Reviews for Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright

pages and sounds's review
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hopeful inspiring reflective slow-paced


Tom Wright (otherwise known as N.T. Wright) is one of the foremost New Testament scholars and certainly one of the most popular faith-based authors in my growing library. I read two of his books last year (here and here) and this year another one of his randomly found its way into my TBR list.

N.T. Wright’s books are often dense, despite being illuminating and very accessible. That is expected as the topics he explores and the angle he comes from often entail detailed thinking with a solid historical foundation. So far, Suprised by Hope is my most accessible and impactful work of Tom Wright.

Surprised by Hope (a title that is related to the topic as much as it is a play at C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy classic) is an illuminating and fresh take at the resurrection. Tom Wright has touched on this in his other books and podcasts but in Suprised by Hope, he explores the meaning of Jesus resurrection and how it is a connection between future hope and present living. How the resurrection is a signpost to a future event that has an impact on the mission of the Church today. This connection is best explored by examining what that first Easter morning meant to the disciples, the 1st-century church and its import in our 21st-century world. According to Surprised by Hope, the resurrection is not just a sign that death has been defeated and those who believe will be going to heaven and leaving this poor world behind forever (an erroneous Platonised understanding of Christianity) but a bodily resurrection is a signpost to the hope that God will redeem, restore and renew his earthly creation. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is not just proof of ‘life after death’ but the inauguration of the new creation will climax in a new heaven and a new earth. The crux of the resurrection is this – earth matters. It shall be renewed.

A critical aspect of the exploration in Surprised by Hope is the bodily aspect of Jesus’ resurrection highlights that the present bodily life is not valueless because it will die. There is a future for not just the body (earth suit) but the earth itself. In light of this, what we do here matters because just as Christ’s empty tomb and his bodily resurrection highlight an inauguration, the climax will be not in heaven but here on earth (albeit a renewed earth). Tom Wright goes to great length to point out that the Christian hope anchored in Jesus’ resurrection is the hope that in his rising from the dead, there is hope that God will renew all things. It is not just a hope of a life after death in heaven but the start of a grand renewal project that will culminate in a new heaven and a new earth.

A great portion of the book reassesses the vocation of the Christian in the light of this hope. It is not just a celebration of hope with a heavenly destination. If rightly as Suprised by Hope points out, Jesus’ bodily resurrection is proof that God has grand plans to renew this messed up earth and that renewal has started on that first Easter morning, then what we do on this earth matters (1 Corinthians 15:58). Bringing God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven is a vocation that has started and should be the mission of the church, not preparing for heaven as an escape from this messed up world.

As insightful and exhaustive as the book is, there are few problems I have with it. Firstly, its discussion around the eternal torment versus annihilation topic is unsatisfactory in its option of a third alternative. I am neither convinced about eternal torment nor annihilation but I will need to chew on the third alternative much more to appreciate the view Tom Wright offers here. Secondly, while the ultimate destination is not heaven, not much is said about the stopover called heaven. The author is vague about heaven while being dismissive about purgatory. Thirdly, I do not agree with his middle of the road interpretation of praying for/to the dead saints. Thirdly, being a retired Anglican Bishop, his Anglican foundation is as expected but there seems to be way too much Anglican doctrine in the expositions. A more non-denominational base would have been more inviting.

In summary, this is an excellent exposition of the resurrection and is now a close second favourite book of mine on this topic after the classic by Paula Gooder (a former student of N.T. Wright). Surprised by Hope is firmly recommended.

Neftzger's review
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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 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.

Blackheath's review
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First, Wright's insistence on bodily resurrection, rather than "going to heaven" as the goal of the Christian is important. I'm not sure it needs to be repeated ad nauseum for over 300 pages (I've been slogging through this thing for over a month), but it matters, and if you're interested in the subject, this book is as good a place to start as any. Unless you're a Catholic. The minor swipe at Marian theology (nothing big - just a snide comment, really) is one thing. Attacking the idea of purgatory by claiming that Roman Catholic theologians have been walking it back of late is another. He cites only two Catholic theologians (Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI) and quotes so little of them, and with virtually no context, that his assertion comes off as desperate, wishful thinking. Still, if you didn't know any better, Wright might actually convince you that the Pope reversed the Church's teachings on purgatory, and that there's an army of Catholic theologians in agreement. Of course it's complete nonsense. In fact, the quote Wright uses to prove that Benedict has rethought purgatory looks like nothing more than Benedict suggesting that time in the afterlife doesn't work the same as time in the world we know. It's not radical and it certainly doesn't reject the concept of purgatory.

At this point in the book (about halfway through), having dispensed of purgatory in less than a page, Wright breezily announces that once we've dropped purgatory we can move ahead and understand what he's going to explain to us next (presumably, over, and over and over again) (did I mention that he's really, really repetitive?). Since just dropping a major tenet of my faith - particularly on the basis of such laughably thin evidence - is impossible for me as a Catholic, I'm done. If he's willing to be so dishonest about this, who knows what other evidence he's manufacturing to prove his points. There's some good stuff here if you're patient, but even at the halfway point it seems twice as long as it needs to be, and the anti-Catholic nonsense is obnoxious.

OtisRobertson's review
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Spectacular book. I have any number of quibbles throughout the book, but the good overall far outweighs those quibbles.

sstallryan's review
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Despite the fact that it took me a whole year to finish the book, it is a great book. I'd highly recommend it to any pastor who might want to lead a book discussion group in their congregation. It would certainly challenge many common notions about what happens after death and encourage parishioners to become biblically aware of what Christianity is really all about.

CamCSmith's review
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A brilliant theological exposition on Christian eschatology, which has helped move many, including myself, away from Rapture theology. More review to come after second reading.

jackholloway's review
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Not as exegetically rich as I thought it would be, and he spends a lot of time complaining about Enlightenment rationalism, Platonism, et al. Still, it's an illuminating book about an important subject. I would recommend it to evangelical Christians looking for a better grasp of what the Bible says about the afterlife.

kalagrace's review
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This is a great exploration of what happens after you die and what it means for you (and the church as a whole) right now. It's a dense read, but I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about life after life after death, Christ's resurrection, our future, and how this great hope should affect your every moment.


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