I’ve had a few of N. T. Wright’s books sitting on my to-read shelf for a while and this is the first one that I’ve actually gotten around to reading. I have to say that I went into this book with fairly high expectations and this book more than exceeded those expectations. It’s been an exhilarating experience reading this book. There was little in this book that was new to me, per se, but the way that Wright connects all the various ideas and the vigor that he unleashes from them was fresh and invigorating. This is a potentially paradigm changing book. I know that it has been for me. I feel that I see things a bit differently and more clearly now because of this book. I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
Wright’s basic thesis is that modern Christianity has traded away the fully formed hope of the New Testament for a vague and powerless hope that is only a shadow of the picture of the New Testament. Too often people (even serious Christians) think that our hope is that we go to heaven when we die (something I’ve written about here). However, in the New Testament the Christian hope is not some kind of disembodied existence in the clouds, but in the resurrection of the body. Death is not a portal to be passed through, but an enemy to be defeated. Christ in his resurrection is the firstfruits of this great and final resurrection. When Christ comes to announce the Kingdom of God, he is not telling his followers how they can escape to heaven one day. Instead, he is announcing that the rightful ruler of this world, God, the creator of all things, is coming once again to rule over his creation and set all things to right. This includes the resurrection of God’s people. What people often think about as going to heaven is merely what happens to a believer right after they die. The picture of the New Testament is of two stages. First when a person dies they, in the words of St. Paul, depart to be with Christ (Phil 1:23). But this is not the end of the story. The ultimate hope comes when Christ returns again and all people are raised again, as discussed at length in 1 Corinthians 15:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
—1 Corinthians 15:51–57
But the Christian hope is not merely bodily resurrection. God has also promised to restore his whole creation to perfection. He will set all things to right and make all things new. This recognition also refocuses the mission of the church. No longer are we trying merely to “save souls” or just make life and society a bit more bearable, instead we are called to be resurrection people who live in a future-oriented way. We look forward to the coming restoration while also participating in it now. As Paul says at the end of his discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v. 58).
This is the main thrust of the book. And while there are a lot of individual sections that are worth discussing, such as his discussion of the Kingdom of Heaven/God, hell, and Second Temple Jewish expectations of the Messiah and the resurrection. However, here I want to briefly highlight two discussions that I think are particularly notable. The first is Wright’s discussion of Jesus’ resurrection and the second is his discussion of the hope-shaped mission of God’s people.
Resurrection and Hope-Shaped Mission
Wright’s discussion of Jesus’ resurrection is a distillation of what he’s written elsewhere, but this was a great introduction to some of his thought and insights into how we can understand the Gospel accounts of this event. He has some interesting and compelling reasons for understanding that these accounts as written are themselves a very early part of the Christian tradition and not a later add-on as some scholars propose.
But what’s more interesting at least to me is how Wright deals with the question of the relationship between what we can know historically about the resurrection and faith in the resurrection. He avoids some of the pitfalls of many Christian apologists who often act like the resurrection is something that can be proved historically much like one would prove something in mathematics. Wright quickly discusses what we can know historically about what happened Easter morning based on the information we have available to us. He helpfully points out that the common modern objection that dead people don’t rise from the dead is not a uniquely modern objection at all. The ancients knew just as well as us that dead people don’t rise from the dead. They weren’t stupid, as we contemporary “enlightened” people are so quick to assume. He strikes a middle way between acting like the evidence of the resurrection forces people to accept it and making faith a blind assertion without any kind of evidence:
In any other historical inquiry, the answer would be so obvious that it would hardly need saying. Here, of course, this obvious answer (“well it actually happened”) is so shocking, so earth shattering, that we rightly pause before leaping into the unknown. And here indeed, as some skeptical friends have cheerfully pointed out to me, it is always possible for anyone to follow the arguments so far and to say simply, “I don’t have a good explanation for what happened to cause the empty tomb and the appearances, but I choose to maintain my belief that dead people don’t rise and therefore conclude that something else must have happened, even though we can’t tell what it was.” This is fine; I respect that position; but I simply note that it is indeed then a matter of choice, not a matter of saying that something called scientific historiography forces us to take that route. (Wright, 63)
He goes on to say:
History alone, certainly as conceived within the modern Western world and placed on the Procrustean bed of science, which (rightly) observes the world as it is, appears to leave us like the Children of Israel waiting in fear on the shore of the Red Sea. Behind are the forces of skepticism: Pharaoh’s hordes, mocking and shouting that they’re coming to get us. Ahead is the sea, representing chaos and death, forces that nobody else has ever claimed were beaten. What are we to do? This is no way back. No other explanations have been offered, in two thousand years of sneering skepticism toward the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and worldview were transformed. The alternative accounts are actually remarkably thin; I’ve read most of the current ones, and many of them are laughable. History appears to leave us shivering on the shore. It can press the question to which Christian faith is the answer. But, if someone chooses to stay between Pharaoh and the deep sea, history itself cannot force them further. (Wright, 68)
Christian faith is not without some kind of an anchor in the real world as we experience it, even as much as many skeptics (and even some Christians) seem to portray it as mere wishful thinking in the dark. But that being said, faith does have to make a sort of Kierkegaardian leap. There’s a whole lot of personal and existential weight riding on the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. No one can be forced to put this kind of trust in the God of Israel who raised Jesus from the dead (only the Holy Spirit can do that). But neither can anyone say that Christian faith is based on nothing at all. There are good historical reasons to be a Christian, even if these historical reasons do not force anyone to be a Christian.
