Saturday, May 24, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 11)

Abandon all hope all ye who enter here.

'Cause N.T. Wright is going to talk about hell.

In chapter 11 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright addresses the questions of purgatory, paradise, and hell. Needless to say, he is not drawing a lot of his conclusions from Dante's The Divine Comedy.

First, Wright addresses purgatory and rejects it on three (or perhaps four) grounds. First, resurrection is still in the future, so there is no "church expectant" purging itself of sin to be allowed into heaven. Second, in no place does the New Testament suggest that there are various gategories of believers--some to go straight to heaven and some to go to purgatory. Third, Romans 8 says that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. (He also implies a fourth reason--the leading Roman Catholic scholars, including Pope Benedict XVI, are abandoning, or at least significantly modifying, their views on purgatory.)

Second, Wright briefly addresses paradise. Whatever can be said about paradise, it is not the ultimate destination of believers. Perhaps Philippians 1:23 implies that the dead "depart to be with Christ," but at most that can be interpreted to be a temporary state of bliss while we await resurrection.

Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for, Wright addresses hell. Honestly, I didn't know where he was going to go. Originally, I thought that he would go the traditional rout, but from some of his statements in Surprised by Hope about the extent of redemption, I thought he might go the rout of the universalist. As I should have expected, Wright opts for C:) none of the above.
Wright writes:
"Part of the difficulty of the topic, as with the others we have been studying, is that the word hell 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 titure chamber at the center of God's castle of heavenly delights, decided that when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 175.

But Wright reminds us that we cannot escape the language of judgment that is in the New Testament. He writes:

"God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. Thsi 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. Not to put too fine a point on it, there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependant upon barbed wire will have no place there either.
For 'barbed wire,' of course, read whichever catalog of awfulnewsses you prefer: genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commodification of souls, the idolization of race. The New Testament has several such categories, functioning as red flashing lights to warn against going down a road that leads stright to a fenceless cliff." (179)

He adds:

"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.' I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle 'There's a wilderness 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. Humankind cannot, alas, bear very much reality, and the massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful univeralism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for." (180)

So, what is hell, if not a subterranean world of worms and fire? Wright says that the primary root of sin is worship of the created rather than the Creator (Romans 1). This, in turn, causes people to behave "sub-humanly," in behaviors we would typically label "sinful." Wright says that people become what they worship, so that over time it is possible for someone to so worship the created and live sub-humanly that "after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that were once human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all." (182) Their final destination is death.

Wright's view certainly has a lot going for it, and I have pondered along these lines before. After all, Paul says that the wages of sin is "death," not "hell." If the reward of the righteous is resurrection, then the "punishment" of the wicked would be denial of resurrection. However, his view is not without it's difficulties. I think 2 Cor 5:10 is one--everyone, including the unjust, must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Revelation 20:13–15 implies a resurrection to judgment of the wicked.

So, where do I stand on hell? I agree with Wright, you can't escape the language of judgment in the New Testament. I think universalism is a product of a Western culture that has been the source of oppression and injustice in history more often than it has been the victim of it. But every now and then, something like Auschwitz or Hiroshima comes along and reminds us that there really are evil people in the world. On the other hand, most of the language about hell occurs in parables and apocalyptic language. It's tough to take any of it literally. That doesn't mean that there isn't a concreate reality behind the figurative langauge, it just means that I am not sure hell involves worms.

All I think I can say now is that hell is real and that it is bad.

What do you think about N.T. Wright's idea that people can lose the image of God through a life of sin? Keep in mind that Colossians 3:10 implies that this image has been marred in all people but is being renewed in Christians.

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