Wrangling with N T Wright:  Surprised By Hope, London, SPCK, 2007

  1. Preface p,xii  [In a 1995 British survey,] only a tiny minority, even among church goers, believed in the classic Christian position, that of a future bodily resurrection.  Should we then give up on the idea and take it out of our creed?

2. – What is the ultimate Christian hope?

–  What hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities with the world in the present?

3   What words would we like at our own funeral? Do we agree with Wright’s criticism of common forms of words in chapters 1 and 2 especially p20.

4.  pp25-6…there is very little in the Bible about ‘going to heaven when you die’, and not a lot about post-mortem hell either….the language of heaven in the New Testament doesn’t work that way.  ‘God’s kingdom’ in the preaching of Jesus refers, not to post-mortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but about God’s sovereign rule coming on earth as it is in heaven……Heaven in the Bible , is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life.  I think this is the key idea and distinctive in this book.  The idea of Heaven and Hell referring to this life syncs with John Milton in Paradise Lost  Book 1….a man’s mind is its own place and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.  See also the paragraph at the bottom of p209. 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 the future…

5.  p27 Many have embraced a universalism in which God will endlessly offer to the unrepentant the choice of faith, until all at last succumb to the wooing of divine love. fn14 refers to John Hick: Evil and the God of Love

5A p32 Wright seems to be iffy about cremation..Of course there were reasons of hygiene and overcrowding which led reformers towards the end of the last century to propose this step—which, as not all western Christians know, is still firmly opposed by the Eastern Orthodox…as well as Jews and Muslims…cremation has tended, classically, to belong more with a Hindu or Buddhist theology..when people ask for their ashes to be scattered in a favourite place..the underlying implication, of a desire simply to be merged back into the created world, without any affirmation of a future life of new embodiment, flies in the face of classic Christian theology. …I am not of course saying that cremation is heretical…I am merely noting that the huge swing towards it in the last century reflects at least in part some of the confusions, both in the church and in the world, which we have observed.

6.  p44  Is the problem with the Wittgenstein/Popper argument analogy that although people disagree re important details, nothing in either argument was “supernatural”?

7.  p49 The commonly held belief (when I was growing up) that when we die we shall become angels.

7r p53 ..within early Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of belief about life beyond death.   i.e.. unlike Judaism (different views from Essenes (a little holy group will rise); Sadducees (no resurrection); Pharisees (resurrection of the pious) or Stoicism (no resurrection) Mystery religions (spiritual resurrection). But in early Christianity all writers speak with one voice re the bodily resurrection of Jesus and in time all believers..all people.

8.  p55  I Corinthians 15:44 How should we translate  ψυχικον (psychikon) and πνευματικον (pneumatikon):

RSV/NRSV/GNB a physical body …………….a spiritual body

ESV/AV/RV/NIV/Phillips         a natural body………..…….a spiritual body

NEB an animal body…. .……….. a spiritual body

NLT as natural human bodies….as spiritual bodies

JB it embodies the soul………..it embodies the spirit

LB human bodies………………superhuman bodies

The Message Remix  natural……………………….supernatural

Moffatt an animate body……………a spiritual body

The NT for everyone (Wright) a decaying body……………an undecaying body

In either case what could a ‘spiritual body’  actually look like? Wright: It can be demonstrated in great detail, philologically and exegetically, that this is precisely not what Paul meant.  See also p 168 When Paul declares that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom’..he doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished.  ‘Flesh and blood ‘  is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death.

9. p59   Two key mutations from Jewish views of resurrection. 1. That resurrection signalled not just the renewal of Israel but renewal of human beings in general.  2. That the Messiah would die and be resurrected.

10. p60  …how impossible it is to account for the early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah without the resurrection.   (There were many claimants to Messiahship in the early N T period. They were all killed off by the Romans and left little trace. With Jesus the history is entirely different….this means we can already rule out the revisionist positions on Jesus’ resurrection that have been offered by so many writers in recent years.

11. p67  Despite a thousand Easter hymns and a million Easter sermons, the resurrection narratives in the gospels never, ever say anything like ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death,’ let alone ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die.’… Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven.  [cf 2 Corinthians 5: 15ff  If anyone in Christ he is a new creature. The old has passed away, behold the new has come. All this is from God , who through Christ reconciled us to himself  and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal to us. We beseech you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.]

11r  p81 Wright considers Thomas’ doubt to be almost scientific (Thomas, like a good historian wants to see and touch…Jesus presents himself but Thomas doesn’t . He transcends the type of knowing he had intended to use, and passes into a higher, richer one..) Is this a new way of reading the ‘doubting Thomas’  story? Is it a good way of reading it?

