Friday, September 17, 2010

N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope

I read N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope last summer, and it made a big impact on me. The following article is a summary of what stood out to me in that book. Wright argues that Evangelical theology tends to gloss over the Resurrection of Jesus, and thus also glosses over the doctrines of physical resurrection of believers and the renewal of the earth that is promised in Romans 8 and Revelation 21. He writes that by recovering the centrality of the Resurrection to our understanding of faith, we can also recover a sense of purpose in our lives in present-day reality.

The Problem with a Cross-Centered Theology

Those who know me know that I wear a cross signet ring. It's actually my college class ring; I wanted something that I would want to continue wearing, and not just put in a box somewhere, so my parents bought me a plain signet ring and had a cross etched in it. It was intended as a statement of my faith, as an opportunity to share Jesus with others.

The cross has been the main symbol of Christianity for most of its history. Not all of its history--it wasn't until crucifixion stopped being actively used by the Romans as a means of torture and death that Christians began widely using it as the symbol of their faith. But it has long been Christianity's predominant symbol. Every church has at least one. Most Christian organizations use it in their logos. And it's not hard to see why. What Jesus did on the cross for us is central to what we believe.

Most Christians, if asked what they believe, would offer something like this: "God created human beings to be in a relationship with him, but we messed that up through sin, so he came to the earth as a human being--Jesus--and lived a sinless life and then died on a cross in our place, so we could be in a relationship with him again and spend eternity with him in heaven." You'll notice that the cross is at the very turning point of this statement of faith. It's completely central.

Now, although I agree with every part of that statement, there's something I think is missing--and it's more significant than simply the fact that the whole thing needs a lot of fleshing out and explanation. What's missing is the resurrection of Jesus. Having had this issue brought to my attention by N. T. Wright's fantastic book, Surprised by Hope, it is astonishing to me that any statement of Christian faith could ever be made without reference to the Resurrection. And yet I wonder how many people, reading that statement the first time through, noticed its absence or considered it significant.

Of course, you could tuck it in there, right between "place" and "so," and it would fit. And Christians do believe in the Resurrection and do think that affirming the Resurrection is important. My problem isn't that Christians don't believe in Jesus' resurrection; it's that the Resurrection ends up being an afterthought in the way most of us think about our faith.

Think about it: we view the central problem as sin, and the fact that a holy God can't simply let sin slide. The penalty--death--must be paid. The solution is a substitute: if someone who doesn't deserve to die dies in our place, then we don't have to die ourselves. The crime is paid for. And that's what Jesus did on the cross. But notice what we've done: Jesus' work on the cross solves the problem. When He said, "It is finished," it really was--that is to say, the whole problem is solved. It's like the end of a detective story: once the detective solves the crime, the story is, for all intents and purposes, over. The technical term for the ending of a story, after its climax, is denouement. It's really just window dressing, and a lot of modern writers try to get rid of it entirely, and just end at the climax. You can think up your own window dressing, imagine how it came out on your own.

That's what happens to the Resurrection, in the typical way of looking at it. It happened, and we believe in it, but it's not really crucial to the story. If it hadn't happened, it wouldn't really matter, because the sin problem is already taken care of at the Cross. We try to make it matter, by saying that it demonstrated that Jesus really was who he said he was, or that it proves that there is life after death. But whatever it demonstrated, or whatever it proves, really doesn't matter in the end--the real work had already been done.

But that's not how the Apostle Paul saw it. "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Cor. 15:14). For Paul, the Resurrection is absolutely central. All of the gospel messages preached in the book of Acts make the Resurrection central. What Jesus did on the Cross was very important. But the biblical writers seem to indicate that what he did by rising from the dead was equally important, maybe even more so.

In my next few blog posts, I'm going to sketch out why I think the Resurrection needs to occupy a more central place in our theology. And I'm wondering if we've missed a rather obvious symbol of the faith. The world has seen us as people of the cross for a long time. Maybe it's time we need to be seen as people of the empty tomb.

What Resurrection Means

In order to understand the importance of the Resurrection, we first have to understand what the first-century views of resurrection were. What were the prior expectations of the people who first heard the story of Jesus' resurrection?

