Book Review: History & Eschatology by NT Wright

When I first learned that NT Wright had written a book from his Gifford Lectures on history and eschatology, I knew I had to read it. Wright is a masterful New Testament scholar. He is a true academic in the highest sense of the word.

The Gifford Lectures were established by Adam Lord Gifford (1820-1887) in Edinburgh, Glasgow (Scotland). His endowment for the creation of these elite lectures were to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God.”

Wright argues in his lectures and now published book, History and Eschatology, that the Gifford Lectures themselves need a worldview shift in order to fully and successfully engage their mission. His argument unfolds in great precision throughout his book. It is an argument relevant to all historians, biblical scholars, and believers.

‘Natural Theology’ developed as a practice that sought a solely natural path to discovering the ‘knowledge of God’. It excluded special revelation of Jesus and of Scriptures. It marked out a rationalistic Enlightenment path forward from nature to God. Wright argues that you can never reach the Christian God doing ‘natural theology’ in this manner. Wright says, “trying to argue up to God—especially the God of creation and new creation!—on reason alone is like buying a can of petrol and hoping that it will, all by itself, somehow get you home.” (p. 247)

However, he also critiques the position of notable theologian Karl Barth who argues that the only way to arrive at the truth is from the starting place of divine revelation. And yet he maintains a nuanced position that derives from what one would be getting at in suggesting we argue from the starting place of the Christian God and not up to it.

Wright’s argument is for an epistemology of love. He spends a great deal of much needed time to make his argument. I cannot even begin to do it justice in such a short book review. My humble summary is to say that the incarnation brought God into history. Jesus led a human life on earth (Philippians 2) and died a physical death which in turn birthed a physical resurrection changing the nature of creation itself into a new creation (not fully realized – but a ‘now and not yet’ transformation). Thus, Wright suggest that the case for reaching the real God, in the real nature of old and new creation is one where we do history responsibly including the real accounts from biblical history (which is real history) and from the real life of Jesus.

When we take into account all of the broken signpost within history within the worldview of this Creator and His creation (new and old) we begin to see a full picture of true knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology) rather than a splintered division born out of Epicureanism or Gnosticism. We then arrive at a more real (eschatology) realizing that it has never been about an “end” but the “goal” of all of creation being filled with the glory of God. The world is not ending, but it is becoming new.

Wright summarizes, “The task of ‘natural theology’ might then be conceived as the attempt to speak about God outside the private world of the church. But the church’s world should never have been ‘private’ in that sense. The kingdom of God is not from this world, but it is emphatically for this world. What the church says to the world is one part of what the church does within the world.” (p. 253) (The bolded statement made me smile, because I have heard this first from Vishal Mangalwadi many times – so many I often say it myself).

Within this argument, Wright makes several other arguments which are stellar theology. One is eschatological. He writes, “[m]ost Western Christians have assumed that ‘the Kingdom of God’ meant ‘going to heaven when you die’. That is flat wrong. . .” (He is not arguing against the truth that to be absent from the body is to the present with the Lord – but ‘going to heaven’ is not the end goal of this adventure we are living out in the Kingdom).

Moving forward he writes, “Temple and Sabbath belong together as forward-looking symbols. The new age towards which they gesture is the new creation, the completion of the project of Genesis 1 and 2, accomplished through the redemption of the disaster of Genesis 3. On both counts, biblical eschatology resists the idea that if the kingdom of God were to arrive it would mean obliterating the present world, or at least shoving it to one side.”

The point he is drawing down on is that this world is not going to be destroyed. It is an ancient myth called Gnosticism that informs us that this world is worthless. That physicality is less important than spirituality. Because of Gnosticism, we have equated sin with the body and the earth as if we must get free of it ‘go to heaven’ with a ‘spiritual body’ to get free of sin. Mixed with Plato we are taught there is a secular sacred divide and Christianity becomes reduced to a religion mattering only to spirituality and not to all of life.

We have come to believe that a spiritual after life in paradise is where believers are ultimately going to enjoy eternity. In real Christian doctrine, we do not have an ‘after life’ but a life after life (as Wright argues elsewhere). Our life continues. The real me will be even more the real me when I am changed at the bodily resurrection of the saints. And yet I am already a new creation seated in heavenly places with Jesus. There is the Kingdom at hand and a heaven that is merging with earth. Physical human beings on a physical earth who rightly align with their Creator is the plan. The plan never changed. We got off course and God has been getting us back on course ever since. He did that with the cross. The new creation has been birthed and is yet still coming to fruition. We are now new creations.

“The point,” explains Wright, “has been that the creator God has always intended that his glory would dwell with humans, so that the glory of heaven would live on the earth and indeed fill it. It is impossible to exaggerate the difference this makes to virtually every other topic in theology.” (p. 172)

Read that again. “. . . it is impossible to exaggerate the difference this makes to virtually every other topic in theology.” Yes! This is why this message is so important. You can find Wright’s argument distilled in a more popularized writing style in his book Surprised by Hope. I highly recommend it. If you are a more academic reader read both that book and this one reviewed herein.

We must understand this. Our eschatology matters to the rest of our present theology. The more our macro worldview (big picture theology) about where this is all going is off kilter the more our present way of doing life will be affected. We err when we make good doctrine about assurance of salvation. Good doctrine is about having a good life that is in proper alignment with what is true and thus is lived in liberty, free of the bondage of what is false. Doctrine matters to life just as much as relationship with God matters. We cannot choose just one of these.

