Book Club Discussion: "Surprised by Hope"


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

As promised, we begin the week with a discussion on NT Wright’s “Surprised by Hope,” which I just finished reading this weekend. Such a fascinating book deserves more time than we can give it, but I’d like to start off by talking about the current attitudes about life after death that have come to dominate much of Western Christianity and that Wright seeks to evaluate.

This topic brings back a distinct high school memory of mine....Judgment Day houses. 

Hosted by local churches trying to compete with haunted houses during the Halloween season, Judgment Day Houses are designed to frighten participants into making commitments to Christianity by dramatically portraying the splendors of heaven that await them if they accept Christ the horrors of hell that will befall them if they don’t. 

Every fall, I and several hundred of my  high school-aged peers would gather in the auditorium of the local Baptist church and watch the play unfold: Characters Joe and Jane and Mike and Michelle are on their way home from prom when their car gets struck by a drunk driver. Everyone in the car dies. Joe and Jane (who are not Christians, as evidenced by a previous conversation in which they brag about drinking alcohol and having sex), go straight to hell, where they are told by Satan (played by one of the church deacons) that they are destined to spend eternity burning in the Lake of Fire. In the meantime, Mike and Michelle, (who are Christians, as evidenced by a previous conversation in which they urge Joe and Jane to abstain from the aforementioned drinking of alcohol and having sex), go straight to heaven, where they are told by Jesus (the church pastor) that they are finally home for eternity. 

The annual Judgment Day Houses usually resulted in a record number of conversions. But they also resulted in a phenomenon my friends and I called “Judgment Day Christians,” new believers who would spent about a week dutifully abstaining from sex and alcohol, but who would inevitably returned to their previous lifestyles, without much change in their behavior or outlook. It was as though they had committed their eternities to Christ, but not their lives. They’d “gotten saved” in order to go to heaven when they died, but were uncertain what to do in the meantime. 

I think that this phenomenon illustrates NT Wright’s point that “a massive assumption has been made in Western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, ‘to go to heaven when you die.’” (90) The prevailing attitude, he shows, is heavily influenced by the Platonic concept of an evil material world and a perfect immaterial soul, as well as a misunderstanding of Scripture in which heaven, (as a kind of final resting place for the soul), is emphasized over the clear biblical picture of a new heaven and new earth for which believers will be physically resurrected. 

Instead, Wright believes that “the gospel, in the New Testament, is the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God has raised from the dead, is the world’s true lord.” (227)

Knowing that Jesus is lord, and following Him as a result, can have profound effects not only on eternity, but also on every day life. 

Regarding salvation, Wright says, “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…then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence…

…When God saves people in this life by working through his Spirit to bring them to faith and by leading them to follow Jesus in discipleship, prayer, holiness, hope, and love, such people are designed…to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos. What’s more, such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation; they are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen both in the present and the future.” (197 and 200) 

According to Wright, our eschatology should focus less on life after death and more on life after life after death- the resurrection of all people (of which Easter is the prototype and Christ the “first fruits”), and the reign of Jesus in a redeemed creation. As believers, we can participate in this kingdom presently, although it will not reach completion until the future. (More on his eschatological approach in the next post.) 

It’s hard to imagine how this approach would play out in Judgment Day Houses. 

I suppose it might look something like this: My friends and I gather in the auditorium of First Baptist Church and watch a play that depicts the new heaven and new earth that is to come. This new heaven and new earth is not located in some far away ethereal sphere filled with clouds and angels playing harps. Rather, it is made up of the sorts of things we recognize-trees and hills and water and animals and people. Jesus (perhaps still played by the pastor) is lord of this new creation and in it, there is no more death or pain or injustice. Joe and Jane and all the saints are resurrected as full and complete human beings with jobs to do in this redeemed world. 

The play ends with Jesus (played by the pastor) reminding the audience that Jesus (the real thing) is indeed Lord of all and that if we follow him by caring for the poor and working for justice, we can provide the world with little snapshots of what is to come. 

It might not result in as many conversions, but I think it might result in fewer “Judgment Day Christians.” 

What do you think?

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