More on the Soul from N.T. Wright

I’m continuing to read through N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. I have pretty much agreed with everything he has addressed thus far. I believe he holds to very solid and healthy biblical teaching in regards to topics like the kingdom of God, heaven, earth, the soul, the body, the resurrection of the body, etc.

But I was interested in learning more of Wright’s thoughts on both the soul and hell (though I recently posted some of his thoughts on the soul with regards to its relation to the body). Does Wright fully hold to conditional immortality? Is he an annhilationist or does he hold to eternal conscious punishment? Many of these questions are answered in his chapter 11, though the answers do not come as I thought they would nor are they dogmatic in some areas.

First, I share some more words on the soul from Wright.

In his sub-section on Paradise in chapter 11, following his thoughts on Purgatory, Wright gives these thoughts on what many theologians term as the intermediate state for the believer:

I therefore arrive, fourthly, at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though this is sometimes described as ‘sleep’, we shouldn’t take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as ‘being with Christ, which is far better’. Rather, ‘sleep’ here means that the body is ‘asleep’ in the sense of ‘dead’, while the real person – however we want to describe him or her – continues.

This state is not, clearly, the final destiny for which the Christian dead are bound, which is as we have seen the bodily resurrection. But it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ, while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called ‘heaven’, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn’t call it that, and uses the word ‘heaven’ in other ways. (italics his)

I was interested to see that Wright does not fully embrace the teaching of conditional immortality, which usually embraces the concept of soul sleep during the intermediate state. Rather, Wright holds that the believer will be conscious as they await the resurrection of the body.

Now, the question is – What about the non-believer during the intermediate state?

Well, actually, Wright doesn’t address this really at all. He does share his thoughts on hell and judgment, and I will put some of those words up in another post. But I am not sure if he leans towards the unbeliever being in an unconscious sleep or what during the intermediate state. It’s possible more thoughts come up in his treatise Jesus and the Victory of God, as he points to it in this chapter in a footnote. But I am left wondering what he fully believes about the non-believer.

Anyways, stay tuned for some quotes on hell and judgment next week. You might just be surprised to read them as well.

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11 thoughts on “More on the Soul from N.T. Wright

  1. Reading ‘The New Testament and the People of God’ and ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’ I have the very strong feeling that Wright feels the need to nod in the direction of orthodoxy for the sake of form, though he realises consciousness in the ‘intermediate state’ was not the original Biblical teaching. This also explains his lack of comment on the state of the wicked after death.

  2. Fort –

    Possibly, though it seems Wright is not completely worried about appeasing the popular crowd (i.e. his stuff on justification). But he rightly points out Paul’s words in Philippians, and not to mention the souls under the altar in Revelation – both usually utilised to show soul sleep is not the full explanation. Of course, a conditionalist will be able to explain these passages within their framework, but they are still worth noting.

    What Wright might hold to, though again I cannot say with certainty, is that somehow the soul of the believer already receives immortality in the intermediate state, but the unbeliever does not receive such and thus stays asleep or unconscious. Although Wright’s use of ‘sleep’ is not in connection with being unconscious with regards to the righteous (as the quote shows above).

    Just some thoughts.

  3. There’s more leeway on justification than there is on the state of the dead, especially with the conditonal immortality/annihilation war which has raged for the last twenty years.

    Given that background, it’s significant that Wright has not committed himself on the state of the wicked, since if he had no problems declaring himself on the side of orthodoxy he most certainly would, whereas declaring himself on the side of heterodoxy would rattle some serious cages. It’s also possible that he simply isn’t firmly decided at present.

    We also need to take into account the fact that Wright has no problem with the Bible’s teaching on a subject developing over time. He is aware that the Old Testament is full of passages describing the intermediate state as unconciousness, and annihilation the end of the wicked, but believes these views were developed over time until gradually resurrection came further into view and views the intermediate state started to include the conscious dead.

  4. Fort –

    There’s more leeway on justification than there is on the state of the dead, especially with the conditonal immortality/annihilation war which has raged for the last twenty years.

    Just to say that people get a lot more stirred over justification than conditional immortality. Hence, John Piper’s book. Also, conditional immortality is not outside orthodoxy by any means. Most evangelicals would probably lean towards eternal conscious punishment, but that doesn’t mean conditional immortality is outside the bounds of what has been considered orthodoxy.

    but believes these views were developed over time until gradually resurrection came further into view and views the intermediate state started to include the conscious dead.

    Hmmm, development of a view with new information coming forth in later OT writings and the NT. Wonder if this might be a sensible argument for a Triune God? 😉

  5. I don’t see the same literature being produced about justification as on hell and the soul. Conditional immortality might be within the orthodox evangelical fold these days (it certainly has been within the Anglican tradition for decades), but only just, and that doesn’t stop evangelicals like Peterson condeming it as an error and other evangelical ‘hellists’ claiming you can’t be a Christian unless you believe in the torments of hellfire. Still, it’s very telling that the doctrine for which my Christian community was condemned for 150 years ago is now inside the bounds of orthodoxy. We progress!

