Wright examines the early Christian hope within its historical setting of Greco-Roman culture. Wright claims "the word 'resurrection' in its Greek, Latin, or other equivalents was never used to mean life after death. 'Resurrection' was used to denote new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be (36). Wright cites Martha’s reaction to Jesus, in John 11:24, when he promises that Lazarus would rise, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (41) to show her expectation in the bodily resurrection of the dead, little did Martha know, her brother would rise twice.
The significance of the Christian hope being correctly placed in “the resurrection at the last day” is key in Wright’s mind, and in the minds of great philosophers past, as what “you think about death, and life beyond it, is the key to thinking seriously about everything else” (6). Wright claims "English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilbeforce in late 18th/19th centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead" (27). Wright sees the miscontrual of Christian resurrection developing out of: "the influence of Greek philosophy… resulting in a future expectation that bears far more resemblance to Plato’s vision of souls entering into disembodies bliss than to the biblical picture of new heavens and new earth” (80); and the modern emphasis on the individual, that has shifted Western Christians focus away from the redemption of all the creation, to the salvation of the individual.
It is not Wrights purpose in writing to simply correct our doctrinal understanding of resurrection. Wright sees a biblical understanding of God’s redeemed people, resurrected into the new heavens and new earth (on earth), as our Christian hope, that can act as the driving force of the gathered churches mission in the world, and the scattered individual Christians work in the world. In other writings and lectures, Wright is consistent with an emphasis on breaking-down the false dichotomy between “soul-saving evangelism gospel” and the “social gospel”, as he is in Surprised by Hope:
"It's no good falling back into the tired old split-level world where some people believe in evangelism in terms of saving souls for a timeless eternity and other people believe in mission in terms of working for justice, peace, and hope in the present world. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the New Testament and everything to do with the silent enslavement of many Christians (both conservative and radical) to the Platonic ideology of the Enlightenment. Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight." (193)Tied-into a biblical understanding of resurrection is understanding what Christ accomplished when he rose from the dead. Through resurrection, Christ is exalted to reign over the earth. Christ’s kingdom reign has begun, and while it is not fully apparent in the “now but not yet”, Christ is reigning now, which has huge implication: "People who believe that Jesus is already Lord and that he will appear again as judge of the world are called and equipped to think and act quite differently in the world from those who don't." (144)
A some-what controversial element of Wright’s book is his position taking a continuity position (rather than discontinuity), between earth now and the new heavens and new earth that will come. An annihilist reading of 2 Peter 3:10-13 has had a powerful impact on Christian eschatology encouraging a ‘discontinuity’ position. Wright addresses this more directly elsewhere, and instead chooses to focus on other scriptures in Rom. 8 & Rev. 21-22 that give credence to a ‘continuity’ position. Wright’s sense (which in his admission can only be vaguely understood by us now) is that our good work in the world will be evident in some form in the new creation, which has the important implication that our work really matters.
Wright’s book is about being surprised by the wonderful hope that Christians really do have (rather than a half-baked soul-saving version of the truth). Understanding the resurrection hope that Wright is trying to open the eyes of Christians to transforms the “gospel” motivation from: being a Christian so that you can go to heaven when you die; to a genuine good news message: "Salvation, then, is not "going to heaven" but "being raised to life in God's new heaven and new earth" (198) – this is a hope and a gospel which is far bigger than what many Christians know.