December 3, 2020

Recommendation and Review: Surprised By Hope by N.T. Wright

UPDATE: I agree with Doug Wilson that Wright’s lefty politics is a considerably different matter than his theology in this book.

With Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright has done several important things.

He has written perhaps his most accessible theological book on an important topic of interest to not only most Christians, but to millions of people in the general culture as well.

He has shown, with characteristic intelligence, style and persuasion, how the errors of the church’s handling of the Bible have become the errors of a culture completely confused on what Christians have to say regarding life after death.

He has, quite possibly, rescued the term “resurrection” for a whole generation of younger Christians who will read this book.

He has modeled true pastoral theology in a way that should inspire every pastor who reads the book to never again preach a tired and rehashed funeral sermon.

He has, hopefully, inspired a continuing examination and discussion of the role “heaven” plays in our message, the folk theology of our culture and our outworking of Christian ministry.

He has, as always, modeled a kind of Christian scholarship that is brilliantly deep, practically useful, determined to engage with the larger world and humbly cautious.

Readers of this space know that while I do not agree with a good bit of the Bishop’s politics (and that is certainly true about several political suggestions in this book) I am still an unabashed fan of his project of doing an entire New Testament theology from the ground up without signing up for the idiotic team sport approach of much of the Christian world. I learn as much from how Wright does his theology as what that theology actually teaches.

It has occurred to me this week that fundamentalism’s appeal within my own tradition has a great deal to do with anti-intellectualism and accessibility. A fundamentalist preacher can confidently haul out the certainties of creationism and make every student in my school who is failing biology feel that he knows more than a professor at Yale. Watch a few hours of Hovind/Hamm videos and you are ready to trounce any Biology professor at Oxford or Cambridge. Fundamentalism is about creating that kind of confidence out of the shallowest, cheapest materials.

This kind of Bible-waving simpleton-ism models everything that is wrong with the Christian approach to intellectual and academic issues. Armed with blatant misunderstandings of the Bible, the fundamentalist isn’t just competent to say the wise of this world may miss the truth of the Gospel (which is absolutely true); he/she’s also competent to make pronouncements on every subject, preach distortions and outright falsehoods as facts and drag whatever audience is available to believe what amounts to mythology as Biblical fact.

Wright is another approach. He is deeply prepared. He knows his history, Bible, languages and theology. He also knows the errors and minefields on the subject, but instead of coming off as an arrogant ass, he shows his readers what it looks like to approach Christian belief with critical seriousness, humility, and the courage to say, “…or maybe not.” He offers up a highly original alternative way of reading the Bible, one that has stimulated many of us toward the Bible in ways no other writer has- often because we’re convinced he’s made a wrong turn.

One of the most persistent responses to Wright is an insistent that he, too, is a fundamentalist. “Wright doesn’t believe in heaven” will most certainly continue to be heard after this book. Such a claim is nonsensical to the point of absurdity. It’s simply the case that in passage after passage, and topic after topic Wright points out the most obvious blind spots of the muddled eschatologies Protestants have glibly sold, devoured and applauded for the last several centuries.

Instead of lining up with a team, Wright suggests we all might be wrong and the Bible be on target. And, yes, even his own conclusions on subjects like hell, are offered with a confession of his own need of further correction.

I don’t agree with all of this book. I still have some questions, but Wright has inspired me to further study of the scripture on my own. His work consistently sends me back to an open Bible to read again what I’ve read before- but this time to examine my presuppositions, my reliance on assumptions and my failure to be a better scholar.

Many of you will read this book and you assumptions like heaven are going to be overturned. Perhaps for the first time, you’ll look at this subject with the determination to not let everyone else tell you what you must say. You’ll realize that life after death is a subject that demanded more from you than quoting “I Can Only Imagine.” Hopefully, you’ll reread, ask questions, revisit the languages, discuss the whole topic and draw some revised conclusions that will make a practical difference in the way you live, worship and evangelize.

