a summary of Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Part 1)
‘Look, if we instinctively dwell on and celebrate our disembodied state of existence post-death, we are actually stuck in the Greco-Roman dualistic view, which says that ultimately, we really want to be liberated from the body, and when we are, it’s the best thing ever.’
I had already been on a somewhat steady diet of N.T. Wright’s online courses when I picked up Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church from my office library. It felt like, ‘Okay, I’ve gone through some of his lectures on Romans and Jesus, I’d really like to get a more involved with his work and it’s time to pick up his books.’ I think what makes Wright both accessible and credible to me is that he has both pastoral and scholarly credentials, being a former Bishop of Durham of the Church of England and now a New Testament scholar at the University of St. Andrews in the UK — he is involved in the rigorous tradition of study that accompanies pastoral roles, and therefore, doesn’t live in an ivory tower far removed from people’s everyday joys and quandaries. He also goes at things from the way of a historian, as opposed to a lawyer, scientist or theorist. He is also to me a parallel of what CS Lewis was to me in my childhood.
The book is a compilation from a string lectures from 2001-2007 on the topic and structured into 15 chapters. His audience also seems to be predominantly Western. I suppose with this background it would explain why some of the text feels conversational which means it can be sometimes very long-winded. But as in every conversation there are sudden moments of rapturous illumination amid some amount of monotony, and I will be happy to share them here. He also spends a lot of time describing Eastern understandings of life after death as well as erroneous views of it, and that can be very lengthy and uninteresting to someone who is already well-acquainted with such worldviews. Wright also assumes that the reader will know how to pull out a Bible to read together with this book, so he merely quotes the reference, instead of reproducing the whole chunk for the reader. If you’re in a hurry, some bits might not make sense if you didn’t get to check the Scriptural reference to see what he was talking about.
Wright starts off the book by demonstrating how the common Christian psyche has rather warm and fuzzy notions of what follows death for Christians. First, death has been in some circles, and as expressed in some hymns, romanticised and trivialised in such a way that it becomes “a resolute refusal to tell the truth about the real and savage break (from life), the horrible denial of the goodness of human life, that every death involves”. By saying this, he seems to imply that reducing the horror of death thereby reduces the treasure of life. Don’t be mistaken, he says, death is not merely a door through which we “pass on” to the next stage of life, as we like to say. It is unnatural, it is a “mighty and dreadful” break from life itself. Jesus has triumphed over death, and as such, death is an enemy that needed to be defeated, not a harmless passage to another way of existing.
But life after death for some Christians is often expressed as being, in a way, liberated to be with our Lord, saved from the troubles of life on earth and being in heaven. Such a view affords us comfort that our loved ones are in a better place. For ourselves, when we become faced with the prospect of death, we realise that death is being with Christ and rightly so as Paul mentioned — but it becomes somewhat of a shortsightedness and half-truth when that is all we look forward to when we die. Of course, this doesn’t downplay at all the hope in which we have after death as people belonging to Christ, but what Wright is trying to do is tell us that there is a whole lot more post-death than being in heaven with Jesus. And this is where it gets exciting to imagine.
Following this, Wright immediately does what he does best as a contributor to current Christian discourse. He takes the time machine back to the first century to uncover what life after death meant for Jews and Romans, and what the Christian eschatology would mean in these two contexts. He quickly points out that there are two schools of thought in first century Judaism, a resurrection in the final day as subscribed to by the Pharisees, and simply death after death as subscribed to by the Sadducees. What is fascinating is that the Greco-Roman belief, similar to other pantheistic religions, describe that life after death would be a fully disembodied state of being–away from the body, in a different realm such as Hades. This to me uncannily resembles the Chinese belief of a transition into the underworld, although I am not sure if Chinese philosophy presents the embodied state as inferior to a disembodied one like how a Platonistic one would. Therefore the Christian view of resurrection draws directly from Jewish beliefs and is radically different from the Greco-Roman belief.
He pauses to effectively say (my paraphrase), ‘Look, if we instinctively dwell on and celebrate our disembodied state of existence post-death, we are actually stuck in the Greco-Roman dualistic view, which says that ultimately, we really want to be liberated from the body, and when we are, it’s the best thing ever.’ This follows the Platonic view, which separates the spirit from the body and declares the spirit as good and the body as inferior. Apart from Wright, there is today a movement to understand the Bible away from this misleading Platonic view (which has contributed to a large proportion of Western work), but more on this another time. Whilst the resurrection is not completely dismissed, it is pushed to the margins and these Platonistic views have taken prominent position.
This builds the thought that it is in (bodily) life now that is the more cherished time and space, rather than the Platonistic tendency to value disembodied life after death over bodily life itself. The good bodily life was created by God on earth, is interrupted by death now defeated, immediately after which God’s saints rest temporarily, and life continues in the resurrection of our bodies. This implies that life on earth now is important, not something to be agonised over waiting for when we have gone to be ‘with the Lord’! And just as death threatens to steal this life, Christ has sent a clear message through His resurrection that He has triumphed over death. He emphasises that the resurrection didn’t redefine death, but overthrew it.
This brings us to the centrepiece of Wright’s book, which gathers around the resurrection of Jesus–what it means for us today, and what it means to us in the future.
More of that in the next part!
Wright, N.T. (2008). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne: New York
Available at Canaanland