Surprised by Hope: Most Christians Don’t “Get” Resurrection

This is the second 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 Chapter 2: Puzzled About Paradise?

Surprised
In Chapter 2 Bishop Wright mounts a forceful critique of the state of contemporary Christian understanding or appreciation of the classic doctrine of resurrection.  He outlines how current Christian practice – buffeted by over a century of sentimentality, hymnal, and liturgical reformulations – largely fails to reflect and convey Christian understanding of heaven, hope, and the resurrection.  In particular Wright takes on two notions that find little – if any – support in the Bible: the so-called "immortality of the soul," and the existence of a heaven "up there" and a hell "down there."  

In regards to the "immortality of the soul," Wright notes that 

until at least the late eighteenth century, many tombstones and memorials were inscribed with the Latin word resurgam, which means "I shall arise," indicating that the now-dead person believed in an intermediate sleep to be followed by a new bodily life at some future point (pg 16).

Drawing on the creed – I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come – Wright begins to describe traditional Christian belief about death, namely that upon death the deceased enters an intermediate state, a period of waiting, for the return of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead (about which I blogged here almost a year ago).  No mention of entering heaven, no mention of an eternal spiritual journey, no mention of leaving one's body behind – notions that are common today.  Citing several pieces of popular literature – including Maria Shriver's What's Heaven? – Wright briefly details how contemporary Christian belief is more akin to a Buddhist, Hindu, or Platonic ideas of life and death than it is to traditional Christian or Jewish ideas.  "The idea [of a long spiritual journey] after death is itself now frequent, though again it has virtually no warrant in the Bible or early Christian thought" (page 19).

In regards to heaven and hell, Wright writes:

Many Christians grow up assuming that whenever the New Testament speaks of heaven it refers to the place to which the saved will go after death . . . But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn't work that way.  "God's kingdom" in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God's sovereign rule coming 'on earth as it is in heaven.' . . . Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life – God's dimension, if you like.  God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever (page 18-19).

Christian hope is not a hope for a spiritual escape from the clutches of flesh, blood and world into a spiritual haven, but rather for heaven and earth to be joined, for a New Creation to spring forth, for new – incarnate, flesh and blood – life to be given.  Christianity is an incarnate religion centered on an incarnate God who comes to us in flesh and blood so that we would have life and have it abundantly.  "[T]he robust Jewish and Christian doctrine of the resurrection, as part of God's new creation, gives more value, not less, to the present world and to our present bodies" (page 26).  

This chapter is a preview of what will come in greater detail in subsequent chapters, and he says much more than I've reviewed here.  He also touches on Christian understanding of "soul," the pastoral problem of funeral parlors, our culture's penchant for denying the pain of death and the grief of the bereaved, the impact of cremation on Christian belief in resurrection, and the mixed legacy of 19th and 20th Christian hymnody . . . resulting in a rather poor assessment of the state of Christian belief and practice:

Frankly, what we have at the moment isn't, as the old liturgies used to say, "the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead" but the vague and fuzzy optimism that things may work out in the end (page 25).

The Lutheran Zephyr reflects:
I'm still working out the format for these reviews, as the synopsis of Chapter 2 is much longer than the synopsis I wrote for the Preface & Chapter 1.  

This chapter is still largely one designed to "set the stage" for the detailed arguments to follow, a secondary or tertiary introduction to the greater work.  Yet what spoke to me most strongly in this chapter is the pastoral concern reflected in that final quote cited above – what comfort, what confidence, what certain hope do we have when we claim that death is peaceful (when experience largely tells us otherwise), souls are eternal (a suggestion that values souls over God's gift of created bodies), and ultimate destiny lies in lofty clouds rather than tangible existence?  

As Wright claims over and over again, what we believe about death and the afterlife has huge consequences for how we live our life before death.  The classic Christian belief in bodily resurrection and a real, tangible New Life in a New Jerusalem – a New Creation as opposed to the continuation of some sort of disembodied spiritual existence in a far-off place – invites us into richer and fuller lives now, into concern for the created beings of our neighbors and environment now, into experiencing God's holy, abiding, incarnate presence now – for these are foretastes of the very real, incarnate, tangible feast to come.

Please leave your comments, and join us on Thursday for Chapter 3.  Thanks!

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Faith & the Church, Surprised by Hope. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Surprised by Hope: Most Christians Don’t “Get” Resurrection

  1. Diane says:

    I think I might just like his book.

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