I was going to title this series “Three Books Every Evangelical Should Read,” but that seems more than I can rightly say. “Three Books I Wish Every Evangelical Would Read” is a more accurate title. But ultimately this is about books that have influenced me, so we’ll leave it at that.
I’ve read a number of good books over the years, but these three books were so profound to me that I think others could benefit too. I’ll point out the obvious: this is a subjective list. However, these books cover issues that I think can have deeply positive influence in the evangelical church.
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright (HarperOne, 2008)
I put off writing this second entry because I needed to think through what it was that was so profound about this book. It keeps creeping up in conversation and thoughts and even sermons, but it has been so long since I read it that I couldn’t remember the specifics without giving it some thought. But here is my conclusion: Surprised by Hope gave me a theology of creation, which in a way also saved my faith. This is not what a person would think they’re getting when they pick up the book, but that is what I received in the end. I think the process for me actually began when I read Paul Marshall’s Heaven is Not My Home, but it was really brought home in Wright’s book. Our theology of creation has ramifications on various different aspects of life and faith, so this books influenced has cropped up in all sort of places.
I was brought up in a conservative Christian home and my parents as well as the circles in which we lived worshipped were also conservative Christians. That can mean a lot of things, and not necessarily bad things (in many ways I’m still a conservative Christian), but I mean something specifically: dispensationalist Christianity. This is a (relatively) new understanding of scripture particularly in relation to prophecy, the book of Revelation, and the end times. The Left Behind series of books is deeply dispensationalist. Dispensationalism in my experience is almost obsessed about prophecy and the end times, and the core element is the rapture: the idea that at some point in the future, Christians will be whisked away from earth to an eternity of disembodied (“spiritual”) existence in heaven. In one way or another this is what it meant to “go to heaven when you die”: you either go when you die or when Jesus comes again.
At the time I didn’t have a problem with this theology per se, but there were other things I was thinking about in life that had me wondering. In dispensationalist thinking, the earth and creation in general are not something to be concerned about since it will all be destroyed someday anyway at the final judgment. I have always loved nature and there was a part of me that thought it was a shame that in the long run it would all disappear. As I got older I started wondering about why God created the world in the first place: if he knew it was going to fail, or if it was a mistake, or if it was just intended to be temporary. Why not just go straight to eternal disembodied bliss? Why the hassle with physical creation?
Enter Paul Marshall and finally N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope made sense of the world because it affirmed creation as good. When God created he said that it was good and when he had created humans and finished it all, he said it was very good. When God entered his creation as the Word-made-Flesh—as Jesus—he affirmed creation again taking on the embodied existence of human creatures. When Jesus died and rose again, creation is once again affirmed as good because Jesus rose again bodily (albeit a new body). What Wright’s book made clear was that creation was meant to be and will continue to be. The hope of salvation is not “going to heaven when you die”, but resurrection in the new heavens and the new earth. The story of salvation is not just about forgiveness of sin, but of renewing and restoring all of creation.
This put the pieces together for me again. Suddenly the world and the cross made a great deal more sense to me, and I was given a vision of creation and hope that was clearly consistent with scripture (where dispensationalism seemed to me to do a lot of weird and unclear things with scripture). Suddenly we all had a reason to be here on earth—we aren’t just biding time until we get to heaven; we aren’t just passing through, this world is our home.
All kinds of other things have been unfolding from this: work is good; creation needs our stewardship; our bodies are good and are essential to being human (mind, soul, spirit, body are not independent things), and the list will continue to grow.
Wright’s intention, as I recall, was to correct our understanding of heaven and the afterlife, but in doing so he also showed how and why this life matters, too.