Tag Archives: hell

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.]


*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)

RLP on hell

I’m not sure how popular or unpopular Real Live Preacher is among my readers, but I usually find his perspective quite refreshing.  He recently did a video series on hell, examining the traditional conservative evangelical view.  He first asked his readers to give him all the verses in the New Testament (he argues the OT has little to nothing to say about hell) that have been used to argue for the existence of hell.  Then he takes them all and lists them, giving brief context, the word used (i.e. Hades, Gehenna), and who the passage says will go to hell.  In  the third video, he gives his take on the issue, based on his study of the NT passages.  And in the fourth and final video, he makes some suggestions.

His conclusion?  1.  Very little specific can be said about hell using scripture; and 2. we spend far too much time sitting around deciding who will go to hell than we do simply loving our neighbours.  He suggests, in a nutshell, that we should stop thinking about hell and whether or not our neighbour will go there and just be a loving neighbour.

There are 4 videos in the series: Part 1 (introduction/set up), Part 2 (the cold facts of the NT—the verses listed), Part 3 (RLP’s conclusions) and Part 4 (some further thoughts).  I recommend it, even if in the end you disagree with it.  (Each video is around 8 minutes long or less.)

On justice and judgment

From Andre:

A further thought on justice – because it’s on my mind and is integral to understanding judgment:

Traditional Hell is not justice. It is merely torture to no end. The biblical idea of justice does not mean punishment to no end – it means making things right. It is restorative. The notion of restoration does not proceed from human thinking but has come to us through the expression of God’s character. Only God has to the power to truly make everything right, and he has promised that he will. Punishment that is not restorative is not a godly notion, but a human one. Anyone can do it. But in Christ, who neither condemned the woman caught in adultery, nor the schemers who dragged her before him, we have been shown a better way. Conviction and return to God are better than condemnation and destruction. (link)

Interestingly, I was reading Elizabeth Achtemeier’s Preaching the Hard Texts of the Old Testament tonight and she mentioned that the Hebrew word used for “judge” is also often used for “save”.  There may be some correlation there, though I realize in Greek (the language of the New Testament) it might be a different story.


(Incidentally, the quote above was tacked on the end of a good review of Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist, which I have yet to finish reading.  That’s what I get for all the browsing I do.)

(And one of these days I’ll post something original.)

You become what you worship

This is what N.T. Wright has to say about final judgment in Surprised by Hope (the book to which the author quoted in the last post was responding):

. . . I believe [the following possibility] does justice to both the key texts and to the realities of human life of which, after a century of horror mostly dreamed up by human beings, we are now all too well aware.  When human beings give their hearfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God.  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.  Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers, rather than as human beings.  Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sexual objects.  Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns.  These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.  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, allsignposts 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, con no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.  (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pp. 182-3)

Another interesting perspective.  I suspect, however, that this is more speculative even than some would consider Universalism to be.

(It also, incidentally, makes me think of something from a fantasy novel.  First I thought of Gollum, but that wasn’t right.  Then I settled on Ringwraiths.

Oh, and by the way, whenever I say “fantasy novel”, I mean “a book by J. R. R. Tolkien”.)

Then neither do I condemn you.

I haven’t touched the subject of Christian Universalism in a while, but I came across some interesting thoughts a couple of weeks ago, which I have been meaning to post.  Once again, even if we don’t believe that scripture supports a Christian Universalist perspective, it is fair to say that hoping for and desiring universal salvation is Biblical. To that end, I continue to read hopefully on the subject.

The Evangelical Universalist links to a post written specifically in response to N.T. Wright’s views on hell, particularly as discussed in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (as I recall, Wright dedicated maybe 3 pages to the subject of hell).  The writer (Dan) has this to say, which does not require a knowledge of Wright or his works:

. . . given Wright’s emphasis upon the biblical narrative, I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t think (or at least doesn’t say) that the salvation of all might be just the sort of “surprise” that fits rather well within the trajectory of that narrative. Despite the Old Testament material that shows us that the Gentiles would be also be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, the offer of the inclusion still came as a surprise to many in the days of Jesus and Paul. Of course, in retrospect, we 21st-century Christians can see how that inclusion fits the story rather well. I can’t help but wonder if a similar surprise awaits us. Given the hints that exist within the Scriptures, we might also see the inclusion of all people in the consummation of the Kingdom.

. . . I can’t help but think of the scenario in Jn 8.1-11 involving the woman caught in adultery. I wonder, if at the moment of judgment, once we have been fully confronted with both our own sinfulness, our own complicity in the broader structures of sin, and the ways in which those who sinned against us have been sinned against, if what will result is similar to what happens to the woman. In 1 Cor 6.2, Paul tells us that the saints will judge the world. I wonder if this means that God will say “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.” I wonder then, if we are unable to throw stones, if God will also say to those being judged, “then neither do I condemn you. Come now and leave your life of sin.” (Link)

Interesting thought, no?