Thy will be done (thoughts on hell inspired by a children’s story)

I started reading The Chronicles of Narnia with Madeline last week and came across an interesting passage in The Horse and His Boy.  Two things to know: The animals in Narnia are friendly and able speak, but Digory’s Uncle Andrew is unable to understand them–their voices just sound like animal sounds to him and he’s terrified of them. Uncle Andrew has a major Narnia-based economic scheme in mind and Digory wants Aslan to set him straight. Aslan has this to say:

I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good! (The Horse and His Boy, 158)

There’s no question that Lewis’ theology shows up in his writing, but I couldn’t figure out what Aslan’s words reminded me of. Then I remembered: something N.T. Wright said in Surprised by Hope. This forms part of a discussion on purgatory, paradise, and hell, and Wright is writing in response to the popular (in “liberal” circles, anyway) notion of hell eventually being empty (i.e. some form of universalism).

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 puts it, God will eventually say, “Thy will be done.” I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own (Surprised by Hope, 180).

Wright goes on to suggest his own view contrary to the traditional view of hell*, saying that

one of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around…. My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse the 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 (Surprised by Hope, 182).

If I have to give a name to one of my hobby-horses, I suppose it would be “soteriology”–or at least that part of it that wonders who can be or is saved by the work of Christ (I should have written a thesis on the topic while Terry Tiessen was still the theology professor here). I suppose I would call myself a hopeful universalist. I find many of the arguments for Christian universalism quite compelling.

Christian universalism is considered by many to be a cop-out in the face of discomfort with the notion of eternal conscious torment. But I can’t help but wonder if Wright’s view isn’t exactly the same thing. Yet it will not face nearly the opposition Christian universalism does, because at least people are eternally punished in some way (why do we wnt this so much?). And not only that, it may just have less scriptural or historical basis than Christian universalism. (In fairness, in the next paragraph he does consider his view speculative.)

I am also doubtful of his reasons for rejecting universalist ideas. The horrors that he lists may make him wish that there are people beyond redemption, but it doesn’t follow that it will be so.** Just because Joe Despot did some horrendous things, it does not automatically follow that there must be some kind of eternal punishment for him.

Further, we do believe that God’s grace is sufficient to atone for even the sins Wright lists. If (hypothetically speaking) the perpetrators of these sins were to repent, under the traditional view of things, they too would be saved. It seems to me, therefore, that the horrors we see in this world don’t necessitate punishment beyond, perhaps, that suffered by Christ (but that’s another discussion).

Wright–or any of us, frankly–might not be able to imagine it otherwise, but again that doesn’t make it so.

Wright is usually pretty good letting scripture shape his views. In this case he merely alludes to his readings of the New Testament. This isn’t particularly helpful, but then these “last things” are in general speculative.

[PS. I'm not saying Wright is wrong (heh heh), just that I don't think he's given good reason, scripturally or otherwise, for his position.]

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*I have the feeling that Wright’s view actually might have its origins in Lewis as well, but I can’t say for sure as Wright does not credit him in any way.

**Ignoring the question of at what point a sin is grave enough to warrant mentioning in this discussion.  That is, under Wright’s scheme, which sins are bad enough for us to expect eternal punishment?

(Cross-posted at I Heart Barth)

10 thoughts on “Thy will be done (thoughts on hell inspired by a children’s story)

  1. matt

    These questions may be utterly speculative on the one hand and yet they can fundamentally shape so much of our beliefs and, therefore, our presence and engagement with the world and the relationships we experience.

    I enjoy hearing your thoughts and appreciate your more optimistic position. I don’t believe in any kind of external, eternal hell, although that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. To me, the question becomes more about how are we all that different? Even Paul claimed that he did what he knew was wrong, even when part of him didn’t want to (Rom. 7ish?) The human condition is universal so why should it be so impossible for us to believe that redemption is not also universal? Not an iron-clad argument but still a good question, I think.

    I can genuinely understand why people believe in hell. I used to. But I no longer find the idea convincing nor compelling and yet we are all at different places in our understanding and that’s okay. It’s worth discussing, definitely, especially in the context of what happens to us when we die and what this life is to be about.

  2. Toni

    I wonder if we really view people in a different way, Marc.

    Why would any healthy, loving person ‘want’ to see people in a hell of torment? Yet there are several pictures of this from Jesus own words. Imagery that the people of the time would understand just for then or a description of reality?

    What sin is sufficient for being condemned to hell? Adam’s actually (surely this is the most basic understanding of fallenness?) and one could reasonably argue that a person born of Adam’s line could live their whole life doing nothing overtly bad and still not deserve salvation.

    The ‘hell = separation from God’ approach seems more reasonable to rational western thinking than the idea of external torment, but is also less difficult to justify than a universalism that says that all men will be saved eventually regardless of their lives.

    Next time you come to the UK maybe we should have a discussion on this topic?

