Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

by N. T. Wright

Hardcover, 2008




Offers a reinterpretation of biblical teaching on what happens after death, arguing that literal bodily resurrection is at the heart of Christianity and exploring the implications of this for the church's work in the world.


HarperOne (2008), 352 pages

Media reviews

Surprised by Hope will be one of Wright’s most widely-read books. Though readers should proceed with caution regarding some of Wright’s proposals, the wheat in this book far outweighs the chaff.
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N. T. Wright is one of the most talented writers among New Testament scholars today. In this book he presents his understanding of what the Scriptures teach about heaven, the resurrection, and the church's mission.


(209 ratings; 4.3)

User reviews

LibraryThing member gottfried_leibniz
I really enjoyed this book. I loved his analogy of Wittgenstein's poker with Karl Popper. I'm glad I read this book, as Wright emphasizes our idea of heaven simply is Platonism, disembodied spirit going to heaven. The Christian life, as Wright describes, "Life after Life after death." It is the
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God's kingdom on earth and we will be *bodily* raised just as Christ was raised. Our present life matters, each act matters. God's kingdom is already here, it started with Christ, as he defeated death and sin. He also says, after we die, we will be Christ in paradise but that's not the end. He really emphasizes that it is not the end. If you are looking on broadening your perspective, definitely do read Wright.
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LibraryThing member bsanner
The ultimate goal of the Christian life is not heaven. Even more, the ultimate end of the Christian life is not heaven. We are destined for resurrection – a “life after, life after death” which begins even now as we work for the building of God’s kingdom and ultimate renewal of creation.
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After some lengthy introductory material, Wright’s work is essentially two parts: what scripture says about resurrection (and a number of related themes) and what this means for the mission of the church. As typical, Wright’s exegesis is spot-on (informed, historical, and balanced). Wright’s comments on the mission of the church are challenging and appropriate, but – at times – unrelated (or indirectly related) to a particular text. A
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LibraryThing member madcurrin
N T Wright is probably the theologian I would happily defend to the death, were I to subscribe whole heartedly to Christian orthodoxy. But I'm not in the mood for a scholarly tome so this gets marked down for dragging its heels. It would be helpful to have a neat and tidy summary up front for those
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of us who just want the author to get to the point, which in this case is: what do the new testament writers REALLY say happens after death? It's a fascinating read which really deserves more stars. Bring on the new earth.
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LibraryThing member stephenochilds
I can still remember the surprise of realising for the first time, after many years as a Christian, that the ultimate Christian hope was not to spend the rest of eternity in heaven, but to serve and worship God forever in a transformed earth that had been united with heaven. Tom Wright correctly
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observes that many Christians never realise this, leading to an impoverished view of our destiny in Christ, and a very narrow view of our involvement in this world.

He explores the perspective of the first Christians as recorded in the Bible and shows how their belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus would have been surprising to pagans and Jews alike. The second part of the book lays out the theological implications of believing that the resurrection of Jesus is the first instalment of God's transformation of the whole creation. Wright covers a huge range of ideas, dealing with the future of the cosmos, ascension, second coming, judgment, the redemption of our bodies, and heaven and hell. I found the chapter on NT metaphors one of the best. Particularly helpful was the idea that citizenship of heaven (in Philippians 3) does not mean severing ties with earth. Rather, as the citizens of Roman colonies brought Roman civilisation to their own communities, so Christian citizens of heaven work with God to make earth more like earth, anticipating the final day when Jesus (the Lord) comes again to bring this to conclusion.

Part 3 sketches out applications for church and society. Again, the scope is broad, from a definition of salvation as being both "for humans and, through saved humans, for the wider world" (217), to reflections on what it means to cooperate with God to build the kingdom of heaven on earth, and the implications for the worship and organisation of the church.

I found this book compelling as a rare attempt to think hard about the many dimensions of what resurrection and new creation mean, both here and now, and in terms of our future hope. Wright gives a solid foundation for Christian involvement in the arts and in working to help the weak in society. He identifies and avoids the opposing errors of imagining that human effort alone will bring transformation, or that there is no point working for the good of this world as it is doomed to destruction. He returns frequently to 1 Corinthians 15:58 to remind us that whatever good work we do in God's service is not in vain, as he will weave it into the new world he is (re)creating.

As always, Wright writes (!) in a stimulating yet slightly slippery style. His insistence on his own theological vocabulary sometimes makes it difficult to determine where he agrees with more traditional views, and where he departs from them. While he does affirm the need for repentance and conversion, the depths and consequences of individual sin seem underemphasised. Although this can be partly explained as polemic, surely the fact that only those who acknowledge the lordship of Jesus will enjoy the new creation gives a certain priority to evangelism?

