N.T. Wright on Hell and Judgment

I have posted quite a few articles up so far with quotes from N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. I have quoted some thoughts of his on heaven and eschatology in general, the soul and the body, the soul in the intermediate state, and the mission of the church. But I definitely wanted to come back to some of his words on hell and judgment.

In chapter 11 of the book, in the sub-section he entitled, Beyond hope, beyond pity, this is where he mainly deals with the doctrine of hell, starting with these introductory words.

Part of the difficulty of the topic, as with the others we have been studying, is that the word ‘hell’ itself conjures up an image gained more from medieval imagery than from the earliest Christian writings. Just as many who were brought up to think of God as a bearded old gentleman sitting on a cloud decided that, when they stopped believing in such a being, they had therefore ‘stopped believing in God’, so many who were taught to think of hell as a literal underground location full of worms and fire, or for that matter as a kind of torture chamber at the centre of God’s castle of heavenly delights, decided that, when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell. The first group decided that, because they couldn’t believe in childish images of God, they must be atheists. The second decided that, because they couldn’t believe in childish images of hell, they must be universalists…

But, at least at a popular level, it is not the serious early Christian doctrine of final judgment that has been rejected, but one or other gross caricature.

Through deeper study of the Scriptures and all theological matters, we, many times, find that we held to a view quite askew from the original biblical teaching. I think this happens with a lot of what Wright touches on throughout this whole work. But this is true of the specific doctrine on hell as well.

Wright then explains the use of the word ‘hell’ (or really Gehenna) in Jesus’ teachings:

The most common New Testament word sometimes translated as ‘hell’ is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem……But, as with his [Jesus’] language about ‘heaven’, so with his talk of Gehenna: once Christian readers had been sufficiently distanced from the original meaning of the words, alternative images would come to mind, generated not by Jesus or the New Testament, but by the stock of images, some of theme extremely lurid, supplied by ancient and medieval folklore and imagination

The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. His message to his contemporaries was stark, and (as we would say today) ‘political’. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) who resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smouldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, that is the primary meaning he had in mind.

It is therefore only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings which articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of a warning about what may happen after death itself. The two parables which appear to address this question directly are, we should remember, parables, not actual descriptions of the afterlife. They use stock ancient Jewish imagery, such as ‘Abraham’s bosom’, not to teach about what happens after death but to insist on justice and mercy within the present life. This is not to say that Jesus would have dissented from their implied picture of post-mortem realities. It is, rather, to point out that to take the scene of Abraham, the Rich Man and Lazarus ‘literally’ is about as sensible as trying to find out the name of the Prodigal Son. Jesus simply didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming ‘on earth as in heaven’. He gave (as we have seen) no fresh teaching on the question of the resurrection, apart from dark hints that it was going to happen, and happen soon, to one person ahead of everyone else; for the rest he was content to reinforce the normal Jewish picture. In the same way, he was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on post-mortem judgment, apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation. (italics his)

A lot of words to read through, but very informative with regards to Jesus’ exact teachings on the topic of hell, or Gehenna. Wright continues on:

We cannot therefore look to Jesus’ teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God, and who as it were have that rejection ratified. All the signs, of course, are that he went along with the normal first-century perception: there would indeed be such people, with the only surprise being the one experienced, by sheep and goats alike, both at their fate and at the evidence on which it was based. And the early Christian writers go along with this. Hell, and/or final judgment, is not a major topic in the letters (though when it comes, it is very important, as for instance in Romans 2.1-16); it is not mentioned at all in Acts; and the vivid pictures towards the end of the book of Revelation, while being extremely important, have always proved among the hardest parts of scripture to interpret with any certainty. All this should warn us against the cheerful double dogmatism which has bedevilled discussion of these topics – the dogmatism, that is, both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn’t ‘going to hell’, and that of the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place, or that if there is it will, at the last, be empty.

While Wright steers clear of dogmatic statements about hell and judgment, he does share some of his personal thoughts, not about what he is specifically certain of, but what he senses could be true with the practical outworking of final judgment:

But judgment is necessary – unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong, or blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much. In the justly famous phrase of Miroslav Volf, there must be ‘exclusion’ before there can be ’embrace’: evil must be identified, named and dealt with before there can be reconciliation…

God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator on the one side and the belief in his goodness on the other. And that setting-right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation, and in particular of all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures…

This is at the heart of the way in which I believe we can today restate the doctrine of final judgment. I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis put it, God will eventually say, ‘Thy will be done’. (italics his)

Wright, then, identifies the three normal views of hell: 1) eternal conscious punishment, 2) conditionalism and 3) universalism. Two extremes; one middle ground. He proposes none of these views, but one that combines the strong points of both #1 and #3. And he goes on to explain this in more practical words:

My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite, in themselves or others, the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal. (italics his)

Very interesting. By no means are these words the outright ‘gospel truth’, but they are interesting to consider the practical ramifications of his doctrine on the final judgment. I suppose some will be bothered by his words, but they are merely reflections and contemplations as he ponders the lack of specific, direct biblical teaching on hell-the final judgment but on how much God is committed to making all things right in the newly created heavens and earth.

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5 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on Hell and Judgment

  1. The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.

    Christadelphians have been saying this for about 200 years.

  2. Scott,

    I read “Surprised By Hope” early last year and found Bishop Wright’s views on “Heaven”, “Hell” and in between to be very refreshing.

    On the subject of “Hell”, Wright seems to me to somewhat reflect the image that C.S. Lewis painted in “The Great Divorce.” Ultimately, those unfortunates that find themselves wherever “Hell” might end up finding out that the “doors are locked from the inside”, and, in the final analysis, somehow end up being “less than human.”

    Here are a couple of short interviews featuring Bishop Wright further elaborating his thoughts on Hell on Youtube;

    and –

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention N.T. Wright on Hell and Judgment « The Prodigal Thought -- Topsy.com

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