Surprised by Tom Wright - a review of Surprised by Hope
Knowing I would have a few hours to spare here and there on a recent visit to Rovaniemi, just outside the Finnish Arctic Circle (setting of the Sauna episodes in The Demise of Sir Toby’s), I took Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope with me. I had bought the book some time ago, but irritated by a remark I thought I had seen somewhere that this book made Wright the C.S. Lewis of the 21st century, I put the book down, having skim-read it, thinking ‘Oh no he isn’t!’. I must have been mistaken about the book. Surprised by Hope is midway between popular and academic theology (I’ve yet to read Wright’s ‘popular’ books), and apologetics it isn’t. Rather, as the title suggests, it is a fresh look at the resurrection, and the nature of Christian hope. I became more enthralled the more I read, finishing the book quickly, and returning to read parts of it more slowly.
Wright begins by taking some examples of popular attitudes to death, and what happens when we die, including those promoted by the church. The church is, on the whole, failing to convince us of the significance of the resurrection for the future and for life as lived now, and instead promoting a modernist (or ancient, depending on your point of view) version of life after death in some other place, into which the Christian gospel grants us access, the focus being away from this world and the here and now.
Wright pursues Christian confusion about ‘hope’ in the second chapter, and then briskly marches us through the historical setting of ‘hope’, Jewish and Christian, with seven key mutations listed in which Christian ‘hope’ for the resurrection diverges from the Jewish. The pagans explicitly dismissed resurrection altogether.
Four strange features of the gospel resurrection stories are then described, followed by a thoughtful discussion of why the Easter story both is and is not historically verifiable. Being brought up on Frank Morison’s ‘Who moved the stone?’, which argues strongly for a historically verified resurrection of Jesus, this line of thinking was new territory for me.
Wright then proceeds in Part 2 to look at contrasting views of God’s plan for the cosmos: that it is either being brought towards a God-fulfilled destiny by the workings of Christ within it (as per Teilhard de Chardin – the complexity of whose views are given fair acknowledgment), to the view that it can be ignored altogether, since God is going to destroy it, and our best hope is to be rescued out of it. Plato and the Gnostics are brought in to support the latter view. The nature of evil, Wright suggests, is overlooked in the first view, and exaggerated in the second.
In chapter 6 Wright explores the Christian hope as interpreted by the goodness of creation, the reality of evil, and the working of redemption. Images of seedtime and harvest, birth and renewal, and marriage are explored as biblical images of the new which affirm the old in Christian hope.
In chapter 7, Wright vigorously rebuts attempts to collapse the ascension of Jesus into the resurrection, arguing anti-Platonically for the existence of the materially raised Jesus in a non-physical heavenly abode, and from which he gives effect to a new power structure in the world, which is neither theocracy nor worshipping him in a private sphere, but through the kingdom of God operating as the gospels and Acts describe it. Without the ascension, the church expands to fill the vacuum, promoting itself as the sole existence of Christ in the world today. The trinity becomes a good explanation of Jesus’s strange ‘absence’ (through the ascension), yet ‘presence’ (through the Holy Spirit). Some interesting discussion is provided on the interrelationship of heaven and earth here.
Chapter 8 pursues the idea of Jesus’s future return after his present absence, with some groundwork having been laid at the end of the previous chapter. Wright insists that Jesus himself said nothing about his future return. As I have some problems squaring this with the imagery of, say the wise and foolish virgins and the return of the bridegroom in Matthew 25, and the threats of judgment which have a resoundingly ‘final judgment’ sound to them in Matthew 25, I reserve ‘judgment’ here.
Wright presents the parousia, not as the departure of the saints to be with the exalted but descending Lord, but as the Lord coming to visit the earth as Caesar might have made an imperial progress to some far-flung city of the empire, the citizens and dignitaries of the city meeting him en route, as it were. Parousia, for Wright, is second coming language, and second coming for him is distinct from judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70. Hence his interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:15, and the parallel passage in Philippians 3:20. The emphasis, however, is on Jesus being the true Lord of the earth following his resurrection and ascension, confronting the usurping power structures, in his day the Roman empire, and placing the earth under new management through expressions of the kingdom of God as his ministry and as Acts demonstrated.
Chapter 9 outlines the meaning and significance of Christ as judge – in relation to the transformation of the world, the shape of history, and the task of believers today – freed from the self-effort of the liberals, and present day despair of the fundamentalists, from pietism or a theocratic ‘take-over bid’. Chapter 10 looks in more detail at resurrection as ‘life after life after death’, and where in history the thinking started to lose this emphasis, with its accompanying effects on Christian praxis. Various passages, such as Colossians 3:1-4, 1 Peter 1, Romans 8: 9-11 are brought into a new focus here. 1 Corinthians 15 is also explained in terms of different kinds of physicality in the earthly and resurrection bodies. The idea of reward in the resurrection body is also handled, with the reward related perhaps more organically than we tend to think to earthly, bodily activity.
Wright has already been creating a picture which contrasts with medieval ideas of the opposing poles of heaven and hell. In chapter 10, he looks at these concepts of the afterlife, and while denying extensive biblical teaching on the matter of hell, argues for the existence of a post mortem hell for those who reject God. He also argues against belief in a further opportunity for purging of sins, or journeying to maturity in the afterlife.
Parts 1 & 2 have been laying a foundation for Part 3, which is how salvation and the kingdom of God are to be ‘rethought’ for today. The strength of Wright’s argument is in a shift away from a dualistic faith, which contrasts evil matter with pure spirituality, away from a pietistic faith confined to personal life only, and away from a faith which directs the believer from this life to the life to come. The physical faith of the resurrection points us to this earth, and not simply the future, but now. One of Wright’s best pictures which helps to convey this is of stonemasons preparing various parts of the stonework of the cathedral away from the building itself. The significance of their work is only fully seen when each part is put in place, in the finally emerging building. So it is with the power of the resurrection at work now, and the resurrection to come. Wright argues that nothing we do in the power of the Spirit now will be wasted, and all will appear, somehow, at the resurrection.
The gospel, then, is a proclamation of the world under new management, and an appeal for lives to be surrendered to that management. It is expressed in works of the kingdom now, which demonstrate in works as well as words the nature of the kingdom to come. Wright presents a good argument for the re-envisioned gospel which demolishes some of the damage which modernism, in the forms already described, has inflicted upon it.
There are some uses then for journeys to the Arctic Circle. The rest of the time I was teaching on a Youth with a Mission Discipleship Training School, the subject matter being ‘Destiny and Calling’. If you want to know about that, google destinybydesign.org.