Surprised by Hope: Belief About Afterlife

This is the first post in a series examining N.T. Wright's
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.  Today we're looking at the Preface and Chapter 1: All Dressed Up and No Place to Go?

On both the dust jacket and in the preface, Wright claims that most
Christians – let alone non-Christians – are mistaken about the
Christian understanding of hope, life after death, and resurrection. In the preface, then, Wright briefly sketches the two principal thrusts of Surprised by Hope:

At the first level, the book is obviously about death and about what can be said from a Christian perspective about what lies beyond it . . . At the second level, then, the book is about the groundwork of practical and even political theology – of, that is, Christian reflection on the nature of the task we face as we seek to bring God's kingdom to bear on the real and painful world in which we live.

– pages xi, xiii

The first chapter – All Dressed Up and No Place to Go? – looks at the variety of contemporary beliefs about the afterlife, none of which matches up with classical Christian teaching.  Wright touches on the beliefs of other religions (putting to rest the idea that "all religions are the same"), and also looks at popular beliefs in reincarnation, the immortality of the soul, and the Buddhist/nature religion hybrid in which the soul "is absorbed into the wider world, into the wind and the trees" (pg 11).  Wright reveals a diverse landscape of belief which lacks consensus nor bears any likeness to Biblical and early Christian understandings of the afterlife.  This discussion sets the stage for Chapter Two: Puzzled About Paradise? in which he will examine the confusion among Christians about these matters (and we'll examine Chapter Two right here on Monday, September 8).

The Lutheran Zephyr reflects:
I admit to some distracted writing, as I'm also listening to the GOP convention right now (and I'll refrain from commenting on our GOP brethren's convention for the time being).  But to be honest, there's not too much meat to chew on in these first few pages, pages which also preview Wright's ability to eloquently and repeatedly reiterate his theses. 

Nonetheless, Wright has laid out his goals – to examine the Christian belief about death and "what lies beyond it," and to address how this belief impacts the way we can live and minister now.  This conviction that our belief about the future affects our life now is central to his argument and, indeed, to Christian eschatology.

From Plato to Hegel and beyond, some of the greatest philosophers declared that what you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else – and, indeed, that it provides one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all.  This is something a Christian theologian should heartily endorse.
– pg. 6

Wright's analysis of society's diverse beliefs about the afterlife should be familiar to us all.  At many a hospital deathbed I heard loved ones describe the deceased's presence in heaven, or witness to the presence of the deceased's soul – recently departed from the body – in the room or in the world.  These are commonly held beliefs, and should be treated with care and love . . . but they do not match up with the witness of Scripture or the Christian tradition.

It will be interesting to see not only how Wright articulates Christian belief about these things, but how he suggests the church should go about the task of re-articulating these beliefs in a compassionate, pastoral manner.  For the task of theology is not chiefly a pursuit of intellectual curiosity or academic discipline, but rather a servant of the pastoral and evangelical imperative to bear grace, truth, comfort – that is, the Good News of Jesus Christ – to the world, and particularly to those who suffer.

Please join us on Monday for a brief discussion of Chapter 2 of Wright's Surprised by Hope.  See you then.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Surprised by Hope: Belief About Afterlife

  1. “how…the church should go about the task of re-articulating these beliefs in a compassionate, pastoral manner.”
    Alas, this is not his strong point. As he admits (if I recall correctly) in the book itself, his lack of experience in parish ministry has somewhat truncated his ability to provide much advice in this regard. Now, the practical application of this future hope in the (political) public and private lives of individual Christians is one of his major strengths, but that comes toward the very end.
    All this said, thinking ministers will easily connect the dots to pastoral application when reading through the book.

  2. While reading this book, and especially the first two chapters, I was reminded of an incident at a congregation focus group on communion practices. Earlier in the year, we had begun using homemade loaves of bread for communion, which was met with stiff resistance by a small but strident group in the congregation (wafers are still offered as a pastoral accommodation for those with special needs). We had introduced the homemade bread with newsletter articles, including one which referenced Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians, that sharing the one loaf of bread is a sign of our unity in the body of Christ.
    At this focus group meeting, one member of the congregation rose and angrily castigated the pastor (and me, indirectly, as I had authored the newsletter articles) for presuming to try to teach her anything about Christian theology and historic practice. She grew up in the Lutheran church, knew what she needed to know, and had no use for any new (or ancient) insights and practices.
    It seems to me, that there are a lot of people in the church who are convinced that what they once learned, however they may have learned it, about Christian faith and practice is not open to discussion, reflection, or change. Even if what they learned is not consistent with the apostolic witness of scripture, there can be no thought of changes, because of the potential consequences to their comfortably settled way of thinking and understanding. Their Weltanschauung may be at risk, to say nothing of their salvation!
    And here we have Tom Wright trying to tell Christians and everyone else, that most of us have seriously misunderstood, or distorted, the apostolic and earliest Christian meaning of our hope in Christ’s resurrection. What’s more, our understanding of what this hope means, has consequences for what we do – for what the church’s mission is or ought to be. For me, Wright’s reexamination of the apostolic understanding of hope, heaven, resurrection, and mission was insightful, satisfying, and sometimes surprising. But, many will dismiss it precisely because they already know what they need too know and have no use for any new (or ancient) insights.

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