    ;-)

  3. Nicolas

    Prof David Fergusson (not a universalist) says that ‘one of the more perplexing aspects of the current controversy is the way in which critics of the universalist case concede that it would be nice if it were true”. He cites Stephen Davis and William Lane Craig as examples of those who would like to believe that ‘universalism were true, but it is not’ (I suppose we should add NT Wright to the list!). He then comments: ‘Such remarks are puzzling. Are we saying that God’s final scheme is undesirable? Are we even suggesting that our own moral preferences are somehow better than God’s. Can we claim to be evangelical if we hold that it would be good if universalism were true while also lamenting wistfully that it is not what God has on offer?

    Personally I believe it is what God has on offer as his wonderful “final solution”. But before we get there, there is a pilgrimage for all of us to make. And as Robin Parry says, one way or another, we shall all be salted by fire — or (I should say) as Mark 9:49 says: “For everyone will be salted with fire”.

    My prayer is that the Church can see this more and more clearly.

  4. Marc

    Toni: I’m now realizing the shortcomings of cross-posting. Where do I respond? Here or at my personal blog? In the future I think I’ll post in one or the other place and link to it.

    I think perhaps I was too vague about what I was getting at. It might even be that I was talking about two different things

    I understand that the sin of Adam was enough to get us in trouble. I get that. I’m not saying Wright is incorrect, either.

    The reason I raise the issue the way I did was that Wright seems to use some of the heinous things done in our time as a proof of some kind eternal punishment, or at least as the reason for his belief in that. He says, in effect, “I can’t believe that Hitler wouldn’t be punished eternally for what he did.” Therefore, because there are terrible things done in the world there must be eternal punishment.

    Maybe if he had actually thrown in Biblical material instead of just saying, “reading the NT on the one hand and the newspaper in the other”, as if this is the basis for doctrine.

    Grace is in some respects an “unbelievable” gift, isn’t it? “While we were still sinners…” And his ways are not are ways, are they?

    I guess the sense I get from Wright’s words is that our (i.e. human) sense of justice indicates in-and-of-itself that there are some people that are unequivocally unredeemable (putting aside for the moment that they’re dead).

  5. Andrew

    A couple of thoughts/questions…

    The concept of hell being discussed here presumes an eternal soul – not a biblical concept, I submit. Only God is eternal, and to say that human souls may continue on eternally in some form of eternal torment would mean that, really, at the end of the day all souls will have eternal life – some in happiness and some in misery. Doesn’t seem to match with what I read from the biblical authors.

    Also, can someone explain how *any* sin or series of sins committed by a finite human being warrants an eternity of suffering? I think it’s fair to say there certainly seems to be no justice in that, and would seem cruel and vengeful – not the actions of a God portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son.

    Is there anything my child could do that would warrant me not only disowning him or her, but also ensuring that the rest of his or her life was miserable?

  6. Toni

    “He then comments: ‘Such remarks are puzzling. Are we saying that God’s final scheme is undesirable? Are we even suggesting that our own moral preferences are somehow better than God’s.”

    That’s foolishness, from both a biblical and human perspective. Consider Abraham and Sodom, Moses and Israel.

    From our perspective it is bizarre to wish other humans who appear basically decent to suffer, while at the same time those who have been cruel and wicked to be saved through accepting Christ. We are not saying that our preferences are better than God’s, so much as we don’t have the capacity to make the same judgements that He can [b]and reconcile them[/b].

    This also relates to Andrew’s post. We are not mere children before God, but were created to be like Him, though of finite capacity. We are responsible for the judgments and choices we make, including the choice to detach ourselves from that family and become isolated.

    Re: the eternal aspect of the soul, I’d agree it’s not completely cut and dried, but I think there’s enough in scripture to to support the idea reasonably. Much more than for a trinity doctrine, for example.

  7. Don Hendricks

    Marc, I have been impressed with the way George McDonald reasoned his way through these issues in Unspoken Sermons, and in his biography. I also have been studying the concept of Eons being interpreted as eternity, and see a consistent connection between a corrective punishment that is not endless, designed to bring the sinner to repentance in the intermediate state. It works pretty well when you think of an age unfolding ultimate reconciliation.

  8. Nicolas

    Toni, at 6 above, you make an interesting point re what I quoted from Prof Ferguson (at 3 above). You conclude:
    “We are not saying that our preferences are better than God’s, so much as we don’t have the capacity to make the same judgements that He can [b]and reconcile them[/b].”

    Are you saying there’s a difference between what God allows to happen “on the way” and what God allows to happen as a final and permanent settlement”?

    If so, I think that’s also Prof Ferguson’s point, for he said:
    “Such remarks are puzzling. Are we saying that God’s final scheme is undesirable?”

  9. Andrew

    I guess the honest answer is that, yes, if God’s final scheme is that some suffer an eternity of hell, then that final scheme IS undesirable. The question is, though, do the biblical authors point to such a final scheme?

  10. Nicolas

    Andrew, yes, that’s the question. Especially from reading Thomas Talbott and “Gregory MacDonald” I am now convinced that the Biblical evidence points in the direction of an evangelical universalism — or certainly not in the direction of an everlasting (never ending) punishment.

    Eternal punishment, yes (Mat25:46), but we have to be more honest in our understanding of the meaning of “eternal” in the New Testament.

    The word “eternal” gives us information about quality (what kind) not quantity (how long).

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