Tuesday, October 26, 2010

N.T. Wright, on hell: The Excerpt

Part 1 gives some context for this rather long excerpt from N.T. Wright about hell and final judgment. I hope you'll take the time to read it and give it some thought. 

God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This 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 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 upon it, there will be no barbed wire in he kingdom of God...

For "barbed wire," of course, read whichever catalog of awfulnesses you prefer: genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the comodification 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 straight to a fenceless cliff. And in the analysis offered by early Christians from Paul onward, such patterns of behavior have three things to be said about them.

First, they all stem from the primal fault, which is idolatry, worshiping that which is not God as if it were. Second, they all show the telltale marks of the consequent fault, which is subhuman behavior, that is, the failure fully to reflect the image of God...Third, it is perfectly possible, and it really does seem to happen in practice, that this idolatry and dehumanization become so endemic in the life and chosen behavior of an individual, and indeed of groups, that unless there is a specific turning away from such a way of life, those who persist are conniving at their own ultimate dehumanization.

This is at the heart of the way in which I believe we can today restate the doctrine of final judgment. 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 on 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. Humankind cannot, alas bear very much reality, and the massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for.

But if there is indeed final condemnation for those who, by their idolatry, dehumanize themselves and drag others down with them, the account I have suggested of how this works in practice provides a somewhat different picture from those normally imagined.

The traditional view is that those who spurn God's salvation, who refuse to turn from idolatry and wickedness, are held forever in conscious torment. Sometimes this is sharpened up by overenthusiastic preachers and teachers who claim o know precisely which sorts of behavior are bound to lead to hell and which, though reprehensible, are still forgivable. But the traditional picture is clear: such human beings will continue to be, in some sense, human beings, and they will be punished in an endless time.

This account in then opposed by the universalists. Sometimes they suggest...that God will be merciful even to the utterly abhorrent, to mass murderers and child rapists. Sometimes they modify this: God will continue, after death, to offer all people the chance of repentance until they finally give in to the offer of his love.

A middle way is offered by the so-called conditionalists. They propose "conditional immortality": those who persistently refuse God's love and his way of life in the present world will simply cease to exit. Immortality, such theories point out, is not (despite the popularity of Platonist!) an innate human characteristic; it is something that, as Paul says, only God possesses by right and hence is a gift that God can choose to bestow or withhold. According to this theory, then, God will dimply not confer immortality on those who in this life continue impenitently to worship idols and thereby to destroy their own humanness. This view is therefore sometimes known as annihilationaism; such people will cease to exist. That word, however, is perhaps too strong, suggesting that such people are actively destroyed rather than merely failing to receive a gift that had been held out to them and that they had consistently rejected.

Over against these three option, I propose a view that combines what seem to me the strong points of the first and third. The greatest objection to the traditional view in recent times - and the last two hundred years have seen massive swing toward universalism in the Western churches, at least the so-called mainstream ones - has come from the deep revulsion many feel at the idea of the torture chamber in the middle of the castle of delights, the concentration camp in the middle of the beautiful countryside, the idea that among the delights of the blessed we should include the contemplation of the torments of the wicked. However much we tell ourselves that God must condemn evil if he is a good God and that those who love God must endorse that condemnation, as soon as these pictures present themselves to our minds, we turn away in disgust. The conditionalist avoids this at the apparent cost of belittling those scriptural passages that appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who reject the worship of the true God and the way of humanness, which follows from it.

Using that analysis, though, presents us with the following possibility, which I believe does justice both to the key text and to the realities of human life of which, after a century of horror mostly dreamed up by human beings, we are not all too well aware. When human beings give their heartfelt 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 creditor, debtors, partners, or customers rather than 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 otehr 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 tough. My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whispering of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all prompting 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. 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 int eh palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.

I am well aware that I have now wandered into territory that no one can claim to have mapped. Jesus, Christians believe, has been to hell and back but to say that is to stand gaping into the darkness, not to write a travel brochure for future visitors. The lat thing I wants is for anyone to suppose that I (or anyone else) know very much about all this. Nor do I want anyone to suppose I enjoy speculating in this manner. But I find myself driven, by the New Testament and the sober realities of this world, to this kind of a resolution to one of the darkest theological mysteries. I should be glad to be proved wrong  but not at the cost of the foundational claims that this world is the good creation of the one true God and that he will at the end bring about that judgment at which the whole of creation will rejoice.

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