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Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the ChurchFor three months in the summer of 2004, I labored through N.T. Wright’s massive book, The Resurrection of the Son of God - an important work for anyone interested in the historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection of the Son of God significantly deepened my appreciation for Easter. Wright’s research bolstered my confidence in the historicity of the New Testament accounts, but more than that, it helped me to understand why the Resurrection was necessary and why it is so important to Christian theology.

Needless to say, I was happy to discover that Wright was working on an edited, popular-level supplement to The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fast forward to 2008. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church has been released, a sequel of sorts to Simply Christian. (And yes, the allusions to C.S. Lewis’ works Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy are an intentional advertising gimmick, although readers quickly discover that the comparisons to Lewis do have some merit.)

In Surprised by Hope, Wright attempts to do three things. First, he exposes current Christianity’s muddled views of the afterlife by taking us through the historical evidence for and the theological explanation of Jesus’ resurrection. Second, he answers questions regarding eschatology that necessarily arise from his Resurrection theology – showing how his eschatological framework best fits the New Testament witness. Third, he shows how the Christian’s future hope of resurrection forms the foundation for current social action, evangelism, and spirituality.

For those familiar with Wright’s previous work on the resurrection, Surprised by Hope will not surprise you (no pun intended). For years now, Wright has been advocating a return to a more biblical, more creation-centered, more Jewish understanding of the future hope of new heavens and new earth. Other theologians have been speaking up about this subject too, in hopes that a more robust view of heaven will reenergize our Kingdom efforts on earth. (Michael Wittmer’s Heaven Is a Place on Earth and Randy Alcorn’s textbook-styled Heaven come to mind.)

But Surprised by Hope stands out in the amount of material that Wright is able to incorporate into a single volume and in the moving way in which he makes his case. This book carries an emotional resonance rarely encountered among works of theology. At times, Wright’s description of the Christian hope so moved me that I found myself wiping away tears.

Surprised by Hope contains many paradoxes, which is what we have come to expect from a theologian like Wright. Here are a few examples:

  • Wright argues forcefully for Christ’s bodily resurrection (to the “Amens” of his conservative readers), but then shows why that must necessarily inform our view of the Christian’s future hope (and the picture is significantly different [i.e. grander!] than what conservatives have generally taught). 
  • He devotes significant space to eschatology, firmly disagreeing with the Preterist position, while admitting that Jesus’ prophecies concerned the Fall of Jerusalem.
  • Dispensationalists will not countenance his interpretation of Revelation or Daniel, and yet Amillennialists will be surprised by his refusal to spiritualize the Kingdom in ways that detract from an earthy application.
  • Reformed readers will have trouble with Wright’s “New Perspective on Paul”  that surfaces in a couple of places, and yet they will applaud his Kuyperian stance on the lordship of Christ over all creation.
  • Roman Catholics will disagree with Wright’s decisive rejection of purgatory and praying to the saints, but some Protestants may be equally puzzled about Wright leaving room for Christians to pray for the dead (not for their salvation, mind you, but only for their rest!).
  • Traditionalists will be glad to see Wright rejecting universalism and affirming the existence of hell, and yet, Wright’s innovative view of hell (in terms of dehumanization) is more akin to C.S. Lewis than to anything clearly taught in Scripture. (Wright’s view serves as middle way between annihilationism and the traditional view of eternal torment.)

Pastors would do well to read the final chapters of Surprised by Hope. Wright gives food for thought on the nature of mission work and evangelism. He also offers practical advice on reinvigorating our anemic Easter celebrations.

Surprised by Hope will be one of Wright’s most widely-read books. Though readers should proceed with caution regarding some of Wright’s proposals, the wheat in this book far outweighs the chaff.

written by Trevin Wax. copyright © 2008 Kingdom People Blog.

Related Articles:
N.T. Wright Speaking of “Heaven” on ABC’s Nightline
You Were Made for Earth: My Interview with Michael Wittmer
Review of John Piper’s The Future of Justification
My Interview with N.T. Wright

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Surprised by Hope”

  1. Matt Svoboda says:

    I am looking forward to reading this book!

  2. Trevin:

    Nice summary of Wright’s doctrinal “categories,” although I’ve always felt that he’s so uniquely perspective that he defies categorization. One area where I would disagree with your statement of Wright’s position, though, is that Wright feels that it is acceptable to pray “for” the dead, not for their salvation but for their rest. Actually, what Wright is saying is that it would be acceptable to pray for AND WITH the departed saints, inasmuch as they continue to be “our brothers and sisters in Christ,” and we continue to share with them the “Communion of Saints.” I think what he is getting at, in line with his complete eschatological vision, is that although the departed saints are in a different, though conscious, state, they are nevertheless still saints, still “in Christ” (as are we), and will one day be so in the SAME state as will we, namely, as resurrected human beings within the final New Creation.

    Would you agree with that summary?

    Grace and Peace,

  3. trevinwax says:

    Wright does ground his idea of praying for the dead in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. He says, “Once we rule out purgatory, I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead and every reason why we should – not that they will get out of purgatory but that they will be refreshed and filled with God’s joy and peace.”

    Wright correctly sees the problem inherent in praying to the saints – it usually leads to the idea of saints interceding for us and detracts from Christ as the Mediator. But I believe that in praying for the dead, we might be opening the door for the idea of purgatory that Wright so firmly rejects. Not that it’s heretical to pray for the dead or anything. I’m only pointing out that those who practice this may be opening the door to misunderstanding.

  4. Agreed (as usual). And that’s one of the reasons I appreciate Wright so much. Not only does he point us toward a proper ontology/eschatology/epistemology, he’s also quick to warn us where a variation from that might so easily lead to theology and praxis that is, if not heretical, then at least “sub-Christian.”

    By the way, when you get a chance, I’ve done a pretty extensive review series on the book at my site, and I’d love your take on it.

    Good day, brother.

  5. amtog says:

    I really appreciated your bulleted list of who will be pleased and displeased by various aspects of Wright’s latest book.

    As I read it, I couldn’t help but feel; if he’s an “equal opportunity” offender, then he must be onto something…

  6. Brian says:

    I’m amused when non-Catholics get uptight about purgatory. Ask Protestants, “do you believe in a final purification?”, and most will say they do. That’s purgatory. Consider this in light of 1 Cor 3:15-15 where man will suffer loss, yet be saved as though through fire (NOT hellfire). Hebrews 12:22-23 speaks of souls of just men made perfect. Where are the souls of just men made perfect? At final purfication maybe (purgatory)? Secondly, mention is made that seeking prayers from saints “detracts from Christ as the Mediator.” This overlooks fact that Christ calls us to share in his role as Mediator (“pray for one another” is his admonition). This is similar to the call to share in the Father’s fatherhood. One Father, but we share in this role. Similarly, Christ is the one Foundation, but scripture says there is more than one foundation (Eph 2:19-20). We have only one Lord, but scripture says there is more than one lord (Rev 19:16). He have but one Judge, Jesus, but scripture says there is more than one judge (1 Cor 6:2). In each of these instances, our Lord’s generosity invites us to share in his role as Mediator, Judge, and Fatherhood.

  7. Trevin; I am writing a quasi-review of Wright’s book, and having just read your excellent review; I would like to ask your permission to link to this review in my own. You will probably surmise from my other writings, that I disagree with his traditional stance; but, having read your review; I wanted to post it as a link to kinda balance things out, if you get my drift. In Christ,

  8. Trevin Wax says:

    Thanks, Charles. Feel free to link to it as needed.

  9. Daniel says:

    Read Robert M Price’s review of Wright. He dismantles Wright as the apologist he is.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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