In the non-Jewish Greco-Roman world, there were two predominant views of the afterlife. The first was the basic materialist stance that there is no afterlife. The Greek Epicurean philosophical school would be an example of this stance. Although construed somewhat differently than contemporary philosophers and scientists would use the terms, this point of view would hold that the material universe is all there is. There is no "spirit" apart from the body in which there is any consciousness, hence there is no continuing existence once the physical body ceases to function. Dead is dead.

The other major strand of Greco-Roman thought is well represented by Plato. There is a continued existence after death; in fact, this is what earthly existence longs for--a release from bondage to the body and the corrupted physical realm. We are essentially spirits trapped in bodies, longing for release. You may recognize this point of view--many Christians' view of "heaven" owes more to Plato than to the Bible. This earthly life is something merely to be endured until we escape it to live in heaven forevermore with God. More on this later.

For now, the relevant point is that no one in the Greco-Roman world was expecting anything like physical resurrection. It would either have been considered impossible or pointless. The spirit either didn't exist apart from the physical body, or if it did, the last thing it wanted was to be re-embodied. (The concept of reincarnation did exist, but this is different from resurrection--it is embodiment in a different body, not the same one, and was not considered the goal of existence, but rather a punishment or a continued stage on the way to fully-realized--that is, disembodied--spirituality.)

But that's the non-Jewish world. Christianity arose in a Jewish cultural context. What did the Jews believe regarding resurrection?

Once again, there were two predominant views. And once again, one of them precluded resurrection. The Sadducean group, which dominated the Temple priesthood, rejected resurrection (as well as angels and providence). While present-day Christians tend to scoff at this point of view, it actually accords with the Sadducees' generally more strict reading of the Hebrew scriptures, which must be admitted to have little to say on the afterlife in general and resurrection specifically.

On the other hand, the Pharisaical group which dominated the rabbis in the synagogues did believe in resurrection. However, this resurrection was not expected to occur until the eschaton--the final culmination of history. After the death of Lazarus in John 11, his sister Martha expresses this point of view in her dialogue with Jesus: "Martha answered, 'I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day'." So yes, there were Jews who believed in resurrection, but not in present-day reality--only at the end of history. It's also worth noting that resurrection played no part in Jewish messianic expectations. Messiah was to bring about the liberation of Israel as a nation and reestablish the throne of David; neither the death of the messiah nor a resurrection was envisioned.

What does this all mean with regard to Jesus' resurrection? Quite simply, it means that the usual explanations for why Jesus' resurrection is important are wrong, or at least beside the main point.

Christians generally view Jesus' resurrection in terms of God vindicating Jesus, demonstrating that he was the Messiah, God in flesh, and innocent of any crime or sin for which he should die. But while this all is true, it reflects backward reasoning: if we come to trust in Jesus and believe that he was God in human flesh, then his resurrection takes on all these meanings. But resurrection itself would not have demonstrated any of these things to anyone in the first-century world. Remember, nobody was expecting anyone to be resurrected--not in the Gentile world at all, and not in the Jewish world in the here-and-now.

But for those who were hoping for resurrection "at the last day," as Martha was, Jesus' resurrection would have meant something mind-blowing and worldview-changing: that something that had been hoped for at the end of time was a present reality, right now. It was a glimpse into a deeply longed-for future, breaking into the present. Evidently, when Jesus (and before him, John the Baptist) were proclaiming that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2; 4:17), it really was.

Everything they had ever hoped for was beginning to come to pass. Right now.

What Resurrection Implies

What Jesus' resurrection meant was that what the Jews (at least some of them) were hoping for at the end of time was breaking into present-day reality. The technical way of saying this is that their eschatological hopes were being realized. Imagine everything you've ever longed for beginning to come true. That's what was going on for the first believers, the ones who saw Jesus after the resurrection.

But what did this imply to them? So far, just one guy had come back from the dead (I'm not counting Lazarus and other resuscitations--I mean permanent resurrection), and he didn't even stick around all that long. Granted, Jesus' followers would certainly be happy to see him return from death, but why would that have created a worldwide movement?

