Saturday, January 8, 2011

Surprised by Hope - Part 1

for the Essentials Blue In Worship Theology Certificate Course with Dan Wilt

As the wife of an ex-Christian agnostic, there are days when my faith feels shaky, when I wonder (again) if there is any validity to my husband’s doubts, when I wonder if what I’ve chosen to believe is really true. Most days what anchors me is the experience of a relationship with Christ that has sustained me the better part of my life. But there are days when the intellectual arguments replay in my thoughts and doubts creep in.

Enter Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. I wasn’t having “one of those days” when I started reading it, but as the words began to soak into my soul, I found myself settling somewhere deep inside. This particular season of life has been so crazy that I didn’t even notice the internal swirlings as needing to be settled. I hadn’t even had time to acknowledge their existence, much less analyze the source.

The reality is, though, that my hope had been waning, and I didn’t even know it.

N.T. Wright begins by asking: “First, what is the ultimate Christian hope. Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?”[1] What is this hope that fuels all we are to do as Christians? Answering these questions is a matter of “thinking straight about God and His purposes for the cosmos and about what God is doing right now, already as a part of those purposes.”[2]

Straight thinking. It really begins there. Having renewed thinking, getting the right thoughts about God and who He is is essential to a vibrant and healthy relationship with the Triune God. In this 2-part post I am going to explore some of the ideas put forth in Surprised by Hope that have helped to restore hope in my life.

My view of death and resurrection are key to sustaining straight thinking about God and His Kingdom. Is death an enemy or “welcome friend”?[3] According to Scripture, death is an enemy that was conquered at the cross. The Platonic view has invaded Christian thinking, however, causing us to devalue this present world, our physical bodies, and to think of them as somehow shabby or shameful. With this view, death is welcomed as an escape from this world.[4]

But is Heaven just a place we go to when we die? If so, then shouldn’t we welcome death so that we can go to heaven to be with God? Wright points out that such a view of heaven limits our understanding of God. Heaven is God’s Kingdom, and it’s not just somewhere we go when we die. Heaven is “the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life…God’s dimension.”[5] It is His rule coming on earth as it is in Heaven.

So where does the ultimate Christian hope lie? While glorious and certainly wonderful, Heaven is not it. Our hope lies in the event of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and the new creation that was birthed in that moment.

Not found in paganism, the idea of resurrection was unique to Jewish and later to Christian thought.[6] For the first-century Jew, however, resurrection was thought to be a sweeping event for all of God’s people that would bring God’s Kingdom here on earth as in Heaven. With Christianity, resurrection became two events: 1) Jesus – one person in the middle of history and 2) believers on the last day.[7]

For my husband, the resurrection is one of the key points of contention. Most agnostic literature around our house brings it into question and categorizes it as a tale told by the disciples in order to explain away an awkward situation: the death of Jesus, the supposed Messiah.

What is interesting to note is that the Jews did not ever anticipate a messiah who would die, much less one who would raise from the dead. When Jesus spoke of raising from the dead, it would have confused the disciples who were thinking of the resurrection as one event for all of God’s people, not one that their teacher would experience before them. “No Jew with any idea of how the language of messiahship worked could have possibly imagined, after his crucifixion, that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Lord’s anointed. But from very early on, as witnessed by what may be pre-Pauline fragments of early creedal belief, the Christians affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.”[8] (to be continued)

1 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperCollins Press, 2008), 5.
2 Ibid, 5.
3 Ibid, 17.
4 Ibid, 26.
5 Ibid, 19.
6 Ibid, 42.
7 Ibid, 45.
8 Ibid, 47-48.

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