    It’s interesting though that this doctrine is finally making headway in the evangelical tradition, which is typically the last holdout against doctrinal reform. The real issue is that conditional immortality starts toppling other doctrinal dominos, which is more serious for evangelical systematic theology. But the old 19th Fundamentalist evangelical theology can’t last anyway, it really can’t. The 20th century made huge inroads into the classic dogmas concerning the atonement, the Trinity, the immortal soul, satan & demons, and as the old errors continue to be swept away, others will follow. When your community finally reaches doctrinal centrism, you’ll find communities like mine already there. We only have to keep waiting.

    Hmmm, development of a view with new information coming forth in later OT writings and the NT. Wonder if this might be a sensible argument for a Triune God?

    As an Anglican, Wright is well at home with doctrinal development, and as an Anglican he doesn’t care particularly if it’s something which is explicit in the Bible or introduced later by the Church.

    As an academic he’s a little more careful about doctrines introduced later by the church, but even then he’s prepared to acknowledge (albeit in very guarded terms), that the earliest Christians had no concept of the Trinity and that Christ did not consider himelf to be God. In order to develop a doctrine, it has to exist first.

  6. Fort –

    I don’t see the same literature being produced about justification as on hell and the soul. Conditional immortality might be within the orthodox evangelical fold these days (it certainly has been within the Anglican tradition for decades), but only just, and that doesn’t stop evangelicals like Peterson condeming it as an error and other evangelical ‘hellists’ claiming you can’t be a Christian unless you believe in the torments of hellfire. Still, it’s very telling that the doctrine for which my Christian community was condemned for 150 years ago is now inside the bounds of orthodoxy. We progress!

    I think you picked out a group of more fanatical fundamentalists and that is somewhat an unhelpful mischaracterisation. And I’m not sure which Peterson you are talking about. Eugene? If so, maybe you’ve read something I haven’t, but he isn’t usually one to condemn.

    As an Anglican, Wright is well at home with doctrinal development, and as an Anglican he doesn’t care particularly if it’s something which is explicit in the Bible or introduced later by the Church.

    As an academic he’s a little more careful about doctrines introduced later by the church, but even then he’s prepared to acknowledge (albeit in very guarded terms), that the earliest Christians had no concept of the Trinity and that Christ did not consider himelf to be God. In order to develop a doctrine, it has to exist first.

    I agree. Now if only your group would see the merits of moving towards Trinitarianism. 😉

  7. Scott, this isn’t a matter of ‘a group of more fanatical fundamentalists’, it’s a matter of standard well respected highly orthodox non-fanatical scholars, including Packer and Carson (neither whom could be called ‘fundamentalists’ by any stretch of the imagination). The Master’s Seminary Journal had an entire issue on the subject in 1998, and you can hardly dismiss those authors as fanatical fundamentalists.

    No, I wasn’t talking about Eugene Peterson, I was talking about Robert A. Peterson, the foremost evangelical proponent of the tradtional view of hell, and the most prolific. He has been defending the doctrine doggedly (especially against Stott, Fudge, and Wenham), for around 12 years.

    Now if only your group would see the merits of moving towards Trinitarianism.

    There’s no need when we can see you guys moving towards us. 🙂 And this is where it gets interesting, because so many of these doctrines are interdependent.

    Peterson says that he doesn’t believe in hell because he believes in the immortal soul, he believes in the immortal soul because he believes in hell. Take away hell and you remove the immortal soul. In turn you also remove heaven-going.

    More than that, you undermine the penal substitution as inherited from Anselm, and that doctrine only works on the basis that an infinite sin was committed which incurred an infinite punishment, necessitating the death of an infinite being, namely Christ.

    So pull this one thread and you ultimately undermine several doctrines at once, leading all the way to the deity of Christ. This has been noted with concern by several theologians, especially the systematists such as Packer, Peterson, and Erickson.

  8. Ah, yes, Robert Peterson. He was my seminary professor for a class entitled The Spirit, the Church and Last Things. I had to read his book on hell and then the book with the debate with Fudge. I should re-read the Peterson-Fudge book again now that I am a little more widely read on the doctrine of hell.

  9. Peterson is well matched with Fudge. I would also recommend Crockett, Walvoord, Hayes and Pinnock, ‘Four Views on Hell’ (1992), Morey, ‘Death and the Afterlife’ (1984), and Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’ (2004).

    You will be familiar no doubt with the relevant conditionalist/annihilationist literature, such as Froom’s ‘Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers’ (1966), Wenham’s ‘The Goodness of God’ (1974), Green, ‘Evangelism through the Local Church’ (1990), and the works by Stott, Ellis, and Hughes.

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