Trevin Wax Interview with N.T. Wright on Surprised by Hope


On April 22, 2008, Bishop N.T. Wright and I sat down for a cup of coffee at Loew’s Vanderbilt Plaza in downtown Nashville. We discussed his new book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Churchincluding some of the criticisms leveled against the book from Mark Dever, Doug Wilson and others. Below is the full transcript of our talk. To jump ahead to the sections that interest you, see the following breakdown.

1. On Being Compared to C.S. Lewis 2. On Eschatology Leading to Action 3. On Mark Dever’s critique of Wright’s notion of a “public gospel” 4. On Avoiding the Errors of the Social Gospel 5. On the Importance of the Ascension 6. On Hell 7. On Purgatory 8. On Doug Wilson and Third World Debt 9. On John Piper’s Future of Justification

Trevin Wax:You have described Surprised by Hope as the sequel to Simply Christian. Both of these books have titles that remind us of famous works by C.S. Lewis. Likewise, you have been described as the “C.S. Lewis of this generation.” What aspects of Lewis’ work do you fully ascribe to? And what aspects of his work would give you pause?

N.T. Wright: First off, let me make it quite clear: I don’t think anyone is “the C.S. Lewis of this generation.” Lewis was inimitable. I take my hat off to him. He did an extraordinary job. Consider his range and the fact that he had a photographic memory for everything he read. He could recite poetry from way back. So I don’t aspire to that. But if I can be an apologist, somebody who explains the faith in ways that folk on the street can understand, so be it! That’s great.

Apologetics was Lewis’ great gift. He wasn’t a theologian. He was, obviously, wonderfully well-read. He knew literature rather than theology.

But Lewis made some rather simple, basic mistakes about the historical Jesus. For instance, in The Screwtape Letters, he says that you shouldn’t go looking for the historical Jesus because we all basically know who Jesus was, and any attempt to make that portrait better is just going to result in making him either a crank or somebody who’s just very strange. I know what he meant. He probably read Schweitzer and Bultmann and thought, If that’s where we’re going, let’s not bother.

His summary that Jesus must have been either mad or bad or God fails to take into account the subtleties and the nuances of first-century Judaism. Lewis’ views on the historical Jesus are odd because Lewis in his own professional work spent a great deal of time telling people (famously) in his studies on words that when you’re reading an old book, and you come to a word you don’t understand, you look it up in the dictionary. But the real danger is when you come a word you do understand in modern use, but it means something slightly different or completely different, and you don’t look it up, which will cause you to misread the passage. I wish he had taken that same lesson back into the first century and said, Hmm. Let’s actually find out what’s going on there. There’s nothing to be afraid of in doing that.

So, there are places where, as a New Testament scholar, I want to say, Lewis just didn’t get it. Deficiencies show up even in some of his basic arguments about Jesus. As I pointed out in an article last year, astonishingly in Mere Christianity, he doesn’t mention the resurrection (which considering he believed in it robustly is remarkable). I think he was doing those broadcast talks, and he did the next one and the next one, and I don’t think he stood back and said, “Wait a minute. Is this a full presentation or not?” So there are certain oddities about his work.

But on so many things, he is an amazingly shrewd analyst of ethics – partly because he was a trained philosopher, but also because as a reader of literature, he was used to analyzing plots and plays and novels and so on, figuring out what the characters were up to. It’s also because in his own personal piety, he had a spiritual director. He was used to examining his own motivation rather severely, and discovering what exactly was going on in his own insides. So when he’s describing how you feel and what you want to do and how you know what you shouldn’t do, etc., he is right on the button.

The last thing I would want to say is that Lewis was cheerfully naïve about politics. He’d grown up in a home in which politics were what grown-ups discussed all the time, and he thought it was deathly boring. I don’t think he ever abandoned that view all his life. I think he knew that Britain was basically right and Germany was basically wrong and he fought in the first war, but I don’t think there was much subtlety there. That again would follow from his not understanding the whole notion of the kingdom of God.

But who am I to say? He’s one of the all-time greats! I should be so flattered to be mentioned even in the same breath!

