Tom Wright (otherwise known as N.T. Wright) is one of the foremost New Testament scholars and certainly one of the most popular faith-based authors in my growing library. I read two of his books last year (here and here) and this year another one of his randomly found its way into my TBR list.
N.T. Wright’s books are often dense, despite being illuminating and very accessible. That is expected as the topics he explores and the angle he comes from often entail detailed thinking with a solid historical foundation. So far, Suprised by Hope is my most accessible and impactful work of Tom Wright.
Surprised by Hope (a title that is related to the topic as much as it is a play at C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy classic) is an illuminating and fresh take at the resurrection. Tom Wright has touched on this in his other books and podcasts but in Suprised by Hope, he explores the meaning of Jesus resurrection and how it is a connection between future hope and present living. How the resurrection is a signpost to a future event that has an impact on the mission of the Church today. This connection is best explored by examining what that first Easter morning meant to the disciples, the 1st-century church and its import in our 21st-century world. According to Surprised by Hope, the resurrection is not just a sign that death has been defeated and those who believe will be going to heaven and leaving this poor world behind forever (an erroneous Platonised understanding of Christianity) but a bodily resurrection is a signpost to the hope that God will redeem, restore and renew his earthly creation. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is not just proof of ‘life after death’ but the inauguration of the new creation will climax in a new heaven and a new earth. The crux of the resurrection is this – earth matters. It shall be renewed.
A critical aspect of the exploration in Surprised by Hope is the bodily aspect of Jesus’ resurrection highlights that the present bodily life is not valueless because it will die. There is a future for not just the body (earth suit) but the earth itself. In light of this, what we do here matters because just as Christ’s empty tomb and his bodily resurrection highlight an inauguration, the climax will be not in heaven but here on earth (albeit a renewed earth). Tom Wright goes to great length to point out that the Christian hope anchored in Jesus’ resurrection is the hope that in his rising from the dead, there is hope that God will renew all things. It is not just a hope of a life after death in heaven but the start of a grand renewal project that will culminate in a new heaven and a new earth.
A great portion of the book reassesses the vocation of the Christian in the light of this hope. It is not just a celebration of hope with a heavenly destination. If rightly as Suprised by Hope points out, Jesus’ bodily resurrection is proof that God has grand plans to renew this messed up earth and that renewal has started on that first Easter morning, then what we do on this earth matters (1 Corinthians 15:58). Bringing God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven is a vocation that has started and should be the mission of the church, not preparing for heaven as an escape from this messed up world.
As insightful and exhaustive as the book is, there are few problems I have with it. Firstly, its discussion around the eternal torment versus annihilation topic is unsatisfactory in its option of a third alternative. I am neither convinced about eternal torment nor annihilation but I will need to chew on the third alternative much more to appreciate the view Tom Wright offers here. Secondly, while the ultimate destination is not heaven, not much is said about the stopover called heaven. The author is vague about heaven while being dismissive about purgatory. Thirdly, I do not agree with his middle of the road interpretation of praying for/to the dead saints. Thirdly, being a retired Anglican Bishop, his Anglican foundation is as expected but there seems to be way too much Anglican doctrine in the expositions. A more non-denominational base would have been more inviting.
In summary, this is an excellent exposition of the resurrection and is now a close second favourite book of mine on this topic after the classic by Paula Gooder (a former student of N.T. Wright). Surprised by Hope is firmly recommended.