Well, it didn't simply mean that there was life after death after all, and that if we believe in Jesus then we can live with him in heaven forever after we die--and yet that is what most contemporary Christians believe today. That idea reflects the view that we are really spirits trapped in earthly bodies in a corrupt world, and what we are longing for is release from this corrupt world so we can live spiritually--that is, non-physically--forever, all of which reflects Platonic philosophy more than it does the Bible.

The biblical view is that Jesus' resurrection was not an isolated incident, however pivotal or unique. It was rather the spearheading of a new age coming into being in our present one. "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man" (1 Cor 15:20-21). "Firstfruits" is an agricultural term meaning the beginning of a harvest. Its importance is not so much in itself as in the promise of the full harvest to come. The "harvest" of which Jesus was the firstfruits is not merely a harvest of souls to be saved (although it includes that) because Jesus didn't need saving. Jesus' resurrection was the firstfruits of a new age, a new creation, what Jesus and John the Baptist had called the Kingdom. God's plan is simply much larger than simply rescuing a few of us sinners off of this wicked old earth. He plans to bring into resurrection life the whole first creation:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:19-24)
Christians generally look forward to being with God eternally in heaven, often looking to Revelation 21:1 for a new heaven and a new earth (although they are not really much interested in the new earth), especially noting that "the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." Let's not worry about this world, because God's going to scrap it anyway. But in the above passage from Romans, creation itself is eagerly longing and groaning like a woman in labor, not for its own destruction, but rather for liberation from its bondage to decay and for being brought into freedom and glory. God isn't going to scrap the old creation and start fresh, any more than he was willing to scrap us sinful human beings and start fresh with a new Adam and Eve on Venus. Just as God's desire is to renew and transform us, his plan is to renew and transform the old creation. If you will, the "new heaven and the new earth" are going to be made out of the old ones. God's not opposed to physical reality. He created it.

That's where the resurrection of our bodies fits in. Why are we going to be resurrected? Because we're going to inhabit the new physical reality that God is going to create by redeeming and transforming the old one. And just as we are still ourselves, but redeemed, purified, and changed, so also the creation will still be the same creation, but redeemed, purified, and changed. The last chapter of the Bible doesn't speak of us going off to heaven, ridding ourselves of this awful physical universe once and for all; rather, it speaks of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth. It's not us going off to live with God, but God coming down and inhabiting earth with us. The passage is worth quoting:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." (Revelation 21:2-3)
God's plan is to come to earth and be with us eternally in an incorruptible world which will be born out of the world we are presently in. While you may go off to be with God in heaven after you die--for a while--your ultimate destiny, if your trust is in Jesus, is to be an eternal resident of this world, once God is through remaking it. Jesus first, and then those of us who trust in him, are the beginnings of that new creation. And therefore, Paul's challenge to us is to live as though we were resurrected people right now:
Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:55-58)
Here's the point: if we know we're going to be resurrected, we need to begin living as though we were resurrected; and if we know that this present creation is going to be redeemed, then we need to live in it as though we were an agent of that transformation.

Overcoming an Objection to Physical Resurrection

One of the stumbling blocks to Christians fully embracing the biblical teaching of physical resurrection lies right in Paul's exposition of the importance of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Verses 42-43 read,
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
The stumbling point is in the contrast between "natural" and "spiritual." In post-Enlightenment rationalistic thought, "natural" means material, physical, and "spiritual" means non-material, non-physical. So even though we'll affirm the reality of resurrection because it's there in the Bible, the really relevant teaching to us is "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). Being reunited with the body seems mostly anticlimactic.

But this is a misreading of the words "natural" and "spiritual." "Natural" is Greek ψυχικον, psychikon; it refers not to the substance of which the body is composed, but rather the nature of the motivating force behind that body's activity. The "natural" body's activity is driven by the human psyche--i.e., the mind. Similarly, the "spiritual" body does not refer to the substance (or lack of it) of which that body is composed. The Greek word is πνευματικον, pneumatikon; the motivating force behind that body's activity is the Spirit of God. Paul is not saying, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a non-material body"; he's saying, "It is sown a mentally-motivated body, it is raised a Spiritually-motivated body."

