Title: Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
Author: NT Wright
Something I’ve noticed is how people in my circles tend to have an acute appreciation of the crucifixion and why that matters for each of us, but our grasp of the resurrection’s meaning is fuzzier. We all know the cross was important, because it was there that Christ died for our sins, but what exactly does the empty tomb mean for you and for me?
Fortunately, in his book Surprised by Hope, NT Wright brilliantly puts into words why you and I should care deeply about the resurrection.
Wright begins by suggesting that the focus of the Bible isn’t so much on heaven and hell, but rather on heaven and earth, and the temporarily broken relationship between the two. Even though our gospel presentations often begin with asking, “Do you think you’ll go to heaven?”, Wright makes this startling claim: “There is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’” (p. 18).
Instead, he says, the primary focus of much of the Bible is new creation. Not new as in “let’s get rid of this evil world and start over,” but rather in God redeeming this world so that heaven becomes a reality here.
The focus of the Bible isn’t so much on heaven and hell, but on heaven and earth, and the temporarily broken relationship between the two
Sound counterintuitive? As Wright points out, ideas like Platonism and Gnosticism have warped our thinking about heaven and the next life. Gnostics saw material things as flawed and evil. They believed people should abstain from earthly pleasures and instead accrue spiritual knowledge. Similarly, the ancient Greeks saw humans as eternal souls merely passing through this present world to the next life.
But those are not necessarily biblical Christian ideas.
Read resurrection/ end times passages like 1 Corinthians 15, Philippians 3:20-21, Romans 8, and Revelation 21-22, and you’ll notice that the future Christian hope isn’t so much about escaping this world or escaping hell. It’s more about God renewing and redeeming this world, through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
“The world is created good but incomplete,” says Wright (contrary to what Gnostics would say). “One day, when all forces of rebellion have been defeated and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator, God will fill it with Himself” (p. 102).
That’s why Paul eloquently describes Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15 as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”. Christ’s bodily resurrection was a prototype of what will happen to everyone who believes in Him.
We are not just souls in transit to another place either. That doesn’t capture the full story. As Surprised by Hope lays out: “the central Christian affirmation is that what the creator God has done in Jesus Christ, and supremely in His resurrection, is what He intends to do for the whole world — meaning, by world, the entire cosmos with all its history” (p. 91).
Christ’s bodily resurrection was a prototype of what will happen to everyone who believes in Him
The hope of heaven is not that we will enjoy eternity in some disembodied state in the clouds above, but that our actual physical bodies will be raised from the dead, and heaven and earth will at last be perfectly reunited again, as they were in Genesis 1-2.
In light of that, isn’t it interesting that when Jesus told us how to pray, He said this: “Our Father… Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)?
Why does this matter?
As the subtitle of this book indicates, our views of the resurrection inform our mission today. If you believe this world is going to be completely destroyed and we are going to spend eternity in heaven, then you may not be motivated to do much good or spread the kingdom here. But if you believe God is right now in the business of recreating this world, of bringing His kingdom here to Earth in tangible ways, then that’s a different story.
As Wright puts it:
“Resurrection has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise not to a meek acquiescence to injustice in the world but to a robust determination to oppose it. English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead” (p. 27).
Brothers and sisters, what if our final destination isn’t a disembodied heaven? What if the end goal is a new heavens and a new earth, where God’s justice and righteousness reign?
Through the hope of Christ’s resurrection, which was a preview of things to come, may we press forward — not as glum fatalists, unmotivated to spread the kingdom here, but as passionate followers of Christ, kingdom people who are joyful in this important work of furthering His new creation!
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