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Surprised by Hope IV

Reading: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Chapters 5-6.

Near the beginning of their remarkably successful evangelistic campaign in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1902, Lewis C. Sheafe (pictured) and his associate, Fred H. Seeney (below), asked fellow believers, through the pages of the Atlantic Union Gleaner (9 July 1902), to pray “that the Lord may bring out a company of commandment keepers in the capital city of this nation who will have a right to the capital city of the earth when it is made new.” Perhaps it was simply the opportunity for a clever juxtaposition that led the preachers to put it this way, but I have the impression that when Adventists of that era took up the topic of “the large-scale hope of the whole cosmos,” the question of “God’s purpose for the world as a whole,” as N.T. Wright now does in Part II of Surprised by Hope (80), they spoke more frequently of “the earth made new” than we do today.

Today (again, my impression) our speaking, singing and praying about our hope for the future seems to center on going to heaven (I say we because a spirited congregational singing of “When We All Get to Heaven” sometimes moves me to add a joyful noise). We do this in quite direct contradiction to the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, according to which the millennium in heaven is a significant but relatively brief prelude to the final disposition of evil and our final destiny on this earth, made new.

Does it really matter, though, if we refer to being taken away from this earth to heaven as the fulfillment of our blessed hope, substituting the preliminary stage for the ultimate destination?

Seventh-day Adventism emerged as a philosophy of history — an accounting for how the human story has unfolded in the past, where it is headed in the future, and what all of that means for the present….

It arose alongside liberal evolutionary optimism, Marxism, dispensationalist premillennialism, spiritualism and new varieties of neo-platonism, and American civil millennialism, claiming to be right about where history is headed and all of these competitors to be wrong.

Thus, how we envision where we are headed, what we have say about what it is that “the whole world is waiting for” (see the title of SBH, Chapter 6) is of more than peripheral importance. Being muddled about that may reflect a deeper muddle from the inluence of one or more of those competing philosophies.

So, the main issue in this week’s reading is whether N.T. Wright helps us sharpen our conception of the promised future and make more deeply biblical or whether he adds to the muddle. After showing, in Chapter 5 how two popular options — “evolutionary optimism” and “souls in transit” are not to be confused with the Christian hope, Wright turns in Chapter 6 to six major themes in New Testament texts that explore the cosmic dimension of that hope: 1) seedtime and harvest; 2) victorious battle; 3) citizens of heaven, colonizing the earth; 4) God will be all in all; 5) new birth; and 6) the marriage of heaven and earth.

The question of how much Wright helps us understand the nature and centrality of “the earth made new” will to a large extent turn on careful consideration of these themes and the passages that express them. Dane Nesbeth, one of the participants in the “live” discussions at Columbia Union College, cogently focused an important issue: as an Adventist his understanding was that we are looking for a demolition of the present world and creation of a new one, whereas Wright seems to be talking about a refurbishing. Does “demolition” truly represent Adventist teaching? Is it a “refurbishing” that Wright envisions, or something more? What does the New Testament say?

And what about my hunch that the Sheafe-Seeney prayer request points us to largely muted elements of the Adventist heritage that might predispose us to enthusiasm about Wright’s exposition of Philippians 3:20-21?:

So when Paul says, “We are citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King — all of those were of course imperial titles — will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. The key word here is transform: “He will transform our present humble bodies to be like his glorious body.” Jesus will not declare that present physicality is redundant and can be scrapped. Nor will he simply improve it, perhaps by speeding up its evolutionary cycle. In a great ac of power — the same power that accomplished Jesus’s own resurrection, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:19-20 — he will change the present body into the one that corresponds in kind to his own as part of his work of bringing all things into subjection to himself (100-101).

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