The main difference between the natural body and the spiritual body is not that the spiritual body is immaterial; it is that the spiritual body is imperishable, glorious, powerful, and motivated by God's Spirit. The main physical aspect of this resurrection body is that it is incorruptible, not subject to decay; but then, the entire creation will be incorruptible as well: "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21). Once again, we are confronted not with disembodied spirits sitting on clouds with harps, but with a renewed physical creation. The picture is more like Adam and Eve pre-fall than it is like what we generally think of as ghosts or spirits--or even, dare I say, the mental pictures most of us have involving heaven.

As I write this, I can look out my window on a beautiful spring day. The sun is shining, the trees are in bloom--I really should get outside today. I'm blessed to live in a place where I can see at least a little of the beauty of nature. But think of the difference in my perspective, if I think on the one hand, "This is beautiful, but temporary and corrupt. The real thing God has for me waits on the other side of death, or the Rapture. One glad morning, when this life is o'er, I'll fly away," or if I think on the other hand, "This is beautiful, and in some sense, this is the home God has given me forever. God is going to remake it, reshape it, remove the sting of sin and death; I may leave it for a while, but eventually I will be brought back, and therefore, in some sense, I am an eternal being in an eternal place."

If you are a disciple of Jesus, then today think of yourself as an eternal being in an eternal place, and see if it doesn't change your perspective on things.

"Your Labor Is Not In Vain"

To wrap up this summary of what was memorable to me in N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, I'd like to focus on a particular verse that Wright points out as significant, and which ended up being perhaps the most significant insight in the book for me. It occurs at the end of 1 Corinthians 15--that is, at the end of Paul's powerful defense of physical resurrection as a necessary future event, and of his description of the resurrection body. In verse 58, Paul writes:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Here's the point: the traditional view of the afterlife, with us being whisked off into heaven and this present creation being destroyed, tends to leave a futile view of our actions in the present life. It's often said in Evangelical churches that the only thing that really counts is how many people we bring along with us into heaven. Although it's seldom directly stated, we're left to infer that everything else in life is pretty much just marking time until we die or until Jesus comes.

Even a view that takes resurrection seriously can be liable to the same distortion. This present life is just marking time. God's going to remake both our bodies and our world, so what we do in this lifetime doesn't ultimately have any value. What we do to this world, or to our bodies, might be regrettable--as when we give ourselves cancer through smoking or a poor diet, or poke a hole in the bottom of the ocean and let it spew oil into our oceans--but it's ultimately unimportant. God's going to right it all.

But that's not at all the point of view that Paul is espousing in this verse. Rather than ending his treatise on resurrection by saying, "Therefore, relax. Continue trusting in Jesus, and know that God will resurrect your bodies and remake this world," Paul specifically affirms to his readers the value of their work in the Lord. In some sense, our work is going to endure. What we do in the Lord's service, in this present fallen world, matters.

Most Evangelicals would see "your labor in the Lord" as referring, in some sense, to evangelism. What Paul means here is that our labor produces new followers of Jesus, who will then be resurrected and inhabit God's new creation: in that way, our labor is not in vain. That is how it endures.

Certainly that is at least part of what Paul means here. But it's hard to see that that's everything that he means. For one thing, there's very little about overt evangelism either in the context of this verse, or in 1 Corinthians in general--which deals much more with Christian character and behavior than it does with evangelism--or, to be honest, in the Pauline epistles in general. This is not to say that evangelism is unimportant; but taking "your labor in the Lord" to refer exclusively to evangelism is an assumption that has to be imported into the text. You can't get it out of what Paul writes here.

It seems much more likely to me that "your labor in the Lord" refers to anything and everything that we do in this life because we are followers of Jesus--whether it's fighting against the slave trade, conducting one's business in an honorable and charitable manner, working toward conservation of the environment, reaching people for Christ, standing against abortion, helping those who are oppressed, sharing grace and mercy to people, opposing unjust business or governmental practices, or anything else we do to live out Jesus' life in us. It all matters. It's all going to carry over into the future creation that God has envisioned for us.

