N.T. Wright on hell

It’s no big secret that one of Rob Bell’s theological heroes is the former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright.

It’s not hard to see why, given how much they have in common. They share similar perspectives on the kingdom of God.

They share a common nemesis in John Piper (though Wright got a whole book out of it; all Rob got was one lousy tweet).

And both Rob Bell and N.T. Wright have written several books themselves (though apparently one believes in paragraphs and the other doesn’t).

Also, Wright is British. Deep down, I think Rob secretly wishes he was British. (I remember once introducing a friend of mine from the UK… Rob was beside himself with delight the minute he heard my friend’s accent.)

I’m making my way through N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (stop reading and buy it NOW) and just came to a section called “Beyond Hope, Beyond Pity,” in which he explores the biblical notion of hell.

There are a couple of noteworthy points of comparison with Rob Bell’s Love Wins — and one or two points of departure.

First, the points of comparison…

Both writers reject what Wright refers to as “childish depictions of hell” — i.e. hell as a literal “lake of fire” (which is a rhetorically powerful oxymoron if there ever was one) or as a medieval torture chamber in heaven’s basement. However, by pointing out that such caricatures are what drive some Christians to universalism, Wright hints early on that he’s not about to embrace universalism himself.

Both writers agree that much of what the New Testament says about hell, particularly in the Gospels, has to be interpreted in light of its immediate context. In other words, “hell” in the Gospels is not so much about what happens after you die as what happens in the here and now. Or as Rob says in Love Wins, “Here is the new there.”

Also, Wright lends scholarly credibility to Rob’s understanding of Gehenna, the most common New Testament term for “hell,” as a trash heap and/or ancient pagan site outside Jerusalem. Here’s how Wright interprets Gehenna:

When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.

His message to his contemporaries was… unless they tuned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries… Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap.

When Jesus said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish,” this is the primary meaning he had in mind…

Jesus didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming “on earth as in heaven.”

Both writers also seem to agree that hell is not a central theme in the Bible. Rob quickly surveys every mention of hell in the New Testament (or, more precisely, every occurrence of one of three terms commonly translated as “hell”). Wright notes that hell “is not a major topic in [Paul’s] letters” and “is not mentioned at all in Acts.”

Which leads me to ask some questions I’ve raised before: What was it that first drew people to the Christian faith? Was it the threat of judgment? Or something else? In the book of Acts, how many times did the apostles use hell in their proclamation to outsiders? Well, N.T. Wright has answered the last one, and it was zero.

Next up, some points of departure between N.T. Wright and Rob Bell…

11 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on hell

  1. Seems to me there are two main differences:

    1) Wright is clear and scholarly; Bell, for all his reputation as a “communicator,” is muddled and vague. 2) Wright is orthodox, emphasizing the resurrection of body in harmony with the creeds. Bell is, well, who knows what he is (refer to point 1).


  2. You raise some interesting questions, but don’t these arguments suffer from an over-contextualisation of what was written in the texts? What about their place in what one might call a prophetic meta-narrative and what about the voice of the meta-author throughout the different books written by human authors.

    When you are talking about a God that said “before Abraham was I am” (John 8:58) and healed people in fulfilment of a thousand year old prophecy before the act of fulfilment (His death and resurrection) had taken place) doesn’t too much understanding the context and thinking of that time alone without the overall balance threaten to obscure the wider message?

    I have written some more on the Rob Bell subject here:

    My view is that is that emphasis is wrong. Why argue about God’s role in judgement and hell, when the truth is salvation is freely available and the ball is well and truly in our court?

    Acknowledging the truth of Romans 3:23, then looking to Christ, the Gospel, seeking first the Kingdom – should be more of a priority.


  3. Chris, now it’s my turn to say you raise some interesting questions. My own view is that the Bible is simultaneously a collection of very distinct books AND one overarching metanarrative, as you call it. Personally, I believe we should start with the immediate context and work our way out from there. If we go the other way round, we risk redefining the metanarrative according to our own presuppositions about what it says.

    That being said, I believe there is more to the issue of judgment than what we find in the Gospels alone. And I think Wright does too, which is what I’m going to unpack in the next post.

    For what it’s worth, I’m also planning to do a more comprehensive look at the theme of judgment in the New Testament…but that could be biting off more than I can chew…


    1. Hmmm – I am selah-ing that one. Really like that sound of your New Testament judgement piece – a subject that could do with some more attention. Have you finished it yet?


  4. I know this is Wright’s point and not yours, but though “hell” may not be mentioned in Acts, the idea is not absent. What else can Paul mean by stating that God will judge the world in justice through the resurrected Jesus (17:31)?


    1. Depends on your understanding of judgment. Hell is one picture of judgment in the Bible. Or, more precisely, “hell” is how we translate two or three different words used to picture judgment in the New Testament. “Destruction” and “second death” are two other ways of depicting judgment in the NT. The point is, the biblical picture of judgment is a lot bigger than hell.


  5. I’ve come upon this post far too late, but do want to point out that Wright–although he is not ready to claim exactly what “life after life after death” will look like–certainly puts forth a strong eschatology of a coming judgment. And, importantly, after that judgment not everybody ends up with the same kind of existence. See his Resurrection of the Son of God for a full on dealing.


  6. I came across this article tonight and it sure put a smile on my face when I saw who the author was! Thank you for writing it, excellent as always!
    I hope you are doing well Ben!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s