How the ideas in Surprised by Hope inform my work

NT Wright’s book, “Surprised by Hope “is exactly that, a huge surprise! In it, he refutes many beliefs erroneously held, he argues, by those whom he often refers to as the “Western church”. He also explains many truths misunderstood by the same group of people. There are many interesting (and profound) quotable turns of phrases and sentences expressing a very different view of what is meant by the words: paradise, heaven, the kingdom of God, salvation, the resurrection, judgment, justice, mission, spirituality and evangelism. This fresh, though foundational look at these concepts may well cause the beginning of a rethinking of everything we have ever been taught, certainly in the evangelical and charismatic movements I have been part of over the last 30 years! (To those readers who doubt these new interpretations of such fundamental truths, however, many of N.T. Wright’s ideas may simply be thrown out as pure heresy!)

In his own preface to this remarkable book, Wright sums up his message like this: “What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime? Those two questions shape this book. First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope that is for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second.”

The way the gospel has been presented in many churches the worldover has focussed on a rather narrow view of what salvation and our lives look like, after confessing Christ and bowing the knee. It seems, according to many preachers, that once we have received this “admission ticket to heaven”, we spend the rest of our lives simply handing it out to as many people as possible, while insisting that our faith and that of those we lead to Christ, is a very personal thing which is only for the purpose of getting us all to heaven and keeping ourselves very much apart from the filthiness of the sin around us and all its consequences. The teaching presented in these churches argues that “the world is currently in such a mess and there’s nothing we can do about it until the Lord returns.” This “leaves the church with nothing to do in the present except care for the wounded as best we can while we wait for a different kind of salvation altogether.” (p213) This leads such churches to believe that “the real business of the gospel …is that of saving souls for the future world.” They will “even do mopping-up operations, Band-Aid activities, to look after people at the bottom of the pile.” But they “won’t do anything about the structures that put them there and keep them there.” (p216)

The primary teaching of Wright’s book is in direct antithesis to this belief and resultant lifestyle. He maintains that it is because Jesus is returning to earth, not to sweep us all up into the clouds and whisk us off to some other paradise but to reclaim His Lordship of His beautiful creation – which He never gave up on or abandoned as irredeemable, but continues to see as “good” (Gen 1) –  that our lives as believers in Him should be given for the work of restoring His kingdom to the earth on every level of human  – and indeed life’s (animals and other living matter) – existence on it. In particular, Wright calls our attention to the primary issues of not just evangelism – which much of the church worldwide has focussed on to the exclusion of the others – but also justice and beauty.

He defines this justice firstly as “setting the world right” and as the original “intention of God”. (p213) He shares with the reader his deep disturbance at the “massive economic imbalance of the world” (p216) where the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer and his belief that global debt is the “number one issue of our day.” (p217) He also explains how the “dominance of the West” and “rampant belief in the rapture”- which leads to Christians not caring “what state the planet is in”- have shaped conservative theology, the former of which he believes every Christian should be speaking out against.(p219)

When it comes to beauty, Wright makes the bold statement that “beauty matters…as much as spirituality and justice”. (p222) Since we were made in God’s image and every bit of creation was originally called good by God, it should come as no surprise that God would want to use our new life in Him to bring beauty to his fallen world, through any good form of creativity on the earth, whether musical, artistic, educational, or anything using our imagination to creatively demonstrate God’s glory in some way to the world. In one of his many quotable definitions, Wright says that “Art at its best draws attention not only to the way things are but also to the way things will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”(p224-225) This reframing of beauty in the context of the kingdom of God comes as a surprise because it seems not to be about salvation or evangelism, yet it can lead people to recognising God in its various forms and can proclaim to them the beauty that is his intention for the new earth and it is a sign of the coming kingdom on earth. There are currently small projects using the arts in our community which give hope and life to those currently without it. We could well do with more of these.

Evangelism, Wright’s third and last section from his chapter on building for the kingdom, of course, is widely understood as the primary task of the church, the practice of which is common across a wide number of expressions of church life. Despite his focus on issues of justice and the expression of various forms of beauty by the church into the world, Wright still puts evangelism at the centre of our calling from God as believers in the resurrection of Christ. His version of evangelism is the proclamation that “the gospel, in the New Testament, is the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming King and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world’s true Lord.” (p227) He goes on to say that there are many different ways of explaining this, dependant on the hearer’s understanding or foreknowledge of Jesus and God. According to N.T.Wright, conversion to this Jesus who is coming back to rule and reign as King on this earth, means not to withdraw from the world with all its evils, but to use our new life in Christ for the turning around of the many atrocities on the earth caused by those evils. Secondly, he also challenges the idea that repentance and conversion mark the beginning of a private relationship between a person and God or Jesus. He says that salvation is rather the individual’s acknowledgment that he or she is part of a much bigger picture and project of bringing “God’s world-wide purposes”(p229) on earth. Thirdly, he says the turning away from sin is not only a once-off prayer assuring one’s salvation or an admission ticket to heaven with the ticking of spiritual boxes to keep it intact, but that one allows one’s whole life to be totally reshaped by Jesus. Evangelism of this kind into our community would mean that we go beyond the call to salvation, that we invite people everywhere to be part of the bigger picture of restoring the earth to a place where God’s kingdom rules.

