by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
Author: N. T. Wright
Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright feels like one of the most significant books that I have read. This may put me on thin ice with my evangelical, pre-tribulation rapture friends who might be aghast at Wright’s take on the subject.
Wright sees the rapture as a misunderstanding of two scripture passages attributed to the apostle Paul: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-54. Wright’s brief analysis is plausible but not necessarily irrefutable. I appreciate his reasoning even if I am not sure if he is correct. I knew there were Christians who didn’t believe in the rapture, but this is the first time that I can see why.
There are scholarly books on each side of the debate, but logic leads me to believe that two contradictory views cannot both be correct. The rapture will either occur or it will not. Reading Wright made me want to find an expert on the subject who could give me a definitive answer. There are two sides to an argument, and sometimes the first seems right until we have heard from another.
Fortunately, one’s belief about the rapture will not determine one’s destiny. I am glad that the deciding factor is our relationship with Christ. When we are reconciled to God through faith in Christ, our future is secure. Just as Christ rose from the dead, so we too will one day rise, which is what this book is all about.
The rapture debate is just a side issue. Wright believes in the second coming of Christ. He emphasizes that the Scriptures speak of God coming to us, rather than us going to Him. The separation between the physical and spiritual realms will be done away at Christ’s appearing. In His wake will be the new heavens and the new earth.
The bulk of the book is about the hope of the early church being a physical, bodily resurrection and how that relates to us today. Wright convincingly supports the idea that the earliest Christians had their hopes set on a physical resurrection from the dead. This is the substantive teaching of Scripture as opposed to just an immaterial existence in heaven, the belief that you go to heaven when you die. Wright acknowledges that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, but this is an in between state while we wait for the resurrection of our bodies.
I could not help wondering why in my 30 plus years of being a Christian I was taught so little about this. This hope caught me by surprise because so often the focus has been on receiving Christ so that you can go to heaven when you die. I would never want to minimize the importance of putting one’s faith in Christ for eternal life, but as Chuck Colson states in Christianity Today (December 2010), this is not the whole picture: “He (Jesus) was talking about the eschatological certainty that in the end, God’s reign will be made manifest. His message is teleological; it is to the world. It is not just to us as individuals: ‘Come to the cross and you can be saved.’ As wonderfully significant as that is for every one of us, and as grateful as I will always be for the night that Christ came into my life, it’s all part of a much larger purpose. I am being saved from my sin so that I may serve him in the building of his kingdom, the establishing of his rule. The really good news is that the gospel isn’t just about you or me. God has saved us as part of a larger plan, the coming of his kingdom.” Colson is arguing that the Good News has often been reduced to a personal self-help story.
One reason I enjoy Wright is because he expounds a gospel that is immense in scope, reaching to the world, encompassing Old and New Testaments, and revealing the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s story. It’s such a pleasure to gain an all-encompassing view through his scholarly and practical analysis that can appeal to academic and non-academic.
I can see from reading a recent article about the differences between what Jesus and Paul preached that Wright’s perspective is colored more by Christ’s preaching on the kingdom of God than Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith. I am sure that Wright would agree that these two perceived distinctives are not at odds, but it’s interesting to note some Christians tend to emphasize one or the other.
Wright’s emphasis is not to be confused with a “kingdom now” theology where Christians take over the present world. It’s more along the lines of making visible in myriads of small, practical ways the kingdom that Christ has inaugurated. Each act of love, every expression of truth, the creation of beauty and the rendering of service in His name are like signs pointing to this reality, which is becoming more visible in this world. Colson again provides a similar perspective: “In the interim, while we personally cannot usher in the kingdom (only God can do that), we can faithfully live as citizens of the kingdom to come. The Beatitudes, for example, give us a pattern of life for that coming kingdom that we can aim to live out now.”
I like how Wright emphasizes that nothing is wasted in God’s economy. We don’t have to look at the state of the world and think that there is nothing that we can do. It’s not a matter of just waiting idly until Jesus returns. We have the privilege of being ambassadors for a kingdom that began when Christ rose, will be consummated when He returns, but is even now breaking into the world as we live out, “your will be done on earth as it is heaven.”