One book that has had a life-changing impact on me is N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. This book changed my understanding of historic Christian belief in the resurrection from the dead and the impact of that belief on all of Christian theology. Wright’s work changed and deepened my own theology. He gave me a framework for funeral sermon preaching that completely changed my approach to that task. And most of all, his work prepared me to understand the death of a loved one in ways that made the experience survivable and even an experience of joy in the midst of the tragedy.
Wright wants to deal with two questions that he says often have been addressed separately and that he wants to put together. “First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?” (page 5). He suggests that most Christians understand salvation primarily as an escape from this world and “going to heaven” as the final destination after we die. He will show that this understanding, while not wrong, is so limited as to contain very little of the Good News which is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Surprised by Hope is the condensed and popularized version of the extensive scholarly research and writing contained in Wright’s book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Even though the popular book describes in some detail Wright’s arguments and supporting data, I would encourage readers to tackle and grapple with the larger book to get the fullest picture. If you do that, of course, you run the risk of diving into Wright’s extensive corpus on the New Testament. But, for me, that’s the good news. I hope it will be for you as well.
Wright points out that in the ancient pagan world, dead is dead. The notion of resurrection from the dead was regarded as a foolish superstition. In ancient Judaism, resurrection is a real thing. However, it is reserved for the “end of the age” and is a general resurrection from the dead rather than the resurrection of one specific person. There is, in the first century, disagreement about whether this is the resurrection just of the “just,” or of the just to reward and the unjust to punishment, or of all people to some sort of judgment. In addition, some first century Jews also discounted altogether the possibility of resurrection from the dead.
When the Christian assertions about the resurrection of Jesus — one person in the middle of history — are combined with the Christian assertion that he is the crucified Messiah, we can understand how Paul could describe the gospel as foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews. We can also sympathize with the disciples in the gospel accounts who simply had no conceptual framework to accommodate Jesus’ talk of crucifixion and resurrection until after the fact.
For Jews of the time, resurrection from the dead was an interesting topic for speculation. “But in early Christianity,” Wright notes, “resurrection moved from the circumference to the center” (page 42). This Christian emphasis on and understanding of resurrection from the dead has seven novel hallmarks that frame the conversation.
First, there is a remarkable uniformity of early Christian belief about the nature of this resurrection. Second, there is the move of resurrection from the fringe to the center of the conversation. Third is the clear description of the resurrection body as a physical body which has been transformed into something beyond decay and death. Fourth, early Christians split the resurrection into that of Jesus in the middle of history and that of the rest of humanity at the end of time. Fifth, Jesus’ resurrection is not an alteration of the present. Instead, it is God’s future arriving in the present. Sixth, resurrection becomes, very early on, a metaphor for the kind of transformation that faith in Jesus produces in the Christian. Seventh, it is the Jewish Messiah who is raised from the dead. No one saw that coming.
In addition, resurrection changes not only the end of life but life in the middle of history as well. “Death is the last weapon of the tyrant,” Wright observes, “and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it” (page 50).
Wright goes on to describe the twofold phenomena which convince the early Christians that Jesus has been raised to a new and different kind of life. First, there is the empty tomb. But by itself that would only be evidence of grave-tampering. Second, there are the resurrection appearances of Jesus to witnesses. But by themselves, they could be written off as hallucinations or the appearances of ghosts. Together, however, these phenomena told the early Christians that something else was going on here. “Both the meetings and the empty tomb are therefore necessary if we are to explain the rise of the belief and the writing of the stories as we have them. Neither by itself was sufficient; put them together, though, and they provide a complete and coherent explanation for the rise of the early Christian belief” (page 59).
Wright argues that the best explanation of the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is that they experienced him as raised from the dead. This is not “proof” of the resurrection, but it is often precisely the kind of evidence that historians use to draw firm conclusions about past events. Nonetheless, the real testimony of the New Testament is that the resurrection demands more than proof. It calls for a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing and interpreting reality.
If I have a worldview in which resurrection is impossible, then I simply cannot accommodate the New Testament reports as anything other than foolishness. But I have then made an a priori commitment regarding what is possible and knowable. In fact, that’s a sort of “faith statement.” If, on the other hand, I am grasped by a new way of seeing and understanding reality, then I might expect to see and understand not only new things but in a new way. Seeing and understanding (and living) in a new way is one possible description for what we Christians would call “faith.”
“What I am suggesting is that faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science,” Wright proposes (page 71). This sort of faith makes possible what Wright describes as Christian hope. “Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism,” he writes. “It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen” (page 72).
What does this mean for life in the here and now? It means that Jesus’ resurrection brings God’s abundant life into the middle of history. Jesus is not merely about “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” Salvation is not about an escape from the world but rather an engagement with the world. The works of love we call social justice, for example, are ways in which resurrection life is brought to bear in our relationships in the here and now.
This world is not a husk which is to be “left behind” in some cosmic conflagration. Rather, the Creation will be made new, and we are called to begin that “new-making” work in the here and now. Christians, of all people, should be most deeply involved in the care and sustaining of Creation, not in spite of our belief in the resurrection from the dead but because of it.
Our works of love in this life matter both now and forever. Wright notes that we are not called to build the rule of God. But we are called to build for the rule of God. “All that we do in faith, hope, and love in the present, in obedience to our ascended Lord and in the power of his Spirit, will be enhanced and transformed at his appearing” (page 143).
The Resurrection of Jesus means that nothing good will be lost. “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself,” Wright declares, “will last into God’s future.” This was one of the insights in the book that made the most sense to me and gave me a new insight into why a life of discipleship matters.
The first Easter was not the end of anything. Rather, it is the Beginning of Everything. Wright proclaims “the work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us” (page 200). Abundant life is what God gives now and forever. Love is not merely our duty — it is our destiny. Hope is not wishful thinking but is rather fulfilled as we live the Resurrection in the here and now.
Once I read Wright’s work, I could no longer be satisfied with the “go to heaven and play your harp” model of individualistic salvation. Nor could I be satisfied with funeral sermons that stopped short of the glories of the New Creation. I was spurred to offer more gospel both in life and in death, and the results have been nothing short of transformative. My only disappointment is how many pastors and pew-sitters settle for the halfway version of the good news of eternal life.
This is the prod in Wright’s work. Most Easter proclamations take us as far as the way-station called “heaven.” And they leave us sitting there for eternity (which to many clear-eyed observers sounds a lot like hell). Wright reminds us that the gospel of resurrection to new life takes us beyond the waiting room and into the joyous eternity of the New Heaven and the New Earth — the reality God always intended, where life is abundant and growth never ends.
That’s an Easter message I can preach (and have over and over).