Thursday, May 15, 2008

Surprised by Hope

by N. T. Wright
When I was a student at White's Ferry Road School of Biblical Studies (1979-1981) I was introduced to an ancient teaching I had never before considered: the literal, bodily resurrection of the believer.
For some of you this may sound strange--after all, the resurrection is one of the most unique elements of Christianity and Judaism. However, I (as many Christians in America) was raised in a culture heavily influenced by Greek dualism. We were taught that when you die your spirit goes to heaven and while there was this thing called the "second coming" it focused more on people being judged and sentenced to heaven or hell.
I cannot tell you how many funerals I attended where the preacher would say: "This is just the shell, the real person is in heaven." Evangelism was all about "soul winning" which seemed to indicate the body wasn't all that important.
N. T. Wright takes us a step further into biblical study as he challenges us to rethink our view of "Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church." He introduces us to critical passages as Romans 8 and Revelation 21 which speak of a renewed Creation, a new heaven and new earth, and the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to the earth where God's dwelling will be with his people.
He argues with convincing detail how God's purpose is to renew the whole of creation--which was begun in the resurrection of Jesus--and how that purpose effects how we live our lives in this present world. If the Creation is important to God, if our bodies are going to be raised and transformed then there are important implications regarding how we conduct ourselves in this world at this time.
Wright says, "As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God's promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality...then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence...For the first Christians, the ultimate salvation was all about God's new world, and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people...was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate salvation, that healing transformation of space, time and matter. The future rescue that God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present. We are saved not as souls but as wholes."
Evangelism then is a matter of the church living out the kingdom of God by advancing justice, beauty, and reconciliation in the world and while this is happening, "the word of God will spread powerfully and do its own work."
Wright is not advocating the old "liberal theological stance" of the social gospel. Rather he challenges Christians to take seriously God's love for all of creation. The Christian faith is not about fleeing life. Faith in the resurrection is a reaffirmation of the present world.
In one interview N. T. made this observation: "Let me put this as simply as I can. Most Western Christians have grown up with the idea that the name of the game is simply to go to heaven when you die. What I routinely say to people is that heaven is important, but it's not the end of the world. Wherever we are when we die, the really important thing is where we are after that. There's a phase two in Christian teachings. Any 1st-Century Christian would have been surprised that you didn't understand that resurrection isn't life after death. Resurrection is actually what I'm describing as life after life after death."
In the 70s, while I understood most ancient people believed in life after death, it did not occur to me how the Christian hope was radically different or why the pagans would make fun of Paul in Athens when he talked about Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The ancient Greeks and Romans did not believe in the resurrection of the body. The survival of the soul or spirit is not resurrection. One cannot say with Paul that death is defeated (1 Corinthians 15) if all we have is the soul going to heaven when we die. Why? Because we still died. The definition of death is the separation of body and spirit.
The final enemy to be crushed is death. Paul is speaking of literal, physical death. Jesus' body came up out of the grave and ours will too. As John Donne said, "Death, you too shall die!"
For some this will seem very radical. It is actually very biblical. If you still wonder, I recommend you reserve judgment until you read the book. This review doesn't come close to giving Wright justice.
Surprised by Hope is highly readable without being simplistic.
Get this book and read it!

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