Saturday, May 17, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 6)

Having explained the two ways in which the early Christians did not view history in chapter 5 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright moves on in chapter 6 to describe how he thinks the New Testament does describe history.

I am going to interact with Wright a bit here before I ask for comments because I am not sure that I understand where he is going.

Wright starts by affirming the goodness of creation and the reality of evil. Wright says that evil is not "created things," "things other than God," "physical things," or "things prone to decaying." Wright says that evil "consists not in being created but in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than the God who made them." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 95. Wright adds that the result of evil is "spiritual death," the dominant metaphor for which is "exile."

Thus, to Wright, "redemption doesn't mean scrapping what's there and starting again from a clean slate but rather liberating what has come to be enslaved." (96) He adds, "Redemption is not simply making creation a bit better, as the optimist evolutionist would try to suggest. Nor is it rescuing spirits and souls from an evil material world, as the Gnostic would want to say. It is the remaking of creation, having dealt with the evil that is defacing and distorting it." (97) In other words, redemption is not about improving what's already there and it's not about starting over--it's about recreating or transforming what is already there.

Having explained redemption, Wright goes on to show from some key New Testament passages that redemption applies to all of creation, not just "those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter." (97)

The key passages Wright explains are 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1:15–20, Philippians 3:3:20–21, Romans 8, and Revelation 21–22. I think the two most significant are Colossians 1:15–20 and Romans 8:20–23.

Romans 8:20–23 (NIV) reads:
"For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."

Not that Paul says that creation is awaiting its redemption and we, too, are awaiting our redemption.

Colossians 1:15–20 (NIV) reads:
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

Notice that Paul says "all things" were created through Christ and "all things" were/will be reconciled through him.

I might add Colossians 1:13–14 to show that the context of the above is redemption:
"For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

I like what Wright gets at here that the effects of the cross transcend just humans--that all of creation is being redeemed. However, I have questions about Wright's views on evil, death, and the effects of redemption on those who do not believe.

Wright says that death in the sense of transience (i.e. "physical" death) was part of the original creation (94–95). He says that transience points to God as the eternal. The "death" that was brought into the world as a result of sin is "spiritual" death (95). Wright does not define "spiritual" death, but he says that it is most often illustrated as exile. Thus, when God tells Adam and Eve that they will "die" when they eat the fruit, they are exiled from the garden (95).

What, then, does it mean to be "exiled" or "dead"? Is it just an existential feeling that God is distant? That would imply to me that a key part of redemption is the reversal of that feeling, i.e. the warm fuzzies that God is with me. Obviously, Wright believes that redemption means more than that. I have always read Romans 5:17 to mean that whatever "death" Adam brought on humanity, Christ brought the opposite, "life." Thus if the only "death" that Adam brought upon humanity was spiritual exile, then the only "life" that Christ would bring would be spiritual redemption. Since Wright argues that Christ is bringing eternal life in the sense of freedom from "decay and death" (107), that would imply to me that the introduction of "decay and death" were a part of what we traditionally call "the Fall."

Further, I wonder where Wright is going to go with the extent of the effects of redemption. He says that redemption affects more than just "those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter." (97) And in Colossians 1:15–20, the "all things" that will be redeemed are the same "all things" that were created. Does this mean that "all things," including those who do not believe, will be redeemed? If so, what will that look like for those who do not believe? We'll see where he goes.

Any thoughts on Colossians 1:15–20 and the extent of the effects of "redemption"?

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