Take away resurrection, and you take away the central message of the New Testament. This is the conclusion of N.T. Wright, renowned New Testament scholar and author of Suprised by Hope : Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008).
Wright maintains that Scripture emphasizes not a disembodied existence after death, but the resurrection (or new creation) of our bodies at the return of Christ, a continuation of meaningful service in the Kingdom of God. This is not “life after death” but “life after life after death.” An interim period after death – a time marked by our conscious existence with Christ – will be crowned on “that great, getting’ up mornin’” with life eternal.
What makes N.T. Wright’s book challenging is that he’s not content to leave the resurrection as an abstract, future doctrine. He is determined to bring the future into the present. We say in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” – so what? How will this radical doctrine affect the way the Christian church operates in the here-and-now? Wright observes (p. 197):
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 that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality – what I have called life after life after death – then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.
N.T. Wright draws out implications for many aspects of our faith in the present moment. He calls for radical engagement by Christians in all aspects of life, realizing that the work that we do to redeem our world will not be lost but conserved by God, folded into the new creation at the end of time. This is an important antidote to the dominant pre-millenial escapism of the Left Behind variety, which itself is a revival of the Gnostic heresy that spirit is pure and matter is evil. The transformed Easter body of Christ is a symbol of the transformation that God desires to effect through the Church, a transformation that touches “the physical matter of real life” (p. 267). This includes our engagement in the arts, creating beauty in the places most bereft of things attractive, akin to Jews who performed symphony concerts in concentration camps.
And what of the Eucharist? While there is no question it is a time to remember what Christ has done, N.T. Wright adds (p. 274):
We do not simply remember a long-since dead Jesus; we celebrate the presence of the living Lord. And he lives, through the resurrection, precisely as the one who has gone ahead into the new creation, the transformed new world, as the one who is himself its prototype. The Jesus who give himself to us as food and drink is himself the beginning of God’s new world.
The Lord’s Supper is not a wake to be celebrated a handful of times each year. It is a constant reminder of our mission, our cooperation with God to bring the divine future into the present. Wright’s thoughts fit well with the Wesleyan optimism of grace.
At the end of Surprised by Hope, the reader has the strong urge to get off the couch and get in the game, playing in the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, straining to introduce beams of God’s bright future into our too-often dismal world, addressing injustice, loving the outcast, engaging the political realm and a host of other salt-and-light tasks. If that’s the practical outcome of the book, N.T. Wright will be pleased.