N.T. Wright on hell (part 2)

In Surprised by Hope (did you buy it yet?) N.T. Wright recalls his time at Oxford in the 60s and 70s, when it became popular for liberal theologians to suggest that “though hell may exist, it will at the last be untenanted.”

And this is where Rob Bell and N.T. Wright, for all their apparent similarities, seem to part company. Wright is far less hopeful about the duration and population of hell (or more realistic, depending on your perspective) for two reasons:

1. Universalism doesn’t deal seriously enough with evil. 

Mind you, we’re not talking about the breaking-the-speed-limit kind of evil. We’re talking about “genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commodification of souls, the idolization of race.” To this kind of evil, Wright insists, judgment is the only answer:

Judgment—the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated and that is evil and to be condemned—is the only alternative to chaos.

He describes universalism as a kind of fast-food theology which has become “depressingly flabby, unable to climb even the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment let alone the steeper reaches.”

And in one of the most rhetorically powerful passages in Surprised by Hope, Wright suggests (I’m trying hard to avoid typing “Wright writes”):

One cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ in the darkness of Hiroshima, or Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own…

The massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for.

2. Universalism doesn’t take into consideration the whole biblical picture of judgment.

Wright accepts that there are “those scriptural passages that appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who reject the worship of the true God.”

He specifically rejects the idea put forth in Love Wins that God will continue to offer salvation after death until the last person in hell accepts.  Citing Desmond Tutu’s work on the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, Wright insists that you can’t have one (reconciliation) without the other (truth):

Where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.

Next up: So just how are we to understand hell?

4 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on hell (part 2)

  1. Ben,

    Do you mind if I comment here in defense of the christian universalist position?

    I have a few things I’d like to say, but wouldn’t wish to write if unwelcome.



    1. Aaron –
      I know this is several months late (somehow I missed this comment), but you’re welcome to post your thoughts on Christian universalism. I’ve love to hear them.
      Thanks, Ben


  2. Ben,

    I had visited this blog a couple of times and saw that my comment was still awaiting moderation… I figured you didn’t know it existed.

    Since it has been a good 8 months, I don’t remember exactly what it was I was going to say. Sometime soon when I have a few moments (a few more than I have right now that is), I’ll come back and reread / meditate on this post and comment.

    I notice in some of your more recent comments that you’ve transitioned toward, and back away from, calvanism. I’m just curious where you currently stand on the eternal destiny of all mankind. Do you think that some consign themselves to hell and it is locked from the inside? Do you lean towards annihilation of those who don’t bow the knee? Are you a bit agnostic about the eternal destiny of “everyone else”?

    No need to go into depth – if you have a specific post that most clearly represents your view, you can point me in that direction.

    Thanks for being open to comments. God bless,


    1. Sorry – I didn’t do very much with this blog for a while. Just came back to it in the last month or so.

      Reading Love Wins inspired me to go through the entire NT, trying to discern any overarching patterns or themes about judgment and hell. I put some of my thoughts down here.

      I think there will be a “point of no return,” after which a person will have effectively sealed their own fate. I’m not opposed to the idea of postmortem salvation (if Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis were willing to consider it, then so am I), but I’m not overly optimistic about it either. Mostly b/c I don’t believe human beings are inherently immortal. I believe immortality can only be attained if God gives it to us.

      I don’t consider myself an annihilationist, b/c if we’re not immortal to begin with, then there’s nothing more for God to do if someone persistently, knowingly rejects him. (So for me, judgment doesn’t involve him zapping people to a crisp or whatever.)

      I think that almost nothing of the popular image of hell can be traced to what the Bible actually says about hell – which, at the end of the day, is very little.

      It seems to me that almost all of the NT passages that DO speak of judgment are addressed to one of two groups: (1) religious insiders, particularly those who seem preoccupied with keeping everyone else out, and (2) those who oppress God’s people. Re. the fate of the unevangelized, I consider myself an accessibilist along lines of Terrence Tiessen or Ben Witherington.

      Finally, I believe that when discussing matters of judgment, salvation, and hell, we could all do with a little more humility and respect for one another.

      Anyway, hope this helps; and I look forward to the dialogue.


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