Trevin Wax: If you could change the entire eschatological outlook of your church setting in the twinkling of an eye, what changes in action would this bring about in local congregations?

My local congregations in Durham are a mixed bag. I have 250 parishes which cover the whole spectrum in the Anglican church, from high to low, from conservative to liberal, etc. For many of them, it would be nice to help them recognize that resurrection means what it says, not just the common assumption that the church teaches we go to heaven when we die and that’s it. There are some who have been grappling with the nature of the resurrection and who are getting on board with it.

Particularly, I want to develop what I do in the third part of Surprised by Hope, the sense from 1 Cor. 15:58 that because of the resurrection, what we do in the present matters – what we do with our own bodies and with God’s world. Actually, many of my congregations have more or less got that in their bloodstream.

There’s a certain type of Anglicanism that believes in God’s Kingdom as something that happens in bits and pieces and in fits and starts here and now and are working for that, but many Anglicans don’t have a fully articulated eschatological framework which makes sense of that. They know that they should work with homeless people and drug addicts and all sorts of things. So I find that it’s a great encouragement to say to them, “I’ll help you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ll help you to stay motivated and help you to involve more people in that work.”

Trevin Wax: Last week at the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, KY, Pastor and author Mark Dever critiqued the idea you put forth in Surprised by Hope that “the gospel is public.” More specifically, he worried that your readers may confuse the societal implications of the gospel with the gospel itself. What do you mean by saying the ‘gospel is public,’ and do you see such concerns such as the one voiced by Dr. Dever as valid?

N.T. Wright: “The gospel is public truth” is an idea I’ve found in many writings, particularly Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin’s work is well-known. He was a missionary in India and then came back and claimed to be a missionary in darkest Birmingham in the middle of England. Throughout his career, he articulated the truth that the gospel is not merely a private truth about how I feel or about my own personal knowledge of God. The gospel is something which is true about the way that the world is because of the resurrection of Jesus. The world is a different place as a result of the resurrection.

Newbigin’s work pushed me to explore what the kingdom of God is all about in the New Testament. The New Testament paints a picture of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, which is about something that is publicly true in the real world and not merely inside the church doors or inside Christians’ hearts.

Now, of course, it is possible for people to grasp that and then to work out the political “so what?” in ways that maybe naïve or misguided or ill-informed or whatever. In other words, you can’t jump directly from “the gospel is public truth” to “therefore, the following 19 implications must result from this.” But that there must be results from this in the real world seems to me absolutely inescapable!

Interestingly, the pope in New York this past weekend at the U.N. was stressing this as well. He said that it isn’t enough to say that freedom of religion equals freedom to worship in your own way. You must also have freedom to express and work out your religion in the public square in an appropriate way. How that plays out, I don’t know. But that is what a creational theology with the resurrection of Jesus in the middle of it is all about.

I go back to Paul’s speech on the Areopagus again and again. He’s taking on the public world of his day with the good news of Jesus and his resurrection. And you get laughed at for it and people get very cross. But the public nature of the gospel is inescapable.

Trevin Wax: In Surprised by Hope, you make a clear distinction between the terminology of “building the kingdom of God” and “building for the kingdom of God.” Why is it so important that we maintain this distinction?

N.T. Wright: The old social gospel from 100 years ago (though its best exponents were better than this) communicated to people a wrong message that went something like this: Okay, we’ve got to build God’s kingdom. The social gospel is a type of sociological Pelagianism, an attempt to pull society up by its own bootstraps. Of course, those efforts often colluded with a Western post-Enlightenment idea that said: Now that we have got modern science and technology and medicine, we are going to make the world a better place! We’ve had to learn painfully that “that ain’t necessarily so.”

Granted that, speaking of “building for the kingdom” is a way of saying what Jesus talks about when you give someone a cup of cold water. Good works will not go unnoticed, unrewarded. The deeds that one does in Christ and by the Spirit are not wasted.

The example I use in the book is about the stonemason who builds for the cathedral. The architect and the builder have the great design for the cathredal. The stonemason is just told, “You’ve got to carve this bit of stone in this way.” And the stonemason does that and then later looks up and sees his stone halfway up in the cathedral and thinks, “Wow! That’s my little bit up there! And look, I now see how it fits into the greater pattern.” We are building, like the stonemason, for the kingdom rather than us actually doing the building itself.

