Friday, April 10, 2009

Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope 1

I thought I would blog through Tom Wright’s book from last year, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, over the course of Easter season, hopefully finishing around Pentecost. James Dunn’s second volume seems to be a little stalled but I would like to dedicate perhaps as much as the rest of the year to moving through it as soon as it is out. Then maybe during Advent I can go back and finish Dunn's volume on Jesus.

John Drury has already blogged through Surprised by Hope and I have every reason to believe that you will get more benefit from his review than from mine. My approach, as anyone who has read me will know, is much more evaluative (especially when it comes to exegesis) and less edifying. But alas, I am who I am.

Today I want to look at the Preface and first two chapters, tomorrow at chapter 3. Then Sunday I hope to look at chapter 4. Then on the following Sundays till Pentecost I hope to review roughly two chapters a week. If I have time to interface with the longer version, The Resurrection of the Son of God, I will.

I’ve heard rumors that this book will become a Christian classic. It’s an interesting thought and time will tell. As Wright himself points out, people’s orientation toward the future often correlates with what’s going on in the culture around them. When times are desperate, we often find either apocalyptic “God is about to break into history” thinking. Or otherwise, we find a focus on “you die and go to heaven, which is a better place.” Perhaps it is no surprise that in a time when we feel like we can actually make a difference and change the world, Wright has produced a book that emphasizes the this-worldliness of resurrection both present and future.

Of course Wright is right to point out the “this worldly” orientation of much of the New Testament’s eschatological imagery. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he was not talking about going off somewhere but about something that would happen here on earth. And when Paul speaks of meeting Jesus in the air, it is probably not to go off somewhere else but to return to earth and participate in the judgment of men and angels (and women too :-).

Wright of course is not the first to point these things out, although he correctly recognizes that these well known data have scarcely trickled down to the pew. Oscar Cullmann dropped the same bombshell on Germany over fifty years ago with a little book called Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead. It caused quite a stir, much more than Wright’s book will if for no reason other than our culture by and large doesn’t care any more about what famous theologians and biblical scholars say.

What is interesting in my own pilgrimage is that I went to my Wright-phase in the early 90s. Then I did a sabbatical in Tübingen exploring different Jewish trajectories on the afterlife. I never published the results of that study (although I did finish my Philo book thanks to their excellent library). I might add that a slough of other afterlife books came out about that time, making another one by me completely unnecessary.

I say proudly, however, that I presented some of my early research to the historical Jesus section of SBL in 1999 while Wright was working on The Resurrection of the Son of God, and Wright took a copy of my paper. My paper started (as did one I gave to the Q section the following year) by sketching out four streams of afterlife thought in Judaism at the time of Christ: 1) no afterlife (Sadducees), 2) otherworldly afterlife at a future time (Essenes), 3) otherworldly afterlife immediately at death (Philo), and 4) this worldly afterlife (Pharisees).

I note with a grin that Wright expanded Resurrection after the Fall of 1999 (xvi) to include material like Chapter 4, which presents the lay of the land of post-biblical Judaism in terms of 1) no future life, 2) blessed and disembodied immortality, and 3) resurrection. :-) He doesn't categorize things quite the way I do entirely and of course since he is a better scholar than I am, he includes things I didn't include. If I have time I'll review the fourth chapter of Resurrection tomorrow along with the third chapter of Surprised.

So many thoughts, so few published... As you'll see, I've since come to wonder whether the "die and go to heaven" view is as completely foreign to the New Testament as Wright makes it.

In the Preface, Wright indicates that two questions shape the book: 1) the ultimate future hope and 2) what it means for our work for God's kingdom now.

Chapter 1: "All Dressed Up and No Place to Go?"
This chapter is a warm up. He will expand on its brief comments later. There is great variety of belief out there about the afterlife and, interestingly, "I suspect there was never a period when Christian orthodoxy on the subject was the belief of even the majority of people in Britian" (8). Some historians suggest that belief in hell was a casualty of World War 1. He reiterates and illustrates the two questions that shape the book.

The chapter ends with three basic varieties of (unorthodox) afterlife belief he detects today: 1) no afterlife, complete end to existence, 2) some form of reincarnation, and 3) something along the lines of ghosts and spirits.

Chapter 2: "Puzzled about Paradise?"
Now he goes into more detail on the variety even among Christians. There is the sense by some that death is our friend, a slipping away to a better place forever where we will soon join our loved ones. No, Wright says. Death is an enemy, an enemy that Jesus has conquered and will see finally vanquished at the coming resurrection of all the dead.

The emphasis on heaven and hell is similarly unbiblical. The Bible has little to say about either, Wright says. He goes through several hymns that, he claims, "reveal the confusion we have got ourselves into" (23). And further, we have come to put more emphasis on Christmas (=two chapters in the NT) versus what should be the center, Easter. "Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left."

Key questions? How do we know about all this? Scripture, tradition, and reason, he says interestingly, is the Anglican way. The Methodists would add experience :-) Do we have immortal souls? They have minimal support in the NT, he says. What is the starting point? Jesus' resurrection, he says.

More, d.v., tomorrow...


matthew said...

I like this book too, though it didn't seem as fresh since I read Resurrection of the Son of God first. Actually, I think Randy Alcorn's book 'Heaven' will be more of a classic in conservative evangelical circles. And his book isn't bad (though it's obviously not perfectly consistent with Wright)

Tom 1st said...

On a pastoral/practical note, I noticed too that the Bible, outside of the gospels and Revelation, has little (nothing?) to say about Hell and Heaven.

But I've struggled with the practical implications of this observation. And I've also wondered how Paul's 'eternal condemnation' (Gal. 1) is similar or dissimilar to the idea of Hell.

Maybe I just need to read Wright. But I also didn't know if you had any thoughts on these matters, since you mentioned them in this post.

PS - I was given the link to your blog by some of your former students. I have spent a great amount of time rereading a lot of your posts. Thanks for all the enlightening discussions!