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This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hell, Justice, and N.T. Wright

Is there a hell? If so, what is it? Where is it? When is it? Will anyone even be there? What's it like? Will it consist of everlasting punishment? Is it just a textual metaphor to describe annihilation?

i've been reading very carefully through N.T. Wright's "Surprised By Hope." Wright (reluctantly, he admits) covers the above questions pretty far into the book. Wright notes that many in the past couple hundred years grew increasingly disgusted by the thought of a celestial torture chamber. Many of those went the route of universalism--either there's really no hell at all, or else there is one but no one will be there, or maybe it's not really "hell" at all, but just some place where God continues to woo people to His side until eventually everyone gives in and goes to heaven.

i am very sympathetic to the sentiments Wright expresses against such a notion:


"Faced with the Balkans, Rwanda, the Middle East, Darfur, and all kinds of other horrors that enlightened Western thought can neither explain nor alleviate, opinion in many quarters has, rightly in my view, come to see that there must be such a thing as judgment. 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." (178)

"one cannot forever whistle 'There's a wideness in God's mercy' in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own." (180)


Consider any of the suffering and evil in the world, whether extreme and heavily marked in historical memory or whether your own personal, deep gashes from the evil in the world. When you consider such in light of the goodness and holiness of God, aren't you moved to conclude that surely there's ultimate justice for such crimes? Surely there's a "hell" (whatever that means)? There's a song by U2 called "Peace on Earth" that wrestles with this matter in an artistic but fantastic and brilliant way. Generally, the song asks something like this: How can the angels around the time of Jesus' birth shout "Peace on earth!" when people lives are lost in wars fought over causes less valuable than those lives, and when the families of those lost have to continue on in this life without them? (i highly recommend giving the song a listen!) Does the thought really settle nicely in your stomach that there's no hell and those impenitent perputrators of massive evil in history will just big fat get away with it? Do you really find it pallatable that those who have severely wounded you in this life and have done so impenitently might never really face any consequences for their actions whatsoever (and may even seem to prosper from those actions)?

I'm not talking here about seeking revenge. I'm not talking about getting even. I'm not talking about a desire inside to get the chance personally to inflict and take pleasure in harming such villains. I'm also not talking about ignoring the fact that we also are villains in the sight of God. What if in our society there were no criminal court system, no police force, no law enforcement or retribution for wrongs committed? That feeling--that feeling of being deeply disturbed and unsettled in such an environment--is not about personal vengeance. Surely, (short of being a sociopath, i suppose) we have all felt such a disturbance when the wrong and evil committed did not personally involve us at all--when we had no personal axe to grind or vendetta to satisfy. i'm talking about justice. i'm talking about just what Wright says--the strong sense that evil ought to be identified and shown for what it is, and that it ought to be dealt with and put right (whatever that might mean), and that until that is done, something is unsettled, something is left undone, something is not okay.

There are those who are still disgusted with the celestial torture chamber idea who have rejected universalism as an option. Wright calls these "conditionalists." (181) Basically, conditionalists are those who believe in annihilation for the wicked. Those impenitent evil doers simply cease to be. Wright finds this option unacceptable:


"The conditionalist avoids this [the disgusting thought of a celestial torture chamber] at the apparent cost of belittling those scriptural passages that appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who reject the worship of the true God and the way of humanness, which follows from it." (181-182)

i agree, there are definitely passages i find very problematic when attempting to maintain annhililationism, and thus such a position turns out to be unacceptable. But i also find myself rejecting annihilationism on far stronger grounds. Or should i say, i personally experience far stronger convictions which serve as far greater motivation to reject annihilationism than just some passages being problematic. It seems to me that annihilationism still lets all those evil doers off the hook. What annihiliationism leads to, then, is that the wicked are given cessation of existence as a sentence or punishment. Really? Think for a moment. Do you really consider something akin to dreamless sleep to be a punishment?

