16 Feb 2008

Reflections on "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church"

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Books, Christian hope, Kingdom, Mission

N. T. Wright has proved to be not only one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the present generation but also a committed and passionate churchman. Few have had the impact on contemporary scholarship that Wright has had. One of the most articulate presenters of what has been dubbed the “New Perspective” on Paul, he is also probably the greatest authority on the “historical Jesus.” There are few if any equals to Wright when it comes to mastery of the Jewish world of Jesus and insisting (rigorously so) that Jesus and Paul be understood in that first century context. Through such tomes as The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and the Resurrection of the Son of God Wright has basically set the agenda for contemporary NT scholarship. You either argue with Wright or against Wright but there is little middle ground.

Repeatedly though Wright has left the “academic” ring to join with Christians in articulating what that ancient faith means for the contemporary world and life. Here Wright is sometimes apologist (as in his exchanges with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and Judas and the Gospel of Jesus and sometimes pastoral theologian. In this latter capacity Wright publishes sermons and books.

In his newest book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne 2008), Wright combines the hat of NT scholar and pastoral theologian to address the issue of the substance of the Christian hope. As Wright has argued in his academic books there is a constant connection between creation, covenant and eschatology throughout the Story of God in Scripture. In this work Wright gives the fullest exposition of any of his writings on what that looks like. He says he sets out to answer two questions of paramount importance:

1) What are we waiting for?

2) What are we going to do about it in the mean time?

Wright begins by examining contemporary beliefs about the afterlife both in the secular world and among the churches. He subjects the common equation of “resurrection” with the vague idea of “life after death” to severe criticism … refreshingly and biblically so.

Wright then examines, from a historical perspective, what it was that early Christians believed about “hope.” The look at the setting in Judaism and the contrasts with Paganism is well done. One of the questions that keep coming to mind as this section is ruminated upon is “Which of these looks more like what is commonly held by Christians today?” The answer is often disturbing!

Through a series of chapters Wright shows how Jesus himself is the embodiment of God’s new creation. That new creation is wedded to the old through the incarnation itself … and the bodily resurrection of the Son of Man. The doctrine of resurrection of believers both in the NT and in the early Fathers is directly tied to what happened to Jesus. Jesus is the New Adam and just as the fallen world is tied to the old Adam so we are connected to the New. Our bodies, like that of Jesus, are to be redeemed … ahh … What HOPE.

Wright so far, in my view, is not only convincing but expresses biblical faith wonderfully. But that only answers question one. In Part 3 of the book he moves to how that teaching effects the life of the sojourning People of God both in Scripture and (perhaps) more importantly NOW. Just how does eschatology shape what Christians teach, and PRACTICE, concerning justice, beauty, evangelism and spirituality. These are not mere esoteric subjects in Wright but rooted concretely in the bitter (at times) grind of life. Eschatology is not simply a peripheral issue but of incredible importance because it does teach us how to live, though contemporary Christians often turn it only into an argument about the millennium (sadly and mistakenly). To quote Wright,

“From Plato to Hegel and beyond, some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else–and, indeed, that it provides one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all. This is something a Christian theologian should heartily endorse.”

I think Moses, Jesus, and Paul would say “amen” to that opinion.

I cannot recommend Surprised by Hope enough. For those who do not want to wrestle (or are intimidated) with the massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God this book is a refreshingly engaging text (Surprised, btw, is not simply a condensed version of RSG). It is laden with insight into the biblical text and into bridging the hermeneutical gap between the ancient faith and its contemporary meaning. Wright has no masters and few peers in this area.

There will be some who will not read this book simply because it is not written by a “Church of Christ author” as the phrase goes. This is, sadly, a purely denominational and sectarian stance. Our restoration fathers and mothers in the faith challenged us from Alexander Campbell to J. W. McGarvey to Everett Ferguson to interact with the very best scholarship in the world. In that tradition I recommend Wright as a way of seeing the biblical message afresh and critiquing the incipient paganism and neo-Gnosticism running through contemporary piety.

And from the standpoint of my own personal journey at the moment I found this book to be refreshing and encouraging. I think you will too.

Seeking Shalom,
Bobby Valentine

20 Responses to “Reflections on "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church"”

  1. ben overby Says:

    Anyone recommending Wright is always going to get a fat “Amen” from me. Wright is our modern day C. S. Lewis. I giant among grasshoppers.

  2. kingdomseeking Says:

    I cannot wait to buy this book. Thanks for the preview.

    Grace and peace,


  3. -bill Says:

    Thanks for the excellent reflection of Wright’s work. He is definitely one of my favorites, both his scholarly work and his “Everyone” series.


  4. Steven Carr Says:

    ‘Wright then examines, from a historical perspective, what it was that early Christians believed about “hope.” ‘

    Here is what Paul hoped for.

    1 Thessalonians 4 ‘According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.’

    Putting faith in Christian hope is hopeless.

    All those early Christians are dead, despite Paul’s hope that they would not die.

