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."