i know plenty of angles could be thrown in to describe how such may serve as a punishment--that annihilated people no longer have any of the blessings or opportunities that come with existence. Fine. But consider this: The annihilationist presents as a punishment (something undesirable) something that many "good" and "innocent" and "victimized" people have longed for as a blessing. Some people suffering horribly in this life have looked upon the idea of dreamless sleep as a hope and a relief and a comfort. And this, the annihilationist tells us, is the "plight" of the wicked. A plight?--i must say, i hardly see how that's a plight at all. True, an annihilated person isn't around to enjoy the opportunities of existence, but neither is he around to answer for what he's done!

i don't have any elegant or sophisticated argument to offer other than the less-than-sophisticated comments above. All i can say is that in the pit of my gut, i cannot see how annihilationism is compatible with justice (especially its retributional and restorative elements). [i want also to note here that Wright himself argues a great deal in his book that bodily resurrection is a necessary part of justice--of God "putting the world to rights" by correcting or dealing with death as an evil part of the world. It is in that same vein which i find that annihilation of the wicked is incompatible with God's putting the world to rights. But that point is probably an entire post in itself.]

Wright proposes an alternative to both universalism and annihilationism:


"My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road [sinful, rebellious living], so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all prompting to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at least, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God's good world, in which the flickering glame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the
hardened criminal." (182-183)


This is Wright's account of hell. i admit it's probably true that much of our modern conception of hell originates far more in the literature and lore of the middle ages rather than from the New Testament and first century perspectives. And i am also appreciative of Wright's sentiments in wanting to reject both universalism and annihilationism. And i also admit that Wright's thoughts here seem consistent with biblical principles such as reaping what you sow. However, i still find that Wright's portrait doesn't quite satisfy my internal longing for justice either. While i think there's far more than just a grain of truth to the notion that the wicked dig their own grave or set their own trap, this portrait of hell still seems to feature the wicked as the sole instigators or active builders of their own eternal plight.

Now i agree that such is true in the sense that the wicked by their own lifelong choices have earned their ultimate fate. But the notion of God as a judge seems to require that He does something. Wright's picture of hell sounds a tad deistic to me--God just designed the world in such a way that bad actions in this life are akin to climbing down a pit step by step and eventually you reach the bottom (hell). God built it that way, wound up the clock, and now we're on our own. That's an interesting theory and could arguably be called a means by which God exercises justice. But it still seems to me incompatible with the thought of God as an ultimate judge who is returning for the purpose of putting everything right.

Passages like 2Thessalonians 1:6-9 suggest a far more active and instigative role for God in His dealings with the wicked. Hell, then, it seems to me, must consist in more than merely letting the wicked take the very last step off the ladder and reach the bottom of the pit. i think it must involve God actively serving out the just, retributive sentence on the wicked for their wickedness.

And i must also add, i think that means that such a state is an everlasting one. There's been plenty of contention in recent times over the duration of hell. i think if we put a temporal cap on hell at all, then we've conceded that there's hope and relief to be given to the wicked. Why be afraid of hell if it will eventually be over? Haven't you ever comforted yourself by thinking something similar to "this surgery will only last a couple hours, it'll all be over soon"? That same comfort and relief and something-to-look-forward-to type of hope belongs to the wicked too if we forfeit an everlasting hell. That to me doesn't seem all that "hellish."

10 comments:

Matthew said...

I enjoyed OK City for the 6 hours I was there. Looking forward to being back at Christmas and drinking Braums.

Aric Clark said...

We definitely disagree here. On a number of fronts.

Firstly - yes I'm ok with people who wronged me receiving no punishment. I believe I would be capable of forgiving even extreme wrongs though I confess I have not had direct experience. I have, however, witnessed various humans with this amazing capacity. If a human can do it, surely God is even more capable, of astounding forgiveness.

Second - grace as an idea makes no sense whatsoever if there is a limit. If there is some imaginary line, which once crossed makes grace unavailable then it is not what the church has always claimed it is.

Third - Hell, as generally conceived is infinitely worse than even the worst punishments we inflict on living humans. I would not have the stomach to inflict such pain, even if it were hitler himself at the other end of my lash.