This is an important book, and there is much of worth here. Even if you don't accept Wright's viewpoint completely, what he says will make you think more carefully about what the Bible says about our present and future hope rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. And hopefully, it will encourage you in whole-life discipleship and mission as it has me.
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LibraryThing member phototkr
A book the really explains what had been missing in Christian teaching. A follow-up Book of N.T.Wrights to this one is "After You Believe, Why Christian Character Matters.
LibraryThing member bbrown6
Wright, in typically beautiful prose sets out a corrective vision of the Christian hope. He elaborates extensively on the implications of the resurrection and the Biblical emphasis on New Creation in setting out Redemptive History. The book holds out a thoroughly biblical and thoroughly physical
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hope for our spiritual futures.
The book could have used some more extensive and clear biblical reflections on the topic of God's future wrath and hell, but it is an excellent book none-the-less
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LibraryThing member Admiralcreedy
In the wing of the Church that I am most associated and comfortable with, N.T.Wright is currently seemingly in exile over his differing views on justification. But he is also one of evangelicalism's greatest scholars. His 'magisterial' books on Christian origins are brilliant, and equally useful in
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academia and in pastoral ministry. I remember seeing 'Jesus and the Victory of God' on the shelf of my mentor, a few weeks before going to study a secular theology degree, where his books are respected and admired.

This book, then, 'Surprised by Hope', is of a rather different bent. It is primarily, both self-explanatorially and by reading it, about the Christian Gospel of hope grounded in the key terms 'salvation, resurrection and eternal life'. But it is also about the way in which hope can be discovered in the present world. Wright argues passionately that we need to put God back in his place, put hope back at the top, and be surprised by Hope. The first two phrases really sum up an attitude that demands a conversation!

'What are we waiting for?'

'And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?'

This post, arguably, is less a review, and more of an encouragement to read the book. After all, the measured, hopeful thoughts of a serious theologian are of rather more value than a backwater internet blogger! One thing that stuck with me was early on in the book. Bodily resurrection is key. (For a discussion of this, check out my previous series, and ideally read N.T.Wright on the subject!) As Wright puts it; 'It was people who believed robustly in the resurrection, not people who compromised and went in for a mere spiritualised survival, who stood up against Caesar in the first centuries of the Christian era'. Do we believe robustly enough in the resurrection, if we believe at all? This inflammatory statement is a call to action - are we of the same calibre of Christian who stood up against the Roman empire? If not, why not?

Wright goes on throughout the book in an orderly fashion, expounding what hope can mean. And at the end of what appears to be a call to radical action, the most radical challenge occurs. It echoes the great commission; 'at the centre of the picture there stands the personal call of the Gospel of Jesus to every child, woman and man'. This is not an easily critiqued orthopraxy (right practice, similar to orthodoxy - right belief) that Wright is expressing, but a mighty reflection of what he believes to be most necessary. Wright then explores evangelism with an awareness of pitfalls and challenges - rare for someone with so much knowledge!

I end this review with what N.T.Wright ends the book with. It draws so much together, and is a powerful challenge:

'Hands up those who have heard the message that every act of love, every deed done in Christ and done by the Spirit, every work of true creativity - every time justice is done, peace is made, families are healed, temptation is resisted, true freedom is sought and won - that this very earthly event takes its place within a long history of things which implement Jesus' own resurrection, and anticipate the final new creation, and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second...'

Thanks for reading. Now go and read the book!
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LibraryThing member Neftzger
True to the title, I was surprised by the book and encouraged by the message. In an age where churches operate like corporations and measure their success through metrics like attendance and "conversions" it was nice to read a book that attempts to address the real issue of the church: transforming
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lives for he better. The book discusses how the message of the Gospel is that God is redeeming all of creation and that Heaven is a physical place that is much closer than we might think. In fact, some of us may be looking for it in the wrong place.

The author uses logic and scriptural references to produce solid arguments for all of his points, successfully making his case each time. This is not a writer (or theologian) who gives standard responses and pat answers to tough questions - he's logically and prayerfully gone through these issues. I will be reading more of his work.
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LibraryThing member jd234512
Another excellent book by N.T. Wright that I know I will need to come back to again to fully grasp everything he was trying to lay out in this book. It is truly a book that will help shape the way I read certain passages in the Bible, as well as the way I set my focus on present and future
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This is truly a book that should be read and at least considered by many folks in western Christianity. N.T. Wright is not someone who seems to be controversial, but rather truly seeks to understand what the Scriptures say(and from a conservative perspective I might add). We were entrusted to usher in the Kingdom of God and that should look hopeful("Good News"), but many times our actions do not reflect this hope. Wright sends us off from this book with much to consider and a return to that responsibility of continuing what was started in Jesus' time on Earth and what He called us to at this point.

