Sunday, March 08, 2009

Some Hope at Last!

Sometimes when I really like a book I might say: “This book makes me swoon.” But in this case “swoon” might obliquely link, even through a pun, to the “swoon theory” of the resurrection. None of that for N.T. Wright’s masterful and magisterial Surprised by Hope, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. So, could I say that I want to jump up and down for joy or some other really happy thing as a response—I’m sure you get the idea.

First, of apologetic interest is Wright’s very up to date defense of the resurrection. Considered to be one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day, Wright not only speaks of what we might call the standard defenses for the resurrection of Jesus, but also shows how the Greeks did not view resurrection as life after death, but as something that referred to “life after whatever sort of life after death there might be” (p.36). The Greeks rejected this possibility, as did the Sadducees. Wright goes on to show how the early Christian view of resurrection was distinct from the Jewish view in six ways. And then he discusses the credibility of the resurrection narratives, pointing out that the gospel narratives should sound quite different if they were made up somehow by post-Pauline writers, for if they are post-Pauline we would expect them to try to prove what they were saying from the Old Testament, but Old Testament references are not prominent in the resurrection narratives of the four gospel writers. Other points that one would not expect from a made up story, but which are there, are the presence of women as the witnesses, and to me quite interesting, the portrait of the risen Jesus as not being luminous, which one might expect if one were casting the story based on Daniel, but as having a body that is in some ways “quite normal.”

Certainly if anyone needs to deal with current Gnostic-revivalism such as “The Gospel of Judas” or the da Vinci Code industry, this and other works by N.T. Wright is the place to go for solid rather than haphazard answers.

But all this is the infrastructure Wright’s wonderful exposition of the hope of the resurrection of the body. Someone told me that this book is controversial. Certainly I do not agree with everything in his a-millennial panorama, but that is not the part I want to praise. What came to me was for the first time hearing an echo of my own decades long frustration at the view of heaven and the afterlife that is virtually a zeitgeist in churches, both evangelical and otherwise, a view that when we die we go to heaven and that’s it, wonderful stuff ever after, streets of gold and all that. The vivid teaching of 1 Corinthians 15 and I Thessalonians 4 seems to elude, or confuse, not only people, but pastors.

And here I will say something personal, which I seldom do in this blog, but as someone who has lost people whom he loved more than life itself, the comfort of heaven is only comfort if there is a resurrection, for if it is only heaven, then death has won. The comforting words that Paul encourages us to seize are that “the dead in Christ shall rise” and then “we shall forever be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4: 16,17).

Wright masterfully integrates all of this with an a-millennial view (never tagged as such) of the impact of the resurrection on the new heaven and the new earth. The tie in for this blog is that A. B. Simpson’s pre-millennial eschatology was not a dispensational pre-millennialism, partly because that view while being developed during his career, had not gained the kind of force that it did in ensuing decades. Instead, Simpson saw the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the explanatory feature for the millennium, the presence of Jesus the resurrected Lord would in the millennial age be the power by which all that was dreamed of by the prophets for a better world will come to pass. Wright calls his own eschatology “inaugural” which brings us within shouting distance of Simpson’s view that even now we can experience the power of the resurrection in our holy walk – sanctification – and in experiences of signs and wonders, most notably, the healing of the body.

I can’t think of a better book to read as we approach Easter, the day of hope and joy.