Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Seeing the World Through the Lens of Hope
March 18, 2011
by Michelle Kirtley
Most Christians agree with Paul that the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christian faith: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). But what difference does it make—to our work, to our relationships, to the work of social justice—that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead? This is the question New Testament scholar N.T. Wright addresses in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Written primarily to reshape the Christian worldview around the hope of the resurrection, Wright’s insights necessarily also speak to how Christians engage in public justice.
After introducing his argument, Wright places the resurrection in its historical context—the expectations of ancient Greece and Rome and of first century Judaism with respect to life after death—and then persuasively defends the historical fact of the resurrection.
With this foundation laid, Wright asks the central question of the book: “What then is the ultimate Christian hope for the whole world and for ourselves?”
This is not merely an academic question. If we are confused about the nature of Christian hope, we will misunderstand our mission. This confusion, Wright argues, leads to two opposite, but equally dangerous errors. Christians who fix their hope on “going to heaven when they die” are apt to abandon the world as if it were a sinking ship, focusing exclusively on saving souls. On the other hand, those who deny the historical fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus (affirming instead a spiritual or metaphorical resurrection) may be hard at work against the injustices of the world but operate without any grounded hope in their success and without a “sourcebook for [their] kingdom critique of oppression.”
Wright maintains that neither of these responses would have made any sense to the disciples or Paul, who instead understood that the resurrection was the moment when what will be—the renewed, redeemed creation—broke through into this world, announcing the reign of God the King, guaranteeing its ultimate conquest. Wright summarizes his argument in the concluding pages of the book:
“… with Easter, God’s new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation … every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of creativity—doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom—is an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation and act as signposts of hope.”
For Christians oriented around a covenantal understanding of creation, fall, and redemption, Wright’s insistence on the eternal value of our very earthy, earthly endeavors will sound quite familiar. But by centering his argument for Christian hope on the resurrection—the defining event for all Christians—Wright broadens the audience for this “kingdom” perspective beyond traditional Reformed or Catholic circles.
As such, Surprised by Hope is not primarily a book about faith and politics. It is instead a book which develops the worldview in which a biblical approach to political life becomes possible. Wright argues that the resurrection of Jesus offers both the rationale for engaging in the long, slow work of public justice and the hope (in the more certain, Christian sense of the word) that the work is not in vain. Indeed, Wright is deeply encouraged by the fact that Paul ends his discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 by calling our attention, not to the future, but to the work at hand: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Wright finds in the toppling of communism and the end of apartheid evidence that God the King is continuing the work of the resurrection by righting the injustices of our age. He challenges Christians to get busy tackling contemporary injustices—global poverty, human trafficking, the HIV/AIDS pandemic—with the vigor that comes from such a certain hope.
—Michelle Kirtley is the Associate Editor of Capital Commentary and a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”