Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright

This has been the toughest books I have read over the past year. Tough – not because of the reading level – but tough because the content forces you to rethink and test what you have been taught about death, heaven, and live beyond the grave.

I first picked up this book a year ago at the recommendation of a good friend and pastor. However, it quickly got shelved as I was busy reading researching other topics.

Then a few months ago I begin to question the phrase “eternal life” and the concept of living forever. Looking around I noticed this book sitting on my shelf unread… talk about a God thing!

As I started reading Surprised by Hope, I quickly realized how influenced I was by popular culture and misconceptions within the church. For example:

  • Some folks believe that when we die our spirits will merge into God’s Spirit for eternity (This was the view that I was leaning towards before hand as it seemed good to give up this individual body and mind and join with the Holy One…)
  • Others believe that when they die, the soul of the Believer will leave this moral world and live forever with their Heavenly Father (I would agree with NT Wright in that this is the view held by the majority of Christians – and, yes, this is under the “misconceptions” selection!)[@more@]

After tearing down the misconceptions of the church, NT Wright dives into the orthodox and Biblical view of death, life afterwards and how that affects the church today. It is hard to fully explain all that Wright talks about within this short blog post – considering it fills several hundred pages of a book – however, I will mention a few items that really hit me hard.

  • Death

Over the years I had begin to treat ‘death’ as a friend. I mean, here we are “trapped” in this moral body in an evil age looking forward to the time when we will see God face to face. If all that separates us is death – then why not die sooner versus later?

I honestly asked that question more then once in high school. The answer that I came up with was that we, as believers, needed to stay on “earth” so that we could “rescue” others from hell. That, and I really love a good Reuben sandwich or a nice gravy covered chicken fried steak!!!

Yet, in Corinthians 15:26 Paul calls death the “last enemy to be destroyed” by Jesus Christ. If death is Jesus’ enemy, then it came NOT be the believers’ friend!!!

So what do we make of “death”?

The orthodox and Biblical view follows that of Paul in that death is our enemy and it will be, and has been, conquered. Christians will be physically and bodily resurrected in the Age To Come. We will NOT stay “dead”. We will be brought back to life on the renewed earth to live with God Almighty.

Wow… think about that for a moment. If that statement is true – if we are going to be physically and bodily resurrected – then that changes a LOT of stuff here and now!

  • Heaven

When we say that a believer has gone to heaven, what does that mean? Does that mean little white clouds and harps? Or perhaps to refers to the souls of man dwelling with a spiritual God in a non-physical location…

I would guess that the majority of Believers would lean towards the last comment. That was my view for many years and it is the one propagated by popular culture outside and within the church.  

Yet, as NT Wright brings up, in Revelation the Apostle John says that heaven was coming to earth – not that “earth” or its people were going to heaven.

This goes right alone with the previous selection about death. If we, as Christians, are going to be physically and bodily resurrected – then we will have to have a physical world in which to live. This is the new earth – or the redeemed earth that has been purged of sin and evil.

This is the dream and focus of the prophets – a time when God will rule all the people and nations of the world; a time when He will physically dwell among His People.

  • Kingdom of God

Towards to end of the book, NT Wright shifts gears a bit and talks about how the orthodox and Biblical view of death, heaven and the resurrection affects the lives of Christian Believers today in this world and time.  

One of the biggest points he makes is that God’s rule and reign is here today, right now. It broke into this present and evil age through the person of Jesus Christ.

Remember my comment in the death section about the “point” of life? Bring as many folks to heaven with you before you die? Well, the more I reflect on the Kingdom message of Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and many others, the more I realize that that is NOT the point of this life.

The bigger plan of God is to redeem this world and all that within it – the people, animals and physical landscape. To that end, we are to live under His rule and reign – helping to transform all that we touch. Note that we – the church – do not build the “Kingdom of God”; nor are we the “kingdom”.  

We are co-workers with Jesus in His Kingdom – which is both here today and not yet. We are to a) introduce people to Christ, b) help them move from the rule of darkness into the Rule of Light, c) fight against injustice, and d) remember that this physical world is not evil, but simply corruptive and due for a resurrection.

Hmm…I might have caused more questions then answers… But that is alright cause there is a book that you can read that talks more about all these subjects in a ton more detail.

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
by N.T. Wright is a tough and challenging book – but one that I think should be read Believers around the world.