Surprised by Hope
I am shamed by how long it has taken me to finish reading this book (I blame it all the Interregnum even though I’ve been reading it far longer than that *cough*) but, anyway, I have finally made it to the end of Tom Wright’s view of heaven, hell, life after death and all that stuff that can be found in Surprised by Hope.
While I’m in a confessing mood, I have to admit that my beliefs on the afterlife have always been a bit hazy at best. Part of the haze stems from a time early in my Christian life as a teenager when I was sat down by a well-meaning (but ultimately misguided) friend to listen to Roger Price cassette tapes whose pentecostal, rapture based, snippet of the Bible here, snippet of the Bible there approach to theology sounded good to me at the time but has left a legacy of confusion in its wake. Roger himself has passed away now so I’m sure he could probably give a far better answer now than he could then… problem is we can’t ask him. Anyway, it was high time I did something about that and Bishop Tom has come to my rescue.
Surprised by Hope is an excellent book. Pitched somewhere between the accessibility of Tom’s ‘for everyone’ series with SPCK and the vaunted academic tomes like Jesus and the Victory of God, it’s not always an easy read but it is a relatively accessible one for Christians with a reasonable grasp and the ability to think. He sets his discussion of the after-life in the very firm foundations of the resurrection of Jesus himself and builds his argument about the notion that what God started in Jesus, he will one day do for the whole universe. Rather than trying to piece together a puzzle from random Scriptures like Price, Tom Wright starts with that firm foundation of the resurrection and then reads the New Testament (and the Old) in the light of that event. Suddenly, all sorts of passages are made clear or at least have a seam of thought that is consistent rather than potentially contradictory.
Famously the book has garnered press attention both here and in the USA because it reminds Christians that our ultimate destination is not heaven. We are not going to heaven when we die, rather heaven is coming here – the new heaven and the new earth where we will dwell with God is what the New Testament promise of the after-life contains at its core. That is such an important message when we continually talk of going up to heaven in churches and (especially) sing all sorts of rubbish about our ultimate destination that have no foundation in New Testament theology.
I personally found the book very helpful with the exception of Wright’s treatment of hell which seemed really out of place in this book since it was the one area where conjecture and personal feeling seemed to get in the way of New Testament evidence. In brief, Wright seems to think that if we sin throughout our lives to the point where we die without Christ, the image of God in us is so marred to finally remove any trace of that image. We become, therefore, bestial, sub-human in the afterlife. I may have been reading him wrong but it sounded more like a sort of eternal reincarnation; you move into eternity as a dog or something.
However, all that said, it’s a very good book on a subject in which there is very little very well grounded New Testament rooted theology and with a message the church needs to hear right now (if nothing else to prevent more songs like this one). I’m buying a copy for my Reader who takes funerals and another copy for our Worship leader/songwriter!