Fourth - Justice is rendering to each person his due. How can anyone in a finite lifespan commit any crime which could justify eternal punishment? It would fail basic legal standards of justice, let alone the eternal merciful judgment of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

Why fear a punishment that is temporary? Humans routinely are afraid of even minor pains like spider bites and paper cuts, which we know are both insignificant and temporary. Does something have to be eternal to be worth fearing? I think not.

Finally, while there clearly are themes of retribution in scripture, I think they are clearly trumped by the gospel narrative itself. Jesus reveals who God is in that he endures wickedness and forgives. Furthermore, he is "vindicated" but it is mild, non-retributive. He is raised to eternal life and far from arriving with an army at his back to punish those who wronged him, he comes back with wounds showing to offer forgiveness to the very disciples who abandoned him in his suffering. That is the core of who God is. That is the one who judges. Every story of judgment has to be read in that light or it will be misunderstood.

reborn1995 said...

First, i wanna say that i mean "punishment" loosely. There are times in the post where i definitely am thinking of retributive justice and others when i'm open to including restorative justice. But beyond that, no, i'm not okay with anyone just plain "getting away with it." And i don't think that God forgiving Hitler would mean Hitler "got away with it." Forgiveness isn't getting away with it. i didn't mean to imply such in the post. Forgiveness has elements of both exclusion and embrace, of identifying the evil for what it is and then for some reconciliation. But leave out the exclusion and the acknowledgement of evil, then forgiveness doesn't really mean anything at all. And if someone refuses to acknowledge the wrong they've done, i don't see how you ever get to a real reconciliatory moment. i can certainly "forgive" in the sense of self-directed healing from the wrong done. But forgiveness in terms of real healing of relationships--i can't do that by myself. God may be very eager to forgive even the vilest of sinners, but unless you claim that God simply forces them to change their hearts, then some people will never receive His forgiveness.

Second, if by grace having no limit you mean it's open and available even to the most wicked among us, then i'd have to heartily agree. But if by grace having no limit you mean God is somehow obligated to give it to everyone no matter what, then i'd have to disagree. Not serving justice on the wicked who have no intention of changing is not being gracious, it's being an enabler. Notice that Jesus did not tell the Pharisees, "hey guys, you really shouldn't be doing that, but don't worry, neither I nor God will ever expect you to face what you've done." Had the Pharisees been contrite, Jesus would've been every bit as warm and embracing as He had been with others. The hard-hearted did not get the same treatment from Jesus as did the broken.

Third, it depends on what you mean by "worst" punishments. What is the feature that makes the "worst"? Is it because they are exceptionally cruel? Typically, if we consider a particular distribution of justice to be fair or just, then we do not also count it cruel or excessive. Whether hell is fair or just is what is in question. Here's a question though, suppose i were a Jew a few thousand years ago, and i was among the Jews whom God commanded to completely wipe out Canaanites--men, women, children, animals. Is God's command just? Is it cruel? Would i be obligated to do it?

reborn1995 said...

Fourth, even in our earthly justice systems, prison sentences are not determined by the time it took to commit the crime, but by the severity or nature of the crime. A rape may have taken three minutes to commit, but the perpetrator can be sentenced to decades. Whether i committed sin in a finite amount of time is not a factor in God's determining that hell ought to be infinite. Furthermore, God doesn't have to answer to our standards of justice. God is the standard by which fair and just is determined. We are the sinners. He is not. God may do something that seems unfair to me (doesn't take much OT-history reading to find specimens). But what that demonstrates is that something is wrong with *me,* not with Him. It may seem natural for me to say "that's not fair," but the truth is *i'm* not fair.

Fifth--okay, fair enough. People are afraid of temporary plights. What i really wanted to get at was the idea that a temporary hell is a place with plenty of hope. i'll think on this one some more though.

Finally--there are themes of retribution in the gospel narratives themselves and certainly in the rest of the NT. Jesus' parable of the vineyard owner (Matt 21), or His sheep and goats judgment scene (Matt 25), His 'repent or perish' speech and the fig tree parable (Luke 13) or even His own encounter with a fig tree (Matt 21), His narrow door speech in Luke 13 and in the Sermon on the Mount, His comment that things would be easier for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment that town which had rejected His preaching (Matt 10-11), etc. etc. Jesus' teaching is certainly not bereft of retributive themes.

