Second in three part series on NT Wright’s views of hell (etc) as seen in Surprised by Hope (Part one here):
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. There are some things, quite a lot of them in fact, that one must not tolerate lest one merely collude with wickedness. We all know this perfectly well, yet we conveniently forget it whenever squeamishness or the demands of current opinion make it easier to go with the flow of social convention. The problem is that much theology, having lived for so long on the convenience food of an easygoing tolerance of everything, and “inclusivity” with as few boundaries as McWorld, has become depressingly flabby, unable to climb even the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment let alone the steep upper reaches of that judgment of which the early Christians spoke and wrote.
But judgment is necessary – unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much. In the justly famous phrase of Miroslav Volf, there must be “exclusion” before there can be “embrace”: evil must be identified, named, and dealt with before there can be reconciliation. This is the basis on which Desmond Tutu has built his mind-blowing work on the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. And – this is the crunch – where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.
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 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 dependent upon barbed wire will have no place there either.
For “barbed wire,” of course, read whichever catalog of awfulness 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 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, that missing the mark as regards full, free, and genuine humanness for which the New Testament’s regular word is hamartia, “sin.” (Sin, we note, is not the breaking of arbitrary rules; rather, the rules are the thumbnail sketches of different types of dehumanizing behavior.) Third, it is perfectly possible, and it really does seem to happen in practice, that this idolatry and dehumanization become so endemic that in the life and chosen behavior of an individuals, 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…
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…
I’ll have to cut it there. I don’t want to get sued by any publishers, as this blog is non-profit (so faaarrrr). In the next few days, I want to sum up Wright’s imagination on what “hell” may entail, as well as heaven, etc. For now, a couple questions:
- What has been your impression of either of the two extreme views on hell – either in your own experience or with Wright’s characterizations?
- What do you feel about the way Wright balances justice and mercy?
- Wright talks about the excluded, evil “Barbed wire”. What do you feel about the idea that there are people who are so defined by their evil that they are excluded from heaven?