Thursday, June 26, 2008

More than right

by Nathan Brown

Marcel posted about this back in February and a couple of paragraphs below are drawn from my comments then. But now having read Wright's book, this is an expanded reflection.

Theologian N T Wright made headlines—at least on the website of Time magazine, among others—in February this year with comments associated with the launch of his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Described by Time as “one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought,” Wright is Bishop of Durham (UK) and, as such, the fourth most senior clergyman in the Anglican Church. Writing from his Anglican tradition, some of the assumptions around the edges of Wright’s book may challenge us but his core thesis is something to catch our collective Adventist attention.

According to Wright, most Christians have misunderstood and misrepresented the Bible’s portrayals of resurrection, the afterlife and heaven. Building on his previous strident arguments for the actual, physical resurrection of Christ, Wright urges that the focus of the New Testament is on our physical, bodily resurrection to live in a our recreated, restored and renewed world. He describes this as contrasting starkly with the traditional Christian imagination of disembodied souls floating off to “be with God,” to live eternally in some dreamy, cloud-like existence.

Reflecting on the post-resurrection physicality of Jesus, Wright urges a wholistic understanding of human being. And working with the exuberant descriptions in Paul’s writings, he argues for a larger understanding of the Christian hope of redemption and re-creation—a more hopeful and joyful kind of hope: “How we thank God, who gives us victory over sin and death through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (1 Corinthians 15:57, NLT).

It’s always nice to have others recognise our doctrinal treasures. Despite his vagueness on the intermediate state after death but before resurrection and the nature of the Second Coming, there is much in Surprised by Hope to gladden an Adventist heart. But rather than an excuse for “I told you so,” perhaps books such as this should be cause for a moment of reflection and humility. When “non-Adventists” do “Adventist” theology better than Adventists, we need to ask ourselves some questions.

It seems that for years Adventist have argued the doctrine of the “state of the dead” but without doing much thinking on what this means for how we understand life, hope and salvation, and how we care for others and our world. Instead we have borrowed the same shallow view of salvation assumed by most of Christianity —that it's all about “getting to heaven when we die” or at the “end.”

We need to do better, to think deeper, to imagine and re-imagine—and theologians like N T Wright challenge us to do that. As the subtitle of his book suggests, Wright is not content to merely correct an error of doctrinal understanding:

“The promise of new creation—the promise we have been studying throughout this book—is not and cannot be simply about straightening out ideas about life and death.”
Instead, his focus is on what that better understanding means for the mission of the church in the world today: “Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight.”

As we move in our understanding of salvation from “going to heaven” to “being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth,” we begin to work with a significantly different picture of what salvation is. With the realisation that in the resurrection of Jesus a new kind of life has broken into our world, we begin to see this as a reality in which we can participate—and even contribute to—today.

Wright suggests three areas of focus for the church working in this world in the light of the hope of resurrection: justice, beauty and evangelism. Indeed, he argues that
“if [a church] is actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and if it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation and its rescue from corruption in art and music, and if, in addition, its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community—then suddenly the announcement [evangelism] makes a lot of sense.”

Of course, resurrection and the ultimate redemption of creation is the work of God but Paul assures us that somehow acts of goodness, justice, beauty and evangelism done in this life matter and even somehow contribute to building God’s kingdom in our world now and in God’s future: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and steady, always enthusiastic about the Lord’s work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NLT).


  1. I agree with much of what you say here, as I think I have told you when we talked about N.T. Wright -- his view of the resurrection has certainly been an inspiration for me in affirming what Adventists "have been saying all along." However I had really hoped that this book would contain a clearer answer to his rather fuzzy picture of the Second Coming -- or if not, that he will eventually write that book!

  2. "It’s always nice to have others recognise our doctrinal treasures."

    While we are, to the best of my knowledge, the only orthodox Christian body proclaiming this truth, I worry about the consequences of claiming it as "ours". Yes, the doctrine of the state of the dead (or the "wholistic nature of humanity" as I prefer to call it) is ours in the sense that we need to take responsibility for it. But it's also not ours in the sense that it is the heritage of all Christians who want to know what the Bible teaches. I worry that by emphasizing the "ours" we have sent a message that we are not willing to share, and thus limited the ability of sheep not of the Adventist fold to claim this truth as their own.

  3. David,

    A valid comment. However, I would suggest that I don't use "ours" in a proprietary sense but in a broader sense as something that we value as important. I hope they are ours in the best sense of the word, that we are engaged with them, excited about them and changed by them.

  4. I like those definitions of "ours". They invite me to make them mine.