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The ultimate resurrection

Going to heaven when you die is what many think being a Christian is all about. They are mistaken. The New Testament, in fact, says hardly anything about such a prospect. Its emphasis is altogether different, and this is what Tom Wright is at pains to declare in his book: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2007, ISBN 978-0-281-05617-0)

The great Christian hope is in fact resurrection. Jesus, in his own resurrection, became the pioneer of a new order, one in which those who are united with him by faith will join at his eventual return. When that happens, heaven will come to earth, a totally renewed earth (as described by Paul in Romans 8) in which we will enjoy a robust, embodied life of fulfilment and purpose for ever. God’s will, at last, will be done on earth as in heaven.

That prospect has present implications. Far from settling into holy huddles, we will get cracking with the job of making the world a better place in anticipation of its ultimate renewal. Our future hope creates apresent hope and the conviction that in the Lord our labour is not in vain.

These are the themes of this warm-hearted and stimulating book. It is classic Tom Wright in both style and meaty substance, solidly grounded in Scripture and engagingly written.

[If you own Logos Bible Software the book is also available in electronic format to fit seamlessly with your system.]

There is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’, and not a lot about a post-mortem hell either…  Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last, he will remake both, and join them together for ever. (p25)

…misleading views of the ‘second coming’, of suggesting that Jesus will return to take his people away from earth and ‘home’ to heaven. (p29)

The robust Jewish and Christian doctrine of the resurrection, as part of God’s new creation, gives more value, not less, to the present world, and to our present bodies. What these doctrines give, both in classic Judaism and in classic Christianity, is a sense of continuity as well as discontinuity between the present world (and the present state) and the future, whatever it shall be, with the result that what we do in the present is seen to matter enormously. (p37)

It is telling that English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead. (p37)

left to ourselves, we lapse into a kind of collusion with entropy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there’s nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present—of which this book, God willing, may form part—is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second. (p41)

Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word ‘resurrection’ as a virtual synonym for ‘life after death’ in the popular sense. (p48)

The early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world.  (p52)

Because the early Christians believed that ‘resurrection’ had begun with Jesus, and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness.  (p57)

Hope, for the Christian, is not wishful thinking or mere blind optimism. It is a mode of knowing, a mode within which new things are possible, options are not shut down, new creation can happen.  (p83)

There has been such a massive assumption made in western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to ‘go to heaven when you die’, that texts which don’t say that, but which mention heaven, are read as if they did say it, and that texts which say the opposite, like Romans 8:18–25 and Revelation 21–22, are simply screened out as if they didn’t exist.  (p102)

When Paul says ‘we are citizens of heaven’, he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the saviour, the Lord, Jesus the King—all of those were of course imperial titles—will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people.  (p111)

…the cosmic eschatology offered in the New Testament. The world is created good but incomplete. One day, when all forces of rebellion have been defeated, and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator, God will fill it with himself, so that it will both remain an independent being, other than God, and also will be flooded with God’s own life.  (p114)

Basically, heaven and earth, in biblical cosmology, are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation.  (p121)

God will redeem the whole universe; Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of that new life, the fresh grass growing through the concrete of corruption and decay in the old world. That final redemption will be the moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy for which Easter is the prototype and source.  (p135)

Although people often suppose that, because Paul taught justification by faith, not works, there can be no room for a future judgment ‘according to works’, this only goes to show how much some have radically misunderstood him.  (p152)

Because we live between ascension and appearing, joined to Jesus Christ by the Spirit but still awaiting his final coming and presence, we can be both properly humble and properly confident.  (p155)

What does Jesus mean when he declares that there are ‘many dwelling-places’ in his father’s house? This has regularly been taken, not least when used in the context of bereavement, to mean that the dead (or at least dead Christians) will simply go to ‘heaven’ permanently, rather than being raised again subsequently to new bodily life. But the word for ‘dwelling-places’ here, monai, is regularly used in ancient Greek not for a final resting place but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.  (p162)

Platonists believe that all humans have an immortal element within them, normally referred to as ‘soul’. In the New Testament, however, ‘immortality’ is something which only God possesses by nature, and which he then shares, as a gift of grace rather than an innate possession, with his people.  (p173)

God is well capable of recreating people even if (as with the martyrs of Lyons) their ashes are scattered into a fast-flowing river.  (p176)

To take the scene of Abraham, the Rich Man and Lazarus ‘literally’ is about as sensible as trying to find out the name of the Prodigal Son.  (p189)

A proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope which is held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope which is the basis of all Christian mission.  (p204)

…the tired old split-level world where some people believe in ‘evangelism’ in terms of ‘saving souls for a timeless eternity’ and other people believe in ‘mission’ in terms of ‘working for justice, peace and hope in the present world’. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the New Testament.  (p206)

We are saved, not as souls, but as wholes.  (p211)

The work of ‘salvation’, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely ‘souls’; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.  (p212)

People who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.  (p225)

The revolutionary new world which has begun in the resurrection of Jesus, the world where Jesus reigns as Lord having won the victory over sin and death, has its front-line outposts in those who in baptism have shared his death and resurrection.  (p262)

The point of Jesus’ resurrection, and the transformed body he now possesses, is that he is equally at home in both earth and heaven, and can pass appropriately between them, slipping through the thin curtain that separates us from God’s blinding reality.  (p263)

The message of Easter, then, is neither that God once did a spectacular miracle but then decided not to do too many others, nor that there is a blissful life after death to look forward to. The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.  (p265)

…the Celtic tradition of ‘thin places’, places where the curtain between heaven and earth seems almost transparent.  (p271)

At communion we are like the children of Israel in the wilderness, tasting fruit plucked from the promised land. It is the future coming to meet us in the present.  (p287)

As we read Revelation, we must not allow the wonderful heavenly vision in chapters 4 and 5 to lull us into imagining that this is the final scene in the story, as though the narrative were simply to conclude (as in Charles Wesley’s hymn) with the redeemed casting their crowns before the throne. This is a vision of present reality, seen in its heavenly dimension. We must read on to the end, to the final vision of Revelation 21 and 22, the chapters which give final meaning to all that has gone before, and indeed to the entire canon.  (p294)

What you do with your body in the present matters, Paul insists [in the early chapters of 1 Cor], because God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Glorify God in your body, because one day God will glorify the body itself. What is to be true in the future must begin to be true in the present, or it will be called into question whether you are really on track in the first place.  (P296)

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