By Chris Morton
What do you do when your gospel is too small for the world you’re experiencing?
That’s the question that was posed to me as I read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope while flying to New Delhi. It was the first time I’d ever traveled from my comfy home in the U.S. to an entirely foreign culture.
Overwhelmed by Culture Shock
The best way I know how to describe it is that all of my senses were overwhelmed—simultaneously.
It was at least 110°. The air was filled with the smell of people, animals, and unfamiliar foods. Polyrhythmic Bollywood hits playing on nearby radios and Imams calling their congregations to prayer meant that even the soundscape was different than I was used to.
There were also sights for which I wasn’t prepared. New Delhi is a world-class city, which means it also struggles with the poverty that accumulates in cities all around the world.
While weaving in and out of traffic in our tuk-tuk, we would see young children, almost toddlers, begging for money. They shared the crowded streets with vendors of all types as well as animals.
I was staying in an orphanage with about 100 children. They slept two or three to a bed. If it was a good week, they got to eat chicken on Wednesdays.
I found myself asking questions like “What does it mean that there are so many who haven’t heard the gospel because of where they were born?” and “What does the gospel mean to a child who only eats protein once a week?”
Although I considered myself thoughtful and educated, I wasn’t prepared for how different the world could be—and how difficult it was for so many.
Overwhelmed by Hope
Seeing a different part of the world and new level of poverty wasn’t the only thing that shaped this earth-shattering experience. I bided my time on the 20 hour plane ride with a slow and deliberate reading of Surprised by Hope.
The book makes an unsettling claim about the nature of the gospel as many churches have taught it:
‘A massive assumption has been made in Western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to ‘go to heaven when you die’, and texts that don’t say that but that mention heaven are read as if they did say it, and texts that say the opposite…’
If Surprised by Hope stopped there, it would be just another voice condemning the Western Church for its short-sightedness. But it makes a larger claim: Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of something new. It unleashed New Creation all around.
‘Salvation, then, is not “going to heaven” but “being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth…’
…’Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.’
Reading Surprised by Hope is a deconstructive experience. It leads you to reread the promises of scripture with new eyes. But it also inspires you to realize the height and depth of what God is up to in this world.The assumption has been made that being a Christian means going to heaven when you die. Click To Tweet
Joining God’s New Creation Work
Experiences like my culture shock of traveling around the world and encountering extreme poverty leave many unsure. It can leave you unsure of how to interact with the pain of the world. It can even leave you unsure of where God is at work.
What is the point of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection? When I encountered a new culture and a new level of poverty, I knew it couldn’t only mean that some people got to go to heaven after they died. That was too simple of an answer; a cute bow to distract you from a complicated package.
As Wright puts it near the end of Surprised by Hope:
‘The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…
What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.
These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.’
Surprised by Hope led me to reread the Bible as God’s story of New Creation. It means that we have hope after we die.
Here’s how Professor Wright describes it in the upcoming course Resurrection of the Son of God.
But even more than that, we have hope for today! It’s a hope we live out when we join the work God is already up to.'What you do in the present will last into God's future.' N.T. Wright Click To Tweet
Surprised by Hope is the basis of our latest course Resurrection of the Son of God. Click HERE to join the waitlist.