Tom Wright tackles these and other questions in his seminal book Surprised by Hope. It’s dense but engaging, rooted in Scripture, and it’s changing the way I think, pray and act.
I won’t attempt to summarise the book, but just to give a gist, Wright explains that the Bible doesn’t teach that Christians go to heaven to be with Jesus forever when they die. Rather, after death comes a period of rest (a conscious state where people are held in the love and presence of Jesus) after which there will be a new life, and new embodiment – ‘life after life after death.’
Heaven is not the final destination
Contrary to what many Christians believe and sing about, heaven is not the final destination. Instead, our bodies will be resurrected into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus as part of a ‘new heavens and new earth’, when Jesus returns again to judge the world and put all wrongs to right.
This is an amazing hope, and not just for the future – it has significant implications for how we live now. In Jesus, God’s kingdom has been launched on earth as in heaven, evil has been defeated and the new creation has begun. Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that inaugurated new world into practice through mission to the world, and care and stewardship of the world.
So, how is this changing me?
1) Its changed my understanding of salvation
I’ve always been uncomfortable with evangelism that just aims to get people to ‘pray the prayer’ as some sort of ticket to heaven. But I’ve struggled to articulate or fully understand what the right approach should be, other than to ensure that conversion must be followed by discipleship.
My understanding of salvation has been both expanded and consolidated. Salvation is about being embraced by God’s worldwide purposes to make everything new – that’s incredible! Wright still emphasises the fundamental importance of individual repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation to God through Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, but argues that salvation goes so much further than this: it’s about the whole cosmos. We’re saved for something, not just from something, to play a part in God’s work of renewing the world, anticipating that act of final renewal that God will do when he creates the new heavens and new earth. I find this both mind-blowing and exhilarating!
2) Its changed my view of Easter
I want Easter to become the highlight of my family’s year. I want as much excitement, gratitude and celebration in our household for Easter, as we remember Jesus’s resurrection, as there is for Christmas. Wright suggests champagne for breakfast – I’ll go with that!
3) Its deepened my passion for justice
I used to work for Tearfund and spent 5 years campaigning and lobbying for justice in global trade. We saw several successes, but many things we called for didn’t happen. The global trading system is still grossly unjust. So was it all a waste of time?
Before, I’d have said no, it’s still right to challenge injustice – whatever the outcome. Now, I’d still say that, but there’s more. According to Wright, actions such as working for justice for the poor, done in love and obedience to scripture, in the power of the spirit, will be completed and fulfilled in the new Kingdom. They are not wasted. Now THAT is hope!
4) Its deepened my commitment to environmentalism
I’ve been passionate about environmentalism for some years, believing that the Bible commands us to love the poor, and as environmental degradation hurts poor people, we should live sustainably and campaign on environmental issues. Again, I still believe that, but the argument goes so much further and deeper. To quote Wright: ‘If it is true … that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest so long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an ‘extra’ to the church’s mission. It is central’.
I’m still working this all out – both the doctrine and application. But I’ve discovered a hope that I have in Christ, for both now and the future, that I was only partially aware of before. I highly recommend reading it!
Mari Williams lives in South London with her husband and daughter. She worked in Tearfund’s Policy and Campaigns Teams for seven years and is now a freelance researcher and writer. She can be contacted on williams.mari ‘at’ hotmail.co.uk
Related articles: Tom Wright for Everyone by Stephen Kuhrt