We don’t know how the kingdom works. Take Jesus’ parables about seeds growing secretly and small seeds becoming mustard bushes and so on. The kingdom is always a surprise to us, which keeps us humble. The danger with “building the kingdom” language can make us very proud. “Building for the kingdom” keeps you humble. It says, “These are your tasks; you’ve got to get on with them. How God puts them into the eventual construct is completely his business.”

Trevin Wax: For all of the right focus on the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, many evangelical Christians see the resurrection as some sort of ‘after-thought’ to what happened at Calvary. You have done much to correct this with works such as The Resurrection of the Son of God. But the ascension of Christ is perhaps even more neglected than his resurrection. The Western Church is preparing to celebrate the Ascension, an oft-neglected Christian holy day. Why is the Ascension so important and what would you recommend pastors do to increase the celebration of this monumental event?

N.T. Wright: If I could mention another new book, Acts for Everyone, which just came out, has (of course) material on the Ascension. When I was writing that book this time last year, I was very excited about the Ascension. I had done some things in connection with the Ascension for Surprised by Hope, but I hadn’t worked through it exegetically in the way I did with Acts for Everyone.

I think the problem that we have had comes from the wrong conception of heaven. Once you start to think of heaven, not as a place miles up in the sky, but as God’s dimension of reality which intersects with ours (but in a strange way that is to us unpredictable and uncontrollable), certainly then you realize that for Jesus to go into the heavenly dimension, is not for him to go up as a spaceman miles up into space somewhere, and not for him to be distant or absent now. It is for him to be present, but in the mode in which heaven is present to us. That is, it’s just through an invisible screen, but present and real.

The key thing to realize, as in the Old Testament, in Daniel, for example, is that heaven is the control room for what happens on earth. I think I do say this in Surprised by Hope actually. Heaven is basically where earth is run from. And it’s because we haven’t taken seriously the language of Matthew 28, where Jesus says, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth,” that we haven’t thought of it like that. We’ve thought of it like, He’s gone away, leaving us to run things. No. He is in heaven. He is in charge. He is the Lord. That’s true right now. Now, how his lordship works out is then through the work of the church. But he is the Lord and is present with and through his church, as we are doing what we are called to do.

To celebrate that at the Ascension is huge. It’s radical. It’s very, very important. I’m looking forward to Ascension Day. I love it. It’s a wonderful feast!

Trevin Wax: So, the Ascension is also pointing us to waiting for the day when the invisible screen is gone?

N.T. Wright: Of course. The Ascension properly allows us to understand the Second Coming. Again, it isn’t a matter of Jesus as a spaceman flying downwards. It’s the screen being removed and his reappearing. When I was working on the lectures that turned into Surprised by Hope, I realized that so many of the key passages speak of “his appearing,” not merely “his coming.” And “coming” is a good way to express the truth, because it appears he is now absent and so then if he appears to us, then it is as though he has come and has arrived. But the Second Coming is more like an unveiling or appearing.

Trevin Wax: How does hell fit into your understanding that God is going to renew the whole creation. Do you believe that hell is the eternal experience of God’s wrath? What does the language of the Bible regarding hell imply?

N.T. Wright: I didn’t originally write a passage in Surprised by Hope on hell, but wherever I went and lectured on it, everyone wanted to ask about it. So eventually I thought, Oh dear, I better try and say something about the reality of hell.

I’ve tried to take seriously the biblical language of God’s renewing of all things (Ephesians 1 – God’s design is to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth). It’s the truth of “heaven plus earth” that really matters. You don’t get in the Bible the picture of heaven and hell that is prevalent in Western culture, as if earth is passing away and what we’ll be left with is a heaven with lots of people in it and a hell with even more people in it.

