Surprised By Hope Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright

Surprised By Hope attempts to “recapture the Christian answer to death and beyond and the nature of our task as we wait” (pp. XII-XIII). Said differently the book addresses two questions: “What is the ultimate Christian hope?” and, “What hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?” (p. 5). Wright sees hope for the first question in the resurrection of Christ, which guarantees the resurrection of the believer. He provides strong arguments for the historical resurrection of Jesus (pp. 53-76), and repeatedly affirms that, while Christians enter the presence of God at death, their ultimate destiny lies in their bodily resurrection and life on the new earth (pp. 28, 41, 171-172). These discussions are the strongest features of the book.

Wright stumbles, however, when he attempts to resolve his second question – what hope does the resurrection give for present transformation of the earth? In order to describe what he thinks this present hope looks like, he first must dismantle positions which oppose his own. In doing so he mocks those who look forward to going to heaven after death which he sees as a form of escapism, because such people, he fears, will have little interest in pressing issues facing the planet today. However, reluctantly it seems, that he admits that between death and the final resurrection we will go into the presence of God (heaven) (pp. 171-172). As well, Wright attempts to belittle any idea of pretribulational rapture which he believes is based totally on a misunderstanding of two verses of Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. He tells his readers that these verses cannot be taken literally as they are merely metaphors, and the rapture theory is akin to Gnosticism. He further mocks those who believe in a rapture as believing that Christ will return flying about like a spaceman (pp. 23, 118, 134, 142, 219). It should be noted that Wright makes no serious attempt to either exegete or refute the many biblical texts that support a rapture but instead resorts to allegorical hermeneutics, mockery and straw-men arguments. These are methods he has honed to perfection, but are hardly a scholarly attempt to enter into the debate. One of Wright’s strawmen is the supposed belief, which according to him is held by many, that salvation is merely souls escaping from bodies and living eternally in a disembodied state (pp. 94-197, 220). According to this logic, such Christians have no concern about this world (pp. 90-91). Yet he documents no solid theologian who teaches these things but rather offers evidence based upon what he claims to have heard from others in conversations and sermons (these too are undocumented). At best these views may represent folk Christianity of the untaught, but it does not represent the Christianity of any noted theologian.

Nevertheless, it is the author’s attempt at addressing the second question (“what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation…within the world at present”), that is deeply disturbing. First, Wright believes that the Kingdom of God was inaugurated at the resurrection of Christ (pp. 18, 29, 107, 135). As a result, God’s sovereign, saving role has broken in to the world (pp. 37, 122) and Christ is now ruling (in a way different from before the resurrection) this present world (p. 113). He even puts words into Jesus’ mouth in Acts 1:8-9 where, in reply to the apostles asking when the kingdom of God would be restored to Israel, he has Jesus replying that it has already come (pp. 241-243). Apparently the kingdom has come in the form of the church (pp. 241-242) which is now Israel (pp. 46-47) or even the New Jerusalem (p. 104).

Wright’s foundational theories lead to a number of conclusions about life on earth today and how we are to live out hope. In Wright’s theology the present heaven and earth is not destroyed and replaced with a new heaven and earth; it is resurrected or refashioned in much the same way as our mortal bodies are changed into immortal bodies at the resurrection. This view is not unique to Wright but is held by theologians from a number of traditions. However, numerous scriptures, if literally interpreted, tell a different story. In particular Second Peter 3 deserves careful consideration – consideration Wright does not give (see p. 135). It is germane to Wright’s whole system that the present cosmos continues in renewed form. That is because the efforts Christians make now to solve social and ecological issues will be continued into the new universe. Wright does not deny the work of God, nevertheless he views Christians are agents of planetarial transformation as we together with God to advance the kingdom (pp. 201-206). Believers are to be God’s rescue stewards over creation accomplishing something which will become due in the new world (pp. 208, 211). Specifically what does this kingdom work look like? Basically it is social justice (pp. 213-222). This includes debt remission for poor countries, which Wright sees as the most pressing concern of our time. A close second is ecological responsibility (pp. 213-222). Next is beauty, or revitalizing aesthetic awareness and creativity (pp. 222-225).

