Monday, January 26, 2009

Tom Wright on the Resurrection, Heaven and Hell

Some great little clips here of Bishop Tom responding to questions on Resurrection, Heaven and Hell.

It is his comments on hell that I am interested in here. I have long struggled with the concept of hell, at least in it's traditional form. I fail to see how so many Christians throughout history, have so easily accepted this idea, at the same time as believing that God is love. The gospel, so often, has been presented as a 'bait and switch'. God loves you unconditionally and wants a relationship with you, and for you to have fullness of life (oh, and by the way, if you decide to reject his love, he will punish you forever in hell.).

Anyway, I think Tom's thoughts are helpful, although I lean more myself towards annihilationism.

He rejects the traditional notion of heaven and hell as two separate 'places' of post-mortem destination. This, he argues, is more of a medieval picture than a biblical one.

On the other hand, he rejects universalism, although he admits there is part of him that wishes it were the case. But he also does not go along with annihilationism. He maintains that those who have determinedly rejected God and his offer of salvation, will become dehumanised to the extent that they will cease to be human. This is not really a place, as in the new creation, God will be all in all, but it is rather a state. (this, he suggests in one anecdote, is more akin to the eastern orthodox view).

He admits that this is a dreadful fate which he doesn't like to contemplate or speculate too much on, but that the choices we make do have real consequences. He doesn't like talking about it, because he is aware of many people, who by appearances seem to have chosen this option. It is, he admits, a terrifying possibility.

He places the emphasis firmly on the choice of the individuals who end up in this state, not in some divine decree or even in punishment. In this sense he follows C.S. Lewis who said that the door of hell is locked on the inside. Those who end up in this state have chosen it for themselves. (I don't know, if pushed, if he would have some way of marrying this with a sense of God's sovereignty in salvation, but the emphasis is definitely squarely on the person's choice here). The idea that God, from all eternity, has determined those who, with no other possible option, will end up in hell is (in my admittedly limited and fallen opinion) a diabolical doctrine. The corollary of this emphasis on the choice of the individual (in my logical conclusion) is that everyone will get a meaningful opportunity to make this decision.

Whilst it may be possible to argue with Wright, or critique him on various points, I think his overall emphasis is helpful.
-He takes the possiblility of final loss seriously.
-He doesn't speculate on the details or on exactly who ends up in this state, other than those who persist in rejecting God and 'colluding in their own dehumanisation'
-It is not the main emphasis of his gospel.


Lewis J. Boulton said...

Watching those videos after reading 'Surprised by Hope' is fascinating. The book is good enough on its own, of course - but it's good to see Wright speaking about it (the wry smiles etc!)

I had a discussion with our church's young people on 'hell' recently, which really helped me form my thoughts on the topic! What we concluded is that 'being saved is a really wonderful thing. And not being saved is potentially terrifying, but definitely extremely dangerous.' As people who claim to believe in a God of Justice, we had to admit that the horrors humans are capable of (and are guilty of, in many cases) must be judged. However, as people who claim to believe in a God of love, we are more than happy to be surprised by Him!

*One note about Tom Wright's book. I'm not sure what you think, but I'm not sure Wright gives the 'annihilation' theory a fair crack. He describes the 'conditional immortality' theory and equates it with annihilationism - though my understanding is that, at least in some models of the theory, when God 'annihilates' the 'wicked' it is a definite act - not, as Wright says, simply a withheld gift of immortality. A definite act of annihilation is certainly more of a 'punishment' in keeping with the reality of a Judgement.

Jon said...

I haven't read surprised by hope for a while, but I'm sure you are probably right about the annihilation theory. 'Conditional immortality' is only one version of it.
Also, I have heard Wright admit, for example, that he doesn't know what to do with the resurrection of the unrighteous that we find on Paul's lips in Acts 24:15 (not mentioned in the Pauline writings).

Admittedly, the idea of people being raised just in order to be judged and then annihilated again is a strange one.