Nugent’s perspective is different from N. T. Wright’s. Wright’s perspective is important because it has influenced so many theologians and teachers — myself included. I’ve expressed some doubts about Wright’s thinking in the past, and so maybe this will be a good opportunity to sort through the question in more detail.
The point of this final section of the book is that a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope which is held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope which is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world—for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful and wounded world—is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to ‘the gospel’ as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’ in the present. It is a central, essential, vital and life-giving part of it.
So Wright sees benevolence and social justice efforts as central to the gospel because of his understanding of the new heavens and new earth.
Mostly, Jesus himself got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing. They saw him ‘saving’ people from sickness and death, and they heard him talking about a ‘salvation’, the message for which they had longed, which would go beyond the immediate into the ultimate future. But the two were not unrelated, the present one a mere ‘visual aid’ of the future one, or a trick to gain people’s attention. The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not about saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so that they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose—and so that they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project itself.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 204.
Interesting … And I agree that Jesus was demonstrating in his miracles the nature of the new heavens and new earth (NHNE) that would come. People were healed because in the immediate presence of Jesus, disease and brokenness must give way to wholeness and health. Amen.
When we turn to Paul, the verse which has always struck me in this connection is 1 Corinthians 15:58. Paul, we remind ourselves, has just written the longest and densest chapter in any of his letters, discussing the future resurrection of the body in great and complex detail. How might we expect him to finish such a chapter? By saying, ‘therefore, since you have such a great hope, sit back and relax, because you know God’s got a great future in store for you’? No. Instead, he says, ‘Therefore, my beloved ones, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’
What does he mean? How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? Quite straightforwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters, because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called. 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 neighbour as yourself—all these things will last into God’s future. They 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, ‘until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away’). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 204–205.
Even more interesting … and I’m not sure that I agree. This sounds a lot like the Post-millennial view that human effort will bring about the Millennium, except in this case, it’s not the Millennium but the NHNE. That is, if I dig a well, not only will the people I bring to Jesus will be a part of the NHNE, but so will the well itself. Just so, if I make the world a better place through my poetry or painting, not only will the people touched survive into the NHNE, so will the poem and painting.
And I don’t see it. I mean, most Christian poetry is really pretty bad. I’m hoping for better. And will we need wells in the NHNE when there’s a river of fresh water flowing from Jerusalem (per Eze and Rev)?
It’s no good falling back into the tired old split-level world where some people believe in ‘evangelism’ in terms of ‘saving souls for a timeless eternity’ and other people believe in ‘mission’ in terms of ‘working for justice, peace and hope in the present world’. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the New Testament, and everything to do with the silent enslavement of many Christians (both ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’) to the Platonic ideology of the Enlightenment. Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight. If we want a ‘mission-shaped church’, what we need is a hope-shaped mission. And if that is surprising, we ought to be getting used to it by now.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 206.
Now, I couldn’t agree more that mission includes both evangelism and benevolence (which includes social justice). There should be no such divide, because love compels us to feed both spiritual and physical and thirst. We cannot claim to love someone and not help them find fresh water. But does that mean the well will be present in the NHNE?
For the first Christians, the ultimate ‘salvation’ was all about God’s new world; and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people, or being rescued from shipwreck, or whatever, was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate ‘salvation’, that healing transformation of space, time and matter. The future rescue which God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present. We are saved, not as souls, but as wholes.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 211.
I agree to this extent: salvation is to bring backwards into the present the future salvation promised in the NHNE. That is, today’s church/Kingdom is a preview, down payment, or firstfruits of the salvation we’ll enjoy in the NHNE. Just as Rev 21-22 describes, our role will be and now is to serve/worship God. Just as there are beings in heaven singing “Holy, holy, holy” to God in the great throne room of heaven, we sing his praises in church anticipating the worship of the NHNE.
And we’ll be with the same people. The people we worship with today are the people we’ll worship with in heaven. And so Jesus’ healing of diseases and casting out demons anticipated the healing of brokenness and defeat of demonic powers that will happen when Jesus returns. And to some lesser degree, we enjoy healing and cleansing in this in-between time as we find strength and comfort among our brothers and sisters at church — at least.
[The gospel] is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory, and that inaugurated new world, into practice. ‘Atonement’, ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’ are what happens on the way, because for people to engage in this work demands that they themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world, in order that they can in turn be rescuers.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 217.
This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings, and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which has begun with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 219–220.
That is a truly beautiful picture. And I disagree. Well, more precisely, maybe God will do all that — but I can’t find anywhere that the text actually says that. I think there’s a better, truer reading.