So, I’ve struggled to take seriously the whole “heaven coming to earth” theme as the great wonderful renewal. But at the same time, I’ve struggled to take seriously what the Bible says about the possibility and the actuality of final loss for those who persist in rebellion against the gospel. Romans 2 says it all. For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury, tribulation, distress… Paul is talking about those who are persisting in saying “no” to God, at whatever level that is, (and there are different ways of saying no to God).

It dawned on me several years ago that when somebody says “no” to God and refuses to worship the God in whose image they are made, saying “I’m not going to worship that God,” then what happens to their humanness is that it progressively ceases to bear the image of God. You become like what you worship. You reflect the one you worship. It’s one of the great truths of spirituality.

So my way of describing it is that once this life is over, people who have decided not to worship God cease to bear God’s image. The thought of an ex-human being is something that some people find shocking and horrifying. In a sense, it is shocking and horrifying. Think about people we know! I’m sure most people, unless we live in very enclosed worlds, must know some people (if we truly hold to a theology of hell) who are going there! That should give us pause. That should cause us to pray for them and to weep over them. So I don’t say this with any relish at all.

My description is neither an annihilationist view nor an eternal conscious torment view, because it seems to me that to cease to be image-bearing is actually to reduce the scale of what’s going on. This is a creature which will be a memory, a sad memory, an abiding ex-humanness. That is something that the biblical language of hell may be pointing to. But I don’t want to be dogmatic on this. This is merely a way to go to try to hold on to the two things that the Bible is saying. 1. The reality of loss for some and 2. the absoluteness of God’s victory over the whole creation.

What you don’t want to end up with is the picture that some theologies have of a wonderful, glorious countryside with a concentration camp in the middle with people being tortured. I think the 19th century rightly reacted against that image, and I don’t think there’s any way back to that except perhaps by closing our hearts to the sort of pity and love which we are told is at the heart of God himself.

Trevin Wax: In Surprised by Hope, you speak about hell as a process of becoming less and less human. You affirm very clearly your belief that the just will be raised at the last day to inhabit God’s new world. What about the resurrection of the unjust? Will those who inhabit hell be embodied, even as they are bearing less and less the image of God that makes them human?

N.T. Wright: As you may have noticed, that’s a question I don’t try to resolve in The Resurrection of the Son of God. You’ve got passages like Romans 8 (the glorious promise for those who are in Christ by the indwelling of the Spirit) and you’ve also got passages like John 5 where it is clear that Jesus is talking about a resurrection of the just and the unjust, as in some of the key biblical and post-biblical antecedents.

Some of the early fathers insisted on the resurrection of the unrighteous because they said, “These people have sinned in the body. They need to be back in the body in order to be punished properly.” But then they would add that the punishment consists of some sort of dehumanization or whatever.

I don’t want to be dogmatic about this subject. The resurrection of the body is such an astonishing truth in Paul. We are to be raised immortal, given bodies that will never suffer pain or die, and that meaning of resurrection is clearly not going to be the same meaning of resurrection that relates to those who are unsaved. If we take the biblical language seriously, then the lost will be in some sort of pain. According to the picture of resurrection in Paul, that’s going to be impossible.

I try to insist in the book and in my lecture on this that all our language about the future is like a signpost pointing into a fog. We don’t have an actual photographic description of what we’re going to find when we get to where the signpost is pointing. But we do have assurance that if we follow down this track, we’re going in the right direction.

Trevin Wax: So you’re saying that we’ve entered the realm of speculation.

N.T. Wright: Yes. But it’s speculation within limits. It’s not unfettered speculation.

Trevin Wax: You teach that Christians will be judged by our actions, in accordance with Romans 2. You also say that justification is our assurance in the present of the declaration of righteousness from the future. Do our sinful actions in the present still matter? If so, wouldn’t the Catholic concept of purgatory be necessary?

N.T. Wright: I reject the Catholic concept of Purgatory, however it seems the Catholics are actually realigning Purgatory as we speak, which is rather exciting. Actually, what the Pope is now saying about Purgatory corresponds to 1 Corinthians 3.

Romans 8:1 really matters. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ! 1 Corinthians 3 also matters, so that if we build on the foundation (which is Christ) wood, hay and stubble, then the fire will burn that up. I assume that Paul believes that will be not a condemnatory process, but a painful necessary purgative process. It wouldn’t be the Catholic concept of Purgatory we’d be left with.