Secondly, Wright also does a great job teasing out what it means for the mission of the church to be shaped by her future hope. Too often we become reductionist. We recognize that the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life is the highest and most precious gift that God has to give to us, so our churches are focused (and rightly so) on delivering these gifts through Word and Sacrament to God’s people week after week. But too often we act like the church is merely a club of people who get their sins forgiven and then wait around until Jesus comes back. What we do in the mean time either has nothing to do with the promises of God or it’s merely a necessary evil so that we can survive and not die quite yet.
However, Wright proposes that God’s people have work to do in the world. This work flows out of the forgiveness of sins, the promise of resurrection and new creation, and Word and Sacrament. It doesn’t replace these things as often happens in liberal churches and it is not tangential to or a distraction to the promises of God as often happens in more conservative churches:
One of the things I have most enjoyed about being a bishop is watching ordinary Christians…going straight from worshipping Jesus in church to making a radical difference in the material lives of people down the street by running playgroups for children of single working moms; by organizing credit unions to help people at the bottom of the financial ladder find their way to responsible solvency; by campaigning for better housing, against dangerous roads, for drug rehab centers, for wise laws relating to alcohol, for decent library and sporting facilities, for a thousand other things in which God’s sovereign rule extends to hard, concrete reality. Once again, all this is not an extra to the mission of the church. It is central. (Wright, 267).
All of this is about being resurrection people who live in the hope and knowledge that God is coming to restore all things. The church is called to be the forerunners of this future restoration here and now, thereby giving the world glimpses of that hope and coming restoration now. Of course, Wright is not arguing that the church thereby brings the kingdom of heaven on earth or something like that. The only one who can do that is God himself. But God works through means and the instruments that he likes to use are people. We do not know how our work will be valuable in the coming kingdom. But we know that our labor is not in vain.
This is similar to the Lutheran doctrine of vocation, but this has a kind of eschatological focus that the Lutheran articulation of the doctrine of vocation typically doesn’t have. And it’s an emphasis that I think is really helpful for a few reasons.
First of all, I think it frees us to not see so-called evangelistic work in conflict with so-called mercy work. Caring for the marginalized and advocating for justice are not optional add-ons to telling people about Jesus, but they naturally go together in this framework in an incredibly natural way.
Secondly, it allows us to not worry about our work in our communities being the most efficient and pragmatic. I believe one of the plagues of American culture is our efficiency-driven business mindset. In a lot of ways we can’t help it, but it can be destructive when we unnecessarily bring this mindset into the church. There are many good works that God’s people can do that don’t seem to make sense or get results while also acting as great witnesses to the coming restoration of all things. This might be planting flowers or running an art program for kids, not because it’ll help them with test scores, but because it’s good to make art. Elsewhere Wright has talked about programs churches in England have done where they employ the homeless, disabled, and in poverty to restore furniture so that it can be sold at a nominal price to those same sorts of people. If you wanted to restore as much furniture as possible, you wouldn’t employ these kinds of people. It’d be foolish. But the point is not to be as efficient as possible; the point is to be resurrection people. Giving these people the opportunity to do meaningful productive work does more to restore these people here and now than merely giving them access to furniture would ever do.
Like I said before, I can’t recommend this book enough. I may certainly have a few quibbles with some things that Wright says in this book, but in my estimation those are far overshadowed and hardly worth mentioning in light of the insight that he brings. This is probably my favorite book that I read in all of 2017.