Confession: I love N.T. Wright. I love to read his books, but I think I love listening to him speak even more. I think I could just listen to him talk all day (might be his accent). There is a tenderness in his manner of speech, which often people with his level of brilliance lack. Even when speaking of the nature of hell he comes across like a kind, gentle, loving man.
But what of his content? Are we just lured by his tone and persuasive speech, or is he just right all the time (or at least more often than not)? When it comes to his perspectives on Paul (and especially Pauline justification) he has received a lot of criticism. And his discussions of final punishment have raised some eyebrows as well. In the video above Wright suggests that the Western tradition got “off the rails” with its turn to a dualism of heaven or hell as equal but opposite eternal residences for all people. I can’t say I disagree. I am by no means an expert in Patristics, but from my reading, I see little discussion regarding the nature of hell, and almost nothing of the dualism of Post-Augustinian theology. Many critics of traditional eternal conscious torment thinking point to Augustine as the shift in the western theological trajectory, and clearly there is something to that argument. The Eastern Orthodox view which states that God is love, but love requires free will, which means God’s love and grace can be rejected by people, does not have the same dualism of all people are eternally here or there, but that God is all in all, but the rejectors of grace experience lostness, an experience of not being reconciled to the God who is right there. But Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a single dogmatic view (as best I can tell from my readings). The Orthodox tradition has feature some thinkers who have argued in favour of universalism- that through Christ all will be redeemed in some way.
As for N.T. Wright, who is heavily influenced by the Fathers and Eastern tradition, he has distanced himself from the traditional view in significant ways. His articulation of this “atrophy” of the image of God in those who have rejected his love (see Following Jesus, Eerdmans, 1994, p. 93-94) suggests that hell consists of a willed separation from the creator whose image humans bear. The separation means that humans can now in this life, and beyond, have that image decay and break down until humanness is ultimately lost.
What that means is still unclear in my mind. Wright suggests that the texts usually interpreted to mean hell is a place designed and created by a good God into which he throws those who reject him so that they will be punished with unending suffering, within their context of Old Testament imagery of judgment and consequence this side of history. Most of the New Testament texts on judgment borrow from Old Testament prophecies, and those prophecies have to do with their immediate contexts- the downfall of nations at the hand of other nations. The famous texts of unquenchable fire and worms devouring are references to the disposal of corpses following a devastating battle. Yet, many in the western tradition read this eschatalogically and literally. So were the New Testament authors re-imagining these Old Testament texts or do we need to re-evaluate how we read the New Testament? Wright suggests the latter.
Wright has been essential in my theological development. His call the renew an understanding of eschatology based in the “marriage of heaven and earth” (Ibid. 96) and the focus on New Creation (as opposed to an eschatology in which the righteous go to heaven and the wicked go to hell and the earth is blown up) is a wonderful return to what the New Testament actually says. But, is hell simply an image to depict the catastrophic effect of the loss of humanness? And what is a human being who has lost humanness? I’m not sure how to reconcile that to the apollumi (perish/perishing destroy/destruction) imagery used by Jesus and Paul to describe those who reject God as King. Does loss of one’s humanity mean they “perish” or are “destroyed” or that they suffer in desolation for eternity? And if God is to become “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) how can this lost humanity exist in separation and rebellion and willful rejection of the King?