These three points (justice, beauty and evangelism) of what kind of life the gospel leads to, should cause us now to be a voice proclaiming this not only in our poor communities but also to the wider church beyond.

The challenge to us in our community of Hillbrow when it comes to how N.T.Wright’s ideas inform our work into our community, is to apply these different interpretations of heaven, the kingdom of God, the resurrection, salvation, mission, spirituality, justice, beauty and evangelism, and in fact live our lives as a demonstration of the power and celebration that Easter really gives rise to. The following paragraphs will apply those concepts not yet discussed in terms of our work into our community of Hillbrow.

Starting with the concept of heaven – as bandied around for centuries as it has been, like the proverbial carrot on a stick – we would need to reframe our presentation of this idea when we speak about the good news of Jesus. We would need to say, as Wright does, that heaven is not a place our listeners will go when they die if they have believed in Jesus, but rather that it is the place where God will finally come to us and dwell with us forever on the earth – which He will renew rather than destroy. We would go on to teach that the kingdom of heaven is not the place of heaven, as has been taught to us in the past, but rather that it is a phrase equivalent to the phrase “kingdom of God”, meaning the kingdom or place where God rules. So we are not rescued from this sin-ridden and suffering earth to the place of heaven, but rather we are rescued from our sin in order to bring the kingdom of heaven, the place where God rules, to the earth. We are rescued from our sin in order to use our lives to establish in every way possible His kingdom rule, in anticipation of His coming to claim the earth as His own, ruling over it as King, and finally to live here with us, having banished every trace of evil and its consequences. In fact we would go on to say that Jesus has already been made King and Lord over the earth, as His resurrection really proves, which then would give us and our listeners the power and confidence to speak this truth out into the world, and to act on any promises, including those of healing, found in His Word, the Bible. This teaching would then lead us and our listeners to go further than the “mopping-up operations” and “Band-Aid activities” referred to on page 216. We would also apply our transformative activities to buildings, suburbs and underlying systems rather than just to individuals in need of salvation. And this in fact is what we have already started to believe and do into our community.

When it comes to applying the full meaning of the resurrection of Christ to our work into Hillbrow, what is apparent from Wright’s very persuasive teaching on this subject, is that for most of our lives (Nigel and Trish’s) we have celebrated over and over what the cross of Christ accomplished for us in the forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with God the Father, with small reference to Jesus’ resurrection as the proof that his death was not in vain and that in fact he was the Messiah and that we now have hope to be raised from the dead as he was. What Wright now puts forward is that while the cross did reconcile us back to God the Father, it is really the resurrection that should be celebrated and preached about over and over as the beginning of God’s rule on earth. In past and present churches we have been part of, we have always been placated with the idea that one day everything will be made new, as in fact it will in all its fullness, but Wright is now suggesting that this new creation that God has promised earth and heaven to be when they finally meet, has already started, and the hope of this is that we are invited, as is everyone else, to be a part of the restoration process.

This is very good news to everyone because not only is it an inclusive message to all of God’s created beings rather than the exclusive, separatist version we have come to believe- but it gives us all a very exciting and worthwhile project to be a part of, where nothing will be wasted, none of our efforts will perish, but everything we do for the sake of rebuilding this new earth will last into eternity.(1 Cor 15:58)

And when we start to see that many unbelievers are also doing the good work of the restoration or saving of the earth, we will realize that we can partner, all be it without compromise to our faith, with those who don’t recognise Jesus as Lord and King. And then the message of this good news becomes irresistable to them too! The understanding that through his resurrection, Jesus has already started to build his kingdom here on earth leads to believers wanting to build too, rather than allow decay and neglect because we believe that God is going to destroy it all anyway. Building God’s kingdom now also causes us to change our minds about the many “Save the whale” campaigns out there, where previously we may have thought it didn’t matter because they were conservational and not spiritual, now we realize how essential and spiritual they actually are.

In addition to all this, Wright shows how the misinterpretation of the resurrection of Jesus leads to a different kind of Christianity. Wright explains the “firstfruits” that Paul speaks about as a promise not for our future eternity but as a promise for the time immediately following Jesus’ resurrection. If we believe that the promise is only for our future eternal life, then it leads to a number of other erroneous beliefs too that result in actions that ignore the terrible state that the earth is in. Firstly, that the earth is too evil to redeem, so why bother with brokeness, decay and evil itself? Secondly, the rapture will simply rescue believers from all this evil and decay and put us on a new earth and a new heaven anyway, so why waste our efforts on the present earth? Thirdly, justice and righteousness are understood to be coming only on the future earth and heaven too. This removes the responsibility from the believer to engage in an ongoing battle on earth to bring about change to evil systems that cause the brokeness, suffering and decay. Justice and righteousness are spiritualised in their definition rather than being words which mean physical action and campaigning and so believers pray much and act little, and when they pray, it is often more about “spiritual” issues than about disturbing community or world news ítems that desperately need it. Fourthly, the misunderstanding of the resurrection when we turn away from the world and its evils, seems to give support to the prosperity teachings rife in the global church today, for the reason that identifying with the poor or siding with the results of injustice – poverty, homelessness, addictions etc – would be to deny the kind of physical and monetary blessing that the prosperity teachers believe God wants to bless us all with throughout our lives.

