Bioethics Bookshelf: After You Believe by N. T. Wright

Return to Intersections Home

In my own evangelical tradition, there is a tendency to narrow the focus of salvation so much that we find ourselves wondering, “What are we saved by grace for?" In his book After You Believe, a sequel to Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, the esteemed New Testament scholar N. T. Wright addresses this problem in a compelling and accessible way. This difficulty is highlighted in this summary shared with Wright by a new Christian:

God loves me; yes.
He’s transformed my life so that I find I want to pray, to worship, to read the Bible, to abandon the old self-destructive ways I used to behave. That’s great.
Clearly (people at church kept saying this, too) God wants me to tell other people about this good news, so that they can find it for themselves. Fine. It feels a bit strange, and I’m not sure I’m very good at it, but I’m doing the best I can.
And obviously all this comes with the great promise that one day I’ll be with God forever. I know I’ll die one day, but Jesus has guaranteed that everybody who trusts him will live with him in heaven. That’s great too.
But what am I here for now? What happens after you believe?[1]

To this pair of questions Wright adds another regarding how Christians should make moral decisions. Wright identifies two options: rules and authenticity. “Do we have to choose between a system of Rules . . . and a system of Finding Out Who I Really Am?”[2]

Wright answers all of these questions in a word: character. To do so, he explores the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the earliest Christians (i.e., the New Testament) where we find writings about “the development of a particular character.” This character is “the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits.” [3] Developing character through thousands of small, virtuous, and faithful choices is, Wright argues, the life Jesus calls and empowers Christians to live.

Wright grounds his proposal of virtue in the expected places, including Aristotle and Aquinas. But this discussion is far from esoteric. Wright’s enlivens theory with stories ranging from the front page to the sports page, with insight from neuroscience to language acquisition and (of course) with careful reading of pertinent New Testament passages. This is a particular strength of Wright’s approach. As with any vision of virtue a telos (or goal) is required. The particular Christian approach to virtue lies in its telos. Wright expresses this telos in terms of the New Heavens and New Earth (which he works out fully in Surprised by Hope).[4] This telos provides redeemed people with the purpose of their vocation, namely, living as those who, by nature of being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26–27), reflect him as he intended—as true humans.

Another virtue of Wright’s book is a compelling explanation of and even equipping for the development of a life of character. However, in his general treatment of the character formation and virtue, Wright does not discuss (in any length) MedTech issues. As such, we are left with another question: Why is this an indispensable book for pastors to read for learning to engage more faithfully in our MedTech world?

First, the book provides a compelling vision for living the Christian life. In short, virtue calls us to respond. It trains us not with rules, but with signposts pointing toward the telos of filling our vocation of living as true humans. As such virtue points us toward the kind of people we should be in a given situation. Loving like the Samaritan loved the man left for dead (Luke 10:25–37). Sitting at the lowest seat at the banquet (Luke 14:1–24). Caring for the prisoner (Matt 25:31–46). Washing one another’s feet (John 13:1–17). These are the ways of living the Christian life.

Virtue does not settle for a list of rules. Rather it is a way of life, a path to be walked. Travelers on this path develop the habits of body, mind, and soul such that they become second nature.[5] Moreover, virtue provides travelers a way to walk through any world—whether the first-century world dominated by the empirical Roman powers or in the contemporary MedTech world. As we walk the path of faith, hope, and especially love, we are formed ever more into the likeness of Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15, cf. Gen 1:26–27). Neither Wright nor the New Testament need address these issues directly to equip us to encounter them with the character of one who embodies the truly human vocation.

This leads to a second contribution: learning to live God’s story with God’s people.[6] This is the particular challenge for pastors: How might we facilitate communities where people learn together to live according to the telos of God’s story? And, how can we shape existing ministries (e.g., small groups) where life together happens such that the focus of this communal life is the development of virtue and character over time? Within such a culture, MedTech issues will naturally arise. And from this space we can encourage one another to live as God’s people in God’s story.

How should we respond to the pressing issues in our MedTech age? Wright doesn’t have too much to say to this question. But, for the most part, neither does the Bible. The Bible’s silence is, to a great extent, the problem of Christian bioethics. Without direct biblical teaching on physician-assisted suicide, prenatal testing, or human enhancement, what is a Christian to do? Wright’s answer, however, point us to a path well worn by Christians through the ages: develop habits of choosing well within an authentic community of believers. In doing so, Wright casts an ancient vision for how we should live in our MedTech age—after we believe.

How might we cultivate spaces for telling stories where God’s people can learn to envision a virtuous character—especially with regards to the pressing issues of our day?


[1] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 2, emphasis original.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of

the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

[5] See, for example, pages 21, 29, 32.

[6] See chapter six (181–218), “Three Virtues, Nine Varieties of Fruit, and One Body.”