Surprised by Hope
by N.T. Wright
by Barbara Buzzard
From the front flap of the book: “For years Christians have been asking, ‘If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?’ It turns out that many believers have been giving the wrong answer. It is not heaven.” This statement describing N.T. Wright’s thinking and teaching should be a real challenge to all believers. (I agree with the bishop that the popular answer is wrong, but is not the question also wrong?) Wright is the Church of England Bishop of Durham and one of the world’s foremost biblical scholars and a prolific and well-read author.
Wright begins by painting scenes we are all familiar with in cases of public grief, noting that “They showed a rich confusion of belief, half belief, sentiment, and superstition about the fate of the dead.” He comments on how very far we have come from what used to be taught as Christian teaching on the subject. Wright finds this: “I am convinced that most people, including most practicing Christians, are muddled and misguided on this topic and that this muddle produces quite serious mistakes in our thinking.” He then speaks about the seriousness of mistaken thinking and treats it as “a matter of thinking straight about God and his purposes.”
Wright has found that “most people simply don’t know what orthodox Christian belief is” and that they “have little or no idea what the word resurrection actually means or why Christians say they believe it.” This book is an attempt to answer the question about what the ultimate Christian hope is. He gives many and varied examples of popular ignorance on this subject, both within and outside the church, and speaks eloquently of the Christian confusion about hope. Of Canon Henry Scott Holland’s sermons used at funerals (which thousands request), Wright wonders at the “extraordinary denial that is going on when this is done. It amounts to a resolute refusal to tell the truth about the real and savage break, the horrible denial of the goodness of human life, that every death involves... It offers hollow comfort. By itself, without comment, it simply tells lies. It is not even a parody of Christian hope. Instead, it simply denies that there is any problem, any need for hope in the first place” (emphasis mine). The importance of this is seen in the contrast of these views: for Scott Holland there is nothing to be conquered, but for John Donne (former Dean of St. Paul’s) death was an enemy. Note well that for the Christian it is a beaten enemy. “In line with much classic Christian thought, Donne sees life after death in two stages: first, a short sleep, then an eternal waking. And death shall be no more. Donne grasped what we shall discover to be the central New Testament belief: that at the last, death will be not simply redefined but defeated.” Wright explains that if immortal souls leave their immortal bodies, death still rules.
Wright’s insistence on belief in resurrection contrasts starkly with popular teaching: “Current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul” (Death and the Afterlife, Brian Innes). Wright sums up: “Let us be quite clear. If this is true, then death is not conquered but redescribed.” He is adept at pointing out erroneous lines of hymns and how they form our belief systems and he urges us to be clear about the two poles represented: one presents death as a friend coming to take us to a better place, the other as an enemy which can and will be defeated.
“Many Christians grow up assuming that whenever the New Testament speaks of heaven it refers to the place to which the saved will go after death. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ sayings in the other gospels about the ‘kingdom of God’ are rendered as ‘kingdom of heaven,’ so they have their assumptions confirmed and suppose that he is indeed talking about how to go to heaven when you die, which is certainly not what either Jesus or Matthew had in mind. Many mental pictures have grown up around this and are now assumed to be what the Bible teaches or what Christians believe.”
“But the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way. God’s kingdom in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism that has infected whole swaths of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world and our present bodies and regard them as shabby or shameful.” Could Wright be any stronger? He has said that what is commonly believed among Christians — that we possess immortal souls which go on a journey to heaven or to hell at death — has no warrant in Scripture. I was amazed at Wright’s strength of feeling and his boldness in charging the church with confusion, distortion and wrong rendering of Scripture.
“Resurrection itself has not disappeared entirely, but again and again it is pushed to the margins, and the underlying story told in the service about the recently deceased is not (as it would be were it in line with the New Testament) about their resting peacefully in anticipation of the final renewal of all things but about their going on a journey to end up in ‘God’s kingdom.’ One could put it like this: if someone came to these funeral services with no idea of the classic Jewish and Christian teaching on the subject, the funeral services would do little to enlighten them and plenty to mislead them or confirm them in their existing muddle. I hope that those who take seriously the argument of the present book will examine the current practice of the church, from its official liturgies to all the unofficial bits and pieces that surround them, and try to discover fresh ways of expressing, embodying, and teaching what the New Testament actually teaches rather than the mangled, half-understood, and vaguely held theories and opinions we are meeting...Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t, as the old liturgies used to say, ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’ but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.” Well said, Mr. Wright!
Wright refers to the situation as “contemporary muddle.” Could that be just a tad too kind? The word muddle is so British and just so nice and recurs frequently (it is part of the story he is telling). But I fear that the word “muddle” covers up rather politely a really sordid state of affairs. After all, Wright has just said that we have a situation where the church is in serious error, teaching error, misleading, confusing, distorting, etc. Now that same church is to be a font of knowledge for its parishioners, a bastion of Truth and a protector of the Holy Scriptures. It seems to be seriously found wanting. He readily paints a picture of massive confusion and speaks of the wider and serious implications of that confusion. His honest admission regarding his church is startling in the extreme: “My own church, the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, declares that it finds its doctrine in scripture, tradition, and reason, taken together in their proper blend. I suggest that a good deal of our current view of death and the life beyond has come from none of these but rather from impulses in the culture that created, at best, semi-Christian informal traditions that now need to be reexamined in the clear light of scripture. Scripture, in fact, teaches things about the future life that most Christians, and almost all non-Christians, have never heard of” (emphasis mine). Semi-Christian? Never heard of? I am bound to say that in any other field of study, these breaches would not be dubbed “muddle” but would come under fire for very serious negligence, mishandling of evidence, appalling scholarship, misrepresentation, etc.
In fact, this leads also to this point: for years the so-called cults have held some of the very beliefs that N.T. Wright now advocates. They have suffered miserably at the hands of church councils and have often been regarded as heretics. How is it then that a member of the orthodox faith can now simply take on some of these beliefs without suffering similar penalties?