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.

The Mission of the Church

For those who frequent my blog, it’s obvious I have been working my way through the words of N.T. Wright in his Surprised by Hope. Well, I’ve posted three other articles with significant quotes from Wright.

And though I will go back and post some of his thoughts on hell and judgment, last night I read something that really struck a chord in my heart. Though the first two-thirds of the book deals with the deeper theology of things like the soul, the body, the resurrection, heaven, hell, etc, the last third of the book deals with what this all means practically for the church in its mission. And this is just as important.

We all should be aware that theology is not proper theology unless it brings about change in our lives and practical orthopraxy. And Wright takes up this endeavour beginning in his ch.12, which looks at rethinking what salvation and the kingdom of God are really all about.

It is these words that struck the chord:

Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now. (italics his)

Our mission is not about getting souls saved to go to heaven ‘up there’. Or mission with regards to salvation is, as Wright says:

(1) about whole human beings, not merely ‘souls’; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us. (italics his)

We are involved in something here and now. So when Wright says in #2 above that salvation is ‘about the present, not simply the future’, he is not referring to the simple message that, when one gets saved, they get saved by grace now in this life (though such is true). He is talking about the reality that, when we step into the bigger picture of God’s redemptive plan, this means we are being called, in God’s power, to effect change here and now on the earth. We are not now just waiting for the ship to sink and then to get on the heaven island one day when we die or Christ returns, bringing as many ‘souls’ as we can with us by throwing life-preservers. The central message of the gospel of the kingdom is that the kingdom rule of God is coming on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

As Wright goes on to later say:

He [God] did not want to rescue humans from creation, any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles. He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards over creation. That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God. (italics his)

Thus, we are to be participants with God in seeing His rule come on earth as it is in heaven. This includes not just seeing whole people saved, though that is very important, but being stewards of the creation which God has entrusted to us. This harkens back to what I would call the first Great Commission found in Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This is so essential to our mission. As one church leader reminded a group of us one day: Recreation [in the sense of enjoyment or having fun] deals with re-creating in creation.

God already promises He is going to restore the whole of creation (Romans 8). He already promises that one day there will be a restored heaven and earth together (Revelation 21). Just as we see the kingdom coming already in the here and now through the salvation of human beings, so we can see the kingdom rule of God coming already in the here and now through faithfulness and stewardship of this earth which is God’s (Psalm 24:1).

Of course the question arises: Why take care of the earth if He is going to restore it all one day?

It’s a good question, one I have recently been thinking through with the strong focus on being green amongst many in recent years, something I’m not opposed to but still something I would not intrinsically equate with the kingdom of God, rather seeing it as a part of our call.

But let me counter with some other questions: Why take care of our bodies if one day the resurrection will take place with new bodies? Why pursue maturity in the faith if one day Jesus will do it fully when we see Him face to face?

Well, I think we can answer those questions pretty easily.

If our answer to the one about caring for our bodies is that we don’t need to, then we have moved into gnostic territory. The kingdom of God is about the goodness of all things, not just ‘the spiritual’. And we pursue maturity in our faith because we are called to walk out the gospel of God’s rule that has effected major change in our lives. We are already part of the new creation, aren’t we?

So, why not take up also embracing the reality of being stewards of all things, even bringing foretastes of the one future day into the here and now by seeing God’s rule exemplified in the physical earth. Remember, He is going to restore our bodies and the earth. Why not give a taste to the world now of what will one day be a full reality?

This all goes back to the initial words that I quoted from N.T. Wright, some very powerful and profound words:

Precisely because the resurrection has happened as an event within our own world, its implications and effects are to be felt within our own world, here and now.

The Son of God became flesh and blood for a reason. The Son of God lived a human life on the physical earth for a reason. The Son of God was resurrected in true bodily form for a reason. In modern day terms, we might describe it as a PowerPoint display of what God intends to fully and finally accomplish one day with all creation as His rule and glory cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).

So let’s take up this call now. Let’s provide a taste, or maybe even more than a taste, of what God will one day consummate in Jesus Christ.

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.