This is the third 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 3: Early Christian Hope in its Historical Setting.
This chapter can be summarized in a simple sentence: Resurrection is real. To extrapolate that sentence into two subpoints, we can say,
- The early Christians believed in an afterlife that involved a resurrection of the body (ie, not a vague spiritual afterlife).
- The resurrection of Jesus really happened.
Bishop Wright argues in the opening pages of this chapter that, though the accounts of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection might not perfectly match up with each other, "something must have happened" (page 35). He details the unique nature of early Christian accounts of, and widely-held beliefs in, the resurrection and argues that such stories and beliefs must have been rooted in a historical event (yes, this is a challenging argument to make, and one that doesn't deserve to be summarized in two sentences written by a sleeply Lutheran blogger).
"a two-step narrative in which resurrection, meaning new bodily life, would be preceeded by an interim period of bodily death . . . Resurrection meant bodies" (page 36).
Wright here again emphasizes that resurrection was not a euphemism for a vaguely-defined afterlife. "We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense" (page 36). Resurrection is surely not just life after death, but a very specific – and unique – understanding of what that post-mortem life looks like. Resurrection was not about "heaven," but about a new, incarnate, bodily life.
"When [early Christians] did speak of heaven as a postmorten destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body . . . Paradise is, rather, the blissful garden where God's people rest prior to the resurrection" (page 41).
- The early Christians believed that "The Resurrection" began in the person of Jesus, but would continue/resume on the Last Day for everyone else. No where in earlier Jewish belief was there anything comparable to this two-stage resurrection. All other related belief in the resurrection assumed a one-time, end-time resurrection.
- For the early Christians, resurrection became a central belief and a central element in describing hope, faith, and the Gospel. Jews believed in the resurrection, but it was not a central or crucial element of faith. For Christians belief in the resurrection was central and colored how the whole story of faith was told. "Take away the stories of Jesus' birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke. Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament and most of the second-century fathers as well" (page 43).
- Christian belief in a bodily resurrection – ie, belief that death has no ultimate power, for we will be raised again – robs those whose power derives from the ability to inflict death.
"Death is the last weapon of the tyrant, and the point of the resurrection, despite much misunderstanding, is that death has been defeated. Resurrection is not the redescription of death; it is its overthrow and, with that, the overthrow of those whose power depends on it" (page 50).