12.  p82 The epistemological weight is borne, not simply by the promise of ultimate resurrection and new creation alone,  but by the narrative of God’s mighty action in the past.  [The resurrection makes sense of the O T as well as the N T]

13.  p83 We are to be the stewards of the new creation IN THIS LIFE…..faith in Jesus risen from the dead transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science….God …has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving evidence which demands an explanation from the scientist as well as anybody else. [So also Polkinghorne, Berry, Collins, Barbour, Miller, Eagleton, Ruse, et al]

14.  p86  Against…. the intellectual coup d’état by which the Enlightenment convinced so many that ‘we now know that dead people don’t rise. as though this was a modern discovery rather than simply the reaffirmation of what Homer and Aeschylus had taken for granted. [which is why the Athenians scoffed at Paul when he spoke about the resurrection in Athens. (Acts 17)]

15  p87 Oscar Wilde’s play Salome in which Herod Antipas, on hearing of reports of Jesus rising from the dead says: “I do not wish him to do that…I forbid him to do that…I allow no man to rise from the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead.”

16.  p93  Against the progress myth.   Are we making progress or not? Give examples. (p94 particular impact of evolutionary optimism and the philosopher Hegel and in the Christian world (p97 Teilhard de Chardin.

17, pp100-103 The impact of Platonism, Buddhism, Gnosticism on Christianity…a purely spiritual future existence…’Modern’  Gnostics include Blake, Goethe, Melville, Yeats, Jung  and I would add Harold Bloom ..hugely influential literary critic. Followers of such a view in the end do not care about the material future of the world…similar to Fundamentalist Christians of the “left behind” variety.

18.  p105-6 evil is real and powerful …but physical matter is not evil…nor, does evil consist in being transient, made to decay…rather the transience of the good creation that serves as a pointer to its larger purpose …Transience acts as a God-given signpost, pointing not from the material world to a non-material world, but from the world as it is to the world as it is meant to be one day to be; pointing, in other words, from the present to the future which God has in store. 

p106 What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil ‘earth’ and a good ‘heaven’)….Evil then consists, not in being created, but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honour elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them.  Evil is a world out of joint with its intended purpose. 

 BUT SURELY, ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, EVIL WAS IN THE WORLD BEFORE HUMANS….EG THE BENT SNAKE AND FALLEN ANGELS. What  about the origins of evil from the Biblical perspective. Is it all the fault of humans as Wright here implies? What is truly Biblical is that death of humans spread to all, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)

19.  p111 if after his death [Jesus] had gone into some kind of non-bodily existence, death would not be defeated.  This discussion comes back to the doctrine of “the permanent manhood of Christ.”  cf Wright p126: It’s quite another to be able to envisage or imagine it, to know what it is we’re really talking about  when we speak of Jesus being still human, still in fact, an embodied human —actually, a more solidly embodied human being that we are—but absent from the present world . We need, in fact, a new and better cosmology, a new and better way of thinking about the world, that the one which our culture, not least post-Enlightenment culture, has bequeathed us.

20.  p113 …if creation was a work of love, it must have involved the creation of something other than God. That same love then allows creation to be itself, sustaining it in providence and wisdom but not overpowering it. Logic cannot comprehend love; so much the worse for logic.

20r p119..and a new creation born to which the present one will stand as mother to child. Wright talks a lot about redeeming the earth. How can that happen if we’ve destroyed it?

21.  p121 the question of the failure of the Church to explain clearly the meaning of the Ascension. Wright quotes Douglas Farrow:…where the ascension has been ignored or misunderstood one can trace a slide into muddled and even dangerous ideas and practices.

22.  p122  Basically, heaven and earth, in biblical cosmology, are not two different locations within the same continuum of space and matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation..

23.  p128  …today’s muddled world view …the whole point of the Christian faith is to follow Jesus away from earth to heaven and stay there forever.  So Away in the Manger …and lead us to heaven to live with thee there…

24.  p 132  ….the idea of judgment makes many people think of a vengeful, wrathful deity, determined to throw as many people as possible into hell. We have learnt to distrust people who love accusing and punishing others.  [so Rob Bell: Love Wins.]

25. p134 ‘Eschatology’, which literally means ‘the study of the last things doesn’t just refer to death, judgment, heaven and hell …it refers to the strongly held belief of most first-century Jews, and virtually all early Christians, that history was going somewhere under the guidance of God; and that where it was going was a new world of justice, healing and hope…a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe, but of its radical healing.