Aric Clark said...

I will reply to your points more thoroughly as I can (after worship most likely) :P I'll tackle #1 right now though.

What is punishment? I punish my children when they misbehave so that they will correct their behavior. Knowing there is the possibility of punishment also serves as a way of correcting their behavior. If punishment is after-death and eternal then it is useless because there is no opportunity to correct behavior. At that point it isn't punishment it is just abuse.

"Retributive Justice" is an oxymoron in my opinion. It's basis is revenge - lex talionis and all that. Jesus absolutely overturns this way of understanding justice by commanding his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for those who persecute them, and to return good for evil. There just isn't a measure for measure form of justice in God's kingdom. All justice is restorative.

Forgiveness definitely includes both exclusion and embrace. Yes! So in this sense I agree with you - no one "get's away" with anything, unless by this we mean they receive no punishment. Their crimes are set before them in unambiguous fashion and they have the infinitely painful step to take of accepting forgiveness which means admitting wrong. Agreed and agreed.

Here is where we probably diverge - you think the human heart is stronger than God's persuasive love. That at the end of eternity with the truth staring them in the face in a way we never get the opportunity to see it in life, that people will choose death over life. I am with Paul who says that now we see in a mirror dimly, but then it will be face to face. Face to face with the merciful creator of the universe I believe everyone will choose life, because God's love is that overwhelmingly persuasive.

Is God's power limited? No.
Is God's time limited? No.
How can God fail to persuade each and every soul? Every knee will bow..

reborn1995 said...

i'm certainly not claiming that hell is corrective punishment. i am saying its retributional in nature (2Thess 1:6-9).

The only thing i believe Jesus "overturned" was the Pharisees' erroneous teacahing regarding the law. The OT itself already taught personal love for enemies (Prov 25:21-22; Exo 23:4-5) Jesus wasn't teaching anything new i don't think. i understand the Pharisees had taken passages about judicial sentencing and understood them as authorizing personal vengeance. Jesus was correcting this error.

i think modern day Christians have done something similar--seeing retribution as perfectly permissible in personal life. --not seeing that it's our duty to use peace, forgiveness, love, and reconciliation as our "weapons" against those who do us wrong. (i get the vibe from your blog you feel the same.)

But while that's a matter of personal instruction, that doesn't mean punishment goes away. God has still put "punishers" in place (Rom 13:1-5) and we should always reserve the place of ultimate judgment for God Himself (1Pet 2:23).

i guess you're right. i don't think God's love is irresistable. first, i don't think people get second chances after death. And second, i do think some people (most if i'm honest really) really do in the pit of their gut want to be more committed to themselves than to sacrifice their desires for Christ's sake. About God's limited power, i guess i place free-people-unable-to-resist in the same category as a square circle. i don't think of logical limitations as significant limitations of God's power since He's the one who created a world in which those limits exist.

Aric Clark said...

Had a great start to the advent season this morning. I hope you did as well.

Continuing with your points in order:

#2 I agree that God is not "obligated" to extend grace to everyone. I contend that God already HAS extended grace to everyone because it is in God's nature. I believe that is the revelation of Jesus Christ - that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. None. Sure the hard-hearted need some shaking up - in order to make them aware of their own brokenness. Agreed. That is what grace feels like when you're swimming against the stream of God's mercy.

#3 There's not much point in comparing subjective levels of pain to decide which is worst. Lets just accept the current standards of our own society for argument's sake. The "worst" punishments we hand out in our law system are either a life sentence or capital punishment. You know they are regarded as the worst because they are handed out in rare instances for the most grievous crimes. So... taking those as an example Hell is infinitely worse because it is eternal torment. You yourself admitted that putting an expiration date made it seem less onerous.

On the separate issue of the cleansing of Canaan - I would say that if you received such a command it would be all the proof you would need that the voice you were hearing is not God. God, as proven by Christ, is light and in him there is no darkness at all. God does not (and did not) command genocide. If you ever hear a voice in your head telling you to kill someone you know it is not God.