Wright does not leave out evangelism (pp. 225-230), but he sees the biblical gospel of reconciliation with God as “lopsided” and even “deceptive” (p. 226). To Wright the gospel is two-pronged. The first prong is spiritual and concerns itself with reconciliation with the Lord which takes place through faith plus baptism (pp. 250, 255). The second prong is social redemption. Basing his theology almost exclusively on Romans 8:18-25 and Revelation 21-22, he sees redemption as a liberation of the cosmos from whatever has enslaved it (pp. 90, 93, 96, 103-105, 224, 275, 279, 294). Combining the two prongs gives us the “full-orbed mission of the church” (p. 201), or the “full gospel” (p. 226; cf. pp. 193, 197-200, 204-205, 265-270). Wright sees evidence of Christians already accomplishing the second-prong of the gospel in the fall of Soviet Communism and apartheid (pp. 245-246), never mind that Christians’ roles in either of these two events were minor at best.

In addition to these concerns there are a number of other collateral issues. Wright promotes several unorthodox views:

  • Reluctantly, Wright agrees that there is actually a literal heaven. However, heaven and earth apparently share the same space in distinct dimensions (pp. 19, 111, 115-116, 134-135). “Heaven”, he writes, is “the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension” (p. 19) and, “Heaven and earth in the biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation” (p. 111). At best this is an unprovable theory, but it is probably superior to his erroneous, “Heaven is actually a reverent way of speaking about God” (p. 151).
  • Wright’s dimensional concept of heaven allows him to redefine the future appearing of Christ very differently from the way Scripture does. Whereas the angels promised that Christ would come back just as He ascended (into the clouds – Acts 1:9), Wright assures us that Jesus will not “descend like a spaceman from the sky,” but “when heaven and earth are joined together…then He will appear to us – and we will appear to Him, and to one another, in our own true identity” (pp. 134-135). Apparently the two dimensions simply become one.
  • Not only is heaven redefined but so too is hell. Wright believes God’s judgment upon sinners is necessary but hell is actually on earth. Jesus’ warning about hell (Gehenna) concerned primarily Rome’s destruction of Israel in the first century (p. 176). As for individuals in eternity, borrowing from C.S. Lewis he believes 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…those creatures [will continue to] exist in an ex-human state” (pp. 182-183). Of course nothing like this is found in Scripture but it mirrors Lewis’ views as found in The Great Divorce.
  • Just briefly, but clearly, Wright returns to his “New Perspectives on Paul” theology which claims the evangelical church has misunderstood Paul’s teachings on justification since at least the Reformation (pp. 103, 202-205). Paul, Wright insists, was not concerned with salvation of the individual but about announcing the launching of His kingdom with its two-pronged mission (see above).
  • Due to Wright’s two dimensional view of heaven and earth he believes it is “appropriate to pray for and with the dead…that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace” (p. 172). Who would have guessed that those already in Heaven needed such prayers?
  • Finally, Wright’s two-prongs leads him to minimize the penal substitutional understanding of the atonement and embrace the Christus Victor theory (pp. 199-200).

By the close of Surprised By Hope N.T. Wright has redefined heaven, hell, the gospel, future judgment, and the entire mission of the church. He has ridiculed those who long for heaven, misrepresented what most Christians believe by claiming they look forward to a disembodied eternity, mocked those who see a literal rapture – without serious engagement with Scripture – as well as those who believe in Christ’s literal, visible return in the skies. Wright develops most of his errant views not on the words of Scripture but on his own imagination and authority. His agenda is to engage the church with culture and work with God to bring the kingdom to earth largely through social actions. Yet his agenda is squeezed from a few misunderstood verses found in Romans 8 and the last two chapters of the New Testament taken out of context. He never seems to pause long enough to look at the broad picture painted within the New Testament of Christ’s commission to the church. Where in Scripture is Wright’s great emphasis on the church fighting social injustices, remissions of national debts, battling ecological concerns, and developing the arts? As citizens of this planet we should be concerned for many of these things. But as Christians our mission is clearly different. It is to make disciples and train people to live for the glory of God, as outlined in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). Wright’s two-pronged gospel is not found in the pages of Scripture. Yet his views are gaining traction in the church at large, to the detriment of the gospel of Christ and the biblical mission of the church.

 (New York: Harper Collins, 2008) 332 pp. + XIV, Hard $24.95

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel