Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

Surprised by Hope:
Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church
N. T. Wright
(New York: HarperCollins, 2008)

In this book Wright plays two roles: Bible scholar and theologian. As a Bible scholar Wright is unsurpassed; he clearly has a thorough command of New Testament Greek and is meticulous in his exegesis. As a theologian, however, Wright is in beyond his depth, and so a good book of Bible scholarship alas becomes transformed into a mediocre work on theology.

Wright’s main thesis is that contrary to popular understanding even among most Christians, the Bible does not teach a nonmaterial life in heaven after death on earth. The popular understanding is based on mistranslations of key passages and on the influence of Plato (the major bad guy according to Wright) on Christian theology. What the Bible teaches is not a spiritualized heaven but rather a period of dormancy followed by a general resurrection, resulting in a transformation of life right here on earth. Jesus was the “first fruits” of this resurrection, the first to experience it, and we will join him in our own resurrection bodies when he comes once again to establish the “new heaven and new earth.”

Our resurrection bodies will be physical, but “incorruptible.” Jesus’ resurrection body was physical. In its composition it used the materials of his old, earthly body - which is why the tomb was empty - but it became a new type of transformed physical body. Wright’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 is controversial: he claims that Paul did not mean to say that the old body is “physical” while the new one is “spiritual”; rather, a close examination of the original Greek yields the insight that the old body was animated by the human soul, whereas the new one will be animated by the spirit of God. However, other scholars point out that the Greek pneumatikon, “spiritual,” means precisely the opposite of material. Wright also does not deal convincingly with 1 Corinthians 15:50: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” He takes it to mean not that the spiritual body is nonphysical but that it is “incorruptible physicality,” failing to explain how that is not a contradiction in terms.

Wright believes that understanding the eschatological future as a transformed life on earth rather than a disembodied life in heaven gives meaning to our present earthly condition. We have the incentive to start working right now for this new heaven and new earth, since everything we create, art or music or charitable and loving acts, will find its way into the new creation. Wright sees the alternative as a Platonic dualism between a bad earth and a good heaven, in which the former is not transformed but depreciated and discarded.

To demonstrate his thesis, Wright resorts to circular reasoning (see page 59). Wright says that the empty tomb and the subsequent sightings of Jesus explain (imply) the disciples’ faith in the bodily resurrection (“Put them together [the empty tomb and the sightings]... and they provide a complete and coherent explanation for the rise of the early Christian belief”). He also says that the disciples’ faith explains (implies) the empty tomb and the sightings (“In order to explain historically how all the early Christians came to the belief they held, that Jesus had been raised, we have to say at least this: that the tomb was empty, except for some graveclothes, and that they really did see and talk with someone who gave every appearance of being a solidly physical Jesus”). Indeed, on the same page Wright says that the empty tomb and the sightings are both sufficient AND necessary conditions for the early Christian belief - a classic tautology. How do we know they believed? Because the tomb was empty and they saw the appearances. How do we know the tomb was empty and they saw the appearances? Because they believed. The events explain the faith, and the faith explains the events. What all of this really amounts to is using faith to explain faith. Wright begins from a position of faith, so not surprisingly that is where he ends. The reported events - the empty tomb and the sightings of Jesus - are part of resurrection faith, are precisely what is up for question in the debate about resurrection faith, and cannot be used to prove that faith. Why does Wright feel a need to prove resurrection faith? This question goes unanswered.

Wright is probably correct that his interpretation of the meaning of the text itself is closer to first century theology and to what Paul thought (though I am not convinced to what Christ thought). Certain passages in Paul (especially 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8) possibly do make sense when understood in terms of a general resurrection to come rather than a nonphysical heaven. But even so, Paul remains ambiguous. Wright unfortunately fails to provide a satisfying explanation of 2 Corinthians 5,8: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.... We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” For the sake of argument let’s brush aside these difficulties and concede Wright’s interpretation of Paul. As a theologian Wright presents this interpretation as a theology for our own time, and here he leaves too many questions unanswered.

