I have finally got to the end of “Surprised by Hope” – a book written by Tom Wright. Finally, not because of the book, but because I have always been a slow reader!
In fact reading the book has been one of the best things I’ve done in a long time. Wright’s basic theme is that western society in general and Christians in particular have largely misunderstood the hope of the gospel in the last 200 years.
He argues that the view of the New Testament is that we will all die and be raised to life with redeemed physical bodies, at some point in the future when Jesus returns. At this point God’s kingdom will come in its entirety, meaning that heaven and earth are united and reborn as the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21-22.
He says that this is fundamentally different to most Christians’ hope of “going to heaven when we die”. Not only that, but misunderstanding our hope for the future means that we don’t live as God intends us to today.
If our hope for the future is only a non-physical heaven where our souls go after we die, our focus on earth will be saving as many souls as we can to take to heaven with us. But if our hope for the future is in a physical redemption of the whole of creation, with a new heaven, a new earth and new resurrection bodies, our focus will be on, as Wright says “dragging this future into the present”. Our lives will be spent building God’s kingdom on earth, not for the purpose of saving souls to go to a non-physical heaven, but to give a glimpse of what God will do in the future and is already starting to do in the present.
As a result, people will see God’s kingdom starting to reign on earth (through justice, peace, love, mercy, stewardship of creation etc), and will want to be part of it and worship him.
I’m not sure I agreed with everything that Wright says in the book, but it has certainly given me a whole new perspective on our hope for the future, and I believe has affected the way I see our life in the present as a result. You might not agree with the arguments put forward in this book, but it will certainly make you think.
Here’s a (long but I think worth reading!) quote which for me summed up the book:
If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on ‘heaven and hell’ as the ultimate question – to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a similar mistake to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake which both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to the question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to the question: how is God going to rescue the world through Israel, and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus, not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven, and how he is going to do it, but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings, and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. If we could reread Romans and Revelation – and the rest of the New Testament, of course – in the light of this reframing of the question, I think we would find much food for thought.