As a matter of fact, it might be instructive to look at how prophecies in the Old Testament were fulfilled. Let's take the one about the city of Tyre in Ezekiel 26. While Ezekiel makes clear that God is accomplishing the judgment against Tyre, the actual fulfillment occurred through the actions of human beings. God worked through people, including some who were not following him and were not consciously trying to fulfill the prophecy, to accomplish his work.

While the new heavens and the new earth spoken of in Revelation 21:1 and Romans 8:21-22 certainly seem to involve a supernatural transformation, there may be in some sense a redemptive aspect to what we do in this age. Perhaps, instead of God just speaking the word and the world's transformation happening, we will be a part of it happening. Perhaps we are supposed to be a part of it happening even now. And maybe that's the way in which our labor is not in vain.


  1. After reading Surprised by Hope, these thought went through my head:

    Are the verses in 2 Peter and Revelation not to be taken literally? Will the new earth still have shifting tectonic plates with resulting earthquakes and volcanoes? I was kind of thinking God would create a more permanent-like home for immortal imperishable creatures.

    Isn’t it true that there will be no sun? If that’s the case it seems the polar caps would no longer be cold as a result of their location.

    I think Christians should care about ecology and be concerned for the environment because to do less would show us to be poor stewards. But it’s very hard for me to believe that trees we plant or reservoirs we dig will survive this transition, which I expect will involve far more change than the transition in Genesis from pre-flood to post-flood world.

  2. Hi, Peter.

    I'm not sure how much of the descriptions of the New Heavens and the New Earth are literal, and how much is figurative. A great deal of Revelation is clearly symbolic: nobody, no matter how "literal," has ever thought that the beast rising out of the sea was going to be physically like Godzilla rising out of Tokyo Bay. And if you think about it, a New Jerusalem significantly larger than India and extending to a height of roughly 1/5 the earth's diameter (over 200 times the height of the present-day atmosphere) seems improbable. It seems more probable to me that God is revealing to John things that are far beyond human comprehension and description. Which is not to say, incidentally, that the descriptions are unreal or unimportant, or that they refer to spiritual realities as opposed to physical ones--Wright's focus on physical resurrection seems to preclude that.

    I don't really have any problem with the possible continuance of shifting tectonic plates or polar ice caps in a restored Earth. I think that eternity will be a dynamic continual happening, not an unchanging static sameness. And if, on a literal reading, day and night predate the sun, why couldn't regional climate conditions postdate the sun? I think variety is part of the glory of God's creation.

    All that said, you may be right. It might be the case that everything we do, good or bad, to the earth at this point will be simply wiped out by a divinely-initiated catastrophe and restoration. But I think that at the very least, how we treat the earth that God gave us is a significant witness to those who are not yet believers. If we treat it simply as fodder for exploitation, as human beings have basically treated it throughout history, that says something about our character, and thus, about the faith we claim influences our actions. Conversely, if we practice a little self-denial or recognize the importance of something larger than simply our own desire for more energy and material goods as we advocate for public and social decisions, that also says something about our character and our faith. Everything we do affects our witness.

  3. I think the changes will be cataclysmic because I think many of the foundational structures of the earth will change. I'd be quite surprised if those on the new earth have to deal with various natural disasters, many of which are the result of shifting tectonic plates.

    I think we should expect greater geological staticity to match the permanence of our glorified bodies.

    This earth as we know it was created to serve a temporary purpose. The new/renewed earth will serve a different purpose and therefore I think it likely that it will be structurally different. (I'm not even convinced that the new earth will be a rotating sphere in the Milky Way galaxy.)

    You're right that a city with the dimensions given in the Bible seems improbable, but maybe it seems improbable because we haven't considered a world very different from what we're accustomed to.

    But of course I could be completely wrong : )

  4. Fair enough, Peter. My only contentions are 1) that we don't treat the earth as though it were disposable, even if it turns out that God will ultimately dispose of it; and 2) that what we do in this lifetime matters, and that includes everything we do, not just whether we say a "sinner's prayer" and get a bunch of other people to do the same.

    To me, taking resurrection seriously means some sort of continuity with present existence. I don't pretend to know at all what that will look like.

    Thanks for the discussion, Peter. I really do appreciate it.