I finally got around to reading Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright on the trip to Bakersfield this weekend. The book could have been called “Surprised by What the Bible Actually Says About Heaven and Resurrection and What That Has to do with the Mission of the Church.”
This is the most important book on heaven, resurrection, and the afterlife that I am aware of. I already had a decent grasp on Wright’s view of heaven and resurrection but this book was so much more than just a new take on the new heavens and the new earth. The book also serves as an apologetic for the Christian faith, grounding our belief that the resurrection actually happened and what that means for us as Christians. Wright assures us that our hope in the resurrection, as Christians, is very well grounded. More than that, he offers a critique of popular teaching regarding resurrection vs what the Bible, early Christians and ancient Judaism actually taught on this in opposition to the pagan views of their day. All of this leads into discussions of the afterlife
In this book, Wright argues that the popular belief that eternal life is about dying and being in heaven is completely misguided. He does believe that Christians actually do “die and go to heaven” but that eterenal life is about so much more than that. He says dying and going to heaven is life after death, then resurrection is “life after life after death”. What he means by that is there is a time when our bodies are dead and subject to decay but that ultimately the New Testament teaches that God will redeem, restore and renew our bodies into glorious new creation. That is what resurrection is actually all about and Jesus is the prototype. So heaven alone is not the ultimate resting place of the soul. It isn’t for two reasons: 1) the New Testament doesn’t talk about being in heaven forever after death, rather, it talks about being with God in a renewed post-resurrection bodily existence where heaven and earth are brought together and it isn’t the old earth but a new and redeemed one and 2) the ultimate end of the afterlife isn’t about heaven being a resting place for disembodied souls but a new creation (union of new heaven and new earth) where we have bodily existence.
Now, if Wright is right all of this has many implications for just about everything you can think of. It has implications about how we view creation, salvation, anthropology, theology, Christology and especially missiology (which he spends nearly a third of the book on). If the earth is hurdling headlong toward redemption, what does that mean for the church’s ministry and mission? What does the church look like given God redeeming and renewing all of creation? His view changes the fundamental framework through which we see our current existence and our ultimate hope.
Last, he believes the Lord’s supper and baptism are connection points between Christians today and the new heaven and new earth. That is something that I hope will be explored at next year’s Pepperdine Bible Lectures as the 2014 theme is “Enter the Water, Come to the Table”. Read this book and you will never think about heaven, resurrection, afterlife or eternal life ever the same.