Aric Clark said...

#4 No the punishment isn't necessarily the same quantity of time, but it does have to be proportional to the gravity of the crime. What crime could possibly merit ETERNAL punishment? eternity is forever. It blows apart all our understanding of scale. There is nothing, by definition, which can be comparable. There is no crime which can be the equivalent of eternal torment - because all crimes committed temporally have a limited duration, a limited impact, a limited amount of suffering caused to the victims no matter how grave the crime.

No god doesn't have to answer to our standards of justice, but God is BETTER than our standard of justice not worse. It is true that if God does something it will be just and we are the ones who need to adjust. It is also true that we are expected to test the spirits and if something conduces to evil, or injustice, it does not come from God regardless of how credible the supposed pedigree.

#6 There are indeed themes of judgment in the NT and even in the gospel, but they likewise fall under the core interpretive lens of the gospel narrative. ie: Jesus demonstrates the meaning of those parables in his behavior. How he behaves is thus: he is tortured and murdered, but he not only doesn't defend himself, but offers forgiveness both during and after the fact. Given that this is the case we have to understand these parables in a different way than the standard hell scenario. There are a bunch of good interpretations - firstly that they refer primarily to this life, not some metaphysical realm after death. Secondly, that they identify behavior and consequences (you talked about this in the main post) more than judgment and punishment. And there are more ways.

Ultimately though I wouldn't let any anecdote or parable or proverb anywhere in scripture or anywhere else tell me more about the way Jesus exercises judgment then the passion and resurrection narrative.

Aric Clark said...

I agree that Jesus saw his own interpretation of the OT as faithful and in that sense he didn't overturn anything. The fact is that others in his day also had faithful ways of interpreting the OT on the basis of good authority. The clash of those schools of thought forms much of the NT. Even as we side with Jesus though its fair to say that his point of view isn't incontestably the only good reading of the OT and from the perspective of the pharisees and others he was definitely overturning shit.

I think your reading of Romans 13 is off, but that's for another conversation.

I also think you make the idea of irresistible love into something too mechanical if you don't believe in it. I have certainly found ice cream irresistible at times. My wife is almost always irresistible. Sure I can point to examples of times I resisted, but I can also point to plenty of times where I fully intended to resist, I did my level best to resist and I, well, failed. I'm sure you can think of examples in your own life.

How much more powerful must the love of the creator almighty, the trinitarian God who IS love, who perpetually creates and sustains all things out of that love, who defines love itself as giving your life for a friend and who gave himself for the entire world... you get my point. How could there possibly be a more powerful force in the universe?

Am I suddenly "unfree" when I cave in to that brownie sundae? Maybe. But it is a compromise of my freedom which is totally acceptable to me. Perhaps this is what it means to be a slave for Christ. To feel yourself so compelled by God's magnificent love that you genuinely can do nothing but serve him. Is that an unacceptable curtailing of your freedom?

As for people being willing to sacrifice their own desires for Christ's sake - again I think this is a matter of vision and truth. When we see the whole truth clearly we will know that Christ's desires are perfectly in line with our own, that he wants nothing but what is truly and absolutely the best for us and it will be no sacrifice at all. From our current perspective it feels like a burden because our desires are twisted - we think we want things we don't.

2nd chances after death... well it seems to me that it is very unclear what happens after death, but if God is truly Love, then a post-mortem reckoning is the only way I can make sense of the billions of people who have lived and loved, but either not know Christ, or died as infants etc... etc... It also seems consistent with some passages (like the sheep and goats) that imply that all will be resurrected, all will receive new life, before final judgment.

Sorry to fill your blog with so many words.

Pleasure to converse with you.

Conditional Immortality said...

"That same comfort and relief and something-to-look-forward-to type of hope belongs to the wicked too if we forfeit an everlasting hell. That to me doesn't seem all that "hellish."

I would consider Hitler hellish for throwing people alive into a fire.

http://www.afterlife.co.nz/what-is-the-fate-of-the-wicked/

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