26.  p137 …despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return.  [I think i am correct in saying that the term “second coming” does not appear in Cruden’s Complete Concordance of every word in the Bible].  …when Jesus speaks of ‘the son of man coming on the clouds’  he is not talking about the second coming , but, in line with the Daniel 7:13  text he is quoting, about his vindication after suffering.  Similarly Jesus’ parables about the departing and returning King and his subjects refer to Jewish beliefs about  God leaving the temple during the exile and returning again to judge and make good.

27  p138 The fact that Jesus didn’t teach it  [the second coming] doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

28.  p140 …if the gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching do not refer to the second coming , where does the idea come from? Quite simply from the rest of the New Testament. …’This same Jesus who’s has gone from you in heaven…will return in the same way that you saw him go into heaven… The Greek word  παρουσια (parousia) is usually translated “coming”; but literally it means “presence.”


29.  p145  Against the “rapture” and the “Left Behind” films. 1 Thessalonians 4 “meeting Christ in the air” refers to Christians being drawn to Christ at his appearing to celebrate his coming just as folk thronged out to meet a conquering hero or a bike rider as they near the city.

30.  p152-3  Wright, like John Packer before him, reiterates that the final judgment will be by works….the future judgment according to deeds, a judgment exercised by Jesus at his ‘judgment seat’, is clearly taught in, for instance, Romans 14:9-10, 2 Corinthians 5:10 and elsewhere….the picture of future judgment according to works is actually the basis of Paul’s theology of justification…..justification by faith is what happens in the present time, anticipating the verdict of the future day when God judges the world….it is common early Christian belief. [fn6 cites as refs:2 Tim.4:1; 1 Peter 4:5]

30.  p155 -6…Jesus remains other than the church, other than the world, even while being present to both by the Spirit…..And, precisely because Jesus is not collapsed into the church, or indeed the world, we can renounce on the one hand the triumphalism that conveniently makes his sovereign lordship  and excuse for its own, and on the other hand the despair that comes  when we see such hopes dashed, as they always will be, in the follies and failings of even the best and greatest Christian organisations, structures, leaders and followers.

31. p167 Wright quotes Paul: We must all appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah; and for that we shall need bodies….it may be at this point that Paul hints after all at a re-surrection of the wicked (in order to be judged in the body) as well as the righteous.  In my view it is much more than a hint…it is crystal clear.  Why would Christ judge some and not others when all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and he who is guilty of one sin is guilty of all.?

32.  p169 ..the early fathers at least as far as Origen insisted on [the bodily resurrection], though the pressures on them to abandon it must have been very great. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian—all of them stress the bodily resurrection.  The doctrine of bodily resurrection is linked very closely to the doctrines of creation and judgment…As in Judaism, resurrection is the point where creation and judgment meet. Where one is abandoned, for whatever reason, the others soon follow.

33. p170 What we today call atoms and molecules pass through us with continuity of form but transcience of matter….it’s a good argument: as we now know, we change our entire physical kit, every atom and molecule, over a period of, at most, every seven years or so. I am physically a totally different person now from the person I was ten years ago. And yet I am still me. 

34 p170-1 A brief history of the doctrine of bodily resurrection.   Many of the leading theologians in the Patristic and mediaeval periods were quite clear about the two-stage post-mortem future [ie first sleep/“the rest”/paradise/“the beatific vision”  and  second the resurrection in the kingdom of God.  e.g. Gregory the Great,  Anselm,  Hugh of St Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairveaux. But a good deal of western mediaeval piety then took a very different turn, in which the twin destinations of heaven and hell, and the possible intermediate destination of purgatory, became far more important.  [esp. the influence of Dante (The Divine Comedy) …and later Milton (Paradise Lost); later still Newman: Dream of Gerontius]

35.  p171 …for Paul at least there is a special sense of resurrection which clearly applies to those who are in Christ and indwell by the Spirit ….that of ruling in the kingdom of God…even judging angels! ….Christians will still be busy….. forget those images about lounging around playing harps!   (p173)

36. p172  Wright commends C S Lewis as one of the few modern writers who has tried to help us with the task of imagining what the risen body might look like.  e.g. the Narnia stories and The Great Divorce.  [although on p 173 he criticises Lewis for promoting the idea of the immortality of the soul.]