I think the application and preaching of these discoveries about the resurrection and all its implications for our life, will be easier and more acceptable to many people living here in our community, than it will be for those of the many churches we have been part of, who still hold to the conservative, evangelical approach.

N.T. Wright’s explanations of salvation, repentance and conversion are really all about believers not withdrawing into a private world, separated from the evils and troubles around us. The application of this to the believer should lead him towards the earth with its problems. It should cause a turning towards instead of away from bringing God’s justice on earth. So too in our community, we are seeking to “set the world right” and to bring “God’s intention” into it (according to N.T. Wright’s definition of justice: p213) where we are choosing to place ourselves in the middle of many difficult issues in people’s lives rather than separating ourselves from their sin and their struggles. We are choosing to live out a public faith of action which results in battles fought, and sometimes won, on behalf of those who are desparate for it. In this way we already believe we should, and our Christian faith compels us to, fight for justice in the lives of our poor and marginalised friends and in the life of our community. This is our mission.

A “mission-shaped church” according to N.T. Wright, “must have its mission shaped by its hope; that the genuine Christian hope, rooted in Jesus’ resurrection, is the hope for God’s renewal of all things, for his overcoming of corruption, decay, and death, for his filling of the whole cosmos with his love and grace, his power and glory” and that in order “to be truly effective in this kind of mission, one must be genuinely and cheerfully rooted in God’s renewal of space, time, and matter within the life of the church.”(p269) In our community this means that we act beyond our outreaches for the salvation of souls to believing that God wants to renew not only the individual but the corrupt systems that contributed towards their downfall. So we act on behalf of the sick among the poor and stand with them to get them medical attention; we act on behalf of the hopeless among the addicted and put them into drug rehabilitation programs; we help poor refugees get their asylum papers or work permits and also help them start business plans; we email and fax the cv’s of those seeking employment, we start various course in our learning centre to teach different skills; and we speak out, when given the opportunity, to address the negative attitudes and practices of those in systems which no longer care for the poor and needy sufficiently and which don’t afford all people the dignity God created them to have.

Spirituality and the resurrection meet in the “Easter call to us to wake up and come alive within his new world”. (p271) Baptism and the Eucharist, says Wright, take on new meaning as they become real, living practices, both as we die beneath the waters of baptism and are raised to life as we come up again, and as we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus, Wright believes, as the sustaining and real food of the risen-in-the-flesh Lord Jesus. The two thus move beyond mere symbolism to actual physical acts of death and resurrection, and literal if mystical feeding on Jesus. The application of the latter into our community would take some thought and prayer, while the former practice of baptism is not too far from what we believe about it already.

Prayer, Wright’s third área of spirituality, is now also no longer a distant, hopeful communication between God and man, but takes on the nature of Jesus’ own intimate relationship with his father – a teaching very similar to that of the evangelicals – while not leaving behind the feelings and caring for nature itself. Where Wright say that prayer includes a feeling of oneness with our world and therefore saving it, in our community we seek to encourage people to pray to God as their personal Father in heaven. Into the future we hope to plant food gardens up walls and on rooftops and balconies as a way to care not only for people’s nutritional needs but also to save the planet. We could also use our learning centre to train adults and children to recycle, plant their own vegetable gardens and pick up and throw away litter. Our renewed attitude towards our environment will lead us into many more such undertakings.

When it comes to Wright’s final three points of spirituality, Scripture, holiness and love, suffice it to say that we do all of the above while reading the Bible as a “story of creation and new creation” and  a “story of covenant and new covenant” (p281), glorifying God in our bodies “because one day God will glorify the body itself” (p283). And finally, we recognise in ourselves that we are only on a journey towards what we will become when our bodies are transformed on Jesus’ return and so we do our acts of kindness in love because “the sign of that completeness, that future wholeness, the bridge from one reality to the other, is love.” (p286) We recognise that our acts of love are “not our duty”, they are “our destiny”! (p288) Now this is a big surprise!

The ideas presented in this book, if applied, will cause a major shift in the practical work and help offered to poor communities by those believers who have become used to the Band-aid solutions into the various poverty contexts, of clothing handouts, soup kitchen queues and blanket drives, all of which are good, but sadly do not challenge or change the evil systems that caused these situations of poverty. I also believe that the way in which we (Nigel and Trish) take up our own issues of justice and evangelism in our community of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in which we have now lived for over a year, will continue to be challenged by the new definitions of these foundational ideas that N.T. Wright puts forward in his book, “Surprised by Hope”.