A friend recently asked me, “What book has most changed your theology in the last couple years?” and I had to answer, “N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.” Wright argues (convincing me) that while in some sense “to depart and be with Christ…is far better” (Philippians 1:23), while in the “Father’s house are many rooms” and Christ went there to “prepare a place for you” (John 14:1-3), heaven is only our intermediate hope. Our great hope, our ultimate hope, is the resurrection: Not just waking up “there,” but bodily resurrection here, and, more over, our Lord’s arrival. I recommend this very readable book; consider the case for yourself.
This month, I’ve finally found the time to read The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright’s nerdier book in which he examines many of the texts that animate Surprised by Hope. He addresses some of my reservations about his thesis, namely: What about heaven? Why are we told to focus on heaven, where our citizenship is, to long for the day when we “will be caught up together…in the clouds to see the Lord in the air”?
These Biblical ideas fit together, but it’s probably best to take them one at a time. Take, for example, this passage from Colossians. If our hope is not in being taken to heaven, then why does Paul say this:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
Wright does not shy away from this verse. In fact, he believes it is central to Paul’s message in Colossians. However, he explains:
The introductory thanks-giving emphasizes ‘the hope which is stored up for you in the heavens’ (1:5), which, as we shall see with other similar phrases, does not mean that Christians must leave ‘earth’ and go to ‘heaven’ in order to make this hope their own, but that ‘heaven’ is where the divine purposes for the future are stored up, waiting to be brought to birth in the new reality, the new age in which heaven and earth will be joined in a fresh way
-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 5456
He later comments:
If I assure my guests that there is champagne for them in the fridge I am not suggesting that we all need to get into the fridge if we are to have the party.
-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 8398
Wright is not arguing against the promise that our hope is in heaven. Rather, he is arguing against the assumption that our hope is in going to heaven. Certainly, our hope is not in ourselves or our world; our hope is in God. Yet, God has already promised us and shown us that He delights to work in this world, through His Son, through His Spirit, through His word, through His people. All our hope is energized by heaven—or, better, by God, whose work is unopposed in heaven and breaking in here.
What about the declaration that our citizenship is in heaven? Does this not mean that “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”? Heavenly citizenship is a solidly Biblical truth:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Here, Wright draws on his research of 1st c. life to suggest that the Philippian recipients would not have understood “citizenship” to mean that they were on a holiday on earth, just waiting for their return flight to heaven. That’s not how their Roman citizenship worked:
the Roman citizens whose forebears had originally colonized Philippi were there to stay. Their task was to live in the colony by the rules of the mother city, not to yearn to go home again. What they might need from time to time was not a trip back to Rome, but for the emperor to come from Rome to deliver them from any local difficulties they might be having. That is the model Paul is drawing on
-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 5272
This citizenship goes with us, even if we now have a new home. A bit like the U.S. passport that gave Annie and me up to 90 days in Serbia when our train crossed the border last week, so our heavenly citizenship gives us freedom from sin, life in the Spirit, a promise of resurrection, a future inheritance, even here.
Finally, what of the anticipation quoted above, that the dead will be raised and those who are alive will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”? Here it is with a bit more context:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
-1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
Again, Wright describes the image this would have evoked in 1st c. recipients’ minds:
the point here is that the ‘meeting’—another almost technical term in the Greek—refers, not to a meeting after which all the participants stay in the meeting-place, but to a meeting outside the city, after which the civic leaders escort the dignitary back into the city itself.
-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Kindle loc. 4975
Our hope is in heaven, but our hope is coming here, because our hope is the Lord Jesus Christ. We can focus on heaven today because we are citizens of heaven today; what God’s people get we get because we are God’s people now. That includes this promise: God is coming soon. When King Jesus appears, the dead will be raised, and we will greet Him, not to be whisked away, but rather to be led, to be renewed, to be mobilized, to be employed in the remaking of this world. Our hope is there, but it is ours here, and our hope will unmistakably arrive in time.