N. T. Wright is Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, but he’s also a prolific scholar and popular author of “Simply Christian.” His newest book is “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” ($24.95 in hardcover from HarperOne). It’s a bracing call for readers to understand how the early Christian hope, which was based on what Wright calls “the strange story of Easter,” gives guidance to the church today as it confronts a world of death, injustice, hopelessness.
Along the way Wright takes up two false hopes, the materialist “myth of progress” and a kind of modern Gnosticism that seeks to escape the material world into some ultimate disembodied existence. But the first cannot deal with real evil, and the second undermines human stewardship of God’s good creation.
By contrast, the Christian hope is far different. “The early Christian future hope centered firmly on resurrection. The first Christians did not simply believe in life after death; they virtually never spoke simply of going to heaven when they died. (As I have often said . . . heaven is important but it’s not the end of the world.) When they did speak of heaven as a postmortem destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body.”
Easter is a “strange story,” Wright says, because the earliest Christian accounts of the bodily resurrection of Jesus conclude not with a hope of “going to heaven,” but rather with “a very this-worldly, present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun—and we, his followers, have a job to do!”
The resurrection is “life after life after death,” and so “the presently embodied life before death can at least be seen . . . not simply as a ‘vale of tears and soul-making’ through which we have to pass to a blessed and disembodied final state, but as the essential, vital time, place, and matter into which God’s future purposes have already broken in the resurrection of Jesus and in which those future purposes are now to be further anticipated through the mission of the church.”
Wright considers judgment, heaven and hell, the ascension of Jesus, and more. He offers corrective words for the church as he looks at implications of the resurrection for justice, beauty, evangelism, baptism, prayer, scripture reading holiness and love, and the promised future redemption of space, time, and matter. The hope that Easter offers may take the reader by surprise.