37. p172 The ancient world did ask questions about which of our present characteristics and indeed present blemishes, will remain in the transformed physicality?  e.g. Jesus’ wounds were still visible after his resurrection…not now as sources of pain and death but as signs of his victory, so the Christian’s risen body will bear such marks of his or her loyalty to God’s particular calling as appropriate, not least where suffering is involved.  what of those who were burned at the stake for Christ, or eaten by sharks, or disembowelled? and what about cremation?

38.  p174.  The problem of rewards in heaven  (1 Cor 3.10-15) and p 181

39.  p179-180- 183  …the tendency towards universalism so evident in the last hundred years of Protestant thinking has produced a new situation, where not only professed Christians, but the mass of professed non-Christians, are going to have to be got ready for salvation in a the time after death. Like a badly sprung double bed, this has propelled the people who used to be positioned at either side, in either heaven or hell, into an uneasy huddle in the middle….we thus have a sort of purgatory for all…but Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere  [e.g.  in Romans 8] that it’s ithe present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. (p183)

40. p184   Prayers for the dead…Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God? 

41. p185  Against the departed saints  including the Virgin Mary as ‘friends at court”  working on our behalf.

42.  p188-9  Re hell…when Jesus was warning his hearers about γε’εννα (Gehenna)- the C1st Jerusalem rubbish tip)  he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else….We cannot therefore look to Jesus’ teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God, and who as it were have that rejection ratified.   p190 All this should warn us against the cheerful double dogmatism which has bedevilled discussion of these topics – the dogmatism, that is, both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn’t ‘going to hell ‘, and that of the universalist who is absolutely certain there is no such place. or that if there is it will, at the last, be empty.

43.  p191  The problem is that much theology…has become depressingly flabby, unable to climb even the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment, let alone the steep reaches of that judgment of which the early Christians spoke and wrote….

44.  p193 …the massive denial of reality [Hiroshima/Darfur/Auschwitz/Pol Pot/Stalin/Mao/Rwanda/Armenia/Syria/etc etc] by the cheap and cheerful universalism of western liberalism has a lot to answer for. 

45.  p195 Re the problem of a place of eternal torment in the kingdom of God Wright rejects “annihilatiionism’ because it seems like active destruction (p194) and comes to a scenario that includes beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all…these creatures [will] still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense…..hmmm […very speculative…]  Wright adds:  The last thing I want is for anyone to suppose that I (or anyone else) know very much about all this. Nor do I want anyone to suppose I enjoy speculating in this manner…in my view pp196-198, Wright’s summary,  demonstrates the best resolution of these complex issues. ( e.g. p196 [In Paul’s Letter to the Romans ] his great emphasis is that God has shut up all people in the prison-house of disobedience in order that he may have mercy on all .. (p197)..God is always the God of surprises…)  These pages deserve a second read!

46. p203 Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now.  

47. p204 Wright majors on 1 Corinthians 15:58 (always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain). ….the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’  in the present. It is a central, essential, vital and life-giving part of it….not about saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so that they could enjoy, already in the present,  that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose.

48. p211 We are saved not as souls, but as wholes. (All sorts of things follow from this. We might notice, for example, that theories of ‘atonement’ , of the meaning of the cross, are not simply a set of alternative answers to the same question. They give the answers they give because of the questions they ask. If the question is ‘how can I get to heaven when I die despite the sin because of which I deserve to be punished?’, the answer may well be ‘because Jesus has been punished in your place.’ But if the question is ‘how can God’s plan to rescue and renew the entire world go ahead despite the corruption and decay which has come about because of  human [and angelic] rebellion?’, the answer may well be ‘because on the cross Jesus defeated the powers of evil which have enslaved rebel humans an so ensured continuing corruption. Please note, these and other possible questions and answers are not mutually exclusive.)

49. p212-3 [We should not suppose] that we are saved, as it were, for our own private benefit, for the restoration of our own relationship with God (vital though that is!) and for our eventual homecoming and peace in heaven (misleading though that is!)…[We are saved] …designed-it isn’t too strong a word- to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to door the entire cosmos [and]…part of the means by which God makes this happen.]

50. p213-14 …Paul makes it quite clear that those who believe in Jesus Christ, who are incorporated into him through baptism, are already God’s children, are already themselves, ‘saved’; this stewardship cannot be something to be postponed for the ultimate future.  [note: we are saved for stewardship; cf Clarke  Pinnock’s view  that predestination is for vocation not for salvation. God’s desire is for Israel and the Church to be a light to the nations and a steward of the earth’s bounty.

50r  p223 …idolatry is always the perversion of something good…the proper response to idolatry, therefore, is not dualism…but the renewed worship of the Creator-God.  