This should stir people up into thinking solely of Heaven and back to the present times.

The only criticism I have of this work is that the "alternative" to Heaven that is offered does not seem to differ other than simple semantics. This is passable in that it is not the main focus of the book, but I would appreciate more time being given by him to expound on this idea and give it a little more bulk.
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LibraryThing member SABC
Many of us ask, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?" Wright shows us that a Christian's future hope is deeply intertwined with how we live today.
LibraryThing member stillatim
Readable and accessible entry point to Wright's theology, which is also his biblical scholarship. I can only imagine what it would be like to read this if you were fully committed to 'traditional' Christian doctrines about heaven and so on; probably a bit like it would have been like to read
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Melanchthon a few centuries ago (not Luther, because Wright is mild mannered; and not Calvin, because I quite like Wright). For someone who finds much of that tradition questionable (its individualism; its Platonism; its odd way of claiming to be biblical but ignoring most of the bible), reading Wright is enjoyable enough. As ever, he's far too long-winded here, and much of what he says probably makes more sense if you've read the larger, more scholarly works. But he tells a story about Christianity that is far more livable than many others.
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LibraryThing member lisa.schureman
This book was a difficult read, not because the author unveils his belief that when Christ returns he will renew the heavens and earth that already exist, but for the fact that some of his sentences are the length of paragraphs, he will change subject in the middle of a sentence, and at times will
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expound on an idea only to state, “But that’s not for discussion here,” there’s not enough room for discussion on this topic in this book, or we’ll cover this later in the book. It made the flow of the book rather choppy instead of flowing smoothly from one point to another. Theologically I had no problem with this book and one of our pastors had pointed in one of his sermons that many Eastern ideas have crept into Christianity since the Victorian age. This book gives a fresh perspective on the Gospels and why they were written the way they were. I do however, know the difference between resurrection and ascension
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LibraryThing member gottfried_leibniz
I really enjoyed this book. I loved his analogy of Wittgenstein's poker with Karl Popper. I'm glad I read this book, as Wright emphasizes our idea of heaven simply is Platonism, disembodied spirit going to heaven. The Christian life, as Wright describes, "Life after Life after death." It is the
Show More
God's kingdom on earth and we will be *bodily* raised just as Christ was raised. Our present life matters, each act matters. God's kingdom is already here, it started with Christ, as he defeated death and sin. He also says, after we die, we will be Christ in paradise but that's not the end. He really emphasizes that it is not the end. If you are looking on broadening your perspective, definitely do read Wright.
Show Less
LibraryThing member hobbitprincess
Seldom have a read a Christian book on theology that has affected me like this one. So many questions I had were answered in ways that I could understand. It left me with many things to think about. i like that all Wright says is backed up with scripture. I look forward to learning more from this
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New Testament scholar and authority.
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LibraryThing member histprof
Read this with my church reading group last spring. There are a few rough spots in this text where Wright doesn't connect the dots as thoroughly or clearly as he could have, but nevertheless he is still a brilliant scholar and communicator.
LibraryThing member MarkKonyndyk
Challenging read as NT Wright is brilliant man, but not succinct. If you as the reader make it to the end chapter 15 ties it all together by focusing on the fact that Christ aligned heave with earth. This is a refreshing way to view Christianity.
LibraryThing member ChristinasBookshelf
This was my Lent 2023 reading assignment and it was a very good choice for Lent to get me excited for the arrival of Easter.

First the frustrating part of the book: this book is a compilation of information from sermons and lectures that he has given. I think that a better job could have been done
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to create more flow between chapters. It's quite repetitive and can be a bit of a slog to read because you end up mumbling to yourself, "but you already told me that!" A good editor could have really tightened things up, I think.

I really, really loved this book. Before reading this book, I had been pondering in my mind why the various bits and bobs of eschatology and the afterlife that I had been taught here and there in different streams of Christianity didn't really make sense when compared to what I actually read in the Bible about Heaven. Things weren't lining up in an orderly fashion and on top of that, Alex was saying that he didn't want to be floating on a cloud playing a harp for the rest of eternity and I KNOW for a fact that the Bible never mentions floating on a cloud or playing a harp in Heaven. This book has immensely helped me understand where things go in a very wrong direction with beliefs about Heaven for people in medieval to modern western culture. I have highlighted a LOT of paragraphs in this book because it's just so good!

