Surprised by Hope
In the preface to Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright observes, "Most people, in my experience-including many Christians-don’t know what the ultimate Christian hope really is. Most people-again, sadly, including many Christians-don’t expect Christians to have much to say about hope within the present world" (p. xi) These two claims, namely, that most Christians don’t understand the nature of the Resurrection or why it matters in this life, animate the next three hundred pages of Wright’s book as he explores a biblical understanding of Christ’s resurrection and how it changes the way we should live our lives. Resurrection, to use Wright’s language is not about "life after death" but about "life after life after death." Wright’s book has three main points which deserve careful consideration in this season of Easter.
Wright’s first point is that the common view of the Resurrection in the first century differs significantly from the common view of the afterlife today. Many people think that Christianity promises eternal life, which is does, and that this promise sets Christianity apart from other religions of the first century. Wright explains that the existence of an afterlife was taken for granted in the ancient world. At the time of Christ, nearly everyone believed in life after death. The ancient Greeks called the place of the dead Hades; Jews called it Sheol. Although they disagreed about the details, neither Greeks and nor Jews believed that a person simply ceased to exist at death. Rather, both believed that the person went from among the living to the place of the dead where human existence continued in one way or another; this ongoing existence, however, was very different from what we call life.
Christianity offered a new hope for the afterlife. It began with what most people already believed was true. A person died and his soul went to the place of the dead. Christians and Jews believed that this place was somehow in the presence of God. Christians (along with many Jews), however, believed that instead of languishing for eternity in the place of the dead, the person would at some point come out of this place and resume a new bodily existence. Jewish theologians held a number of views on what this new life would be like, but Christians were nearly unanimous in their agreement about the nature of this new life. The reason for this substantial and widespread agreement was that some early Christians had actually seen what resurrection looked like. Because of their experience with Jesus of Nazareth, there was no longer any need to speculate.
The next point that Wright makes is the resurrection of Jesus changes the way that Christians think about the world. Christians believe that God created a good world and that evil is a distortion of God’s purposes for the world. We also believe that God is working to put the world back on track. This concern for the created order includes the idea that the great plan of redemption is for both individuals and the whole world. As Wright puts it, "Redemption is not simply making creation a bit better as an optimistic evolutionist would try to suggest. Nor is it rescuing souls and spirits from an evil material world, as the Gnostic would want to say. It is the remaking of creation.... And it is accomplished by the same God, now known in Jesus Christ, through whom it was made in the first place" (p. 97). In other words, God has been working from the beginning to overcome evil in the world, and the first glimpse of the remade and reordered creation is Jesus Christ himself.
The third claim that Wright explores is that the Resurrection gives hope in and for this life. The resurrection of Jesus revealed a high level of continuity between mortal human life and the remade creation. The resurrected Jesus did a great number of things that ordinary people do. He recognized his friends and spent time with them. He walked and talked and ate. He continued to teach them about God’s plan of salvation as it was revealed in Scripture. The behavior of the resurrected Christ showed that human actions have a future in the Resurrection.
The conclusion that Wright draws from this is that the good works done in this life "will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day we leave it behind altogether.... They are part of what we call building for the kingdom of God" (p. 193). The present hope of the Resurrection is that the good works we do in this life will not only be preserved but they will also be brought to completion by God as part of the even better things to come.
Although it’s impossible to capture the details of Wright’s book in a few short paragraphs, his explanation of the Resurrection is a useful sort of challenge. It caused me rethink my own ideas about the nature of life after death and also how Christian hope must ultimately be translated into meaningful actions which build the kingdom of God. If I have piqued your interest in Surprised by Hope, let me encourage you to pick a copy. It is lively, accessible, and above all else, informative about the faith that we share in the Risen Lord.
Fr. Benjamin Thomas +