Surprised by Hope, by N. T. Wright

Helton Duarte
11 min readSep 4, 2018
Cover image from Surprised by Hope, by N. T. Wright

This is my second book by N. T. Wright (I also completed his workbook on Romans with my small group at church) and I am really enjoying studying his work. Not only his books but specially a lot of his videos that I have been watching this year. This book also received 5 stars on my Goodreads and I really recommend it. But let’s start to discuss its content.

The book tries to set up expectations from what should be our hope to the future. It basically says that Christianity always focused too much on heaven, as a way to escape from the problems on this earth, but that should not be our hope. After setting up this ultimate hope, another question raises: “what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?” First of all, it is not just a matter of believing in an after life or not, since every religion has a very different view about this. Professor Wright clarifies the differences:

“Even a quick glance at the classic views of the major religious traditions gives the lie to the old idea that all religions are basically the same. There is a world of difference between the Muslim who believes that a Palestinian boy killed by Israeli soldiers goes straight to heaven and the Hindu for whom the rigorous outworking of karma means that one must return in a different body to pursue the next stage of one’s destiny. There is a world of difference between the Orthodox Jew who believes that all the righteous will be raised to new individual bodily life in the resurrection and the Buddhist who hopes after death to disappear like a drop in the ocean, losing one’s own identity in the great nameless and formless Beyond.”

This is interesting to notice the often common assumption that everyone who believes in life after death believes the same thing. Not even Christians know exactly what they believe regarding this difficult topic, and that’s what the author will explain now. Death has been defeated, that’s a fact about Jesus’ resurrection, and that can not mean that in the future our immortal souls will leave behind the mortal bodies, otherwise death still rules. Tom Wright, as the author is also known, divides the view of the church on death in two groups: the first sees death as an enemy which will be defeated; the second group sees death as a friend, who will free us from this world and take us to a better place.

From that, Wright will go to explain what the Bible actually teaches about heaven or that it actually says very little about “going to heaven when we die”. “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life — God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” Besides, when we look at Revelation 21–22, we find “the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.” In this chapter, the author raises a question that I had not seen in other Christian books, specially in Christian philosophy and metaphysics texts:

“much Christian and sub-Christian tradition has assumed that we all do indeed have souls that need saving and that the soul, if saved, will be the part of us that goes to heaven when we die. All this, however, finds minimal support in the New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus, where the word soul, though rare, reflects when it does occur underlying Hebrew or Aramaic words referring not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of the disposable body but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality, seen as being confronted by God.”

Giving a historical background on beliefs about death and resurrection in ancient times, it is shown that pagans thought death was undefeatable and there was no way of escaping it. Then it comes the major theme of the book, which is repeated several other times and which I have heard N. T. Wright talking about in many other places: “Resurrection was used to denote new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be.” In other words, resurrection means “life after life after death”. Confusing, huh? And from the early days of Christianity, though they believed the new body will be physical, they also believed it would be a transformed body, with a whole new material.

Still in the historical context, the author notes that despite resurrection being a theme in Jewish teachings at the time, it was always as a metaphor to the restoration of Israel. That said, after the crucifixion, no Jew would understand that meant Jesus was Lord’s anointed, unless they really saw his resurrected body. Wright also points out that resurrection teachings were considered dangerous in the early days:

“Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it. […] It was the Gnostics, who translated the language of resurrection into a private spirituality and a dualistic cosmology, thereby more or less altering its meaning into its opposite, who escaped persecution. Which emperor would have sleepless nights worrying that his subjects were reading the Gospel of Thomas? Resurrection was always bound to get you into trouble, and it regularly did.”

As Jesus is raised, he is now earth’s true Lord and God’s new creation has already begun, and we must go on to announce his kingdom to the whole world. Professor Wright then goes on to do an apologetics task: how do you explain the fact that the tomb was really empty and that several people saw Jesus after his death? He does an excellent job in proving that Jews did expect the body to not be present if someone claimed that Jesus resurrected. Even with a powerful argument, he explains that a historical argument can not force someone to believe in the resurrection, but “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.”

Painting representing the philosopher Plato, taken from https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/contributors/plato

Now he will try to answer the question of what is God’s purpose for this world by showing some different views. The first are the evolutionary optimists, who hold that the world is ours to discover and that instead “of creation and new creation, science and technology will turn the raw material of this world into the stuff of utopia.” But this utopian dream can not deal with evil, given that with all these years of evolution, we still had horrible stuff like Hiroshima. The second group trying to understand God’s purpose for this world is highly influenced by Plato, meaning that the present world is just an illusion, and our real goal should be to “get in touch with the true reality, beyond space, time, and matter.” If you try to avoid the evolutionary optimism problems without embracing the truth of Christianity, you will end up in the same way as the Gnostics and influenced by Plato on this matter.

