Book Review: Surprised by Hope
By N. T. Wright
Reviewed by Thomas R. Schreiner
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
HarperCollins, 2008, 352 pages, $24.95.
N. T. Wright is one of the most talented writers among New Testament scholars today. In this book he presents his understanding of what the Scriptures teach about heaven, the resurrection, and the church's mission.
What is heaven after all? Wright contends that too many Christians have a Platonic idea of heaven. They conceive of it in ethereal terms, as if we float in a bodiless state in some transcendent realm. Indeed, most Christians think of heaven as "up there," and as separated from the earth. What the Scriptures teach, however, is that heaven will come to earth. The Scriptures do not say, according to Wright, that we will "go to heaven when we die," but that heaven will come to earth, that the earth upon which we live will be transformed, and that we will enjoy the new creation.
Wright's understanding of the Christian hope is predicated upon the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Surprised by Hope therefore summarizes Wright's older, massive, and outstanding book The Resurrection of the Son of God. What is important to see here is that the resurrection is irreducibly physical. People in the ancient world believed in spirits, ghosts, and the like, but they did not confuse things like these with the idea of a resurrection. Also, Wright does not simply accept the resurrection by faith, since the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is incredibly strong. No, we cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Christ was raised. Still, his physical resurrection fits most suitably with the evidence of the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus Christ.
The resurrection of Jesus is fundamental to Wright's thesis, for Christ's resurrection is tied to the future resurrection of believers. Hence, the future that awaits believers cannot be described as a spiritual existence in heaven. Rather, heaven will be on a new earth where believers will continue the bodily existence they enjoy in this world, but with bodies that are transformed by the Holy Spirit.
And what is the payoff for the church's mission in the present? Wright emphasizes over and over that our life in this world makes a difference. We do not simply wait to go to heaven when we die. We are called upon to engage this world, to work for justice in the political realm, to exercise our artistic gifts as creatures made in God's image, and to evangelize the lost.
Read Tom's entire excellent review.