April 08, 2010

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright

Surprised by Hope by Bishop N. T. Wright is a defense of the traditional eschatology of the mainstream church. Wright is quite eloquent and I always learn something when I read his books. This one is no exception. Here Wright journeys through the good, the bad, and the ugly landscape of current eschatology and compares it with his take on the beliefs of the early Christian believers. From time to time on this journey he ventures briefly onto more progressive roads-less-travelled, but (frustratingly for me!) he always retreats back into the safe haven of traditional orthodoxy. Wright does envision a future with hope - a hope based squarely in the resurrection of Christ - but he comes short of embracing the radical hope of a complete and ultimate cosmic renewal and unity in Christ, saying, "One cannot forever whistle 'There's a wideness in God's mercy' in the darkness of Hiroshima..." (p. 180). Those who still espouse that particular "wideness" will be disappointed by Wright's theory of hell: one in which sinners are stripped of their humanity and become "beings that were once human but now are not" who are "beyond hope" and "beyond pity" existing forever in "an ex-human state... no longer [exciting] in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal" (p. 182-183). This, despite the book's title, is not the kind of hope that entails the glorious vision of God as "all in all".

There are hints of Jurgen Moltmann in Wright's thoughts and concepts, but the hope which surprises him is not nearly as startling and comprehensive as that put forth by Moltmann. Consider this from Moltmann's The Coming of God: "True hope must be universal, because its healing future embraces every individual and the whole universe. If we were to surrender hope for as much as one single creature, for us God would not be God." (p. 132). The parts of the book that reflected Moltmann were the most enjoyable to me.

Let me also add that one of my concerns in this book is Wright's caricature of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is either a caricature or Wright does not fully understand Teilhard. Chardin comes across in this book as something of a secular progressive who was looking starry-eyed into a glorious future accomplished by a godless evolution alone. This is simply not what Teilhard taught or believed.

Having mentioned a couple of my concerns, let me happily say that there are some great concepts and paragraphs throughout the book - too many for me to quote here. But I will indulge you with one on the subject of what Wright calls collaborative eschatology: "Because the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. It was not merely that God had inaugurated the 'end'; if Jesus, the Messiah, was the End in person, God's-future-arrived-in-the-present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him and were empowered by his Spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in light of that future" (Page 46).

My take on the book is that it is very well written, it is a joy to read, and it will be especially appreciated by those who want to see an outstanding apologetic on orthodox amillennialism from a perspective they may not have encountered before.

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