“Within biblical theology it remains the case that the one living God created a world that is other than himself, not contained within himself. Creation was from the beginning an act of love, of affirming the goodness of the other. […] Evil is real and powerful, within biblical theology, but it [does not] consist in the fact that it’s made of physical matter and belongs within space and time instead of being pure spirit in an eternal heaven. […] Evil then consists not in being created but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them. The result is that the cosmos is out of joint. Instead of humans being God’s wise vice-regents over creation, they ignore the creator and try to worship something less demanding, something that will give them a short-term fix of power or pleasure. […] Precisely because creation is the work of God’s love, redemption is not something alien to the creator but rather something he will undertake with delight and glad self-giving. Redemption doesn’t mean scrapping what’s there and starting again from a clean slate but rather liberating what has come to be enslaved.”

The Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews will then talk about the new creation, another topic which made this book famous among his publishings. He says that when Paul talks about us being citizens of heaven, that is talking about the Lordship of Jesus over the new heavens and new earth, and that we are part of it. Heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two parts of the same space and time continuum, but “two different dimensions of God’s good creation.” Regarding the second coming, he says that for millions of Christians today, “the second coming is part of a scenario in which the present world is doomed to destruction while the chosen few are snatched up to heaven.” If you remember, this is the exact script of the movie Left Behind.

“when I (and many others) use the word eschatology, we don’t simply mean the second coming, still less a particular theory about it; we mean, rather, the entire sense of God’s future for the world and the belief that that future has already begun to come forward to meet us in the present. This is what we find in Jesus himself and in the teaching of the early church.”

Another word that is often misinterpreted is the greek parousia. N. T. Wright says that people often use this word as meaning just the second coming of Christ, but that is argued to not be the case. The first meaning that could be hold is the presence of God during and act of healing, when people would be aware of a supernatural presence. And the second meaning “emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province.” The curiosity here is that when some king is visiting a colony, people would meet him outside the walls and escort him back into the colony, which is the meaning Paul meant when he speaks about meeting the Lord in the air: “The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.” Just a quick note from the chapter on purgatory, where the author says:

“Death itself gets rid of all that is still sinful; this isn’t magic but good theology. There is nothing then left to purge. Some older teachers suggested that purgatory would still be necessary because one would still need to bear some punishment for one’s sins, but any such suggestion is of course abhorrent to anyone with even a faint understanding of Paul, who teaches that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” […] In fact, Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere that it’s the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some postmortem state, are the valley through which we have to pass in order to reach the glorious future.”

He explains how the concept of hell and the real consequences for the ones who do not believe is a difficult topic to discuss, since everyone knows someone who is certainly on this place now. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that he is not an universalist, i.e. he understands that it is possible to deny a relationship with God in some way that you will not be in his presence for eternity. N. T. Wright agrees that “Judgment […] is the only alternative to chaos” and that “evil must be identified, named, and dealt with before there can be reconciliation”. However, I felt that his conclusion on what would happen to the people condemned at this judgement is at least odd:

“My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity.”

Finally, he will start to talk about what this future hope means for us in the present life and to the mission of the church. With respect to our current body, for example, the fact that this present body will be raised by God to new life means that what you do to it in the present life matters. Regarding what the church should do to this present world when it understands what our future hope really means:

“the mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’s bodily resurrection and thus the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made. […] the split between saving souls and doing good in the world is a product not of the Bible or the gospel but of the cultural captivity of both within the Western world. […] Thus the church that takes sacred space seriously not as a retreat from the world but as a bridgehead into it will go straight from worshipping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber […] And, of course, the church that take seriously the fact that in and through Jesus the Creator God has grasped the world of matter once more and has transformed it by his own person and presence, and will one day fill it with his knowledge and glory as the waters cover the sea, not only will seek to celebrate the coming of God in Christ in and through the sacramental elements but also will go straight from baptism and the Eucharist to make God’s healing, transforming presence a reality in the physical matter of real life.”

I hope you have enjoyed this post, it has been a while since I have posted the last book review. I have read this book two months ago, but I did not have time to write about it. That means that I already have at least three books in the pipeline to write about, I just have to find time to do it. Please, make comments below on what you think about the book or about something I have said. The next book on the pipeline is Saving Truth, from Abdu Murray, another excellent book. You can follow me on Twitter too: @heltonduarte.

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Helton Duarte

Philosophy & Theology nerd (MA degree). Christian. Software Eng. Brazilian. Doubt the premises; find the hidden assumptions; live the conclusions consistently.