and God’s good world in the redemption and re-creation of it through acts of justice and beauty (he speaks eloquently of the redemptive work of poetry and art). To encourage people to be concerned with life before death, not just life after death. And the life after the life after death, which is actually another way of saying the same thing.
SBH a great book, wonderfully readable and interesting and expansive. But even more than a priceless commentary on ‘heaven’ and the Christian hope of resurrection, this book is a mind-bending illustration of the power of our thoughts. That Wright’s assertions seem so counter-intuitive is an eye-opening commentary on the power of our paradigms and framing narratives. Reading it, we’re aware that the Bible answers the questions we ask of it, to be sure. But wrong questions bring wrong answers– a sobering reminder that it is very possible to ask questions that the Bible never addresses, and so elicit answers that comfort but don’t inform.