Some thoughts on Christian hope after reading Surprised by Hope by NT Wright
All over the church there are signs of a worldview that Christianity is all about “getting saved” and “going to heaven”. Let me recount two recent events…The first one happened on the streets about three weeks ago. On Thursday nights I normally go with my family and a few friends to build friendships with those who are homeless. On this particular night, a Hillbrow pastor asked to come along. It did not take him long to release his version of “the gospel” to some of my unsuspecting friends. As he pleaded with them to repent and accept Jesus his proclamation went something like this: “You are suffering on these streets, give your life to Jesus and then at least when you die, you will be with Jesus and will not suffer in hell”. I was shocked that he did not tell him anything about hope in this life. There surely has to be more! Then also a few weeks ago, there is the infamous tweet by US Mega Church Pastor Mark Driscol “I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” [i]
Both of these ways of thinking are severely challenged by NT Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. Central to the book is the message that exclusively hoping in life after death leaves Christian mission void of “change, rescue, transformation¸ (and) new possibilities within the world in the present”.[ii] Wright argues that this limited understanding of Christian hope leaves Christians believing the only thing that matters is evangelism. This kind of Christianity is why Karl Marl’s famously paraphrased quote: “religion is the opium of the masses” is so widely proclaimed. Marx argued that economic realities prevent the poor from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them to accept this as their lot because they will find true happiness in the next life. Is this the true full gospel, which leaves structural injustice in place?
I remember, as a child singing the hymn
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all…
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.”[iii]
As I reflect on this song, which shaped some of my early Christian theology, I have to declare – surely there is more to Christian hope than waiting until we die for our liberation. Surely it is not the job of the church to leave the rich and the poor in their assigned lot. God’s salvation plan of setting captives free has to be for this life.
NT Wright contends that “As long as we see ‘salvation’ in terms of ‘going to heaven when we die’, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see ‘salvation’, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth, and of our promised resurrection to share in that new, and gloriously embodied, reality – what I have called ‘life after life after death’ – then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.”[iv]
I am convinced that a weak soteriology proclaiming exclusively how to get admission tickets to heaven while ignoring full gospel demonstrated by Jesus in His birth, life, death, and resurection results in insipid country club religion which leaves structural injustice in place. This is not the full gospel, our kerygma needs to include a proclamation and demonstration of God’s shalom kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace.
So many of my friends on the street talk about their desperation to be off the streets, free from their addictions, forgiven for all the things they have done and reconciled with their families. As we hand out peanut butter sandwiches, on Thursday nights and listen to them, touch them, love them and pray with them, we have to believe that there is “life before death”[v] for these precious people. I may feel sad and at times helpless, perhaps even emotional, but I have to believe that God is surely able in this life to demonstrate resurrection as we build for the kingdom. In the gospels “is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory, and that inaugurated new world, into practice.”[vi]
“To hope for a better future in this world – for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful and wounded world – is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to ‘the gospel’ as an afterthought.”[vii]
Wright shows that the overall plan and purpose of God is not just to snatch a few up to some out of this world to heaven, but to redeem and restore and renew his creation and to reign over it as king. He argues that the new Jerusalem is not in some ethereal heaven, but in the end, the new Jerusalem comes down to earth (Rev 21).
The hope for my homeless friends is that salvation is not something we have to wait for in the distant future, it is something we can enjoy here and now, even if only partially for now. Wright also argues for a holistic gospel proclamation, arguing that “When God saves people in this life, by working through his spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus and discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed – it isn’t too strong a word – to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they ought to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future… In other words… 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. If we can get this straight, we will rediscover the historic basis for the full-orbed mission of the church.”[viii]
The challenge from Surprised by hope is to live not just for the future, but for the now. To participate with the creator God in building for the kingdom. There is indeed life before death and our work in creation care, community building, job creation, in fact all of our acts rooted in love are important as we co-labor with God to bring into reality the kingdom not yet fully evident.
[i] Pastor Mark Driscoll: Christians Don’t Need to Care About the Environment because Jesus is Coming Back for Us http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/05/04/pastor-mark-driscoll-christians-dont-need-to-care-about-the-environment-because-jesus-is-coming-back-for-us/, Accesses 30/8/2013
[ii] NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, (HarperOne, 2008), p5
[iv] T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Original, provocative and practical (SPCK. Kindle Edition) p209
[v] Slogan of Christian Aid, ibid, p209
[vi] T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Original, provocative and practical (SPCK. Kindle Edition) p217
[vii] T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Original, provocative and practical (SPCK. Kindle Edition) p204
[viii] NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, (HarperOne, 2008), p200-201