How Should We Hope? Advice #5
In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright, a bishop in the Church of England, offers a fifth advice for hope. He says, in brief, that we should adopt the hope of first century Christians. The problem is that people are generally ignorant of Christian doctrine concerning hope. It’s not that they have rejected Christian hope; they have only a vague and inaccurate idea what it is. The first step toward genuine hope is to learn what the New Testament actually teaches about the future.
Wright starts with the resurrection of Jesus. Is this surprising? It shouldn’t be. The Christian doctrine for the future cannot be understood apart from the central Christian claim about the past. It is a fact that the first century Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus. How we explain that fact is a matter of dispute. Wright argues the best explanation is that Jesus really rose. Be that as it may, however one explains the fact of first century Christian belief, we need to see that the first Christians’ doctrine of hope is inextricable from their belief that Jesus had been raised.
It is not surprising that if people don’t believe in the resurrection, they’ll misunderstand Christian hope. Wright argues that is exactly what we find in our time. All our earthly hopes must eventually confront the problem of death. The various ways a culture deals with death reveals much about its hopes. Wright cites hymns, popular songs, sermons, obituary notices, and many other details that indicate contemporary attitudes toward death.
First, there is the materialist doctrine of death. On this view, death is simply the end of life. A person might hope to be remembered by her friends or family, but if she is she won’t know it. Artists might hope their poems or pictures will be admired by future generations, but it’s not very likely—and again, the artist will never know.
Some people, including some materialists, devote great energy to social or political movements aimed at making life better for people. Wright clearly approves of some of these efforts. But there is only impersonal hope here, since the reformer will never see the distant fruit of his labor.
Second, some people hold a pantheist/spiritualist view of death. On this view, at death the individual melds into the universal spirit. Wright quotes funeral poems and sermons that remind listeners the beloved departed is with them in the wind, earth, light, etc. Sometimes this view is expressed in more overtly Hindu terms; the dead will be reincarnated in future living things.
Third, there are a variety of Platonist views. On these views, a person’s soul—that is, the real person—leaves behind the physical body when he dies. The soul goes to be with God in heaven. This Platonist doctrine is often presented and believed as the Christian view, so much that “I’ll Fly Away” is taken as a song expressing Christian hope.
Some people combine features of these ideas, and there are plenty of others. Given the pervasiveness of such ideas, people may find themselves surprised by the New Testament doctrine of hope.
1. First century Christians believed that since God raised Jesus, he would raise them. There is a difference between “I’ll fly away” and “Someday I will rise.” It is possible to combine the two notions: at death, my soul flies to heaven AND later, God raises my body. This innovation came along centuries later; we find it explicit in Thomas Aquinas. Some say it is implicit in the Bible. Maybe. It is clear that over time Christians stopped thinking much about resurrection and consoled themselves with escape from this world.
2. First century Christians believed that Jesus was going to come back. The Son of God who suffered and died “for us” would return. At various times in church history, Christians have embarrassed their movement by predicting Jesus’ return at a date certain. We might be tempted to downplay the “second coming.” We shouldn’t. The return of Jesus is clearly a part of Christian hope.
3. First century Christians believed that Jesus was going to bring the Kingdom of God. Wright points out that as long as we hope to “fly away” we won’t hope for the Kingdom to come. Notice the words: “bring” and “come.” The Kingdom of God will be a kingdom here, not there. Wright gives much attention to this point. Since our hope is that Jesus will bring the Kingdom in the future, we ought to live as citizens of that Kingdom now. Christian hope has implications for ethics.
4. First century Christians believed in “a new heaven and a new earth” that would last forever. Yes: there is a sense in which Christian hope looks forward to eternal life “in heaven.” But we must guard against imagining heaven divorced from the Kingdom and the new earth.
Wright argues that Christian hope is a bracing and lively option for 21st century people. Why not be surprised?