Our sins do matter. When I am conscious of sin in my own life, I realize that I may one day look back and see that there was something really good or important that I was supposed to be doing, and instead I went my own way and did something else. Sin is not just the committing of a wrong act. Temptation also distracts us from doing things that we should have been doing, the prayers we should have been praying. We’ll never know what would have happened had we done the right thing at that point. I think God must be grieving over our lost possibilities, while by his Spirit, he is giving us the energy we need to make the right decisions.

Our wrong acts do matter, but not in the sense that because of them, we will experience final condemnation. The judgment in accordance with works is so important in 2 Corinthians 5, Romans 14 as well as Romans 2. I would say to all Christians who struggle with the doctrine of justification at this point: don’t let go of that judgment according to works! It does not destroy justification by faith alone. It does not mean that we’re creeping in a little Pelagianism by the back door after all. It is about the wholeness of the human life lived before God. And that is extremely serious. It’s one of the controversial things, of course, but it has to be worked out.

Trevin Wax: Douglas Wilson has recently praised your new book, but he has also strongly criticized your proposals concerning the forgiving of third-world debts. He says: “The problem with N.T. Wright’s call for action is not that he is urging us to do something. The problem is that he is (in effect) urging us to take sides as Christians in a tangle and conflict created by and for unbelievers.” Have you read Wilson’s critique of your thoughts on this issue? Do you have any immediate reaction?

N.T. Wright: I’ve seen this but have not yet had time to read the critique. I believe I met Doug Wilson at the Auburn Avenue conference that I spoke at three or four years ago.

Wilson’s criticism goes along with the criticism in First Things that appeared in the April issue. (I’ve just today sent a rebuttal against those charges.) Richard John Neuhaus wrote negatively about Surprised by Hope and took some potshots at the Archbishop of Canterbury as well. I think much of it was him basically getting his facts wrong. He didn’t like the politics, so he tried to rubbish the theology as well. But he made several factual errors. (I had lunch with him yesterday in New York and I said to him what I sent off to be printed.)

Part of the difficulty is that those who have embraced something approximating a normal, right-wing political stance on various issues find it very difficult to hear what I and many other people around the globe are saying as anything other than anti-Americanism. I want to assure people that it has nothing to do with anti-Americanism. I am deeply critical of my own government on some things, but that doesn’t make me anti-British. I am deeply critical of the Israeli government on some things (not all), but that doesn’t make me anti-Jewish. We have to call issues as we see them.

I’ve studied the problem of global debt quite intensively. In fact, I’ve read probably more books about contemporary economics recently than I have contemporary biblical studies. Curiously, I find myself drawn into that world, and it’s quite likely that I’m getting a lot of things wrong.

But when I find people at the right of the spectrum saying, “Oh you just can’t apply the gospel like this!” I want to reply, Wait a minute. It would be really nice if even for one teeny little moment, people who take that sort of position could see themselves as others see them, and could actually see what the recent actions of the present American government in the wider world actually look like, and the way in which the economic policies of the Western world as a whole (including my own country) have actually kept millions of people enslaved.

Of course, it’s not all directly connected to the World Bank and the IMF, etc. However, there are many countries suffering, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, under a debt burden which was run up by crazy tyrants (and I know that there are all sorts of wickedness and iniquities, etc.). A country can’t go bankrupt. If you or I are in a huge debt, we go bankrupt. There are ways of doing that. You can start over. People can build up a business again. A country can’t do that. The compound debt goes on mounting up. The people who are bearing the burden are the people who are forced to grow their own crops and the people who are forced to do things to service the debt, rather than having the national product going to housing, medicine, education, etc.

This injustice is actually the sort of thing about which the Old Testament prophets had a great deal to say. Some have said to me, “Go read the works of F.A. Hayek because he will show you that actually giving handouts to the poor just encourages a dependency culture and that’s not the way to go.”

Very well. Imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here comes an economist and he looks at the poor man, but he realizes that if he helps him, he is actually going to increase a dependency culture, so he passes by on the other side. Sorry. That’s just not good enough.

