I have been reading and listening to N.T. Wright for a few years now. During the 40 days of lent earlier this year, I read through his massive work on the resurrection: The Resurrection of the Son of God. I have also read Simply Christian and listened to a few lectures on the resurrection here and here. I was familiar with Wright’s position on Christian hope, but Surprised by Hope was the book that I so wanted to read so I could capture Wright’s complete vision of our future. I began reading it a little more than a month ago to prepare for a message I was preaching on death and the afterlife. I thought that I would skim through the book to help with the sermon, but once I started, I could not stop until I finished and I wasn’t disappointed. Surprised by Hope concluded a two-year process of reshaping my vision of the future, particularly related to heaven and bodily resurrection. I cannot think of a book that has more impacted me than this one.
I have been a Christian for nearly 20 years and a pastor for 10. During my years in the church prior to full-time ministry, I cannot recall a message being preached on bodily resurrection. I can remember numerous messages on heaven, and of course, the rapture of the church, but none on the resurrection of the dead. Over the last few years, I had been teaching on bodily resurrection in the context of divine healing. How is it that God can make a covenant of healing with his people and yet choose, at times, not to immediately answer prayers for healing? Answer: bodily resurrection. All of God’s promises to heal the sick will be fulfilled at the return of Christ when the dead in Christ shall be raised and given a new physical body. Nevertheless, I had a far too limited few of the resurrection. I still saw the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as the means by which we could go to heaven when we die. Heaven was my hope. The resurrection of the dead was an awkward aside to the majesty of eternal life in heaven. Wright has helped me rethink that concept in the light of clear biblical teaching. He has given me a refocused hope.
My wife has one of those expensive digital cameras with multiple lenses. With her camera you can focus on an object that is near to you and make the background fuzzy. You can also refocus the camera to make objects in the foreground blurry and objects in the background clear. Surprised by Hope has helped to refocus my hope beyond heaven and onto our ultimate destination, eternal life on a new earth, in a new resurrected body. Wright explains: “Instead of talking vaguely about heaven and then trying to fit the language of resurrection into that, we should talk with biblical precision about the resurrection and reorganize our language about heaven around that. What is more, as I shall show in the final part of this book, when we do this we discover and excellent foundation, not, as some suppose, for an escapist or quietist piety (that belongs more with the traditional and misleading language about heaven), but for lively and creative Christian work within the present world.” (148)
Does this mean that we do not go to heaven when we die, if we die in faith? Certainly not. Wright is not taking heaven away from us. It is not that we don’t “go to heaven” when we die. Rather, “going to heaven when we die” is not the point. It is not the message of Jesus or the Apostles. The New Testament says very little about going to heaven when you die, but we evangelicals have made it the great goal of the Christian experience. One of the largest evangelical denominations in the United States even notes in their statement of faith concerning “Last Things” that “The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.” They correctly included the resurrection of the body, but where is the recreation of the new heavens and the new earth? Is this the goal to enjoy God forever in heaven or on the earth?
This refocused hope changes everything for me.
If our future hope is new creation (a resurrected body and the recreation of the earth) then what we do in the body matters. What we do with the earth matters. It is not that Jesus is returning to whisk away the Christians and destroy the earth with fire, so that we can live with him forever in a non-physical heaven. God’s creation is good and our human bodies are good and so we should be good stewards of the earth and our physical bodies. When we bury our dead, and I do agree with Wright that we should carry on the tradition of burying our dead and not cremating them, we should bury them in the hope of the resurrection. We should proclaim that death (and disease) has been defeated by the resurrection of Jesus and one day, we too will stand victorious over death…at the resurrection. We should enjoy the goodness of God’s creation and experience his invisible attributes stamped on his good creation. We should work to keep our air, streams, and land clear of pollution. All of those things matter, if indeed our hope is resurrection and new creation.
N.T. Wright has written with clarity and persuasion and Surprised by Hope has become a catalyst in refocusing my hope based on teachings of Scripture.