Wright is trying to import first-century Jewish apocalyptic theology into a modern context. Such an enterprise is destined to founder without an understanding of the symbolic character of that theology. Paul Tillich observes that If we ignore the highly symbolic nature of resurrection language, “a host of absurdities appears and conceals the true and immensely significant meaning of resurrection” (Systematic Theology Volune 3, V.III.B.3). Wright falls prey to these absurdities. He insists that our new existence will be physical, indeed even more solid than our present one. At the same time, it will be permanent and incorruptible. This of course would require a completely different set of physical laws. What kind of organic physical substance could be immune to decay? And if there could be such a thing, consider: Will there be room for everyone? Will there be sex in this new creation? Wright doesn’t say. If there will be sex and reproduction continuing into endless time on a physical earth, it won’t be long before we run out of room for all these people, assuming there was enough room to begin with. In order for them all to coexist, we would need something very much like a spiritual heaven. All right, then, will reproduction cease? What is human physical existence without sex and reproduction? Will the human race just stagnate at some fixed point, with people resurrecting and remaining at the age they had at death? And how could this planet possibly sustain all the resurrected bodies of all previous generations? And what of our planet’s future? Science tells us that like our physical bodies, the world too will be consumed someday. And global warming is already creating climate refugees, with safe space for human colonization diminishing. These are not idle questions. Positing a physical new creation invites them. Wright’s attempt to respond seems desperate: in the "new earth and new heaven" predicted in Revelation all things are possible. So in Wright’s eschatology we end up with a new indestructible earth and a new imperishable body, both completely different from their temporal counterparts and neither one subject to the laws of physics. It is difficult to see how this is much different from the nonmaterial spiritual universe that Wright rejects.

Wright also fails to explain how our old bodies can be transformed if they have already decomposed into nothing. Jesus was fortunate in that he resurrected before his body decayed, so that his new body could be formed from his old one, and Wright expects this transformation ultimately for everyone. But what about those who have long been buried and decomposed to ashes? What about those who have been cremated? Paul, who expected the general resurrection quickly, would of course not have been concerned with such things. But if we today are to take the general resurrection seriously, we cannot avoid them. Wright dismisses as “silly” the question of the Sadducees concerning which of a woman’s several husbands will be hers in the resurrection. But the question is serious indeed if the resurrection is physical, is of this earth, and if like me, one has had more than one good marriage.

What of existence itself in this new creation? Wright (in interviews) criticizes an eternal heaven as a boring place where people would have nothing but to sing hymns and play harps all day. But what more would there be to do in a new physical world where problems and suffering have been overcome and there is nothing left to fix? Sing hymns and play harps all day? Or maybe go to the movies? Even more than a spiritualized heaven, a transformed earthly existence leaves open the question of entertainment and boredom.

Although so careful and conservative a biblical exegete, as a theologian Wright does not hesitate to entertain wild speculations of his own, such as theorizing that people who have consistently chosen evil will not participate in the new creation but will instead become transformed into subhuman beings. How does he know this? Certainly not from biblical exegesis.

Wright calls New Testament theology “inaugurated eschatology,” saying the new creation has already begun with the resurrection of Jesus, but though he tries to tackle the obvious difficult question, he fails to answer it. In what sense can we say there has been a radical change, that Jesus’ reign on earth is already realized, if the atrocities the world has witnessed since the time of Jesus have far surpassed anything that happened before? The question becomes particularly acute since Wright maintains it is this very earth that Jesus’ reign will transform. Wright does not seem to appreciate that the first-century theological milieu must necessarily be very different from our own. “Inaugurated eschatology” cannot mean to us what it meant to first-century believers who expected Jesus’ second coming in their own lifetime, who like Paul considered themselves “we who are left alive until the coming of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:15).

Wright believes that only an eschatological transformation of this earth can provide us the incentive to work now to try to fix what is wrong - if we looked forward to a spiritualized heaven, we would only want to leave the present world behind. This is actually not true. Gnostic dualism is not the only alternative to a general resurrection. Even while on this physical plane we can have a sense of the good that is eternal, and a desire to actualize the eternal in our temporal existence. Wright finds the incentive to do good works in the belief that we will see their fruits in the new creation. I believe that we are called to do good works for the love of goodness itself, and that this is our highest incentive. That is why we do not get on this earth a clear sense of eternal reward and punishment - God wants love, not fear or desire, to become our motivation.