Some very good quotes from the book:

"What's more, Christmas itself has now far outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year -- a move that completely reverses the New Testament's emphasis. We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons, to build a whole theology on Christmas, but it can't in fact sustain such a thing. We then keep Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday so thoroughly that we have hardly any energy left for Easter except for the first night and day. Easter, however, should be the center. Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left." (I would add that much of the Protestant church doesn't even observe Lent or Holy Week and yet Easter is underwhelming in the average Christian's mind. In my adulthood and raising children, I have tried to make Easter the biggest holiday with the most celebration, though that has been challenging in a culture that devalues Easter.)

"The whole book [that Wright has written] thus attempts to reflect the Lord's Prayer itself when it says, 'Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.' That remains one of the most powerful and revolutionary sentences we can ever say. As I see it, the prayer was powerfully answered at the first Easter and will finally be answered fully when heaven and earth are joined in the new Jerusalem."

"As in Philippians 3, it is not we who go to heaven, it is heaven that comes to earth; indeed, it is the church itself, the heavenly Jerusalem, that comes down to earth. This is the ultimate rejection of all types of Gnosticism, of every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven."

"When Paul speaks of 'meeting' the Lord 'in the air,' the point is precisely not -- as in the popular rapture theology -- that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. Even when we realize that this is a highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn't mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city but rather means that one is expecting the emperor to come *from* the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights."

"When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, 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. His message to his contemporaries was stark and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God's kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) whose resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, 'Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,' that is the primary meaning he had in mind."

"The point of this final section of the book is that a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world -- for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, for the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world -- is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, 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, and life-giving part of it. Mostly, Jesus himself got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing. They saw him saving people from sickness and death, and they heard him talking about a salvation, the message for which they had longed, that would go beyond the immediate into the ultimate future. But the two were not unrelated, the present one a mere visual aid of the future one or a trick to gain people's attention. The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God's ultimate purpose -- and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project."

"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 glorious embodied reality -- what I have called life after life after death -- then the main work of the church her and now demands to be rethought in consequence. At this point the well-known slogan of Christian Aid, 'We Believe in Life Before Death,' comes into its own. Life before death is what is threatened, called into question, by the idea that salvation is merely life after death."

"The work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us."

In chapter 13 near the end of the section titled Justice, Wright gives a well-needed critique of modern American evangelical beliefs about the earth and people. Modern American evangelicals have embraced dualism wholeheartedly. They view this earth and physical bodies as disposable and valueless and only souls and Heaven matter. They say that they are opposed to Darwinism and evolution, but they firmly choose to support economic and political Darwinism -- survival of the most financially and politically fit. Their real beliefs are that the earth can be completely trashed and people can be destroyed as long as their souls get to Heaven and the "Christian" can destroy as much of all that God has created in their attempts to gain power and money and influence since everything physical is all going to be destroyed in the end. They say that they believe that the whole of creation was pronounced good, but then they act like they believe that only the supernatural is really good. Now why you would try to accumulate the most money and material goods on this earth when you believe that it's all going to get destroyed and has no real value....I think that the crux of the issue is that when you in fact believe in a disembodied afterlife, the only physical pleasure that you can get is the physical pleasure in this life, so you better get it while the getting's good. But I know that we will have newly fixed and very physical bodies in the new heavens and new earth, and I am confident that we will have physical pleasure. Jesus had wounds or scars but was intact, and he ate food with his resurrected body. I believe that we will eat and drink and make merry in God's Kingdom on the renewed earth. And I believe that God does love and care for the sin-damaged earth and creation and God is deeply sorrowful that we don't care for what he created. I believe that this lack of care for God's creation is behind the White Christian nationalism that is so popular in the USA.

I highly, highly, highly recommend this book! It is a perfect reading choice for Lent!
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LibraryThing member larrydellis
Surprised by Hope is an outstanding book. Wright cogently describes what is the commonly promoted conventional understanding of heaven, hell, salvation, life after death, resurrection and many other topics of critical interest to many Christians. He reframes many of these topics looking from the
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perspective of Jesus and the early Christians, helping us jettison long-standing distortions of these truths due to our western world view of truth. It is a refreshing, scholarly read, which I would recommend to all thinking Christians. If the reader is not interested in exploring ideas beyond their current frame of reference, this book will be a stressful read. Wright is one of the outstanding Anglican biblical scholars of our generation.
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