If you look on You Tube for his interview with Stephen Colbert, you will understand one of the reasons I admire N. T. Wright. He has a magnificent brain, tremendous social poise, and has a lightning quick mind and wit. Besides all this, he writes like a dream. Today I want to outline for you his discussion of our ultimate future, which is not to be up in heaven staring at God forever and ever. No, our future is embodied immortality, incorruptible deathlessness, that is, our destiny includes being people who cannot die because of the death Messiah died for us, resurrected people alive forevermore because of the power of his resurrection. We will be looking at this book: N(icholas) T(homas) Wright,Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
Born December 1, 1948, Wright is a leading New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop. In academia, he is published as N. T. Wright, but otherwise tends to be known as Tom Wright. Between 2003 and his retirement in 2010, he was the Bishop of Durham. He is now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
He is a prodigious author, whose sentiments resonate with E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul. His views on hell and on justification are matters of some controversy. However, he is a writer whose breadth, brilliance, and clarity demand respect and always, a hearing.
His purpose in this book is to mobilize readers around a Christian hope long neglected and misshapen—the new creation resurrection hope secured and begun in the atoning death and resurrection of Yeshua, the Messiah. This in turn forms a solid and transformational foundation for Christian practice and politics. Chapter 1 considers what the atonement/resurrection hope is, and how this contributes to the transformation of the world. This hope is not the hope of heaven, but of life after life after death, embodied immortality in a renewed heavens and renewed earth. Chapter 2 surveys the confusion and misinformation clinging to the issue of heaven and hell. This confusion is perpetuated and reflected in hymnody, in how funerals are conducted, etc. It has real-life implications for how we live, how we relate to our bodies, and to matters such as social justice, the arts, and personal holiness. Chapter 3 examines why the resurrection is crucial for Christian and Messianic Jewish faith, and why it is not another way of saying “life after death,” but deals rather with life after life after death, “life after death” being our sojourn, however short or long, in the intermediate state known as heaven/paradise while awaiting our real destination, resurrection as eternal citizens of a renewed heavens and a renewed earth. He explores the kinship the NT shares with Judaism in its view of resurrection, and seven ways in which the NT parts from some Jewish assumptions. He demonstrates that all of these differences are only explainable on the basis of the historic fact of Jesus’ resurrection, which alone forms a credible basis for the boldness with which early Yeshua-believers stood up to the might of Imperial Rome.
In Chapter 4, Wright examines four strange features of Gospel resurrection accounts which lend credibility to Messiah’s resurrection. In addition, he shows it to be clear that the tomb was empty and that the apostolic band had so encountered Yeshua as to convince them that he had conquered death, entering into a new, and unprecedented realm of life. He considers and refutes contrary arguments, and finishes the chapter discussing epistemology, and the interconnection between the resurrection of Yeshua and the new creation.
Chapter 5 examines what God’s purpose is for the cosmos, exploring evolutionary optimism and a souls-in-transit mindset (spiritual life as a continuing journey). He favors a third option, the resurrection of Messiah as the trigger and foretaste of the renewal of the entire cosmos, to be explored in Chapter 6. In this chapter he examines presuppositions and concepts that illumine what the NT means by resurrection: the goodness of creation, the nature of evil, the plan of redemption, seedtime and harvest with Christ as the first fruits, victorious battle, citizens of heaven colonizing the earth, God as all in all, the New Birth, and the marriage of heaven and earth: in short, the new creation. In Chapter 7, Wright presents the Ascension as a vital aspect of the Christian message, defeating residual platonic assumptions and reminding the Church that she does not circumscribe the limits of Christ’s presence. The Ascension is also essential to a correct assessment of the Triunity of God. Heaven is not out there, but a different kind of place, matter and time coexistent with our own, more like a parallel dimension.
Chapter Eight contests dispensational/premillennial concepts of Christ’s coming in the clouds to rapture his people. The focus of the parousia, the triumphant return of Messiah, is Messiah’s arriving royal Presence, and our going out to meet him in order to welcome him/escort him back to our territory. At the Second Coming Christ does not come to take us away but to join us. Chapter 9 reminds us that he comes as Judge. Here, Wright discusses the pedigree of the idea of God and Messiah as Judge. Judgment is not a negative, but a positive reality, and according to deeds. Jesus’ coming is transformational, bringing redemption’s story to a conclusion, calling us meanwhile to prepare and build for a coming Kingdom which is greater than we can imagine. In Chapter Ten, Wright deals with the redemption of our bodies, laying a basic picture of the bodily resurrection as taught in the Newer Testament and by the Church Fathers. He reviews Col 3:1-4, Romans 8:9-11, John 5, touching upon other passages as well, indicating how heaven is not our final resting place. He focuses especially on 1 Cor 15, and the who, what, where, why, when, and how of bodily resurrection. From such a perspective, we see heaven as an intermediate state.
Chapter 11, “Purgatory, Paradise, Hell,” clarifies the meanings, distinctions, and histories of usage of these terms. Chapter 12 explores the on the ground, whole life implications of a new creation perspective. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are the essential means for saving and deputizing his people for the work of the kingdom which he modeled as recorded in the gospels, foreshadowing the new creation. This perspective reintegrates the gospels and the Epistles. Chapter 13 shows how new creation eschatology leads to a transformation of justice, beauty and outreach. As we reflect the justice and beauty of the new creation and the tensions between the coming age and the present age, our outreach/evangelism becomes both attractive and credible. Evangelism is recruiting other people to the life that has found us, which we embody, and which we anticipate however imperfectly.
Chapter 14 considers a hope-shaped mission. The resurrection of Yeshua was the center of apostolic witness, as demonstrated through a survey of the gospels, Acts and the Pauline corpus. Our witness should and can be empowered by a resurrection perspective as well. In Chapter 15 Wright explores how we might transform our concepts and practice in relation to space, time and matter, suggesting adaptations in worship, calendar, and sacramental understanding in view of new creation realities. He makes suggestions about collaboration without compromise, and how our relationship to prayer, scripture, and love is transformed through a new creation perspective. He concludes with an Appendix contrasting sermons advocating an ultra-right traditional view of the resurrection on the one hand, and an ultra-left view of the resurrection on the other, demonstrating how the new creation resurrection perspective is superior to both.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 ESV)
The book is a brilliant, compelling read, of crucial importance to Christian/Messianic Jewish spirituality and theologizing, providing a strong foundation for the kind of new creation eschatology necessary to undergird what I sometimes term, the Messianic Jewish Agenda, otherwise known as the Son of David Agenda or the Ezekiel Agenda. I find little to differ with in this book, although his concept of perdition, as people being reduced to a subhuman status through their servitude to sin (reminiscent of Gollum in the Fellowship of the Rings), to be interesting but not quite convincing. This is a thorough treatment of the matters it addresses and will become a must read for many of the people I teach and mentor in Messianic Jewish spirituality and missiology. As nothing else I have encountered in the past forty five years, this book connected me to the resurrection as a matter of supreme importance not simply apologetically, but experientially and formationally. Bravo, no, bravissimo!
Wright truly assists us in Touching Tomorrow, and indeed, in touching the Endless Day after Tomorrow.