While Wright is definitely correct about first century theology and very possibly correct about Paul, with Jesus things may have been quite different. A case can be made that Jesus took the symbols of his time - light, darkness, Kingdom of God, resurrection - and radically reinterpreted them. Jesus does not talk about the Kingdom as something literal and physical - he talks about it in parables, challenging the prevailing notions. “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed... in fact, the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20,21) - this certainly does not point towards a transformed earth that will be obvious to all. “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes” (Matthew 6:20) - this does not look forward to another physical existence, but to Eternal Life. Finally Jesus says (John 18:36): “My kindgom is not of this world.”

Wright’s major theological problem is that he lacks a sense of the eternal. Wright sees the only alternative to material existence in a dualistic, nonmaterial reality totally detached from this world. He correctly attributes this to Platonism or Gnosticism. However, Wright fails to consider the Christian idea of eternity intertwined with our temporal world and present in every moment. For Wright, salvation occurs in an everlasting temporal existence, a projection of the best of this world into incorruptible form and endless time.

Eternity is most eloquently described in the theology of Paul Tillich, in my view the greatest Christian theologian. It is a different “order of existence,” which cannot be described in terms of time and space. It is not parallel to or separate from our present existence, but intimately involved with it. The eternal is always present. We can be aware of it even now - that is the purpose of prayer, and that is the blessing of grace. In the eternal abides the goodness that is permanent and indestructible, the greatest expression of which is love. Eternal Life is not a continuation of our physical existence, but rather a state in which the negative will at last be separated from our essence (this is the final judgment). We cannot fully know it, we cannot grasp it intellectually, and there is very little we can say about it. But we can sense it in moments of what we call awe or the experience of the holy.

We mentioned earlier that Wright’s literal understanding of the symbol of resurrection leads to a series of absurdities. We’ve already considered some of them. Here are more: Would people in their resurrected bodies still need to eat? One would think not, since the food one eats is broken down and eventually destroyed and eliminated, and since the absence of nutrition produces sickness and even death. Yes, in Luke’s Gospel the resurrected Jesus eats a piece of fish. But this is the kind of trouble we get into when we take these symbols literally. In the resurrected world, why should the lion lie down with the lamb but the fish still be destroyed? And if the resurrected body still needs fish, then it would still be subject to the ailments that result when food sources are not available. You may say that in the new world food sources will always be available - but if the body still needs them, it is not very different from the earthly body. If a man still eats a fish, then animals too can be expected still to eat each other, and we are back to the old fallen predatory world. But if there will no longer be any need for food, then, as noted earlier, we are well on our way to a kind of nonmaterial existence.

It should be emphasized at this point that calling resurrection (as represented in first-century Jewish apocalyptic) a symbol does not mean saying it isn’t real. The Easter experience was no doubt very real, to have inspired a movement that has lasted over two thousand years. It should be kept in mind, however, that Jewish apocalyptic symbolism is not a very accurate way of describing it but was the best language available at the time to those who experienced it. Finding a helpful way of understanding the resurrection is a theological matter treated elsewhere on this site. It is also a matter of faith with sufficient complexity and mystery to put it beyond any particular dogmatic description.

In our present world, temporality and impermanence are inseparable. It is the nature of matter itself that everything occupying time and space eventually decays and perishes. A new resurrection world could not simply be a transformation of this earth alone. The nature of the whole universe would have to change; matter as we know it could not exist. The universe itself would become a different place, so it is doubtful that speaking of a transformation of “this” earth has any real meaning. It would have to be a truly new world - and perhaps even a spiritual one. “Nonmaterial” means only the negation of what is material. “Spiritual” means much more than that, but beyond this we can say very little.

Eternity is not endless time. “Incorruptible matter” is a contradiction. Wright seems to want the “new earth” to be an idealized version of life as we know it. This is probably what many hoped for in Jesus’ time, but I believe Jesus wanted to direct our attention beyond it. As Tillich would put it, Wright has committed the error of transforming “resurrection” from a symbol to a concept. As a symbol, “resurrection” is actually much richer and more powerful than Wright’s literal interpretation.

If I would give John Piper’s flawed book criticizing Wright one star (which is about what it deserves), I would give this book two stars because Wright is at least twice as good as Piper. But if Wright had left this a book of Bible scholarship, he could have earned at least five.

September 2009