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.]
*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)