If you spent time in Christian circles as a teenager, you’ve probably been in this scenario: It’s the final night of the youth retreat. You’re tired from non-stop, sleepless antics with your friends. You’ve heard a speaker talk about how God loves you and about how you suck. You may have even heard about Jesus by this point. You enter the room, and the worship band is leading everyone in singing the latest top 40 song (You know, to show that they’re ‘relevant’). Then they sing some upbeat worship songs. Then some slower worship songs, to set the right mood. The final song ends. The worship leader whispers a prayer into the microphone that, if it were written out, would make no grammatical sense. He then whispers “Amen. You can have a seat.” Then comes the talk. The invitation to follow Jesus that 9 times out of 10 includes some variation of the question, “If you were to die on the way home from here, do you know where you’d be going?”
If you’ve ever been the victim of this kind of “ministry,” or if you still think the above is a legitimate, biblical evangelism model, I highly recommend you read NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. NT Wright is, for a few more weeks, at least, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. He’s one of the most prolific Christian writers today, and also one of the most respected. In fact, his work has gained such attention that he was invited to promote Surprised by Hope on the Colbert Report, which you can still view here. The interview actually provides a good, and humorous, introduction to the book.
Wright begins the book by calling into question the theology underlying most Christians’ view of the afterlife, and the gospel. The assumption of the evangelist in the scenario I described above, and the assumption of many Christians today, is that the gospel is all about getting to go to heaven when we die. Christian is “fire insurance,” if you will. Wright cites examples from classic literature, popular culture, hymns, and Christian books of era to show how widespread this belief is. The consequence of this theology is that many Christians today look at the problems of the earth – the war, the poverty, the injustice – with an escapist mentality. The world is going to hell, but if we’re Christians we’ll get to leave it. Death is then something not to despise, but to embrace as a “portal” to our true home.
Wright emphatically explains that this view of the afterlife is not the view of the Bible or the early Church. God’s ultimate plan is not to pull all Christians into heaven and let everything else burn. God’s plan is for resurrection. As Wright explains it, when we die, we do go to heaven, but life-after-death is not the final chapter. There is, in Wright’s words, “life after life after death.” Heaven is not the final home for the Christian, the new earth and new heavens are the final destination for the Christians. We will be raised. And this final act has begun already in the resurrection of Christ, and continues in Christians who have received the same Holy Spirit who has raised Christ from the dead.
In the final section of the book, Wright discusses the implications of this reality. Because they have received the Holy Spirit, and because the Holy Spirit is the one who will bring about the new creation, the Church is now called to be working to bring about that new creation. Doing an act of justice such as feeding the poor, creating something beautiful like a work of art, or proclaiming the gospel to someone else are all, in Wright’s words, “signposts of the kingdom.” In other words, when the Kingdom of God is fully consummated, when the new creation is here, we will look back and see how our acts of justice, evangelism and creativity actually moved the world forward to new creation.
Recently, I met a young man who told me that he could no longer be a Christian because he can’t love a God who would let his father die. I responded with sympathy and compassion as best I could. If I could replay that conversation, though, in light of Wright’s book, I would ask the young man, “What makes you think God wanted your father to die?” The message of the gospel Wright articulates is that God doesn’t want this man’s father, or anyone else, to be dead. Death is God’s enemy. God’s desire, and promise, is that this young man and his father will be raised together. And that resurrected life together will be greater than either of the could imagine.
Surprised by Hope is a gift to the Church. It articulates the gospel in a way that makes it not only good news, but better news than what most of us have heard.