51. p224 We cannot get off the hook of present responsibility, as many Christians try to do….by declaring that the world is currently in such a mess and there’s nothing that can be done about it until the Lord returns.

52.  p227-8 [on the other hand] we must ..avoid the arrogance or triumphalism of…imagining that we can build the kingdom of God by our own efforts without the need for a further divine act of new creation….But we must ….reject the defeatism…that says there’s no point in even trying.

53.  p230  The heirs of…liberal theology today are keen to marginalise the Bible, declaring that it supports slavery and other wicked things, because they don’t like what it says on other topics such as sexual ethics. But if you push the Bible off the table you are merely colluding with pagan empire, denying yourself the sourcebook for your kingdom-critique of oppression.

54.  p231 Many conservative churches ..[in America] still live by the belief that what’s good for America is good for God….the irony is that those American churches that protest most vocally against the teaching of Darwinism in their schools are often, in their public policies, supporting a kind of economic Darwinism, the survival of the fittest in world markets and military power….any attempt to work for God’s justice on earth as in heaven is condemned as the sort of thing those wicked anti-supernaturalists try to do. 

Wright has been accused of producing a ‘baptised neo-socialism’  by some conservative American commentators.

55.  p232-3 If people tell you that after all there isn’t very much they can do…press for some form of inaugurated eschatology. You would insist that the new life of the Spirit, in obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ, should produce radical transformation of behaviour in the present life, anticipating the life to come even though we know we shall never be complete and whole until then.  Love this! This is real hope for the rest of our lives!

56. p234  A much needed theology of beauty!

57. p237 An amazing paragraph of honest self-analysis  by N T Wright! He finishes the para with:..as every generation has known, it isn’t the quality of the preaching that counts, but the faithfulness of God. Here Wright is channelling Barth who was channelling Luther!

58. p243 ..when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope…

58r p244 The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should stand out in every town and village as the place  where new creativity  bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope which, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise. It seems to me that churches should be at the forefront of charitable works, art, evangelism etc.

59. p245 re re-shaping the church:  …without a hope-shaped mission, there is always the danger of mere pragmatism. And with pragmatism there often comes opportunism — for the advancing of agendas which are driven, not by the imperative to mission, but by one or other of the old models of church life which are now running out of steam.

60. p246 The resurrection is not an isolated supernatural oddity proving how powerful, if apparently arbitrary, God can be when he wants to…it is the decisive event which means that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven.

61. p247 If the resurrection is an event that actually occurred (in some sense) in time and space, as well as in the materiality of Jesus’ body…his Kingdom has been established. And this kingdom is to be put into practice by his followers summoning all nations to obedient allegiance to him, marking them out in baptism.

62. p252 Wittgenstein’s famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus….tellingly, section 7 consists of a single sentence: ‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence….Some things, Wittgenstein indicates, go beyond speech and philosophy, and about them one can and must remain silent. What I want to suggest, with great temerity, is that in the resurrection one is given the beginning of a new knowing, a new epistemology, a new coming-to-speech, the Word born afresh after the death of all human knowing and speech, all human hope and love, after the silent rest of the seventh-day sabbatical in the tomb.

63. p253 In John 20:19-23 Jesus called Peter to be a shepherd rather than a fisherman…the challenge to a new way of life, a new forgiveness, a new fruitfulness,  a new following of Jesus which will be wider and more dangerous that what has gone before. [We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us…2 Cor 5]

64. p255 There could not be a clearer statement of intent; the kingdoms of the world are now claimed as the kingdom of Israel’s God, and of his Messiah.

65. p270 Tom Wright here argues for a ‘mixed economy’ in worship …it would be silly to suppose that any one size or shape will ‘fit’ all worshippers…not to dampen the enthusiasm of new expressions of Christian life, but…they must not throw the banana away with the skin. [when you peel the skin and throw the bone away there’s nothing left to eat in a banana!]

66. p277 …the split between ‘saving souls’ and ‘doing good in the world’ is a product, not of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both within the western world. We return to the themes of justice, beauty and evangelism.

67. p283 If the gospel isn’t transforming you, how do you know that it will transform anything else?

68 p284ff Evangelicalism has been faithful in preaching new birth as a vital spiritual experience…what has proved  much harder to do is to articulate a theology of baptism  [and sacramental theology] to go with it.

69. p294 [the Book of Revelation] …is a vision of present reality, seen in tis heavenly dimension.

70. p299 I’d rather have a live church with problems than a dead church offering the spurious peace of the tombstone…