Tom Wright has written a remarkable book which re-states the Christian message for the modern world. He has done this, not by deserting the main tenets of Christian belief, but by re-examination of the central principle of hope in Christian thought. His purpose is to bring the beliefs of the early Church to life again and show how those misrepresented beliefs can be applied to re-energise the surprise of the Christian hope, especially with the dying and the dispossessed. In sum his argument is that Christian hope is not a matter of going away from the world into heaven but of applying God's creation in today's world.
Wright argues that many Christians are confused about their own beliefs. He suggests that "a good deal of our current view of death and the life beyond has come from....impulses in the culture which have created at best semi-Christian informal traditions". These require "proper examination in the clear light of scripture". He points out that "the idea that every human possesses an immortal soul, which is the 'real' part of them, finds little support in the Bible." When used in the Bible the word 'soul' conveys the idea of the whole person, the personality, rather than "a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of the disposable body." In addition, Wright places the concept of life after death in the context of first century Judaism and beliefs existing in both Greece and Rome.
Anyone looking for the resurrection as myth will be disappointed. Wright has no doubt that the resurrection is historical fact which makes "the strange story of Easter" compelling. Referring to the different accounts of the resurrection Wright, citing the well known incident from 1946 involving Wittgenstein and Popper, writes, "surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened." He dismisses the claim that the gospels were written late in the first century and are derived from each other. He draws attention to the role of women, noting that in contemporary terms, they were regarded as unreliable witnesses unlikely to be cited on grounds of credibility. Similarly, the claim that Luke and John were written to combat docetism is undermined by the nature of the resurrection body. "Had the stories been invented towards the end of the first century, they would certainly have included a mention of the final resurrection of all God's people. They don't because they weren't"
Wright utilises a two pronged hypothesis against resurrection deniers. Firstly that Jesus' tomb was empty and secondly that his disciples did encounter him. He points out that Jesus was buried according to Jewish tradition which involved the later collection of the bones of the dead person which did not occur. In addition, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead. The tomb itself did not become a shrine and the disciples "were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that wasn't firmly anchored in fact." He deals swiftly with those who deny the resurrection happened and gives short shrift to the idea of cognitive dissonance. In doing so he is offering "a historical challenge to other explanations and to the worldviews within which they gain their meaning." In particular, he challenges the claim that because the resurrection was not expected it did not occur. The alternative explanations for the empty tomb have failed and those which still circulate are based on the proposition that dead people don't rise. However, denial of the resurrection, which is based on the skepticism of the Enlightenment, is not a neutral thought, sociologically or politically. It is the expression of a worldview which deliberately excludes the possibility of the resurrection because it challenges the basis of that worldview. In the words of Polly Toynbee, "I don't believe. I don't want to believe."
Wright sets resurrection and life after death in the context of paganism and Judaism. Pagans denied the resurrection, some Jews affirmed it. The ancients were aware of what might loosely be called the spiritual world but that world did not incorporate resurrection which was "a virtual synonym for 'life after death'". Early Christians did not visualise Jesus has having gone to heaven and become divine but shared the Jewish belief that resurrection for all would occur at some future date. When Jesus was crucified the disciples thought their hope had been extinguished. The impact on their belief in resurrection mutated through a variety of forms before becoming associated with messiahship. Wright rejects revisionist claims that early Christians absorbed the idea of resurrection from their surrounding culture and used it to persuade themselves that Jesus had risen from the dead although they knew it wasn't true. Wright argues some Christians have departed from scriptural authority to convenient doctrines such as purgatory and universalism. He classifies these as forms of idolatry. He points out that those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (preferences, practice, histories) and treat others in the same way, while other objects of worship such as power and money show similar characteristics. The Christian purpose is the worship of God and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.
Wright shows the idea of a non-material heaven and materialistic earth is a product of Greek philosophy. Since the Enlightenment materialism has been the dominant philosophy, sustained by the myth of progress. Its driving force came from the nineteenth century belief that scientific and economic advances, allied to democratic freedoms and wider education, would result in earthly perfection, as predicted by Owen, Marx and others convinced they could change human nature. Darwinism provided justification for empire. However, the myth of progress cannot explain the existence of evil. "If you move away from materialistic optimism ....without embracing Judaism or Christianity, you are quite likely to land up with some kind of gnosticism" and the conspiracy theories of The Da Vinci Code. There is much more in this splendid book which should be read by all Christians looking to renew their faith. Five stars.