In this post I will attempt to offer a quick summary of N.T. Wright’s view on hell as portrayed in ‘Surprised by Hope’. Ch 11 Purgatory, Paradise, Hell and the subsection entitled 4. Beyond hope, beyond pity.(pages 187-196 in the paperback)
Hell is a difficult topic as
a) Images are ‘gained more from medieval imagry’ than from the bible.
b) Some can’t believe in hell as they are universalists.
Neither of these, according to Wright are good positions.
a)Wright discusses the word Gehenna which is the word most frequently translated hell. Gehenna ‘was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jersusalem’. The point which Jesus makes is that is not about burning in the next life but his message was one which urged the people of Israel to repent of their zealous violent opposition to Rome. If they did not repent then Rome would ‘turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smouldering rubbish heap'(pg 189).
b) The bible does talk of a future judgement. Liberal optimism is in decline given conflicts in Balkans, Middle East, Darfur, etc. Opinion in theology now seems to be shifting and justice is something which people are now turning to. God will see that good ‘is upheld and vindicated’ ‘and that evil is to be condemned'(191).
‘God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end’ There will be no ‘barbed wire in the kingdom of God'(192). All rebellion will be be eradicated. The following patterns of behaviour will be excluded. Those who will end up on the wrong side of judgement should notice the warning signs. i)idolatry ii)subhuman behaviour iii)’It is perfectly possible, and it really does seem to happen in practise, that this idolatry and dehumanisation become so endemic in the life and chosen behaviour of an individual, and indeed of groups, that, unless their is a specific turning away from such a way of life, those who persist are conniving at their own ultimate dehumanisation’.(192)
N.T wright finds it impossible ‘to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation’.
Wright disagrees with the traditional view of eternal conscious torment. A middle way is offered by ‘conditionalists’ who state that those who are rejected ‘will simply cease to exist’. Wright also rejects universalism.
Wright adopts a different position.
‘Humans in turning away from God can ‘progressively cease to reflect the image of God’194 Wright’s ‘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 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'(195) These people pass beyond hope and beyond pity. ‘There is no concentration camp in the palace of delight’.
Wright does not enjoy speculating about this but the New testament drives him to these ‘sober realities’. He ‘should be glad to be proved wrong, but not at the cost of the foundational claims that this world is the good creation of the one true God, and that he will at the end bring about that judgement at which the whole creation will rejoice’ (196)