N. T. Wright on ‘Hell’

July 5, 2011 — Leave a comment

Hell is in the News a lot lately because of recent books and rebuttals.  I recently came across some short videos where N.T. Wright comments on various questions around heaven and hell. These were in conjunction with his excellent book, Surprised By Hope.  Here is one of the videos and three of the transcripts.  You can find all the videos at the website, 100huntley.com. They are not a complete treatment but are thought-provoking in light of recent discussions.

NOTE: Wright’s descriptions about hell and the ‘progressive shrinking of human life’ echo C.S. Lewis and a post here at Ruminations that many have found helpful – It is titled Some New/Old Thoughts on Hell.  Read the linked article in that post by Peter Chopelas as well.  You may also want to listen to the sermon on Jesus’ parable of The Wheat and the Weeds at the Christ Church website.

Here are the transcripts:

Transcript 1: “I think in the 20th century, the church in the west had a big swing away from hell, particularly because of the first world war. Having seen so much hell on earth, a lot of people thought, you cant really believe that will go on in the hereafter as well. And also, there are many people who have grown up in fundamentalist circles, either fundamentalist protestant or catholic, for whom hell was the defining thing. You do this. You say your prayers. You …behave yourself. Or, you’ll be going to hell. – its rather like parents saying to kids, unless you behave yourself, Father Christmas wont bring you any goodies at Christmas time. and so then people react against that and say, hell was used as a weapon to scare me into being a good little boy or girl. And really we shouldn’t do that. Weve got to do it differently. So they back right off. I understand that reaction. It seems to me that the mature reaction, is ok, that’s where we’ve started culturally and maybe Christianly. Now how do we re-inhabit what the New Testament is actually talking about.”

Transcript 2: ” The word hell has had a checkered career in the history of the church. And it wasn’t hugely important in the early days. It was important, but not nearly as important as it became in the middle ages. And the in the middle ages, you get this polarization of heaven over here and hell over there, and you have to go to one place or the other eventually. So you have the Sistine Chapel, with that great thing behind the altar. This enormous great judgment seat, with the souls going off into these different directions. Very interestingly, I was sitting in the Sistine chapel just a few weeks ago. I was sitting for a service, and I was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox…who said to me, looking at the pictures of Jesus on one wall. He said, these I can understand. The pictures of Moses on the other wall, he said, those I can understand. Then he pointed at the end wall of judgment, and said, that I cannot understand. That’s how you in the west have talked about judgment and heaven and hell. He said, we have never done it that way before, because the Bible doesn’t do it that way. I thought, whoops. I think hes right actually. And whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, that scenario which is etched into the consciousness of Western Christianity really has to be shaken about a bit. Because if heaven and earth are to join together. Its not a matter of leaving earth and going to heaven. Its heaven and earth joined together. And hell is what happens when human beings say, the God in whose image they were made, we don’t want to worship you. We don’t want our human life to be shaped by you. We dont want, who we are as humans to be transformed by the love of Jesus dying and rising for us. We don’t want any of that. We want to stay as we are and do our own thing. And if you do that, what you’re saying is, you want to stop being image bearing human being within this good world that God has made. And you are colluding with your own progressive dehumanization. And that is such a shocking and horrible thing, that its not surprising that the biblical writers and others have used very vivid and terrifying language about it. But, people have picked that up and said, this is a literal description of reality. Somewhere down there, there is a lake of fire, and its got worms in it and its got serpents and demons and there coming to get you. But I think actually, the reality is more sober and sad than that, which is this progressive shrinking of human life. And that happens during this life, but it seems to be that if someone resolutely says to God, I’m not going to worship you…its not just ‘Ill not come to church.’ Its a matter of deep down somewhere, there is a rejection of the good creator God, then that it the choice humans make. In other words, I think the human choices in this life really matter. We’re not just playing a game of chess, where tomorrow morning God will put the pieces back on the board and say, Ok that was just a game. Now were doing something different. The choices we make here really do matter. There’s part of me that would love to be a universalist, and say, it’ll be alright. Everyone will get there in the end. I actually (think) the choices you make in the present are more important than that.”

Transcript 3: “Hell is, if you like, I was going to say its where God isn’t. Even that isn’t true, cause ultimately God will be all in all. But it is as though within God’s all in all-ness, there will be an absence, a loss, the possibility of there being creatures who were once human, but now are not. I don’t know what the word ‘where’ would mean at that point. Cause, I don’t know what location is like at that point. And I fail to see why we should speculate about it. I just think its a state of being, of creatures that once were human, once did reflect the image of God, but have chosen to do so no more. And I have to say, people often ask me about this, and I don’t like talking about it, partly because I know a great many people and love a great many people, some of whom, as far as I can see are saying precisely that to God. And I shudder to think, of those people saying, ‘I truly don’t want to be human. Thank you very much… ‘ because they are lovely human beings at the moment, and you can see glimmers of God in them, but how that works out is up to them. So this is not something I talk about readily or happily. I know some Christians who, say, ‘There’s heaven and there’s hell. And those guys are going to get it.’ That’s not what I’m saying at all. This is a matter of really a terrifying possibility. And every so often you look in the mirror, and say, hmm. Are you worshipping idols as well. Is that where you’re going. Christians have to ask themselves that. It doesn’t destroy your assurance, but its a question you need to ask.”


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