I believe that’s exactly what N.T. Wright is all about. When you hear the usual suspects denounce him as a dangerous false teacher, remember that these are the people who want to do your thinking for you. Wright will show you what you have overlooked. He’ll show you a bigger picture, but the hard work is always going to be yours. On Jesus, justification and life after death. You are the one who will be staying up late reading the Bible.


  1. Bought it during Holy Week myself. Have not read it all yet – but so far so good. Vintage Wright. (Can Wright be vintage yet?)

  2. excellent…Thanks for the review!

  3. I’ve just started the book and like what I’ve read thus far, especially how the bishop gets far beyond the shallowness that you mention in many folks. I believe that it was the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman in his last and unfinished book, A Failure of Nerve, who wrote about our desire for “quick fixes.” So much so-called evangleical theology seems to fall in this trap. We all want the easy way, such as “The Four Spiritual Laws,” the “bridge” illustration, the “sinner’s prayer,” etc–all of which supposedly will “save” us for the kind of heaven that Wright points out is flat out wrong for the most part. Agree with him or not, but as you note, Wright provides what I see as a much needed corrective for much that gets preached and taught today as the “only way” to see things.

  4. Michael A says

    He’ll be speaking at West End UMC in Nashville 4/22/08 (Tuesday) from 7:30 to 9:30.

  5. Here’s a great list of other reviews and chapter summaries of the book, for anyone who might be interested.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World

  6. Pastor M, the best comment I ever heard on The Four Spiritual Laws (or maybe it’s really on the people who quote them) is that God loves you, and everyone else has a wonderful plan for your life.

  7. Michael,

    I am a product of much the same tradition in E. Tn. as yourself somewhere in Ky. I took a trip back to my childhood reading your posts on Heaven. Seems it was either the pit or the streets of gold each Sunday. And the shouting ladies gave the preacher time to catch air.

    I remember one pastor who would get “happy” and laugh when the church ladies began to shout. He would say, “If you don’t like shouting, don’t go to heaven. All we are going to do for all eternity is praise the Lord.”

    As an eight or nine year old I had a serious issue here. I didn’t want to go to hell. Nor was I thrilled about spending eternity where heavy women were going to scream all the time. True story.

    Thank God for theological education and for some great mentors along the way.

    The term “Fundamentalist” and “Fundamentalism” can mean many things to many people.

    I thought you and your readers might be interested in Denny Burk’s post on N.T. Wright’s book. You can read it at


  8. “God loves you, and everyone else has a wonderful plan for your life.”

    I’m going to put that in a frame on my wall. Perfect.

  9. Thankyou for your review of Wright’s book has inspired me to go buy this one. I am glad to know his thoughts are still developing.

  10. “He has, quite possibly, rescued the term “resurrection” for a whole generation of younger Christians who will read this book.”

    May I humbly revise this to read, “He has, quite possibly, rescued the term “resurrection” for a whole miniscule generation of younger Christians who will read it.”

    It is quite sad that Wesley and Whitefield and Spurgeon can not benefit from this rescue. I would suggest a little hyperbole as it applies to Wright. Maybe? 🙂

  11. Pastor M:

    A Failure of Nerve is probably the most important book I’ve read in the past year. Thanks for recommending it to others. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Wright’s Surprised by Hope – I look forward to reading it as well.

  12. May I humbly revise this to read, “He has, quite possibly, rescued the term “resurrection” for a whole miniscule generation of younger Christians who will read it.”

    Because most like their God and Christ dumbed down into “Say the Sinner’s Prayer/Magic(k) Words”. (Incidentally, “The Sinner’s Prayer” is a direct knockoff of the RCC Act of Contrition, and “The Four Spiritual Laws” a four-line sound-bite knockoff of St Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.)

    My writing partner is a burned-out pastor in rural PA; he has told me about trying to teach beyond-the-basics in his sermons, only to be told “Stop using those big words, Preacher. We don’t want to learn any big words.”

    i.e. “Just keep us comfortable until we get to Fluffy Cloud Heaven, that’s all we’re here for.”

  13. Ken-

    Could you elaborate on your comments about the Sinner’s Prayer and the Four Spiritual Laws’ Catholic origins? I’m totally interested, but not surprised if you’re right.


