As I sat in the worship service yesterday morning (yes, in the end I did choose to go) listening to our pastor lament the decline of the United States and express his pessimism concerning the future, I understood one of the factors that leaves me uncomfortable not only with this particular worship community, but with much of conservative American evangelicalism. Despite the Good News brought to us by Jesus, we have become by and large a pessimistic people. We see the world negatively and we expect things to get worse. There is precious little hope in the messages I hear coming from the conservative wing of the American church and it not only discourages me, but I increasingly think that we fail to truly represent the Kingdom when we present such a negative outlook.
I am not saying that all is well in the world or in the United States. We face real problems and we may endure some very rough times in the years ahead. I do not affirm in any way a gospel of prosperity and success that claims that true believers will know nothing but God's blessing. The Bible clearly tells us that those who follow God will endure hardship. But I react negatively to the underlying pessimism that I hear in the conservative evangelical church. This derives in part from their worldview which sees the best years as already behind us and tries to hold on to that past rather than continuing to work for positive progress in society. It also stems from a faulty theology.
I only began to recognize this in the past few months, particularly after reading N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope. I have read much theology in my day, but rarely has a book impacted by theology so strongly and unexpectedly as this book did. It shifted my worldview. At the risk of oversimplifying a remarkable piece of writing, Wright says essentially that the Church, at least the evangelical wing of the Church, has come to misunderstand heaven and fails to properly affirm the central truth of bodily resurrection, with tangible effect on both our beliefs about the future and our daily lives in the present world.
Salvation, according to Wright, is not a matter of being rescued out of this world. “Salvation,” he wrights, “is not 'going to heaven' but 'being raised to life in God's new heaven and new earth'.” Salvation and resurrection and intimately intertwined. They are not just about, or even primarily about, a future outside of this place. They are about the inbreaking, transforming work of God's Kingdom in this present place; not ignoring the fallen, corrupt nature of the world but believing that God through the power of resurrection is at work now to renew and restore that fallen Creation to the glory it originally had, which will be heaven. The resurrection of Jesus marked the first step in in this process.
“The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world present is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God's ultimate purpose—and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project.”
Wright does not speak out of a rosy-eyed optimism that ignores the real problems of the world. Nor does he assert that human effort and progress alone will result in the overcoming of these problems. He recognizes and asserts the need for God to bring about this renewal and transformation. Without God's activity there would be no hope. But, he affirms, in the resurrection of Jesus God demonstrated God's commitment to restoration. God worked in that event and continues to work in this world through those who accept the invitation into the Kingdom. We are God's co-workers, through whom God is at work in this present world, not merely preserving it long enough to save as many souls as possible before the “End,” (lest we should be “Left Behind” as a very popular but theologically inaccurate series described) but bringing about transformation that will be made complete at some point in the future when Jesus returns to culminate his reign over this world.
When I hear pastors speak, as my pastor did yesterday, pessimistically about the future, I now compare that with the word of hope that Wright points to in the Gospel message. We, the Church, need not be pessimistic. We need not merely “hang on” and try to hold fast until we get our escape ticket out of this place. Rather we are called to participate with God in the renewal of this world in which God placed us. I can get excited about this message, much more than about a pessimistic message that says things will continue to get worse and worse and all we can do is try to save as many from this sinking ship as possible before it goes under. I wonder whether our failure to speak a message of real hope is part of what hinders people from getting excited about this message.
I don't think this is a minor matter. I see it as a major difference in one's theology that affects how we live in the present world, how we view the future and how we understand salvation. I'm sure there are churches that proclaim more clearly this message of hope. I'd like to hear it within my own worship community. I need to meditate on it more and seek to live my life in line with the positive impact this hope can give me and my world.