[The following is a conversation between three of our members who have read and endorse “Surprised By Hope,” a book by N.T. Wright that petitions us to rethink the resurrection and life after death. It is our hope that many of our readers will check out this book this year in honor of the Easter holiday approaching.]
Dave Lytle: I will never forget being 16 years old at a friend’s house and pulling Mere Christianity off their bookshelf. Reading that book blew me away. Reading that first chapter in that house is one of the most important moments of my life. 16 years later, I was teaching Bible and History in Lima, Peru. I had read a couple books by N.T. Wright and listened to a bunch of lectures and sermons on my iPod, but when I stumbled across his Surprised by Hope in my school’s library I had no idea how important it would be. Wright’s vision of Christian hope, grounded in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ resonated deeply with me. It bulldozed any remaining pseudo-gnostic thoughts that I had entertained by singing “I’ll fly away” or “This World Is Not My Home.” It made life after death a physical reality to me. It made sense.
A year later, my wife of ten years died within a few weeks of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Amidst the tears and rage, hope was still real. While I am not suggesting that Surprised by Hope is flawless, I truly believe that God led me to that book in preparation for what was to come in my life. Today I am talking to two of the people I respect the most, Brandon Atwood and Gowdy Cannon, about why this book is so good.
What surprised you most about this book?
Gowdy: I think the thing that surprised me the most was the case he made for how “obsessed” (to use his word) we are in the US with the second coming of Christ in the sense that we make it about Christ taking us to “heaven” and leaving this God forsaken world behind. You alluded to two hymns. He picks one of the most well-written and powerful hymns we have in “How Great Thou Art.” It says, ‘When Christ shall come…and take me home…’ But if God is going to bring Heaven down and make a new earth, then I do not agree with that wording since this world is my home, just not in its redeemed state yet. Wright’s suggested edit is ‘heal this world’ instead of ‘take me home.’
And this matters significantly because what the Rapture teaching (which I didn’t agree with even before I read this book) does is it causes us to see the earth as distinct from our future home. That is why we do not understand the full force of what the resurrection was supposed to accomplish: God’s power to make messed up things new. This world is indeed my future home and we are to do whatever we can to make it like heaven right now. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” Jesus prayed. That radically changes my attitude towards the present. I am less inclined to say “Well, Jesus is going to make it right one day when he takes us away so let’s just make it til then” and more inclined to say, “Jesus died and rose to give me hope that God can revolutionize my messed up world right now.” That affects how I minister to everyone with whom I come in contact. Because, as Wright says, the early church didn’t say, “Jesus rose from the dead, now we can go be with him in Heaven when we die.” No, their response to the resurrection was to turn the world upside down.
Brandon: I was surprised most by a renewed excitement about the resurrection and all its implications. One way the book introduces these implications is with the simple phrase, “on earth as it is in heaven.” That portion of The Lord’s Prayer sums up the book to me. Jesus prayed for things on earth to become more and more like heaven. One of the key points of the book is that God was pleased with his creation and he wants to “set things to rights.” The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of God setting things right. The resurrection is not just about Jesus coming back to life (like I once thought of it) it is about all that God wants to do with the entire creation. That is surprising!
Dave: That’s so true, Brandon. From my reading, the book offers hope on at least two levels. First, It gives me clearer vision of our future life with Christ. My hope is grounded in every way in Jesus’ resurrection. I have a solid hope that I and those I love will have a physical, glorified body just like Jesus did! The thought of our reunion with those that have died in Christ becomes so much more vivid and real when we know that we will be able to embrace them with the bodies that God has given us. The book also offers the kind of hope Brandon was talking about. We not only have hope for our life after death, we also have hope for our purpose here on earth. God is not done with this place and he never will be. He created us to live here and promises us a future where he will dwell and reign here. If he is in the business of making his creation a new creation, so should we.
Brandon: Dave, the reunion with my family and friends is close to my heart. Wright’s book challenged me to search the Scriptures again and that quest confirmed what he is saying in the book. We really will be raised bodily! I really will see my father and sister again! 1 Corinthians 15 becomes a foundational chapter for our full understanding of God’s future plans.
Gowdy: What that does is teach me that God isn’t just all powerful, but loving in how he redeems and makes new. God’s power can make something out of nothing, but God’s power plus his redemptive love can take something broken and mangled and destroyed–as was Christ’s body was–and make it look like before. As if the cross never happened.
To illustrate: if my favorite car gets crushed in an accident, and I have the ability To either 1. Buy a new car or 2. Work on it so much that I take the crushed car and make it like before. God would choose the latter. If I really loved the car, I would too.
What he did with Christ’s body that Sunday morning is what he will do with our bodies and with our earth. He won’t throw them out and start over. He’ll make all things new (Rev. 21:5). Because he redeems to love. I owe Wright for teaching me that.
Dave: That has huge implications for how we treat the earth God has given us and how we fulfill his purposes on this earth in our life.
Brandon: I like how Wright breaks down Gnosticism and what he calls “The myth of progress.” These are the two prevailing mindsets in the world right now. One says that everything is evil and we need to reject this world. The second view is the complete opposite; humans can keep making everything better. What’s great is how the book reveals that neither of those is the biblical view, although at times Christians can be influenced by these philosophies. The way that Jesus inaugurated in the resurrection is something completely new and different. The resurrection doesn’t try to escape this world or try to somehow improve it. Instead, the resurrection is a complete remaking of creation.
