Tuesday, October 26, 2010

N.T. Wright, on hell: A Preface

I finished Surprised by Hope. It took me reading a simpler N.T. Wright book, several starts and stops, and 2 1/2 years, but I got through, and it was worth it.

I want to offer a long excerpt that he wrote about hell, but in doing so I'll be cutting out the most important part of the book to share what was to me the most interesting. I read an interview where he said he almost wrote the book without this hell section, but so many people wanted to read his thoughts on the matter that he decided to include them. Before I get to the excerpt, let me share what the rest of the book's about.

Wright starts by showing all the ways that the myriad Christian churches are  confused about what happens after death, and that much of this confusion can be cleared up with some good understandings of history and early Christian thought. He explains the same point he made more thoroughly in Simply Christian: that the Bible's first readers understood heaven not as a place apart from earth, but as the place God's realm intersects with us. He devotes a whole chapter to the Jewish idea of bodily resurrection; explaining that the earliest Christians' hope was never to be in a heaven that was removed from this world, but to be raised with Christ after death, in an earth renewed. He delves into how early believers and non-believers both would have understood the first Easter, and applies sound thinking to the problems that some skeptics have with believing in His resurrection.

Here is a decent summation of what he has to say on life immediately after death:
"My proposition is that the traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage postmortem journey...represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story we tell about God's ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed if we leave it out altogether as some have done quite explicitly, we don't just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the reason for working. Instead of talking vaguely about heaven and then trying to fit the language of resurrection into that we should talk with biblical precision about the resurrection and reorganize our language about heaven around that. What is more...when we do this we discover an excellent foundation, not, as some suppose, for an escapist or quietist piety (that belongs more with the traditional and misleading language about heaven), but for lively and creative Christian work within the present world. (p. 148)

So all of that is the point of the book.

But there's this really interesting part on hell, and that's why I'm writing this post. Why, I wonder, does hell so intrigue me?

I think because I long from deep inside me for judgment against the forces of evil that now reign in this world. And the evils of the world must surely not get off scotch free. Also, I think the way hell is "used," in the evangelical circles I tread must be wrong. Used, I mean like bait to get someone to say a sinner's prayer. Or used with certainty, like the speaker knows who's going and who's not.

This passage by N.T. Wright on hell is the best I've read on the subject. I think it gets to the heart of what the language in the Bible about judgment is all about. It  has a ring that I find congruent with the scripture. I'll finish typing out the rather long excerpt and I'll post it soon. I recommend printing it out, reading it with others, wrestling with it until it sinks in deep.

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