I’m making a plea for mercy. It’s not rocket science. It’s not macro economics and Ph.D-level complicated. It’s just asking, “What’s wrong with this picture of the way the world is working at the moment?” And I hear Doug Wilson and others as saying, “We don’t want to listen to that question.” You might not like my answer to the question, but please listen to the question.

Trevin Wax: Last time we spoke, you had just received your copy of John Piper’s The Future of Justification and had not had a chance to read it. What are your thoughts of the final version? Are you planning on responding to this book in any way?

N.T. Wright: I have discussed with my publishers the possibility of what I should do. Of course, Piper is not the only person who has critiqued either me or the New Perspective.

Piper’s criticism is very interesting. I warmed to him. He sent me a copy of it with a charming hand-written dedication, so on. He has clearly bent over backwards to try to understand where I and others are coming from. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. He nearly gets to the point where he sees what I’m trying to say, and then the old worldview reasserts itself and he just can’t see through those lenses. I don’t want to say this patronizingly, but it is very frustrating.

I don’t have much spare time at the moment, but I would like to do something reasonably brief about Old Perspective/New Perspective issues, because I don’t want this debate to dominate the big book on Paul that I want to write at the end of next year (God willing, if I am spared, and if I get my sabbatical in order). For many readers of Paul, all the shouting match over Old and New Perspectives is not where the key issues are, so it’s not what I want to major on in the book. So I think I probably need to do something, not to set the record straight, but to keep the conversation going.

What I regret is when people say (and I’ve seen it here and there), “Oh, of course, Wright is wrong about justification (brackets, see Piper’s book).” I want to reply, Piper’s book isn’t always a critique of what I’m actually saying.

I’m intrigued that Piper has some positions about the righteousness of God, for instance, which are idiosyncratic. He thinks the word righteousness means “the righteousness of God is a concern for God’s glory.” Righteousness is God’s own concern for God’s glory, and then when God imputes righteousness to believers, he regards them as if they have a concern for God’s glory. He does some Old Testament work to back that up which I think just fails as exegesis of the passages.

Of course, the righteousness of God and the glory of God are intimately connected, but righteousness does have a very specific meaning related to the law-court and the covenant and this meaning can be monitored through Scripture again and again and again and not least in the post-biblical literature. Very interesting that he has a bit saying, “Let’s try leaving the post biblical literature out of it.” In other words, let’s read the New Testament in a vacuum historically. I just don’t think you can do that with any scholarly integrity.

The trouble is, this is not a fight that I wanted to get into because Piper is a good, beloved brother in Christ, doing a good job, building people up in the faith, teaching them how to live. I would prefer that he exegete Paul differently, of course, but the people I really want to fight are (like for Paul) the pagans out on the street who are reordering society in ways that are deeply dehumanizing. The gospel is for the pagans. It’s the reflex of the gospel to have the in-house fight with the Judaizers as it were.

When I was working on the commentary on Acts and worked through all Paul’s squabbles with the Jews in Jerusalem, etc. and the accusations they were throwing at him, I kept thinking, I know what this feels like. He’s come back home, having done all this stuff out there and here are these guys saying, “You are opposed to the temple. You’re letting the Law of Moses down. You’re doing this and doing that.” He’s saying, “No, I’m not doing any of that stuff.”

I certainly wouldn’t be so bold to make myself into a new incarnation of Paul! But I cannot help but think that maybe this is what happens when you’re trying to take the gospel out onto the street and into the wider world. You’re going to get shot at from your own home base.

As Piper says in his Intro, he and I are both old enough not to take this personally. We’re past the age of testosterone-fueled theological debate. It’s more or less, “Let’s just try to sort this thing out.” That’s fine.

I hope I will be able to respond. If he looks in on your blog, I give him my warmest greetings. I’ve still never met him. We’ve tried to meet a couple of times, but I’ve not yet made it yet.

Interview with N.T. Wright © 2008 Kingdom People blog

Related Past Articles: My Review of Surprised by Hope My Review of John Piper’s The Future of Justification My November 2007 Interview with N.T. Wright

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