Dave: I never agree with everything I read, but I have a hard time disagreeing with much of anything in this book. Even so, it leaves me wondering about where I stand on a few things. One of these is the way Wright uses the word “Heaven.” Basically, he calls into question the notion that when Christians die they go to “Heaven.” He says he firmly believes that that is not how the Bible uses that word. Wright argues that Heaven is used in Scripture as the dwelling place of God and as such, the control room of earth. When speaking to someone about to die, Jesus even used the term paradise rather than heaven. Wright affirms that those that die in Christ are present with him. He champions the notion that the dead in Christ will rise when Jesus returns to restore his creation, but he avoids talking about going to Heaven when we die. After all, the Christian hope is not escape from earth to heaven but the “Marriage of Heaven and earth” in God’s new creation. I see his point, but I don’t know if I am willing to argue against centuries of Christians using “Heaven” as the place where believers go upon death. If Christians are in the presence of God after death, are they not in heaven?
Brandon: Good question. My understanding of what he means by that is we are not yet in our resurrected bodies immediately after we die. Heaven, as most people refer to it, is an ambiguous picture of clouds and floating around. He seems to be trying really hard to change that picture. Heaven is not a place we go to but a reality that comes to us–unless paradise is in Heaven. What I’m saying is I don’t completely understand it all either. I appreciate the author’s honesty. When it comes to the details of life after death, we really aren’t given much to go on in Scripture. His favorite way to illustrate that is to call it a signpost in the fog. I seem to remember that Wright says the book’s take on heaven lines up with early church theology. Am I wrong on that?
Dave: I think you are correct, but my guess is by early church theology he is talking about the Apostles and the Didache. If so, he is not really saying much more than this is what the Bible teaches. This is his argument, anyway.
Gowdy: Like Brandon said, in some sense I appreciate how he doesn’t feel the need to make everything neat and tidy with a perfect little bow.
The only thing that really makes me scratch my head in the sense that I think I disagree is in Jesus and certain parables. He makes a case that when Jesus tells parables about a master leaving and then coming back that these were supposed to be talking about Jesus’s first coming and not his second. Matthew 24:36-51 is clearly one of these parables and also seems to clearly teach that it’s about Jesus’s second coming. It’s the passage where Jesus says no one knows the day or the hour. That has to be the second coming, right?
Either way, the book stretched my thinking and I’m glad it’s not all traditional interpretation.
Dave: Matthew 24 does say that “this generation will not pass until all these things have happened” so I think it makes sense that Jesus is talking about either his first coming or the destruction of Jerusalem. But I’m not going to tackle THAT passage in any detail.
I know Wright has been criticized by some conservatives for his views on Justification and even scriptural inerrancy, but what strikes me most about this book is how biblical and conservative it is. He is not riding hobby horses or making arguments because they are trendy; every word in the book rests on his belief that the historical Jesus of Nazareth rose physically from the dead on the third day. It’s so biblical. It’s so true!
So guys, why is this the book everyone should read this Easter?
Gowdy: My principle reason for recommending this book is because nothing matters more than the resurrection. And its implications are essential for Christian evangelism and discipleship. So we better get them right. And if we are wrong, we need to admit it and change our minds, to change our behavior. Wright has the courage to say–at least in some way–“We’re wrong.” I can tell you as a student of the Bible that I want material like this most of the time, but I need it even when I don’t want it. I want to be stretched and challenged, in order to live scripturally.
Brandon: I recommend this book to anyone. Seriously. People who aren’t Christians will get a clear Gospel presentation. They will see that most Christians actually think deeply about this stuff and it matters a great deal to our entire lives. People who are Christians will get a more accurate biblical understanding of the resurrection and all the important implications that go along with that. Most of all, these are the sorts of things we should be talking about: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that means for our everyday lives. That is what this book is about and it’s written in a way that anybody can understand.
Dave: Just like Mere Christianity assured me that I wasn’t crazy for believing in God, this book confirmed for me the importance of God’s physical creation. I’ve felt uncomfortable for some time when I hear that the soul is all that matters and the body is unimportant. So Jesus died to save my soul and my body is just going to rot? This attitude doesn’t seem to jive with what the Apostles were saying about the resurrection of the dead and it certainly doesn’t correspond to what God was doing in the beginning of Genesis and the end of Revelation. Wright’s book really put any doubts to rest I had about these issues. I came away assured that the physical and the spiritual are both what it means to be human. God designed us to be both. They are both stained by sin, but they are both to be transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s plan for what he wants humans to be has not changed since creation. That kind of Sovereignty is amazing!
On a deeply personal level, this book and my own study of Scripture have given me the hope I’ve needed to face the unimaginable. More than anything, it has been an immense source of comfort to be sure that death is the enemy of God. I will never be able to explain all the ins and outs of why God allows for the death of a 32 year old wife and mother, but I am supremely confident that he hates it as much as I do. Death has terrorized his dear children for too long. Yet, Jesus has conquered Death through his resurrection and will destroy him once and for all (I Cor 15:26). I find this truth a lot more comforting than vague platitudes about God’s plan for this loss. I know God’s plan for this loss…it’s Resurrection!