  5. Steven Carr Says:

    ‘Jesus is the New Adam’

    Here is what Paul says about that.

    ‘The first man, Adam, became a created being , the last Adam a life-giving spirit.’

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Steven delighted to have you drop by once again. The last time was when I reviewed The Resurrection of the Son of God. May blessing be on you on the other side of the pond.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  7. preacherman Says:

    Can’t wait to get it!
    Thanks for this great review.

  8. Matthew Says:

    I have started to read some of his material. Started with Simply Christian, also a good book.

  9. Danny Says:

    Thanks for the preview Bobby- excellent coverage of this material- as usual.

    Just thinking about you. Hope you are finding peace.

  10. Zack Says:

    Sounds like a really good book. I’ll have to check it out some time.
    God bless you Bobby!

  11. Gardner Hall Says:

    I agree with you that those who want to limit reading material to “Church of Christ” authors and avoid “all that denominational stuff” are often themselves much more “denominational” than those they paint with that brush. Their terminology betrays them!

    I can’t help but be skeptical about the new earth eschatology, but will try to do some more reading with an open mind, though time doesn’t permit as much as I would like.

    One simple Bible principle that seems to conflict with it, is that of our being pilgrims and strangers on the earth (2 Peter 2:11) and the general concept of otherworldliness in the scriptures etc. If this earth is our permanent home and hope, how is it that we are described as pilgrims and strangers on the earth?

    Thanks for being thought provoking as always, Gardner

  12. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Just a reminder of a series I did on that subject that can be accessed her:


    I agree with your assessment of some who will not read anything but a “Church of Christ author.” Such language does betray them.

    On your two caveats I shall say only this. 1) I fail to see any disharmony in the notion of new heavens and new earth and that of sojourning and alienship. We are aliens from this AGE not God’s good creation. We are aliens from the anti-god principalities and powers but not creation. There is no passage, including 2 Peter, that teaches otherwise. 2) The theology of new creation literally ties the entire Bible together … we are aliens precisely because we serve God’s kingdom agenda of bring redemption back to creation (all of it). It defines our task and our mission just as it did Israel’s and Jesus’.

    Gardner I have a lot of respect for you. I would love for you to read and reflect on this book and/or some of the material I have linked in the series noted above. I would be willing to buy a copy just for your personal study and reflection. You let me know. Given my current situation that is alot.

    Desperately Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  13. Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks for your kind words and your offer. I want to do more reading, but will be glad to get Wright´s book myself. I do remember some of your earlier writing on this.

    There’s no doubt that redemption and restoration are key themes in the scriptures. I suppose my current understanding is that such themes refer more to spiritual redemption and restoration than the that of the physical earth and physical aspects of creation. I do admit that Romans 8 is sometimes a challenge. I also admit that I must do more reading. (And, I suppose my “great-grandaddy” would agree with you.)

    Will chew on your explanation of “pilgrims and sojourners” though it seems the alienation suggested by those terms would include aloofness in our minds from the earth in all its manifestations.

    Thanks again, Gardner

  14. Falantedios Says:

    Why would we want to be aloof from anything that God calls Very Good?

    God created the physical aspects of my wife… should I remain aloof from her? Paul says no.

    We are sojourners and aliens specifically because we have no permanent place YET. That’s Abraham’s story – he wandered in Canaan even though he owned it by faith. That’s the story the Hebrews writer tells – we are waiting for our heavenly city. That’s the story John of Patmos tells – the heavenly city comes to earth and God makes his dwelling among men.

    Peter specifically tells his readers to abstain from the evil ways of the world. Paul specifically tells us NOT to reject creation… we must remain IN the world.

    Look at 1 Cor 15 and see that Paul’s contrast there is not between spiritual and physical – it is between Spiritual and Soulish.

    We were not human until God’s breath gave us life. When we stole that life away from him, we became Soulish – operating under our own power, independent of Him and by our own judgment. That is our “natural” state or way of living (Eph 2:2). We must die to that “life” and live in the abundant life that flows from God’s Spirit. Then, living by the Spirit, we can put to death the deeds of the flesh while we await our resurrection.

    in HIS love,

  15. Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks Nick

  16. Falantedios Says:

    You might enjoy Ben Witherington III’s latest blog, on Theological Ethics in Revelation.


  17. kingdomseeking Says:

    I went out and bought this book today.


  18. Cheryl Russell Says:

    Sounds great! I can’t wait to read it. I am reading Wright’s, “The Last Word” right now. It is also challenging, and filled with insight about the authority that belongs to Christ alone! Thanks for the recommendation!


  19. preacherman Says:

    I bought the book as well.
    Can’t wait to read it.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    This book should be required reading for every Christian. I’m nearly finished with it. It isn’t the same as his RSOTSOG, but does contain some of the same material, and is more accessible to the “ordinary member in the pew.”

    We just had Dr. Amy Jill Levine at the University of North Alabama doing a program. I wish they’d book Wright to speak, though I’m not holding out for it to actually happen.

    Pax Tecum.


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