  14. Nate,

    Here’s one version of the sinners prayer:

    I, the sinner, do hereby solemly swear that I will be faithful and live the Christian life, doing my best at all times to not be a backslider and to go to church on Sunday with my three foot bible and take furious, copious notes, never letting on that I’m not really making progress climbing the spiritual ladder.

    You, God, will then be obligated to save me, performing your end of the contract and giving me such blessings as I have earned (see above).

    Date saved ____________

    Sign here (sinner) ___________________________

    Sign here (God) ___________________________

  15. Bob Sacamento says

    A tangential question: If you were to recommend just one or two of Wright’s books, what would they be? Thanks.

  16. I’d say go to the NT Wright page and download some audio on Jesus and the Kingdom.

    If the reader is a layperson, not scholarly trained, then the Everyone books and Simply Christian.

    If the reader is a scholarly, The big books. New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, Resurrection of the Son of God.

  17. Steve-

    That’s a pretty good summary of the sinner’s prayer.

    I’d still like to see how this is Roman Catholic in origin, like Ken wrote.

    Alexis Khomiakov, quoted in Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church, states that “all Protestants are Crypto-Papists…”

    I tend to agree that most questions about sin, salvation, faith, works, etc. have been framed by Catholic theology, especially medieval scholasticism.

    We Protestants may come to different conclusions than Catholics, but we often tend to be uncritically asking the same questions.

  18. The “Truly Sorry for my Sins” part comes from the Catholic prayer “The Act of Contrition” (in its various wordings), a confession of sin and the individual’s responsibility spoken during the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession); the “I Accept you into my Heart” appears to be a tack-on from some Protestant tradition (probably Baptist), where the Altar Call and emphasis on “Acceptin Jesus into My Heart” began.

    Google “Act of Contrition”; something should come up.

    Aside — Steve to Nate: Your “summary of the sinner’s prayer” sounds like a natural setup for something similar to Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer”, where a prophet tells the congregation what their prayer really involves in its fulfillment.

    As for the Four Spiritual Laws, check out the organization of The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola; this book of prayers and meditations by the founder of the Jesuits is divided into four sections corresponding to the Four Spiritual Laws. Spiritual Exercises is a series of prayers and meditations, normally done on retreat under supervision, intended to cause growth in Christ. The supervision (by someone who has been through the Exercises themselves) is recommended in case the subject goes off on a tangent (as in meditation upon sin triggering depression and despair). I understand the Exercises are part of Jesuit training.

  19. I’ve never heard of ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’. I’m very familiar with Ignatius’ ‘Spiritual Exercises’. They are a contemplation of the life of Christ from his birth to his ascension.

    Although divided into four sections (called ‘weeks’, but nothing to do with chronological time), I can’t really see that they have anything at all to do with what I’ve Googled as ‘The Four Spiritual Laws.’

    Yes, the Exercises are part of Jesuit training and the reason for a Spiritual Director is largely as you say (a bit more involved than that, but hard to explain without writing a very long post).

  20. Ken-


    Protestants and Catholics are two sides of the same coin, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if that’s a bad or a good thing, but it’s a point that Protestants seem to gloss over.

  21. Nothing that you link to actually explains or supports the rather surprising assertion that forgiveness of third world debt would necessarily lead to “neocolonialism” and “humanitarian disaster.” The assertion puzzles me.

    I was surprised at hearing “NT Wright” and “lefty politics” in the same sentence. Of course I am of a mind that takes “lefty” as a compliment, not in the perjorative manner in which I suspect it is being used here. As one who has recently returned to the Christian Church, and as a new Episcopalian, I have learned a great deal from Wright’s books and lectures, and am always saddened (and, frankly, surprised, given his other views on social justice) when he seems to drive straight off the road when he deals with the theology of gender.

    Michael, this is my first post here. I am a long time podcast listener. I’m sure our politics differ, but I really appreciate your witness and it has been helpful to me in my journey back to the Church. I’m a big fan of Merton, and love Liturgy, and your comprehensive opinions are fun to listen to and read. Keep up the good work.