Heaven on earth 'our ultimate destiny'
BookSurprised by Hope reviewed
By Nils Von Kalm
June 6 2018Heaven is not just what happens when we die, but ultimately the consummation of heaven and earth. Nils von Kalm reflects on how reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope deconstructed his worldview.
It is not often that a book has such an impact on your worldview that it still remains at the top of your most recommended books a decade after you first read it.
That is the impact that N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope first had on me back in 2008. This classic of Wright’s is about what Christian hope really is and what it really isn’t. The basic premise is that there has been much confusion in Christian history about what the ultimate Christian hope is, both inside and outside the church. For many Christians, it is about going to heaven when we die – life after death. What Wright explains so well though is that the ultimate Christian hope is rather about what he calls “life after life after death”. Or, as he also puts it, it is not about going to heaven, but about heaven coming here.
Throughout the book, Wright explains how and why this has huge implications for our worldview and for how we conceive of and do mission. If we believe that being Christian is about going to heaven when we die, then evangelism and trying to win souls for Christ will be of supreme importance to us. However, if we believe Christian hope is about heaven ultimately coming to earth, then we will see justice-seeking and care for the environment, among other concerns, as equally important Gospel issues as winning people for Christ. The reason is that God has given us the privilege of participating in this kingdom-building venture. We can work with God for the building of this kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Wright puts forward his thesis using a masterful combination of theology and history. He explains how we got to the stage of believing in an individualised gospel which emphasises a disembodied afterlife as our ultimate destiny. He then painstakingly takes us through the narrative of Scripture to show how the kingdom of God which Jesus came to inaugurate is something which involves the transformation of the whole of existence, not just our individual selves. In the process, he shows how this includes everything from our morality to our economics, our politics, our sexuality, our care for the poor and our care for the environment.
Sometimes certain books are written for their time, and for me, Surprised by Hope was also perfectly timed for where I was at in my faith journey in 2008. I was working at World Vision and was just starting to write more about the Christian mandate to care for the poor. I had always believed in the importance of caring for the poor as a Christian, but after reading this book, I realised that, at the same time, I still held to a view that said we were ultimately going to end up in a place called heaven in the sky when we die. The two didn’t complement each other.
Old habits die hard, they say, and so do old convictions. When you have been taught something in your formative years and believed it with all your heart, it takes a lot to deconstruct those beliefs. For me it took some years. Surprised by Hope played probably the major part in that deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of my worldview.
I had grown up in a church where Christian faith was all about an individual relationship with God. Social justice was nice, but it wasn’t as important as the eternal matters of saving people’s souls for heaven so they could avoid the other place.
What Surprised by Hope did for me was both affirm and confirm the shift that had been taking place in my thinking over many years. It challenged my strongly-held conviction that our ultimate destiny was a place in the sky once my time on this earth had ended.
Dislodging a firmly held belief and replacing it with something stronger often takes constant reminding. For me it took reading and re-reading until finally the truth sunk in. When I realised one day, some years after I first read Surprised by Hope, that it was no longer a struggle for me to believe that our ultimate destiny was not heaven in the sky but heaven on earth, I was able to write and speak about it with much more conviction. I have been able to do so ever since.
The Spirit does indeed work in mysterious ways. From my mid-teenage years, one of my favourite passages in the Bible was Revelation 21:1-5. This is the passage which talks about the final consummation of heaven and earth at the end of all things. It will be a time when there will be no more tears, no more pain and no more death, for the old order of things will have passed away. Justice will finally be realised, the last will finally be first, and the victory of the peace and love of God will be finally and fully realised. All things will have been made new.
It was Surprised by Hope that put all this together for me. It strengthened my conviction that the justice-seeking that I had long been so passionate about really was central to the Gospel, and now I could explain why. Similar to the favourite Bible passage of mine mentioned above, it was indeed a revelation. I was no longer surprised by hope.
Nils von Kalm has worked in international development for 18 years and is currently the Church and Community Engagement Coordinator with Anglican Overseas Aid.