Wright explains that the old idea that this Christian life is only about going to heaven when we die has become “so engrained in our culture that any mention of new creation, or of bodily resurrection, is either ‘translated’ into a fuzzy metaphor for ‘heavenly life’ or is met with shock and incomprehension.”

I push a lot on this topic with people so that we can have a real conversation again about what this is all about. We cannot boil it down to trying to match metaphors in Revelation with the real counterparts to decode a book and get the directions for how God is going to destroy the earth. God is not going to destroy the earth. He is going to make this world new and fill it with His glory. The mature Bride of Christ is going to fulfill the Great Commission with our Lord. Arriving at the goal – the end of the Age – will certainly have its conflict with the spiritual forces of darkness – but we only empower those forces when we do not disciple the nations. We leave them under the power of darkness when they do not have to be. No power of darkness can prevail against the truth – nor can any conspiratorial human faction we can imagine.

Wright’s Gifford Lectures are a game changer. They shift the worldview of the Gifford Lectures – should his argument be heeded – to a theology that incorporates special revelation from a place of history in the context of a new creation worldview that looks at the cross backwards through this world being interpreted by that most historic moment of all of human history.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: History & Eschatology by NT Wright

  1. I really can’t understand why you are so impressed by all this philosofical and philological speach of academics, so that the focus of the prophets, Jesus and his apostles must give way for the thoughts and formulations of Wright. Read following passages from Scripture, and you will have to admit that Wright is wrong when claiming that it is gnostisism and thoughts from Plato that has produced the faith that this world is heading to its end.

    Dan 12:13, where συντέλεια is used in LXX for קֵץ, meaning “end”. Same word used in Matt 24:3. Also, reading
    Isaiah 51:6; Hebrew 1:11 citing Psalm 102; Matt 24:35; 2 Pet 3:7-13 shows us clearly that this world is going to be replaced by a new one. How that will be created we need humbly to admit we don’t know. But belivers of Chirst will live in this hope of our future.

    The great and important theme in the NT is the Kingdom of God which is totally different from this world, and the most important thing is to be among them who will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.

    I really think N.T.Wright has missed focus from preaching the good news according to Scripture, and became engrossed in his own thoughts and formulations. It is a pity, not something to celebrate, because people will not meet the power of the Holy Spirit by the preaching of the Word of God. People don’t get saved by human philosophy, they just get to high thoughts of themselves and start believing that they will be able to materialize the kingdom of God by themselves and hard effort, without having to acknowledge their sins and repent, and believing in Jesus Christ as the only Saviour. (Even though I know that Wright himself talk about the need of regeneration and resurrection)

    Really, don’t you realize that Wright’s focus and way of “preaching” is quite different from how Jesus and the apostles preached? For Paul, it is all about Jesus, to be found in him, and to be with him in his glory. And sincerely, I don’t long for another life on this earth. I much more, like Abraham, long for and look forward to the heavenly country (Hebr 11:16) and the place Jesus is preparing and to be where he is. (John 14:1ff)


    • Hello. Thank you for your comment. I am not well versed in all that Wright has taught, but on this point of theology I agree with him. We read in Isaiah that a day is coming when the lion will lay down with the lamb – not describing heaven – but earth. It is Gnosticism that discounts the body, the physical resurrection, the created world and elevates the spirit and a spiritual existence in heaven. It is good Christian theology that we will have new physical bodies and that we are designed for a created world which is perfect in alignment with heaven. Jesus said that He will make all things new. Revelation tells us that He will come to dwell here on earth one day. This is why Jesus told us to pray that the will of God in heaven will be done on the earth.

      Have you read CS Lewis The Last Battle? He imaginatively paints a picture of this.

      Jesus is a redeemer of creation not a destroyer of it.


      • Maybe much of it is just a play with words that i don’t grasp. But my point by citing the Scriptures was that the time when the lion will lay down with the lamb, will be on a new world, Isaiah 65, and we cannot know if this is a methaphor or real description. Anyway, for me it looks like as ressurrection comes through death, also the new world will be created after the old one is burned, dissolved and gone. Or do you actually disagree with Jesus, Paul and Peter (see the Scriptures I referred to), and disclaiming their words as gnostic?
        Jesus and Paul also taught that our bodies in the ressurrection will be very different from those which we have now, – spiritual says Paul, – like the angels, says Jesus. I guess none of us can actually know how that will be like, but I love the pictures/methaphores from the Bible because they give us such a rich and vivid hope. Much more than just struggling for another life on this earth.

        But what I totally agree with Wright is the importance of and the call to all mankind to manifest the Kingdom of God by letting his will be done in our lives on this earth. Just feel he misses the other task of preaching the gospel of forgiveness, and the christian hope of taking part in the glory of God and his anointed.


      • Are we not new creations who have died with Christ to be raised to new life in Christ – the old man gone and yet here we are new creations without being physically destroyed. I see the new earth the same way. It is this earth restored – redeemed – made new (Rev 21:5). I’m agreeing with Jesus.

        It’s going to be glorious when all of creation has been made new and the Lord Himself dwells among us.

        CS Lewis wrote in his book Miracles providing the analogy that the merging of heaven and earth on that Day will not be like a horse and rider but like a centaur with the two fused together as one.

        It was never to be two. Sin rent a separation that Jesus repaired and the fullness of that finished work on the cross will reflect that repair when He returns and makes all things new.

        Until then, we occupy discipling the nations in all He taught.


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