Book review: Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright

I heard N.T. Wright speak at a theology conference, via online videos of the event. He seems to be famous for two primary focuses: how to interpret the Pauline epistles and how to interpret the gospels. From the online videos, I discovered that I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, I disagreed with a lot of what he had to say, and I found nearly everything he had to say challenging and full of insight.

His viewpoint on how to interpret Paul’s letters is known as the New Perspective on Paul, and I know just enough about it to know that I disagree. In the long run, it’s a little too Calvinistic for me.

His views on the meaning of the gospels emphasize having a proper understanding of the kingdom of God, the resurrection, and the second coming of Christ. These topics are near and dear to my heart, because I think they are neglected or misunderstood in modern day evangelical Christianity. From hints Wright dropped about these topics in the online videos, I came to realize that he might have a view very close to mine about the kingdom of God, but in his case there would be a lot of careful Scriptural exegesis to back it all up. At the same time, I realized he was critical of my views of the second coming. I had heard such criticism before, but, again, I knew in his case there would be a lot of careful exegesis to back it all up.

So when I heard about the book “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church”, I was eager to get hold of it. I wanted to hear both what he said that agreed with me and what he said that contradicted my understanding, and I especially wanted to hear him explain how he interpreted the Scriptures in question.

There was good news and bad news.

Good news first: The book does a nice job of demonstrating the importance of bodily resurrection and of the return of Christ to earth. I’ve noticed that while almost all our gospel presentations go like this: “Trust Jesus as Savior so that you will go to heaven when you die”, the early church’s presentations used to go like this: “Trust Jesus as Savior so that you will be resurrected and enter into his kingdom when He returns to earth.” We haven’t let the doctrines of the resurrection and the return of Christ fully saturate our understanding of the gospel. This book did a good job of making a similar point.

A second piece of good news had to do with the doctrine of the second coming itself. I had picked up the impression that perhaps Wright didn’t believe in the return of Christ to earth at all, and I was hoping that wasn’t the case. In the book, Wright makes it clear that it isn’t the case. Certain of his other teachings, he says,

“have left me open to the attack, particularly from American readers, that I have thereby given up teaching or believing the second coming. That is absurd … Let me say it emphatically for the sake of those who are confused on the point (and to the amusement, no doubt, of those who are not): the second coming has not yet occurred.” (p. 126-127).

So that’s good.

The bad news is that when I finally got to the point, a few chapters in, where he was going to refute my understanding of the end times, I found this:

“The first thing to get clear is that, despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return. I have argued this position at length and in detail in my various books about Jesus and don’t have space to substantiate it here.” (p. 125)

Aargh! Apparently I bought the wrong book! I needed one of the ones where he substantiates his position at length and in detail.

After reading more about what Wright wrote, I have discovered that he has two bodies of writings: books written for the general populace and scholarly works in which he makes the case for his theology. I read “Surprised by Hope”. I should have been reading “Jesus and the Victory of God”.

Actually, that’s my one complaint in general about the book. It was fine, but it wasn’t what I wanted. It was all sort of watered down. There weren’t a lot of specifics about anything.

So … it was mildly interesting as a book, but not much more. I give it a 5 out of 10. Rereadibility factor? Now that I know where the book is going, I may reread portions of it, but probably not cover to cover. I haven’t given up on N. T. Wright, though. I’ve just learned which books to look for.

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